Go, Viet Titans, go!
Updated : 09/17/2012 12:17 GMT + 7
HANOI – The year was 1994. A year before Vietnam and the United States formally re-established diplomatic relations, two representatives of a California university traveled to the former in the hope of building an academic bridge between the two nations that, a generation earlier, had been engaged in a brutal war.
As it happens, this effort has also played a fitting role in the reconciliation of the Vietnamese people – the Vietnamese here in the homeland, and the southern Vietnamese in America who love their homeland but also mourn the way the war turned out.
I learned about this bit of academic diplomacy only recently – with a bit of pride. California State University, Fullerton happens to be my alma mater. (Go, Titans!) Over the years, this relatively affordable public institution has churned out hundreds of thousands of undergraduate and graduate degrees – including a number of Vietnamese who journeyed across the Pacific to earn bachelors’ and MBAs.
Perhaps it’s natural that Cal State Fullerton, which had its share of anti-war protests, would play this role. Fullerton is in Orange County, my home turf and also the home of “Little Saigon,” the world’s largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam – and pretty much my wife’s hometown. Little Saigon is one of those places that brings to mind the words of novelist William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
But Harry Norman, a dean at Cal State Fullerton, decided to look to the future as the school broadened its outreach.
The other night I dined with three current representatives of Cal State Fullerton in a restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, here to strengthen the university’s relationship with Hanoi’s Foreign Trade University before traveling to Danang for a similar mission. Curriculums are being designed to encourage students to begin their studies in Vietnam and then complete their degrees at Cal State Fullerton. Perhaps 40 students per year would come from the Foreign Trade University, one official told me.
Among the Titan representatives was Tam Nguyen, a Viet Kieu who is a past president of the university’s alumni association and a successful businessman in Little Saigon.
Previously, Tam had told me his life story. His father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Navy, and Tam was just an infant when his family decided to leave Vietnam in 1975. In the United States, his parents established a successful technical school for beauticians, now run by Tam and his sister, which has graduated 25,000 students, including many immigrants, who mostly work as manicurists. Nail salons operated by Vietnamese entrepreneurs are so common in America that they are practically a cliché.
Every child, everywhere, gets their initial political indoctrination from their families’ stories. But over time, Tam also learned about the complexity of Vietnam’s recent history – how his father had actually grown up outside of Hanoi, and he was 18 years old when the family moved south. During the war, he fought alongside the Americans, while his cousins fought on the opposite side. Today not only many Viet Kieu, especially older ones who experienced the war for years, but also some of their children, harbor bitter feelings. But Tam told me that his own father has been able to reconcile his emotions – to look to the future, rather than the past.
Tam’s father may be more the exception than the rule among the older generation of Little Saigon or in the large Viet Kieu community in San Jose, where I lived before coming to Hanoi. But time is helping some of the wounds’ scar over. And as more Vietnamese go abroad to study capitalism and other matters, new friendships and attitudes are being formed. One of Tam’s friends from Vietnam told me how he rented a room from a Viet Kieu family whose patriarch had been a prominent figure in the south’s military. The old man, he said, treated him with respect and kindness, and had apparently also made peace with the past. Another of Tam’s friends, however, told me of how he learned to steer clear of young Viet Kieu who just wanted to start arguments.
These were the Viet Kieu, perhaps, who still wanted to settle old scores, but they were the exception. While many Viet Kieu like Tam want to feel a deeper connection to their roots, most young Vietnamese here seem intent on looking forward, not back. That is why so many work so hard to learn English, and want to go overseas to study.