Language, leadership hinder Vietnamese storm recovery

October 29, 2006


by Greg LaRose
10/16/2006
Quang Nguyen, who runs a group of financial service businesses in Gretna, said Vietnamese often shun mainstream businesses due to language and custom barriers. (Photo by Frank Aymami)

Quang Nguyen, who runs a group of financial service businesses in Gretna, said Vietnamese often shun mainstream businesses due to language and custom barriers. (Photo by Frank Aymami)

Editor’s note: This is the finale of a three-part series on the recovery of the Vietnamese business community after Hurricane Katrina.Short of running his own bank, Quang Nguyen offers just about every financial service a customer could need.

His modest storefront on Lafayette Street in Gretna offers insurance, mortgages, accounting and title services — even bail bonds.

Nguyen’s business is a testament to his entrepreneurial vision. It also reflects the lack of access to mainstream financial services for Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen said most of his business comes from Vietnamese, who often shun traditional avenues for conducting business due to the language barrier.

“Vietnamese tend to be very conservative, very private people,” he said. “They prefer to deal with Vietnamese businesses when they can because there is an understanding of that background.”

Barriers to the Vietnamese community’s progress go beyond language. Nonprofit Asian-American contingencies from around the country converged on New Orleans to assist Vietnamese residents after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005. The chief obstacle was the lack of assistance infrastructure to help set the community back on its feet.

“It’s not Los Angeles where you’ve got hundreds of community-based service organizations and chambers of commerce … that speak a multitude of languages and have relationships with government entities and foundations,” said Lisa Hasegawa, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development.

Hasegawa said New Orleans, like other city and state governments, does not grasp the needs and inner workings of the Asian population, especially the Vietnamese who have only been in Louisiana for roughly 30 years. “Language is just part of it,” she said. “They shouldn’t just be meeting folks in the state or city government and learning about small business assistance programs for the first time after a disaster.”

Aaron Troung, owner of EZ Laundromat, needed help when he tried to resurrect his business in eastern New Orleans. He had evacuated to Houston with relatives and recalls Mayor C. Ray Nagin visiting Texas in September 2005 to urge displaced residents to return.

“I came back in November and didn’t have electricity or running water,” said Troung.

The Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. helped Troung and other Asian-American businesses after the storm. The first priority for the nonprofit business arm of the Catholic parish in Village de L’est was assisting residents and business owners with cleanup.

May T. Nguyen, CDC business development director, said grant funding was crucial for business owners, especially those who lived at their work place with their families.

Hasegawa’s group and the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies based in Silver Spring, Md., worked with Mary Queen of Vietnam CDC to access outside assistance.

“We’re working to make sure they have access to the wealth of experience that other Asian-American communities have in this arena,” said Hasegawa. “… We had no relationships with folks in New Orleans or in the South prior to Katrina.”

NAVASA’s Dân Thân Corps diverted its efforts toward storm recovery last year. Its goal is to place and develop leaders among the next generation, said Phuong Do, project director.

She said Vietnamese people usually turn to the groups that assisted them as refugees in times of crisis and those group leaders have not evolved with the community since the 1970s. NAVASA research shows more than two-thirds of the leadership of Vietnamese organizations in the United States are older than 60.

“There’s always been this gap of leadership skills within the community,” Do said. “… The intention of the program is to bring in young people to fill in these gaps.”

Dân Thân Corps fellows helped Mary Queen of Vietnam secure nearly 200 trailer homes for residents.

The Katrina recovery has been at the forefront of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Jimmy Lee, appointed AAPI executive director in January, toured damaged areas on the Gulf Coast earlier this year and said cultural boundaries prevented some Vietnamese from receiving help.

“Asians are always relatively proud people,” he said. “Because they don’t have language capabilities, they just didn’t want to ask for assistance and so they decided they would just try to figure this thing out for themselves.”

To gain insight on disaster recovery, Lee said AAIP consulted with Korean business owners affected by the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict. Their main recommendation was the creation of a revolving loan fund for Asian-American businesses to be used following major catastrophes.•

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