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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Làng Thái Xuân: In south Houston apartments, a piece of Vietnam flowers
A resident passes a Buddhist shrine in the north courtyard at Thai Xuan Village, July 11, 2015, in Houston, Texas. The north building is Buddhist and the south Catholic. A Catholic priest and Vietnamese refugee sought to create a refuge for Vietnamese escapees in the 1970s and with community support, purchased this complex in the 1980s creating a Vietnamese village where about 1000 residents live.
Vietnamese - newly arrived or long-ago refugees - find comfort, companionship in 'village'
Most afternoons, the women gather in the parking lot, setting out the zucchini, choy greens and water spinach they've cultivated in tiny, overflowing gardens. Some wear nón lás, cream-colored cone-shaped hats made of straw, and sell vegetables and fried egg rolls, while others clip coupons from newspapers they can't understand or text furiously in Vietnamese. On hot days, they dole out sâm, a sweet, iced herbal tea with natural cooling qualities, perfect for the oppressive humidity of the city they still call Saigon.
On a stretch of Broadway Street in south Houston, these 1,000 residents have over nearly three decades transformed the crumbling apartments they named Thai Xuan Village into a token of the old country, renewing traditions and existing almost entirely in Vietnamese.

Loc Tran moved in four years ago after his wife came over from Vietnam. Tran, 37, immigrated with his family as an infant and considers himself American, just as comfortable in Dickinson, where he grew up, as back home. But he thought the apartments would be an easier transition for his spouse, who he met on a trip.
"She'd have been bored out of her mind if we'd moved somewhere else because she wouldn't have had anyone to talk to," he said. "It's just kind of easing into the process of becoming Americanized."
Forty years after the fall of Saigon sparked the most expansive refugee resettlement in U.S. history, Houston is home to the nation's largest Vietnamese community outside the greater Los Angeles area and San Jose, Calif. Nearly 111,000 live in the Houston region, two-thirds of whom were born abroad, according to the U.S. Census.

Today, the Vietnamese have assimilated into the city's professional sectors, becoming developers, doctors and lawyers. But Census data shows that geographically they remain relatively isolated, clustering in Midtown and south Houston and around sprawling Bellaire Boulevard, where even the street signs are in Vietnamese. The more prosperous congregate around a sliver of Memorial or in Sugar Land. By contrast, Houston's two other predominant immigrant groups, Mexicans and Salvadorans, have fanned out across the county, navigating it easily in Spanish.
Thai Xuan, one of the city's oldest Vietnamese settlements, is an embodiment of this tendency to stick together, a characteristic of the unique nature of their mass migration. Even the complex parking lot is an informal dividing line reminiscent of the old country, with Catholics on the south separated from the more recently arrived Buddhists on the north. After Catholics years ago erected a Virgin Mary statue in the center of a courtyard, Buddhists, not to be outdone, built a shrine on the opposite plaza, covering it with a towering red pagoda and adorning it with flowers.

Coming to America
In this May 1, 1975 file photo, U.S. sailors transfer a South Vietnamese boy from the USS Blue Ridge to a merchant vessel off the South Vietnam coast during evacuations from South Vietnam. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
With the Viet Cong on the verge of seizing Saigon in 1975, Father John Chinh Tran abandoned the Roman Catholic congregation he had named Thai Xuan and joined the throng streaming to America. At the time, the U.S. had no comprehensive refugee policy so most Vietnamese settled in southern California. But as the region became overpopulated, Tran and others flocked to Houston, where the heady oil boom offered working class job prospects that didn't necessarily require English fluency.

Across the country, nearly 800,000 Vietnamese came as refugees between 1975 and 2013, with one-quarter arriving in just the first three years, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. It was the biggest en masse influx of Asian immigrants after decades of policies discriminating against them and drew not only the elite and middle class but also fishermen and farmers.
Congress had only recently, in 1965, abolished a quota system effectively banning Asians or Africans from coming here, replacing it with a system based on reunifying families and drawing professionals. Because citizens from those continents had been unable to come to America for so long, few had relatives here, making their skills the only avenue of immigration for most.
"You had African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers, and in the case of Filipinos, nurses," said Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research. "The only exception was the Vietnamese who came as refugees and the Cubans in Miami."
Unlike other Asians who mostly immigrated on work-related visas, making them more likely to be highly educated and fluent in English, nearly a third of Houston's Vietnamese don't have a high school degree, according to a U.S. Census data analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. That's more than the national Vietnamese average and all Asians in Houston. 

Today, about 40 percent of Vietnamese say they don't speak English well or at all. Mexicans and Central Americans are the region's only other large immigrant groups with worse English fluency, according to the analysis, but their assimilation is easier because they speak the state's de-facto second language.

Contributing to the sense of Vietnamese isolation is the circumstance of their arrival. Their evacuation - for the upper class in American-sponsored airlifts, while the less fortunate risked treacherous journeys on makeshift boats - was sudden and traumatic. Coupled with the harsh Communist punishment endured by many left behind, it forged for them a shared identity around the idea that they can never go home.

Many miss their homeland
"They mourn it, to this day," said Jannette Diep, executive director of Boat People SOS-Houston, which serves low-income Vietnamese. "So they just resume living that Vietnamese culture, and they're very limited in their outside interaction."

In Houston, refugees initially spread out across the city in government housing. But racial tensions erupted. Vietnamese shrimpers in Seabrook and Galveston clashed with white fishermen, and a Ku Klux Klan group threatened them, sailing around the bay in white robes and burning effigies. U.S. Marshals were ordered to protect the Vietnamese boats, and a federal lawsuit filed on their behalf chased the Klan out of state.
It was a terrifying time. Tran's congregation begged him to help and on his urging, Vietnamese investors purchased seven rundown complexes in south Houston as a safe space for their compatriots. Tran named the largest Thai Xuan, after the church he had left behind.

It quickly reached almost mythical status as a Little Vietnam, with refugees seeing it as a place where they could learn English and save money until they could afford more expensive Bellaire. But problems arose. A refugee who purchased the property in 1993 sold the units as condominiums for cash, according to court records, but when he defaulted on a loan and filed for bankruptcy, everyone faced sudden eviction.

The diaspora galvanized. Steven Dieu, an assistant Harris County attorney who came here as one of the "boat people" when he was 15, was one of many to help. He said the man tricked the buyers, who weren't familiar with the legal system and thought they owned their apartments. Though he was never charged, many believe it was a scam. "When we first came it was very chaotic, and the government did not pay much attention to this minority community that did not understand the language or understand the culture," Dieu said. "Criminals operated the way they operated in Vietnam. ... Their victims didn't know what to do."
Mediation took about a decade. Residents risked losing their home again in 2007 after neighbors pushed to demolish the complex, which they complained had been falling apart for years and violated city code. Mayor Bill White stepped in, assembling a team of community leaders. Vietnamese donors contributed, and dozens helped make repairs.
"There would have been a loss in their quality of life if they had lost the sense of community in the village," White said.

It's such strong ties that keep drawing newcomers and persuades old-timers to stay, despite leaking pipes, cracked sidewalks and water that cuts out for hours. On a recent afternoon, a man called the office seeking translation for the cable technician. Shrimpers arrived from Galveston with the day's catch, throwing out samples to friends. Children splashed in a plastic pool, crossing easily from English into Vietnamese.
"We live here because we want to speak Vietnamese together," said Hieu Ho, who is 25.
For those like Thach Phan who do speak English, the skill is currency. Phan came here on a government scholarship in 1973 to study economics and stayed. As he sat outside his apartment, a neighbor stopped by with dinner, a pickled Vietnamese vegetable stuffed with pork, payment for translating at the doctor's office. Phan, who is 75 and has grandchildren in Orlando and San Diego, said he moved into the complex because it feels comfortable. He has struggled to make American friends.
"The people around me here are the same people, and we can talk," he said. "We live in the same culture."
Though many apartments appear shabby from outside, some unfurl inside like a lotus flower. Over the two decades that Hien Thi Tran has lived here, she transformed her space into a veritable Buddhist shrine. Statues of all sizes line the walls and residents stop by often to pray. A glamorous singer back home, Tran came here in 1993 after her husband, a high-ranking soldier in the South Vietnamese army, served six years in a communist detention camp.

Anti-communism sentiment still bleeds deep in Thai Xuan and a yellow-and-red South Vietnamese flag billows proudly outside the entrance. But inside, residents have experienced for themselves the growing pains of building a democracy.

Making Vietnamese 'proud'
04/1980 - Father John Toan, who escaped from his native land in 1975, is one of seven Vietnamese priests in the Houston area, but Toan is the only one to have a totally Vietnamese congregation. At St. Peter's Catholic Church, his church in Kemah, Toan says Mass for some of the 50 children who attend his religious instruction class each Thursday.
They established a homeowners' association with an elected leadership and, at one point, had a grocery store, hair salon and school in the complex. But as the building deteriorated, services faded. Residents blame association presidents for stealing from their monthly dues. As they learned how to work the system, they filed dozens of lawsuits. To oust the last president, whom they accuse of embezzlement, village elders last fall approached Jesse Pham, 26, an entrepreneur who moved into the complex 14 years ago after hearing it's a place to speak Vietnamese.
"When you come to America and you see Americans everywhere and you don't speak English, you get bored," Pham said. "I'd look at the sky, and wish I was a bird and could just fly back home."
As president, he claims notable improvements, like publicly posting the association's account details so residents can scrutinize transactions. Still, on a recent trip to Disney World, his first-ever vacation, he said his vice president spread falsehoods about him, and residents burned a trash bin in an attempt at revolt. He's since fired the saboteur.
As a child in Vietnam, Pham missed school to sell lottery tickets so he'd have something to eat. Here, he dreamed of working for the Houston Police Department, but his English wasn't good enough. Now he owns a tow truck and recently became a full-time deputy constable for Harris County Precinct 2. He aspires to one day win public office like his hero, state Rep.

Hubert Vo, a Houston Democrat who was the first Vietnamese in Texas to win public office in 2004.
"I want to make the Vietnamese proud," Pham said. "It's not like we all just come over here and work for a nail salon."
As the sun slipped, Tran, the father from Dickinson, pushed his daughter in her stroller while his 7-year-old son biked around with friends. He was recently laid off from his machinist position, so they're surviving on his wife's manicurist salary. His son, Phat, was born in Vietnam, so his grandmother named him, though deep down Tran wanted to call him Jason.
"But she's a grandmother and won't be seeing him that much," he said. With the chubby, chortling baby, however, Tran put his foot down. He named her Rachel, though her middle name is Uyen.
"We're in America now," he said. "It's just easier having an American name."

Lomi Kriel
Reporter, Houston Chronicle

Apr 15, 2011
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