The Rough Drafts of Vietnamese-American History

May 18, 2006

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Yen Do, who worked for American reporters in Vietnam, founded a Vietnamese newspaper in California.

May 17, 2006

By SETH MYDANS, International Herald Tribune           

WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Even on his sickbed, Yen Do pushed himself forward, taking one more stab at mastering English grammar.

"I have returned to grammar 10 times," said Mr. Do, the founder of the country's oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper. "Every year I returned to learn grammar. It became a bad habit."

Now it appears that grammar will elude him. At 64 he is weakening from kidney failure, diabetes and other ailments. Willpower may no longer be enough.

It has been a life created through sheer determination, following the arc of Vietnamese-American history from war to escape to renewal in an alien world.

Mr. Do was among the first refugees to arrive when Saigon fell in 1975 and soon began to publish a newspaper that helped define the refugee experience. With his newspaper, Nguoi Viet Daily News, Mr. Do, a courtly, cerebral man, became the steady, moderating core of this hyperactive refugee community known as Little Saigon.

He was the quintessential émigré editor, trying to bridge old and new cultures and seeming sometimes to infuriate almost everybody with his insistence on tolerance and even-handedness.

Mr. Do has been threatened, harassed and berated by groups who are still consumed by a war that in their minds has never ended.

There are now nearly 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Orange County, most of them living around the cluster of towns known as Little Saigon, 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Like other communities of immigrant refugees, Little Saigon seethes with feuds and factions.

In the intense early years, five Vietnamese-American journalists were killed in the United States, apparently by a radical anti-communist group. Mr. Do chose not to visit his mother in Vietnam before she died, fearing reprisals from those who oppose any contact with the country they had fled.

"They continue to fight with each other," he said of the Vietnamese refugees in an interview before his illness became critical.

"Many don't know how to deal with each other in peacetime," he said. "We need to educate them step by step to be part of the larger community. But to expect some of them to behave like normal immigrants, no way."

Mr. Do tried to lead by example. When new refugees arrived he sometimes gave them work to tide them over. If a would-be writer brought in a freelance article, he said, he paid for it even if he did not plan to use it.

And in offering benefits to the staff, he said: "I don't consider seniority. The more people are newcomers, the more they need help. It's not all about money."

From its start in 1978 as a four-page weekly, when shellshocked refugee families were flooding into the country, the paper's motto has been "Working together to survive."

In Little Saigon, the Vietnamese past is rooted in place, but an American future is transforming it into something increasingly different from its namesake. Mr. Do is himself an artifact of the past, and in his own family and newspaper he has participated in that transformation.

At its start, the paper was filled with news from home as well as with crucial how-to's about welfare, driver's licenses, insurance, mortgages and parent-teacher conferences. It has swelled into a full-color daily with a circulation of nearly 18,000 that has spawned a magazine, a radio station and the Vietnamese yellow pages.

Mr. Do continued giving away stock options in the paper, reducing rates on death notices for the poor, providing lunches to his staff for just $20 a month, hiring out-of-work artists and writers and even giving thousands of dollars in seed money to those who wanted to start rival publications. Nguoi Viet also rents space in its building to other media operations.

As his health has failed him, his daughter, Anh Do, 39, a journalist trained in American-style objectivity, has played an increasing role at the newspaper he built.

A columnist at The Orange County Register, Ms. Do is also chief financial officer of Nguoi Viet and editor of Nguoi Viet 2, a new English-language weekly section intended for her own generation of Americanized Vietnamese.

"The young generation brings change, that's the happy part of the story," the father said. "They change by refusing to copy the older generation."

His daughter's career has been with American newspapers, which do not share Nguoi Viet's tangled culture of mutual help, flexible rules and the imperatives of long-running friendships and enmities.

"She considers almost everyone the same," Mr. Do said, describing the culture clash. "That's what she has been taught in this society: give and take, fair is fair. I take the community approach. We treat newcomers more gently than oldcomers. That's fair."

His daughter said she relishes the debates she has with her father over the different paths they take toward what she called their "shared goal — to empower our community."

"I often see things in black and white, especially in the beginning," she said. "Now I'm more flexible, but I think it's still important to adapt modern American management to a traditional Vietnamese company."

The son of a funeral flower-shop owner, Mr. Do was caught up in politics in elementary school, "following along" on demonstrations against Vietnam's French colonial rulers.

In his teens he became a leader of the protests until he was arrested, briefly jailed and expelled from high school — a trauma that can still bring tears to his eyes.

He spent the next years educating himself in libraries and was politically active again until he became disillusioned by the manipulation of idealistic students and religious groups.

"Finally, I understood what politics is," he said. "Politics is a game, and I saw no way, no exit. So I told myself never to do politics again. Never, never, never. I would use my strength for social reform."

Journalism offered a home to "vagabonds" like himself, he said, and soon he was a war correspondent, covering some of the most dangerous engagements on the battlefield. In the final weeks, he worked as an assistant to American reporters from papers like The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune. His pay was less than 40 cents a day.

And then the North Vietnamese army was at the gates of Saigon, he said, and "I saw my world collapse." He, his wife and three children caught one of the last flights from the country. A fourth child was born in the United States.

In the enforced quiet of his illness, before it finally sapped his strength, Mr. Do said he thought back over his early life and realized how long a road he had traveled. In his thoughts, he said, "I recognize again my teenage spirit, when I taught myself that I could do anything."

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