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Vietnam immigrants 30 years since saigon fell { April 24 2005 }

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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A01

On humid Washington days, after thunderstorms churn up the smell of fresh earth, Sandy Hoa Dang remembers the war. When the bombs fell on Hanoi, she was a little girl, cowering with her family in a hole in the ground.

Hundreds of miles away, as victorious North Vietnamese soldiers stormed a beach town near Saigon, 5-year-old Phuong Nguyen's mother stashed her in a concrete cistern. Her fair, freckled face and uplifted nose were evidence: Her father was an American.

Kara Mai Delahunt, an infant then, was buckled into a seat of a 747 on one of the rushed flights that brought more than 2,000 orphans to the United States. Her new parents discovered that their child reacted strangely in their arms. She stiffened. She was not used to being held.

Thirty years have passed since Saigon fell April 30, 1975, time enough for these three women and a generation of Vietnamese Americans to come of age. Thirty is now the median age of the 1.2 million people of Vietnamese heritage living in the United States. Thirty is young enough to be haunted by Vietnam, old enough to have created new lives.

The war brought the three women to the United States under starkly different circumstances: one as a baby adopted into a Massachusetts home; another as a teenager escaping with her family on a fishing boat; the third as a mother granted a chance to immigrate because of her American blood.

They are connected by the past they left and the lives they lead here: Dang is the founder of a social services organization in Washington for immigrant families, Nguyen is a client there and Delahunt is a volunteer mentor for Nguyen's teenage son.

Yet in their own way, they are defying the war's hold on their identity.

A Sought-Out Heritage

"Lovely with rosy and chubby cheeks," was how the adoption papers described Nguyen Mai Tai Trang, abandoned by her mother two days after her birth in a Saigon hospital.

She is now Kara Mai Delahunt, and the description is still apt. Even after a long day of work at a downtown Washington public relations company, she is poised and polished -- hair in a neat bun, makeup fresh and clothes professional. She has recently returned from a seven-month business trip to Madrid. Tucked in her black purse is a travel book on Peru, her next destination.

She sometimes wonders, though, what price was paid for this life.

"My mom would always say, 'Say a prayer for your birth mother,' " said Delahunt, 30. "I was always told that she loved me so much and cared for me so much that she was willing to give me up."

Delahunt arrived as part of Operation Babylift, conducted in the frantic weeks before North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The U.S. government commissioned jetliners to ferry hundreds of orphans to new homes here. Some Vietnamese parents, learning of the flights, left children at hospitals and orphanages. Advocates called it a humanitarian effort, and critics decried it as ripping children from their homeland.

Delahunt was adopted by Kati and William D. Delahunt, now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. The couple tried to make their new daughter comfortable with her heritage, taking her to Lunar New Year events, buying her Asian dolls, introducing to her to another adopted Vietnamese girl, hopeful that the two would become friends.

She resisted. "The Vietnam War to me is exactly that -- it's history," she said. "I just wanted to be American."

She learned German -- her adoptive mother's native language -- and took summer trips to Germany. Her master's degree is in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont, her father's alma mater. After school, she moved to Washington and landed a public relations job specializing in Latin American issues.

Only then did she begin thinking about Vietnam.

"As you get older," she explained, "your history becomes more important."

Five years ago, Delahunt accepted an invitation to travel to Vietnam with a group of adoptees and officials from Holt International Children's Services, an Oregon adoption agency that placed many of the children from Operation Babylift.

This trip was dubbed a homecoming. It didn't feel that way.

After mastering two foreign languages, Delahunt thought she could learn a few Vietnamese phrases, but the unfamiliar tones overwhelmed her.

Everywhere, she saw young children. Some sold chewing gum; others held out empty plastic bowls.

Delahunt had seen poverty on trips to India and Chile, but this was different. "That could have been me," she said, shaking her head. "I could be in Vietnam on the streets right now."

What Delahunt found on her trip, she said, was a comfort with other Vietnamese Americans. After the trip, she attended a conference with other adoptees, and some became her close friends.

"For the first time in my life," she said, "I was with people who were like me."

A friend introduced her to Asian American LEAD, a nonprofit group in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood serving disadvantaged immigrant families. Delahunt became a mentor and eventually, a member of its board of directors.

Almost every week, she meets with 15-year-old Man Pham, who immigrated with his family in 1997. He gives her advice on computers, and she helps him with his Spanish homework.

During the visits, Delahunt sometimes sees his parents, Minh Pham and Phuong Nguyen. Their exchanges are short and awkward because of the language barrier.

She is more comfortable with Man, who like her, thinks of Vietnam as only a part of himself. Once, when Man asked, Delahunt told him that she left as a baby and was adopted. His response: "Cool."

Different but Determined

In this city, Phuong Nguyen is nearly invisible.

At a hotel in downtown Washington, she cleans empty rooms. Customers at the U Street nail salon where she works part time barely acknowledge her, except to pick their polish. In the international melange of her Columbia Heights neighborhood, Nguyen's looks attract little attention. She doesn't mind.

In Vietnam, she was singled out for her pale skin and faced discrimination for it. Here, she believes her opportunities are limited only by how hard she can work.

"This is nothing," she said, doing laundry in the bathtub after a 12-hour workday. "In Vietnam, life is much harder."

Her ticket out was her face.

The Amerasian Homecoming Act, passed by Congress in 1987 after much debate, allowed children born in Vietnam to American service members to come to the United States with their families. Few people had documents to prove their heritage, so U.S. Embassy officials based their decisions, in part, on whether they looked "American." About 26,000 eventually immigrated.

Nguyen, 35, said she knows little about her father. He left in 1969, before she was born. Her older half-sisters told her that he was a doctor for the military. Her mother never spoke of him.

Early on, Nguyen realized she was different. In a culture that values family background, Amerasians were considered the products of shameful liaisons. Nguyen recalls the taunt from her classmates, con lai -- half-breed.

"I would beat them," she said, her voice rising at the memory. "Boys, I would beat, too. They called me names. How dare they?"

Still, even a determined girl who towered over her classmates -- thanks to her "American" size -- could do only so much in Vietnam.

Shortly after the war, the communist government ordered her family from the seaside city of Vung Tau to the remote highland. Accustomed to city life, the family had to pick coffee beans and pepper on collective farms. Nguyen dropped out of school after the fourth grade and settled for what was expected of her: marriage, children and work.

When news of Amerasians being able to emigrate reached the countryside, Nguyen said she didn't hesitate.

"Older people always said, in America, everything is possible," she remembered. "They said people even had fish in cans."

She lives with her husband and three children in a studio apartment that is cramped but spotless. Canned fish is no longer a novelty -- they've moved onto bigger things: two televisions, a desktop computer and a sport utility vehicle.

Nguyen has changed, too. When Man, her eldest child, was having trouble in school, she sought help from Asian American LEAD. She has worked with caseworkers to learn more about American schools and how she can help her son and daughters.

A couple of years ago, she accompanied a social worker to a conference in San Diego, leaving her husband to care for the children for the first time.

Nguyen said she has no desire to find or meet her American father -- "I don't need him. He left." She only wants his citizenship.

She has struggled to learn English and fears that she cannot pass the citizenship test.

U.S. law usually allows citizenship for children born overseas to Americans, but Amerasians don't qualify. A bill in Congress that would have granted that right to Amerasians living here died last year in committee.

"I want to be an American," Nguyen said. "I don't want to go back to Vietnam to live."

In 2002, Nguyen returned to her homeland for a visit and, as usual, she stood out.

Friends envied her smooth skin and confident walk. They were tanned and worn from farm work.

In the cities, when shopkeepers noted she was a bit taller, paler and plumper than typical Vietnamese, they quickly fingered her as a Vietnamese who lived in the United States, a Vietnamese American.

The strangers, she recalled with a shy grin, never called her con lai.

In Community, a Mission Emerges

Sandy Dang keeps the letters of complaint in a white notebook.

They are dated from 1998, after she founded Asian American LEAD, and were written by Vietnamese Americans to officials in the District government.

"Sandy Dang cannot speak Vietnamese correctly," wrote an older woman questioning whether Dang could properly represent the community. Several others accused her of seeking publicity. A few called her a communist, probably the worst epithet among Vietnamese Americans.

"Can you believe this?" said Dang, 37, a petite woman with a loud voice. "I was really disappointed. But I am stubborn."

She persisted, determined to challenge what she said is the patriarchal tradition that dominated Vietnam and immigrant circles here. "We have to rebuild," Dang said. "You can't call yourself a community and just have a group of old men sitting around the table."

Dang was 7 years old when the war ended. She only knew that the bombs had stopped falling and she would never have to hide again.

The conflicts within a community, Dang soon learned, never end.

In Hanoi, her ethnic Chinese family members were never considered "real" Vietnamese. They didn't fight in the war. When fighting later flared between Vietnam and China, they fled north. In China, though, they weren't considered "real" Chinese. The Chinese government sent them to labor on sugar cane plantations.

In 1979, Dang's family bought passage on a fishing boat crammed with more than 300 refugees from Vietnam. The family spent three years in a Hong Kong refugee camp before immigrating, eventually landing in New York.

Her father worked as a janitor, her mother as a seamstress. Dang was the eldest of four children and served as her parents' translator. For 10 years, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment.

Dang escaped through her studies, excelling in school and winning scholarships to Duke University. She arrived on a Greyhound bus. Her classmates drove luxury cars.

When she came to Washington to earn a master's degree in social work from Catholic University, she found a Vietnamese American community of 50,000 still governed by rules and hierarchy from the old country. Elders have priority, and men are the leaders.

Many families from the elite social circles in South Vietnam -- who escaped the country as soon as Saigon fell -- had little interaction with the poorer, less educated families who came later. Such as those in the enclave of about 5,000 Vietnamese living in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

These immigrants, who arrived in the 1990s, were the last significant wave of refugees. Many were Amerasians. Others had been imprisoned for years in communist "re-education" camps and immigrated under political asylum. Social service agencies in the District were ill-equipped to help.

Dang found her mission. "I know this as an extension of my family. I know how difficult it is to be in this country and come here with nothing."

She started Asian American LEAD as an after-school program, and it has grown into a nationally recognized group with a $1.2 million budget. President Bill Clinton invited her to the White House.

The number of Vietnamese immigrants in the District has dwindled to about 2,000, Dang estimates. Many families have moved to the suburbs; Dang jokes that some of them now drive cars fancier than her Honda Civic. Those left, including Phuong Nguyen's family, are planning to follow soon.

Dang, too, is moving her life beyond the organization. For years, she has been so consumed with work that friends worried about her. Last year, she married, and her husband, Sanal Mazvancheryl, has no connection to Vietnam. He was born in India to an upper-class family and is a business professor at Georgetown University

Dang returns to Vietnam every few years. Her Vietnam no longer is bombs falling from the sky. It is fresh, ripe mangoes, she said, firecrackers exploding at Lunar New Year and quiet, green vistas.

2005 The Washington Post Company

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