Flag display touches off emotions

April 30, 2006

Vietnam’s flag symbol of home to some, oppression to others

09:10 AM CDT on Friday, April 28, 2006

By TOYA LYNN STEWART / The Dallas Morning News Amy Le is distressed.



UTA students gathered at the library on Wednesday to show their support for the flag that flew over South Vietnam.

The Vietnamese-American student says she has had difficulty concentrating ever since the University of Texas at Arlington added a new flag to a display this month.

A policy that allows flags representing international students on campus has created a firestorm of complaints with the recent addition of the post-war flag representing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

“I don’t want to see it,” said Ms. Le, 24, a senior. “It’s so painful. … It’s a sign of promoting communism. … It’s a sign of oppression.”

UTA’s Hall of Flags involves a decades-old tradition for international students enrolled in the College of Engineering. The official flag of Vietnam was added during international week and hangs along with the flag of the Republic of South Vietnam, now known as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag.

UTA President Jim Spaniolo said the display in Nedderman Hall “is about students, not politics and not about the government of the countries.”

“It’s a way to symbolize that we have students from all over the world,” Mr. Spaniolo said. “We’re embracing diversity.”

Though it’s the flag recognized by the United Nations, UTA alum Tom Ha said it symbolizes the atrocities, genocide and crimes against humanity that can never be forgotten by Vietnamese Americans – those on the campus and in the Vietnamese community.

“We don’t wish to look at that flag,” said Mr. Ha, who lives in Euless. “We want it to be out of sight. They can put it in an office and return the peace of UTA.”

Students and community members have organized a protest over the flag at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mitchell and Cooper streets.

The issue is so charged that even state lawmakers have weighed in. On Monday, state Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, sent a letter endorsed by 18 other legislators imploring university officials to remove the flag.

“I think it is an insult to the Vietnamese Americans who live here,” said Mr. Vo, comparing it to the flag the Germans displayed while persecuting Jewish people.

University policy says that flags are replaced if damaged but cannot be removed.

Van Nguyen, a 38-year-old post-doctoral international student, said she and others think UTA is being supportive of their culture and protecting the rights of international students.

“When I got here and saw the Hall of Flags, I saw all of the flags and not mine,” Ms. Nguyen said. “I feel like I wasn’t accepted here.”

When some Vietnamese students heard their flag was added, they gathered late that night near the symbol of their homeland for a group photo.

“We’re very proud our flag has been raised,” she said.

UTA has “stumbled into a major international dispute,” said James Hollifield, a political scientist and director of the Tower Center at Southern Methodist University.

“The University of Texas at Arlington has gotten into something that’s almost like a family dispute,” said Dr. Hollifield, who has studied immigrant communities who have settled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “We’re still too close to that history.”

According to Dr. Hollifield’s research, Los Angeles, Houston and the Dallas area have the largest Vietnamese populations in the country. The 2000 U.S. census shows that about 6 percent, or 20,000 residents, in Arlington are Asian – a majority of those are Vietnamese.

“The community was founded by people whose lives were disrupted by the war,” he said. “Many are still fighting this war psychologically in their heads.”

UTA officials estimate that about 2,000 Vietnamese American students are enrolled at the campus. There are about two dozen students from Vietnam.

“We understand the flag of the Republic of Vietnam represents a terrible time in their lives,” said Judy Young, executive director of the office of international education at UTA. “It’s important that we recognize their history, both past and present.”

She noted that the display includes a number of countries represented by two different flags because of changing regimes.

The official flag has a yellow star on a red background while the older Heritage flag has three red stripes on a yellow background.

Mr. Spaniolo said UTA isn’t taking sides in the debate and will remain neutral.

“The Hall of Flags makes no political statement about Vietnam, South Vietnam, or any other nation or former nation,” according to a UTA statement released Thursday. “Flags from 123 countries are displayed there, and none is more prominent than any other.”

UTA officials said they would invite speakers to discuss Vietnam’s past, present and future.

Trinh Nguyen, 22, a senior at UTA, said the presence of the new flag makes her feel as if the university “has turned its back on us.”

Kelly Dinh, 22, treasurer of the campus’s Vietnamese Student Association, said she’s hurt and disappointed by UTA’s stance.

“The administration is telling us that if the students don’t like it to look the other way,” Ms. Dinh said. “This was experienced by my father and mother. My family had to go through the hardships, and the pain is still here today.”

But graduate student Giao X. Nguyen, 26, says it makes him sad that the Vietnamese-Americans feel hatred toward their shared homeland.

“Technically, we’re brothers,” he said. “To lose friendships over this isn’t worth it.”


One Response to “Flag display touches off emotions”

  1. UTA Maverick Says:

    It’s too bad this became such a controversial issue.

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