Refugees no more: Vietnamese family escapes homeland on faith, finds prosperity in Virginia

By Gretchen R. Crowe
11/12/2007

Arlington Catholic Herald (www.catholicherald.com)

McLEAN, Va. (Arlington Catholic Herald) – Five-year-old Chau “Helen” Pho was the Arlington Catholic Herald’s very first cover girl.

SAFE IN THE U.S. - Chau Pho Tung was 5 years old when she fled war-torn Vietnam with her family in 1975. Now, at age 37, she is an American citizen with a family of her own, including daughter Sophie, 2. (Catholic Herald/Gretchen R. Crowe)
SAFE IN THE U.S. – Chau Pho Tung was 5 years old when she fled war-torn Vietnam with her family in 1975. Now, at age 37, she is an American citizen with a family of her own, including daughter Sophie, 2. (Catholic Herald/Gretchen R. Crowe)
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In January 1976, the little dark-eyed girl sat on the lap of then-Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh as he welcomed her and other refugees of war-torn Vietnam to the Arlington Diocese. A moment captured in time, the photo of their interaction was used on the front page of this newspaper’s first issue.

Now, three decades later, 37-year-old Chau Pho Tung is no longer a refugee, but instead an American citizen with a toddler of her own.

Tung only vaguely remembers the 16 days she, her parents, and her five brothers and sisters spent in three different refugee camps as they were moved from Southeast Asia to the United States in an attempt to regain the stable life they had known in their native country.

Sitting in her parents’ McLean living room sipping Vietnamese tea, Tung recently related pieces of the story of the family’s exodus from Vietnam with the help of her father, Long Ba Pho, and her mother, Claire.

The escape

When the Phos decided to flee Vietnam in April 1975, Long and Claire told their children that they were going on a beach vacation. Tung packed up her new blocks, and under cover of night, the family made their way to Saigon and eventually to the Philippines.

At first, “Long didn’t plan to go all the way (to the United States),” Claire said with a strong Vietnamese accent. “He just planned to go to Manila and stay there until the situation calmed down and then come back.”

But the political situation in Vietnam didn’t calm down, and the Phos suddenly found themselves refugees.

For more than two weeks, the family was shuffled from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Wake Island in the South Pacific to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

Long had been to the United States before — most notably 14 years earlier when he won a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MBA from Harvard University. This was the first trip for Tung, who had been born in the central highlands of Dalat, Vietnam.

After three days at Fort Chaffee, the family was released into the care of Long’s brother, Quan, who worked at the World Bank in Washington. To this day Long reminds his family of the day — May 7 — their plane touched down at National Airport.

A new start

Quan had rented the Phos a small house in McLean, where they slept on the floor until they got furniture, some of which was paid for by the U.S. Catholic Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Not wanting his children to skip a beat, Long immediately enrolled his five school-age children at nearby Kent Gardens Elementary School.

“My dad really wanted us to mainstream and get immersed quickly and pick up the language,” said Tung, who started kindergarten at the new American school. “I was really lucky, because it was kind of the perfect age to be transitioning. Probably six months after moving here I was pretty fluent in English.”

The transition was more difficult for her older brothers and sisters, Tung said, as well as for her parents.

“It was a struggle for my parents to resettle and then find new jobs and have us all in school,” she said.

But “little by little,” Claire said, the family began to regain its life.

They joined St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, where Long and Claire are still parishioners. Both converts to Catholicism, Claire said that it was their faith that sustained them while living as refugees.

“If we don’t have faith, I don’t know if we can survive that ordeal,” Claire said. Many refugees become bitter, she said. “They only think of what they had before. They don’t compare what they gain. My husband, he was always positive.”

Long said there was no reason not to be.

“I say to myself, we are lucky that we have our family with us,” he said. “(In the United States), we expected to be given a small piece of land where we can grow potatoes. Even with my Harvard background, I never thought of (having all) this.”

“All this” is a house and belongings that they own “free and clear,” Tung said, and six independent children — all well-educated American citizens.
From needing help to giving help: Chau’s story

The dark-eyed 5-year-old who sat on Bishop Welsh’s lap all those years ago is one of those success stories — and, in the mid-’90s, she used her education and knowledge to help other Vietnamese refugees.

After Tung graduated from Georgetown University in 1992, she got an internship with the United Nations’ development program in Laos. That led to a job with the Orderly Departure Program in Bangkok, China, where she handled cases of political refugees from Vietnam, she said. For three years, Tung assisted those to whom she could relate in the most personal way.

Tung’s parents, also, reached out over the years to many refugees — both in the United States and abroad — and Long helped establish the diocesan Vietnamese parish, Holy Martyrs of Vietnam in Arlington. He also advised many parish committees and parish councils on their work with refugees.

After Tung returned to the United States, she earned a master’s in Southeast Asian studies at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, married fellow Georgetown-alum Charles Tung and moved to the West Coast. The couple now lives in Seattle, where Charles is a professor of English at Jesuit-run Seattle University.

After working as a marketing manager for a large global transportation company, Tung said she decided to become a stay-at-home mom for her 2-year-old daughter, Sophie — something she called a “pretty drastic career change.”

Tung, though, takes all these transitions in stride, having learned about acclimation at a very young age.

Adaptation is part of the history of America, said her father. And his children, he said, should always be grateful for the opportunities given them and search for ways to offer assistance to others.

“They’re Americans now, so there is a lot of opportunity for them,” Long said. “But it’s a good opportunity to give back.”

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Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald , the official publication of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. (www.catholicherald.com).

New rural image through Vietnamese documentaries

 

A scene in the film ‘Salt Making’.

Nhan Dan  -Vietnamese farmers, after years of renewal, not only depend on farming work but also are more concerned about daily changing life.

The portrait of the new life and changes of land and people in the countryside have been mentioned in many documentaries. The themes are varied, from the hard life of farmers, their spiritual life to cultural activities of the peasants.

The market economy with many achievements has vitalised the whole society. However, it also has an adverse effect on the life of people in the countryside. The land and people have not yet adapted to mechanisation, modernisation and planning. The film ‘Ky su dong que’ (Chronicle of Countryside) by late director Phung Ty, or ‘Chuyen Lang Te’ (Story on Te Village) by Lam Quang Ngoc touches upon the survival of farmers –land and field. Film makers have affirmed the contributions by farmers to national economic development, while showing them solutions for high yield rice plants during their works such as ‘Vi Chat Luong Hat Gao Viet Nam’ (For the Quality of Vietnamese Rice), ‘Chuyen Nong Dan’ (Farmers’ Story) etc…

Not only living on rice and field, many people in the countryside preserve and develop traditional handicrafts. These efforts have also been mentioned in documentaries, such as ‘Ngoai O’ (Suburb) by Lai Van Sinh.  

The film ‘Nghe Muoi’ (Salt Making) deals with the feelings of the salt makers. The film, edited by Phan Huyen Thu and directed by Tran Phi, brings emotion to  audience when it describes the sea farmers.

Not only reflecting what’s happening, film makers realised the inner world of the reality . The film ‘Chon Que’ (Countryside) by Nguyen Sy Chung reflects tragedy of life in many rural areas where people have to go to cities to earn their living. But later on some of them have become drug addicts.

The film ‘Lang Dan Ong’ (Men’s Village) describes a bad habit of a number of men who put all burden onto women. This threatens the disintegration of tradition of Vietnamese families during the country’s development process.

Cultural activities have also been seen through the film ‘Ken Dong’ (Brass panpipe). The films reflects the farmers’ effort to preserve their cultural identity.

Vietnamese rural areas have been described vividly in many documentaries, expressing the film makers’ concern for farmers and the countryside.

Vietnamese cinema introduced at Asian Film Festival
16:50′ 14/11/2007 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge – The 13th Asian Film Festival organised in Lyon, France from November 8-12 introduced Vietnamese films in a special programme.

 

Apart from ten Vietnamese films screened for the first time in this southeastern city of France, the organising board also introduced Vietnamese culture and movies through painting and tourism exhibitions and selling DVDs of Vietnamese films which were screened at the festival.

 

Vietnamese films brought to this festival like Pao’s Story by Ngo Quang Hai , Live in Fear by Bui Thac Chuyen, Life by Dao Duy Phuc, The Rebel by Charlie Nguyen impressed French audiences.

 

Jean Pierre Gimenez, head of the organising board, said that this was the first time Vietnam accounted for the highest number of films presented at the festival. The reason is that there is a large number of Vietnamese French in Lyon and many French like Vietnam’s gentle and feeling films.

 

Besides feature films, the festival also introduced some short and documentary films by young Vietnamese directors.

 

This year 50 films from 12 Asian countries including China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam were screened at the Asian Film Festival.

 

(Source: TTXVN)

Tradition for thee, but not for me

14 Nov 2007 12:05 pm

We went to visit a high school today; one that aims to prepare elite Vietnamese students for the post-WTO world by ditching the passive rote style favored by many Asian educational institutions for a more interactive, American style of teaching.

I do not venture to say whether or not this will be successful, though the students were extraordinarily bright and engaging and nice; one shudders to think what would have happened had a gaggle of Asian journalists who spoke no English invaded a posh suburban high school in America. But one, completely unrelated thing stuck out:

The girls have three uniforms.

They have ordinary uniforms that look much like American school unifroms of an earlier era: blue skirt and white middy shirt with blue ties.

They have dress uniforms, consisting of a white skirt and white middy shirt with red trim and a red tie, and a fairly snazzy red beret to rest on top.

Then they have traditional white ao dais. What are those for, I asked.

Those are for Mondays, I was told. Mondays, apparently, are when the school salutes the flag and sings the national anthem.

And do the boys have a special uniform for Mondays?

Giggles. Nooooooooooooo. The boys always wear the same short-sleeved shirt, blue pants, and tie.

This is a really common pattern in almost every non-western country; the girls wear traditional clothes, while the men wear western suits and ties. It is not universal, but it is nearly universal enough to make me ask what integral part of the human psyche this stands in for, the men wearing the garb of the economically successful, while the women remain mannequins for the past.

I think the ao dais are much more attractive than western school uniforms (and don’t get me started on the dress policies of the Riverdale Country School. But surely the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?

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Men can partake of culture, they can lead it, they can transform it but they do not get to be arbitrators of what is and is not to be valued and preserved. That role is reserved to women. It’s an aspect of child rearing, early childhood education and being an arbitor of what is and is not acceptable pulic male bahavior. This repesents an enromous power of women over the behavior of men. Whould sparta have been sparta without mothers telling their sons the return with thier shields or on them?

Men are free to experiment in the wolrd of work precicly because the culture is preserved in the home.

This is not necessarily true of Chinese immigrants to the United States. However, it does appear from my viewing of older (pre-1960) photographs that it is the Chinese men who are adopting suits before women adopting other Western dress. Maybe all women prefer a sharp-dressed man?

I’ve noticed Megan’s phenomenon on the streets of LA’s Indian enclaves.

But surely the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?

Based on my quick googling, that would be the ao dais cut more appropriately for male figures.

” (and don’t get me started on the dress policies of the Riverdale Country School.”

Whoa…you went to school with “The Archies”?

This is a really common pattern in almost every non-western country; the girls wear traditional clothes, while the men wear western suits and ties.

The girls were wearing “western” clothing on non-Mondays, so it would seem more accurate to say that the girls sometimes wore traditional clothing, but that the men never did.

I think the ao dais are much more attractive than western school uniforms

Perhaps the men are less interested in wearing pretty clothing?

I’ve often thought that, in the US, men simply had less variety and fewer options in terms of clothing. Teaching in a business school, I sometimes hear my male colleagues ask each other whether they wear ties to teach. It’s a stark choice – with tie or without. For women, there’s more of a continuum and more variation.

As ad pointed out, the girls in Vietnam are wearing ‘western’ clothes, they just also wear other things. Men get one uniform, and little choice.

Hi Megan:

As a East Asian myself, I think I have an explanation you might enjoy. It is long, but I believe it completely.

While you’re in Vietnam, find a Vietnamese world history textbook, and ask a friend to explain it. You should find that 80% of the text focuses a few topics – the Greek and Roman empires, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of America. Topics such as Egypt and the Middle Ages are entirely ignored. My guess is probably 50% focuses on Europe, post 1800. Why? Because to the East Asian, the only relevant question in world history is how and why we came to be so comprehensively outclassed by Europeans.

For most East Asian nations, Westernization is viewed as a necessary evil. Modernization was forced upon us, and in a response to this external foreign force, we must gain economic power parity to survive. Most of us take the example of the Meiji restoration to heart – to fight fire with fire, although hopefully without the excesses of prewar Japan.

Asian nations had and continue to have an existential dilemma. We could not survive without modernization, lest we be cut up and parceled out like Africa or South America. Yet Westernization would kill us as well. Capitalism has always been with us, but Western contract capitalism, that puts litigation before human relationships, that pits juniors against seniors, that cleanly separates the public from the personal, is deeply contradictory to our natural inclinations.

So we are either damned to be consumed by the West, or to join it.

So this brings us to the clothes. We follow the Japanese example – to absorb Western knowledge, but retain our culture. This is an awkward compromise, but it is our only choice. The metropolitan cities will be sacrificed to the West, filled with glittering Western skyscrapers, Starbucks, and the branch offices of Standard Chartered, staffed by suited men who will compete with West. But they will return to homes and rural areas, maintained by women who continue in the traditional way, raising their children to perpetuate and replenish the culture.

We must have both – men who will wear suits to fight in the global competition, and women who will make sure that the men are not themselves consumed.

Um, this is blindingly simple, and any feminist ought to be able to figure out. altoids has it, but unintentionally:

The metropolitan cities will be sacrificed to the West, filled with glittering Western skyscrapers, Starbucks, and the branch offices of Standard Chartered, staffed by suited men who will compete with West. But they will return to homes and rural areas, maintained by women who continue in the traditional way, raising their children to perpetuate and replenish the culture.We must have both – men who will wear suits to fight in the global competition, and women who will make sure that the men are not themselves consumed.

This is simply sex discrimination: men for the office, women for the home. It exists for the same reason that Hmong men today wear Western clothing while women all wear traditional clothing; that Muslim women wear veils; that Turkish men living in Berlin send home to Anatolia for a traditional village bride.

Vietnamese society has extremely rigid sex-role assignations for women. Women are to be married by 28 at the latest; otherwise they start to smell “like an old fish”, as the Vietnamese expression has it. They will have a child within 1 year after marriage. If their husband is the oldest child in his branch of the family and thus expected to carry on the lineage, then they will continue having children until they produce a son. They will if necessary use ultrasound and selective abortion to ensure this. (Vietnam has what is sometimes estimated as the world’s highest abortion rate, and the male-female birth ratio has climbed to over 110 to 100 in some urban areas according to a recent UNICEF study.) After marriage, they move to their husband’s house, where they will live with their mother-in-law for at least a year. They are expected to keep house and to follow their mother-in-law’s instructions on how to do so.

Vietnamese women participate in the workforce and have considerable fiscal autonomy, especially as small business owners and traders; this is a traditional characteristic which makes Vietnamese women less insecure and more autonomous than women in many other societies. In many marriages, women are the breadwinners, and they often have practical if not legal control over family finances. But they almost never reach managerial level in large businesses and organizations. There are plenty of female members of the National Assembly, as this is largely a showcase body; there are no female members of the Politburo.

Note that as is usual in things like these, the “traditiona” Ao Dai is actually a recent, modernizing outfit. The first outfits which one would recognize as an “ao dai” date to the 1930s and were intended to fuse the traditional imperial Vietnamese “ao ngu than” with French fashion.

I’m very glad you noticed this. I think few male writers would have even picked it up.

It’s not about the men getting all the success while the girls become mannequins. It’s about the women being stewards of tradition and the culture’s values. I’m not judging, but I am saying: since the dawn of time, women have had this special role in society.

In Japan, women wear kimonos during ceremonies. But they wear business suits when they work.

Note, also, that I don’t think many girls would choose NOT to wear the ao dai on Mondays. Within the cultural context, it’s true that assigning the role of symbolic cultural/national preservation to women does give them a kind of power. Similarly, there is a kind of social power embodied in the cheerleader’s uniform in a traditional US high school. I know of grassroots women’s groups here where there is nothing the women consider more empowering than putting on ao dais to appear at a public event: it signals that they are respected, legitimate members of society.

But it’s an absolute giveaway that women are required to don ao dais on the day everyone salutes the flag. They instantiate the nation’s idea of its own tradition. And God forbid you should want to be a non-traditional woman in such a society — to wait until after 28 to get married, to divorce your husband, to stop having kids after one or two girls, or to go for a managerial position at PetroVietnam. The women who go for that stuff tend to be either hard-core Communists with their commitment to serious equality, or the offspring of ancient Mandarin/royal families, or raised in the West, or (like Mme. Ton Nu Thi Ninh) all three. Though as the country modernizes, women’s traditional roles are becoming increasingly untenable, and more and more women are pushing to change the boundaries.

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