Some of the hotheads in San Jose’s Vietnamese community are poised to recall its first (and probably last for a while) elected city council member over the naming of one of many Vietnamese shopping districts in the city, home to more Vietnamese than any other city outside Vietnam. A large number of the Vietnamese wanted the area named Little Saigon. Madison Nguyen, after hearing protests from other ethnic groups, suggested calling it the Vietnamese Business District. The city council went along triggering a bizarre and lengthy protest that included a hunger strike. Eventually the council caved in and approved the Little Saigon name. Now Nguyen faces a recall election. Over a name? Nope. It’s over power. There are still remnants of power in San Jose left over from old Saigon. This is only the most recent and most obvious exercise of that waning power that often plays hardball. In 1990, at the request of several young Vietnamese, I addressed this Old Guard problem at a Stanford University conference. Here’s what I said:
Thank you for inviting me here today. I think this conference is a very important step toward understanding what the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans needs to do.
I am speaking to you today as an outsider who has observed the Vietnamese community as an educator and as a journalist. Even though I lived and worked in Vietnam for five years during the war and have been married to a Vietnamese for over 20 years, there are many things that puzzle me about the Vietnamese. So I don’t know all the answers. I am a journalist. I am an expert on nothing, but I have opinions on everything.
For the past 25 years I have studied Vietnam and its people. I have interviewed hundreds of Vietnamese. I know the torturous turns of Vietnamese history. I watched the American war in Vietnam escalate in 1965 when I was in Saigon. I watched with some apprehension the Tet offensive in 1968 from Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh province. I watched, from the safety of San Jose, the final agony of the fall of Saigon and victory of the Communists in 1975. I watched the pouring of humanity into the South China sea as many of you and your parents fled for your lives.
Here in California we prepared for your arrival. We wrote stories about the Vietnamese and the locations in the United States that they would probably favor. Our Congressman, Norm Mineta, predicted that half of the Vietnamese would eventually settle in California. We prepared temporary camps. We set aside money. We searched for sponsors. We began to beef up programs we felt you would need to adjust to our way of life.
You brought to our country a rich culture and much talent. No one would question the fact that the Vietnamese made California a better place, a richer place. We watched with some pride as Vietnamese students excelled and challenged Californians to do better, to try harder. You revitalized dead parts of our cities. You injected into California new life, a new excitement, new challenges and you injected our economy with millions of dollars.
You brought to us many things we prize, but there is something you brought us that we didn’t want. Most Americans hardly noticed it, but those of us who know you well saw it. You brought us tyranny, the very evil you escaped from. Your social bullies denied the Vietnamese who settled here the very basic freedoms that make democracy work. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press and freedom of association.
Before I go on further, I want to emphasize that you should not take this an indictment. There are many reasons for this tyranny. The most important one, I think, was your emotional state. The Vietnamese had lost their country, families were torn apart. Many died at sea, preferring that to a life under communism. Lives were destroyed. You lost much to your enemy, the communists. But as time began to heal the wounds, many Vietnamese showed either an ignorance or disregard for the democratic process, a process that thrives only when certain freedoms are present and healthy.
So let me continue. The social bullies among the Vietnamese denied their own people freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association.
The social bullies – many of them, your thought leaders, former officials of the Saigon Government, business people, the military and in some cases your journalists – tolerated no dissent from the party line, which can be summarized as “communism is our enemy and it is our duty to do everything we can to destroy it.” The social bullies often operated in public but their enforcement arm was made up of shadowy characters who operated in secret in the dark, smearing dog feces on the newspaper racks of publications who dared to swerve from the accepted “hate communism” line. These social bullies tossed dead dogs on the porches of those who dared to dissent. In some cases, these people killed writers, publishers, editors. The killings were not many. But there were just enough to send a message to the Vietnamese community. Stay with the party line and you will be safe. For 15 years the bullies have held sway. They are still in power. But the next generation must fight as we all have to to preserve the freedoms that this country cherishes, the freedoms that lubricate our system.
There is no room in our society for these thought bullies. This is a free country and it is time for the Vietnamese-Americans to rise up and demand the right to speak their minds, to write what they want, to associate with whomever they want, without fear of punishment by the self-appointed thought police. To progress as a community and to take the honored place you deserve in our society, you must stand up to those who deny you your rights. The freedoms that America cherishes will disappear if they are not vigorously defended. Information is power and there must be a free flow of ideas for democracy to thrive.
So what should you do? This conference is a big step forward. Clearly, young Vietnamese-Americans want to know what happened and what is happening so that they may plan for the future. I say it’s time for more people to stand up to the thought bullies. Publish their names. Talk about them. See if they have what it takes to debate the issues in public. If their ideas are persuasive, they may prevail. But it is time to end the threats. It is time to wipe away the Vietnamese-American community’s fear that speaking their minds will somehow bring down retaliation.
You fled to America to be free. It is time to claim the fruits of freedom.
There is an American prayer that goes something like this: Lord, give me the strength to accept things the way they are, the courage to change things that need to be changed and the wisdom to know the difference. It is good advice.