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Helping the World's homeless; Vietnamese in France proud, divided

By E. G. / November 25, 1980



Paris

"We are proud to be Vietnamese," says Do Queyen, a young woman gracefully attired in a dark indigo ao dai the traditional Vietnamese tunic. "We all want to go back eventually."

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The spacious walled inner garden of the 18th-century Paris convent bustles with hundreds of noisy children, many of them dressed in traditional costume. They are eagerly celebrating trung thu, the Vietnamese mid-autumn festival, organized by France's anticommunist Vietnamese community.

Only a few months ago some of these laughing and singing children ahd fled Vietnam with their parents aboard cramped fishing vessels, surviving a hazardous gauntlet of pirates, storms, and drownings before reaching the often sordid refugee camps of Sotheast Asia.

"It's very important for us to help reserve and pass on our culture to the children," remarks Do Queyen, as students and members of teh Phudong (Vietnamese Boy Scouts) organize ball games and play blindman's bluff beneath the majestic chestnut trees decorated with colorful banners and lanterns.

Old men eat Chinese cakes and isp mango juice while chatting quietly on benches along the wall. Parents wander through the maze, greeting friends or shouting encouragement to their children. Several French nuns, whose religious order has helped arrange the festival, watch benignly from the cloisters.

Do Queyen is the young woman's nom d'artiste. a part-time announcer for Radio France's fortnightly, Vietnamese-language program, she adopted the name to symbolize the plight of her people. Do Queyen, she explains, is a legendary Vietnamese bird that was forced to leave its homeland and wept until it died because it could never return.

The Vietnamese community in France, the largest in europe, now numbers between 150,000 and 200,000 persons. Unlike the Vietnemese who have sought refuge in the United States, the community here is split into two significant factions: those who are pro-Hanoi, consisting mainly of students, workers, and long-established exiles; and those who are anti-Hanoi, with supporters among students from the south and the middle class.

Most of the anti-Hanoi faction, the smaller of the two groups, fled Vietnam after 1975. Despite their differences, the two groups remain deeply attached to their homeland.

"Even though we are sadly divided," notes a representative of the communist Association des Vietnamiens de France, "we know that we have not lost our compatriots. We admit that economic conditions are extremely rough in Vietnam and that many people are leaving. But they will come back. We need them and they will never forget that they are Vietnamese."

Do Queyen, educated in a French convent in Saigon as were many many middle-class Vietnamese, maintains she will never adopt the nationality of her exile country.

"We all had a great shock when we arrived," she explains. "Our conception of France had nothing to do with reality. Over there, we thought we were like the French. But here we realize that we are Vietnamese."

The pro-Hanoi and anti-Hanoi groups vie with each other in organizing festivals and influencing the young. "We all realize tht children might forget who they really are," says Tran Dinh Thuc of the noncommunist Association Generale des Edtudiantes Vietnamiens (AGEV) in Paris.

"Language is the real obstacle," he adds. "Already many Vietnamese children speak only French among themselves. They only get to speak Vietnamese when at home."

Because of its colonial strings, France has traditionally attracted Vietnamese. By the early 1970s, France could boast a thriving Vietnamese community with hundreds of restaurants, shops, and small businesses in Paris, in the south of France, and in many provincial towns. There was also a sizable Vietnamese student population.

In 1975, the community began to swell with refugees fleeing the communist takeover in Vietnam. Most of them represented the bourgeoisie from Saigon, the city name still used here by both communist and noncommunist Vietnamese. The great majority come from Southeast Asian refugee camps. But some 200 refugees with exit visas or of French nationality are flown in every month from the former South Vietnamese capital.

Besides Vietnamese, tens of thousands of other Indo-Chinese have poured into France since 1975.(Of the 70,000 total, some are of Vietnamese origin.) Whole quarters in Paris have turned Oriental almost overnight with the recent influxes of Laotians, Cambodians (Khmer), Chinese, and Vietnamese. At the Porte de Choisy in the south, for example, dozens of Indo-Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, bookshops, and even travel agencies have sprung up. Towering new apartment buildings are now 80 percent Asian occupied.

Both the pro-Hanoi and anti-Hanoi groups feel France has been unenthusiastic about absorbing too many Indo-Chinese. The country maintains a 1,000-a-month quota -- but it sometimes remains unfilled. Government officials deny they have been sitting on the quota. But observers point out that France has considerably tightened it entrance requirements for immigrants and refugees.

From the opposite point of view, the communists and others criticize the government for taking in refugees when hundreds of thousands of north African workers face explusion because of high unemployment. And critics complain that factories such as Citroen have hired numerous Indo-Chinese for jobs that used to be held by Frenchmen or immigrants.

Despite such complaints, many French consider the Indo-Chinese good workers, reliable tenants, adn polite neighbors. "I have nothing against them," exclaims one cafe owner in the Porte de Choisy area. "They don't make any noise, and as far as I'm concerned, are always welcome."