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Vietnamese refugees have made a home in Oklahoma City



Hoa Tran left Vietnam on a U.S. Navy ship the day Saigon fell, April 30, 1975. He would not see his family again for four years. Tran was one of more than 700,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled in the days, weeks and even years after Gen. Van Tien Dung's North Vietnamese army occupied Saigon, bringing the Vietnam War to a close.

Tran said leaving his family behind was a difficult decision.


"We could have been killed at any time," he said. "In Saigon, on the way to the ship, we were always in danger. Many people chose to leave their families where they were safer for a time than risk them on the way to the ships."

Tran started his American life in Pittsburgh at the age of 32. He had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, but he was originally from North Vietnam. He immigrated to South Vietnam in 1954. His immigration would not end until he lived for a time in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Fla., and Houston, where he was reunited with his family in 1979.

Tran and his family moved to Oklahoma City in 1980, and they have lived here ever since. Tran now works for the City of Oklahoma City Planning Department. The Asian District is one of his responsibilities.

Tran's story is similar to the stories of thousands of Asian immigrants who now live and work in Oklahoma City and the surrounding area. The city's Asian District is a direct result of the refugee crisis following the Vietnam War. The U.S. government was faced with the problem of finding homes, jobs, food, clothing and education for the many Vietnamese refugees. There were also refugees from Laos and Cambodia, many of whom also settled in Oklahoma City.

A series of refugee centers were set up across the country in and around military bases. Fort Chaffee, just outside Fort Smith, Ark., was the closest refugee center to Oklahoma City. As soon as refugees could find American sponsors, they were free to leave the camps. Many Vietnamese refugees found sponsors in Oklahoma City. To this day, the Vietnamese population is the largest Asian subgroup in the metro area.

The refugees, some of whom had been professionals, soldiers, educators or skilled laborers in Vietnam, were forced to consider other employment in the U.S. They settled into the area around Classen Boulevard and N.W. 23rd Street and began to open shops, stores, restaurants and salons, primarily catering to other Asians.

Chris Vannarath's family moved to Oklahoma City in 1980, when he was just five or six " he can't remember exactly. Vannarath's father, like many Laotians, had fought with the South Vietnamese and Americans in the war. Vannarath said that his family was able to immigrate to the U.S. because his father had fought as an ally.

"People who helped with the war were given the option to relocate," Vannarath, now a chiropractor and president of the Asian District Association, said. "We chose the U.S. My three brothers and half-sisters had moved to the U.S. in 1977, so we followed them."

Although a first-generation Asian immigrant, he is about the age of many second-generation Asian-Americans. It is this second generation " raised in the U.S., speaking two languages fluently, educated in U.S. schools " who are moving the Asian community out of the Asian districts, Little Saigons and Chinatowns across the country and into the mainstream culture of suburbia, even as those districts are retooling and developing economic strength.

Oklahoma City is home to more than 20,000 Asian-Americans, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Many are first-generation refugees and immigrants, but an increasing number are second- and now third-generation Americans. They have heard stories from their parents and grandparents, but the experiences are not real to kids raised in the relative affluence of the U.S.

Kevin Tran is a Vietnamese-American student at the University of Central Oklahoma. His parents were refugees from Vietnam who settled in California after the fall of Saigon. Tran was born in 1987, and his family moved to Oklahoma City in 1996. Tran went to Moore schools before heading off to college. He grew up speaking Vietnamese and English; his parents speak "broken English."

Tran is emblematic of the second-generation experience: fully American by birth, but with parents who do not quite understand the new culture, and friends who are predominantly from Asian cultures. Tran is different in one respect from many of his peers; his parents do not attend temple. Many Vietnamese refugees were Buddhist or Catholic and followed their faith devoutly.

"A lot of my friends still practice Buddhism," Tran said. "My parents don't pressure me about it because they don't go to temple. They were more uncomfortable with my clothes and music. 'Why do you listen to that garbage?' They always asked me. They didn't like the baggy clothes either."

In spite of dressing according to American fashion trends and listening to American music, Tran said his experience is still largely Asian. "About 85 percent of my friends are Asian," he said. "We don't pay much attention to what kind: Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese. It doesn't matter. It's just one of those things where you feel more comfortable around your own race."

Clint Normore, director of multicultural student affairs at Oklahoma City University, said Tran's experience reflects the students he serves on a daily basis. "I do find that second-generation students are more Americanized in regard to school activities, peer interaction and eating habits," he said, "However, philosophically they are still more consistent with the religious and philosophical practices of the first generation. Many of the kids will pray together with the family every night because that is what the family does. They are very close-knit and take on a larger burden of responsibility for the whole family."

Normore said he expects that third-generation Asian-American students will continue to have the deep family ties, but will have more individuality in other areas. "If trends in minority cultures are any indication, the third generation will continue to move away from the first generation and demonstrate more individuality in areas like family and religious practices."

Tran is a business major. The reason for the success of the Asian community, even as refugees, is partly related to their entrepreneurial drive. Some of the refugees did work in service or labor jobs, but many opened businesses, recreating in some ways their businesses in the old Saigon. The new Little Saigons provided income and stability for the second generation.

Vannarath said he opened his chiropractic office in the Asian District because he believes in the area. Also, he has fond memories of his years growing up there. "Many business owners drive into the Asian District to work," Vannarath said. "As they have become successful, they have moved out to the suburbs, like Edmond or north Oklahoma City, but they still have their businesses down here."

Jessica Nguyen, like Vannarath, is a first-generation immigrant. Born in Hong Kong, raised in China and Vietnam, she immigrated with her family before she was in high school. Unlike Vannarath, she chose to open her liquor store outside the Asian District. Her parents are restaurant owners, and Nguyen followed in their footsteps for a time as owner of a pho restaurant in the district, but she said she wanted to reach the non-Asian community as well as Asians.

Vannarath said Nguyen's story is becoming more common.

"We used to see salons and restaurants in the Asian community, and a lot of new businesses were started in the Asian District," he said. "But now we're seeing professionals, dentists, doctors, store owners, chiropractors, all kinds of Asian-owned businesses being opened all around the city."

Sam Bowman, councilman for Ward 2, said he expects the Asian community to continue to expand.

"The Asian District is in my ward," Bowman said. "I've watched the community develop for years. You have the general, positive things everyone knows about, like family values, work ethic, educational achievement, but the Asian community also grew without a true partnership with the city. They didn't do the investment credit thing for many years; they grew their businesses by saving or by borrowing from family members. Now, I believe they are beginning to see the benefit of partnering with the city."

The city is also seeing the benefit of the partnership. Thanks to Asian-owned businesses, Vietnamese public radio, a Vietnamese newspaper and an upwardly mobile younger generation, the city is seeing tax revenue from the Asian community.

"The thing that interests me," Bowman said, "is the tax revenue that community is generating. I'd love to see numbers on sales tax impact of the Asian District alone."

It is unlikely many saw the successful stories that would come out of what appeared to be the utter failure of the Vietnam War. Hoa Tran, avoiding danger and making his way to a ship that would take him away from his family and country, could not have conceived of the success of the Asian community in the U.S. The refugees at Fort Chaffee were more concerned with winter clothes and food in 1975. Somehow, the community has turned a story of defeat and flight into one of success. "Greg Horton

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