Vietnamese Tết: A postcard from ‘Little Sài Gòn’

Greetings from the USA!

Greetings from “the OC,” the 21st century nickname for this frothy, spicy suburban stew south of L.A.

And greetings, too, from “Little Sài Gòn,” where Vietnamese signage and restaurants with the scent of fish sauce signal the world’s largest such community outside of Vietnam.

I’m on a pre-Tết sojourn to visit family and friends and do a little business before returning to our own Tết holiday down in Big Sài Gòn, the place of my wife’s birth.

Being here, however, affords me a chance to share with you  a glimpse of the Vietnamese culture most haven’t witnessed:

The vibrant Vietnamese American culture that first took root near my hometown in the summer of 1975, after the exodus of thousands of people from Việt Nam.

With the 40th anniversary of Việt Nam’s unification coming up, it seems an apt time to reflect on the differences between these two Việt Nams – the original and the American offshoot.

For the Vietnamese, assimilation to America was much more than a matter of moving the surname from the front to the back and learning to navigate the English language.

Funny, but I remember how Americans, including myself, were confounded by the name “Nguyễn.”

Many people here still mangle the pronunciation.

And yet, Nguyễn is now among the most common names in California, up there with Smith or Garcia or Lee.

Little_SaigonA sign is seen in Little Sài Gòn

Back in the late 1970s and 1980s that wasn’t the case.

From a few thousand people at first, centered in the City of Westminster, “Little Sài Gòn” grew to become a sprawling counterpart to Los Angeles’s long-established Chinatown and Little Tokyo, earning signs along the freeway to guide motorists.

It was fitting, perhaps, that the first wave of Vietnamese would settle in Orange County, a place known for arch-conservative, flag-waving politics, a mostly “white” suburbia and, of course, Disneyland, “the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Orange County happened to be the birthplace of President Nixon, and he vacationed at his “Summer White House” at a beach town here – but that was more of coincidence than a cause of OC’s political character, where the anti-war crowd was a distinct minority and outnumbered by people associated with large military bases and military contractors that were established during World War II.

I grew up here because my father, a career Marine who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle of Okinawa, and many of my friends were so-called “Marine brats.”

Of course there was some culture clash. I remember how my father enjoyed the new ethnic humor:

Hey Dad, you hear about the new Vietnamese cookbook? It’s called “101 Ways to Wok Your Dog.”

Little did we suspect that, in 1979, another Vietnamese family would arrive and their eldest daughter would become my bride.

Nor could I have fathomed three decades later my future bride’s talent and drive would take us, over time, from our wedding in Little Sài Gòn to Hà Nội, where thịt chó [dog meat] isn’t a joke, but a meal.

Speaking of meals, after my father-in-law, Minh, picked me up at Los Angeles International Airport, he suggested we stopped for phở gà [Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken].

I’ve become accustomed to the kind of quick, light lunch I often get in Hà Nội.

Instead we waited and waited – and then out came a large robust meal, perhaps five times the size my typical lunch.

I couldn’t finish it all, even though it was delicious.

Some other reflections from Greater Little Sài Gòn:

ONE

Tết in Việt Nam is an ancient tradition that emphasizes family, and the urban life grows calmer as people travel to their home villages for reunions.

But in Little Sài Gòn, Tết is more of a community celebration – an inspiration for an annual festival that attracts the wider community and introduces them to Vietnamese culture.

Sixty thousand people are expected to attend the upcoming three-day festival organized by the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations, representing students from more than a dozen colleges in Southern California.

TWO

Most of these Vietnamese American students today are native-born Americans, the children of immigrants.

But in addition to these second-generation Vietnamese, more Vietnamese are arriving every year by the thousands, some to make a new home in America and some simply to study and later return home.

A U.S. Embassy official recently told me that nearly 17,000 Vietnamese are in the U.S. for education now, a figure that continues to grow.

THREE

The growing clout of Vietnamese American culture is such that two Orange County school districts, in the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove, are introducing Vietnamese immersion language programs to encourage bilingualism.

(My wife and her siblings attended Vietnamese language classes on weekends.).

“They’re turning Westminster over to the Vietnamese.”

My 87-year-old mother declared with some dismay.

No, Mom, not really.

FOUR

Instead of jokes about “dog ranchers,” the ethnic comedy is now more likely to be inspired by the familiarity of Vietnamese nail salons that have flourished across America.

Many were opened by some of the 38,000 graduates of OC’s Advanced Beauty College, many of whom are immigrants who send remittances to family back home.

A sample of the comedy can be found on YouTube, in which comedienne Anjeluh Johnson portrays “Tammy,” a sweet-talking manicurist who persuades customers to spend more on pedicures and still more for a gel that makes nails “sparkle like diamonds in the sky!”

And when a co-worker says something in Vietnamese to Tammy, she reassures the customer:

“She says you’re so pretty!”

What do they really say?

A Los Angeles Times reporter, who is Vietnamese American, eavesdropped on the salon chatter and translated it for a story.

The second paragraph of her report went like this:

“Chời đất ơi!”

She said, turning to a co-worker.

“Oh my God!

This guy is so dirty.

I thought he looked clean.

But he takes off the shoe and he is different.”

By SCOTT DUKE HARRIS

Source: Tuổi Trẻ News

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