Southeast Asian refugees

Tuyet Nguyen, mother of three and her brother-in-law's partner in a Vietnamese restaurant where she spends 13 hours a day, 15 on weekends, laughs and puts her head in her hands when she thinks of fried chicken. And fried chicken to go -- that would make her tired heart sing.

She passes by a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise as she rides the bus to her restaurant in the morning and sighs. She sighs again as she sits at a table near her cash register, leaning on her elbows, and talks about it. And she closes her eyes and taps the middle of her forehead with her finger. ''That's my dream,'' she says.

Roughly 40,000 people have taken refuge, in this rich and thriving county, from war in their Southeast Asian homelands. More than half of them, Tuyet Nguyen included, were settled elsewhere around the country by the US government -- the better to be absorbed into American communities -- but migrated here to be with friends and family.

What they've brought with them is a Horatio Alger story with a distinct Asian twist.

In the American version, it's the rags-to-riches story of individual initiative and the self-made man. In the Southeast Asian version, there are more supporting roles. In other words, the Vietnamese here have pulled together to tug on one another's bootstraps for the success of the entire community, rather than rebuilding their lives alone in small American towns.

It works.

Tuyet and her husband borrowed from friends and relatives $500 here, $2,000 there, to scrape up a down payment for a house. Then they took out a second mortgage on the house for the restaurant, which is staffed all by family members , except for two part-time helpers. This is how businesses have typically started here, and how they are typically run. Husbands help out in the afternoons when they get off from their day jobs.

Ask Tuyet Nguyen how her restaurant is doing and she gives an ambiguous ''OK.'' But the look of the little malls and shopping centers along Bolsa Avenue , where the restaurant sits, is decidedly prosperous. The signs are virtually all in Vietnamese.

This is a second life for people who have had to step lightly on the pages of world history.

Tuyet left her home near Saigon one day six years ago with the clothes she was wearing and some jewelry, expecting to return soon. She still hopes that someday she will return.

She had gone to pick up her children at boarding school in the capital. On the way back home, the road was blocked by the encroachment of the communists. So she took the children and fled by boat, not knowing where it was sailing or whether her husband -- an Army helicopter pilot -- had survived, until she landed in Guam seven days later and found him.

Her savings are in a bank in Saigon, she says, in what must be by now only a manner of speaking.

In Guam, they heard on the radio of the communist takeover of Saigon. ''We cried a lot that day,'' she recalls.

She has her husband, now a US mail carrier, take her to Chinatown in Los Angeles once in a while just to try to feel the atmosphere of Asia again.

There are ethnic Chinese in the refugee community here who have lost three fortunes to communism: one in Peking, one in Hanoi, and one in Saigon. The fourth fortune will be set in Orange County.

Tuyet and her family were flown from Guam to Fort Chaffee, Ark., and resettled in Graham, Texas. Cattle country. A strange new home and they cried a lot more. But they also began rebuilding, like worker ants, their clean-swept lives.

In Vietnam, Tuyet had worked for an American architectural firm. Both she and her husband spoke English. In Texas they both worked at a textile plant for $2. 10 an hour base pay. She made twice that sewing buttons paid by piecework. She also collapsed three times in six months from exhaustion.

Her husband got a well-paying job with an aerospace firm in Fort Smith, Ark., but Tuyet had a mother and sister in Orange County and wanted to be with them.

Since they came here they have done almost everything to earn money. They have each held down two jobs at once. Tuyet's husband has been a computer technician and has delivered newspapers at 3 a.m. Now when he finishes delivering mail he comes to the restaurant to help out and be with the family.

They work harder than they had to in Vietnam, but at least, Tuyet adds, her husband is no longer a helicopter pilot. When he leaves in the morning, she knows when he is coming back.

Still, she has no time for her children except after school, when they come to the restaurant to work, and she has no time for herself except when she can seclude herself in the kitchen and just cook. She is tired.

Like most Vietnamese here, and like most American officials here, Tuyet brushes away any resentment that the Vietnamese presence -- and Vietnamese success -- has aroused in the local community. But twice young Americans with pellet guns have shot out this restaurant's front windows, and others have thrown water balloons through the front door. A still unpublished poll by a local research agency reportedly shows considerable resentment.

''Yes,'' she says of her lost country, ''we are sad. When we are leaving, I think: Just run away. We will come back.'' She uses present tense for past events, as in Vietnamese. ''But we just work hard to build up a life, for our children, for the future.'' And because, she chuckles, they owe the money.

''Americans take vacations,'' she adds. ''I think that's a good way. I would like to take a vacation.''

Pak Sambath has taught himself some English from a book. His people, the Khmer of Kampuchea (Cambodia), are a quiet people. Yet he has been here a month, after two months in Kansas, and he is eager to practice his new language. He wears fuzzy red thongs and a sarong, and he answers his door with a bow, his hands pressed together at his chin.

A young father whose own parents and siblings have been decimated by the Khmer Rouge, he starts life over with some snapshots and some certificates.

Two-thirds of the half-million Indochinese refugees in the United States are Vietnamese. Twenty-three percent are from Laos, and 10 percent are Kampuchean. Among them, the cosmopolitan Vietnamese are considered better educated and more aggressive in business. The Hmong of Laos and the Khmer of Kampuchea are predominantly agrarian tribespeople.

On Minnie Street in Santa Ana, Sambath and his family live in a barely furnished apartment in what nearly amounts to a small colony of Kampuchean expatriates.

For an American visitor he brings out his snapshots: group photos of sometimes 20 family members, many young boys in Western dress and scrubbed behind the ears. He points to three people still alive.

Apocalypse, to people like Sambath, must be just something that happened. He was an office worker and a university law student in Phnom Penh in 1975 when the communists took over his country. By 1979, his father and mother and sisters and brothers had been killed, and he and his wife ran through rice fields carrying the children for five nights straight, hiding during the day, with the trigger-happy Khmer Rouge in pursuit. Then Thailand for two years, Indonesia, Kansas, and southern California.

Sambath's dark features and wavy black hair owe more to the Indian than to the Chinese. His handwriting is derived from Sanskrit. There were classes in the camps on adjusting to the American culture, notes a friend of Sambath's, Lim Sok Chea, yet, ''We have to cry. They can't help us cry.''

Meanwhile, Sambath has already picked up on the staple of refugee success in this country: electronics.

Does he want to take classes to learn electronics? ''Yes,'' he says eagerly, and he brings out his certificates. They vouch that Pak Sambath was a reliable worker in kitchens and supply rooms of camps in Thailand and Indonesia.

These are shy beginnings. Some of Sambath's Khmer neighbors squat on the floor before guests and pick lint from the carpet with their fingers, familiar only with bamboo huts. Some of the men have picked up enough Spanish to work at a nearby garment factory.

But these are the beginnings of a people determined to pay their way, not to be a burden to their hosts. Lois Wax, director of Orange County's Refugee Affairs Management Team, notes that refugees getting government money stay on the dole an average of 10 months before finding their own financial feet.

Sonny Luu's working hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. No breakfast, no lunch.

''No time is good,'' he tells a caller. ''You'll just have to come by anytime.''

Mr. Luu is secretary-general of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in America , director of marketing for Lincoln Insurance Sales Corporation, president of Alpha Income Tax, and a director at Delta Savings & Loan.

Delta Savings (as in Mekong Delta) is expected to open this June. With $2.5 million, it is a joint Vietnamese-American venture and the first ever such alliance between Vietnamese expatriates and a host country, says Luu.

Despite his vested suit, perfect English, and his grinding schedule, Sonny Luu is perhaps not entirely comfortable yet as an American businessman.

In Vietnam he was, he says, an industrialist. His family owned iron ore and molybdenum mines. Here, after six years, he is still a refugee. To the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he points out, he has the status of a parolee. He lets that irony steep.

The Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce has 120 members, and Mr. Luu estimates there are 350 Vietnamese-owned businesses in Orange County. They are mostly staffed by the families that own them. Most of them were paid for the way Tuyet Nguyen bought her restaurant: by borrowing small amounts from friends.

It took several years of working and saving before there was much money in the community, so most Vietnamese businesses here are only two or three years old. Luu estimates only 10 percent of the clients in Vietnamese shops and restaurants are American. The signs are mostly just in Vietnamese.

A few doors down from Sonny Luu's office there is even a Vietnamese newspaper , the Saigon News, with a primary circulation of 12,000.

Luu credits the hard work going on here to the urge to survive and the urge to be what one was once. ''Many of us lost everything. We are trying to catch up again.''

So, for a while, until they no longer feel like guests in a stranger's house, the Vietnamese will feel they should work harder than the local population, says Luu.

Of those in the local population who don't like it, he explains: ''People who have been frustrated economically become jealous when they see the success of the entrepreneurs.'' These refugees are anxious to work and to learn English, says Lois Wax. ''People generally appreciate this.''

''Who are these people who don't let people grow?'' asks Xeu Vang Vangyi, or Vang Xeu in the name's American adaptation. ''This is the question in our minds. Why are they envious? Because they are lazy.''

Spry like a cat behind his big desk, he is director general of Lao Family Community Inc., a nationwide organization of Laotian refugees in the US. His concern is over shootings recently of Indochinese business people.

''For the refugees, this is the end of the ocean. There is nowhere else for them to run. If there is a war in this country, where would you go? Into the ocean?'' His point is that his people, the Hmong, and the rest of the Indochinese have come a long way from home and this, for them, is the end of the road.

Lao Family Community Inc. was founded by Vang Xeu's uncle, Gen. Vang Pao, who led the secret army of Hmong in Southeast Asia to aid the US against the Viet Cong. The group has 10,000 members in 22 states, both Lao, the more sophisticated people of the Laotian lowlands, and Hmong, the largely illiterate hill people.

Authority, for Laotians, focuses on persons. Vang Xeu is the community elder, in the absence of Vang Pao himself, who has a ranch in Montana. This is awkward for Vang Xeu. He can't do what his people expect him to do. His government funds have run out or been cut for everything but the English-as-a-second-language courses taught here. Yet people come to him and his staff for advice on family disputes, on getting work, on marriage, divorce, and health.

They aren't paid to do anything but teach English, so the community grows disillusioned with their leadership. It can't help them.

But it may yet. Under construction in a shopping center in Santa Ana is a set of Hmong shops and markets and classrooms. Inside these still unfinished rooms, teachers stand before huddled groups of Laotians teaching English words like ''resistor'' and ''screwdriver.'' They get to the point.

Then there is the United Lao Development Corporation. Starting with small contributions from the Laotian refugees, who become stockholders, this corporation is just finishing construction on a full-size supermarket here. This is to be the flagship and perhaps a wholesaler for what is hoped will be a network of food outlets around the country. The food chain, in turn, can be an outlet for Laotian farm produce and a moneymaker for investing in other Laotian businesses in the US.

It's ambitious, and some observers wonder if the local Laotian market can support such a capacious supermarket.

The idea, explains the corporation's president, Pheng Xaykaothao, is that Laotians can spend their money at the store here and still keep it in the community to be reinvested.

Vang Xeu gives his people five years before he thinks they will have become a stable community in the US. In the meantime he is leery of teaming up with the successful Vietnamese. They are too aggressive, he says. They take over. ''We can cooperate, but need to keep separate leadership.''

Just back from a January trip to Washington, he is wary of losing even his language-teaching funds after next September. If that happens, he says, ''then we go back to my garage.''

Khamchong Luangpraseut has teachers and aides keep an eye out for friendships between Indochinese and American schoolchildren. He wants to encourage them and to spread the ties to the children's families. He is full of ideas for how this can be done.

He is a Lao, a former director of his nation's Ministry of Information, with a master's degree in economics from Warsaw University. He is running the transitional language program for Southeast Asians at the Santa Ana Unified School District.

He nearly floats with enthusiasm and optimism. Enough optimism so that he says his two-year-old program can be liquidated in perhaps four years. It only takes illiterate children from the jungles of Southeast Asia three or four years to sit in the same classes as their American counterparts.

''Twenty years from now, Santa Ana is going to be famous,'' he gestures. ''I don't know how many PhDs are going to be produced.''

The crux of his program is a generous use of aides to help kids with their homework after school and to keep contact with their families. Often there is no place for refugee children to do homework at home -- even to sit -- and their parents can't understand what the children are doing when they don't read their own language.

Among his more than 40 classroom aides, Mr. Luangpraseut has a former provincial governor, a deputy mayor of the Laotian capital, a medical doctor awaiting his American credentials, and an assortment of former journalists and officials. The pay is low. He tells them to consider it a one-year scholarship to come to know and understand their uprooted people better.

It means educating the families as much as the children. Luangpraseut often speaks to both American and Indochinese groups. He explains to the Americans how the Vietnamese have a Confucian admiration for book study and discipline, while the Hmong and Khmer are more familiar with what they can see and touch; how the Khmer have a five-based numeral system that makes Khmer children whizzes at arithmetic in school.

To the Indochinese he explains taxes and how the money they are given comes from the Americans they see in the street. He explains that 100 years ago European immigrants came to a cold and snowy New York with nothing -- no English , nine people in a room -- and now they are successful Americans. We will succeed, too, he says.

The children are doing well. Teachers note especially how proficient the Indochinese are at mathematics. ''The principal has trouble pronouncing the names,'' Luangpraseut says glowingly, ''but they are there on the wall -- student of the week, the month. . . .''

To demoralized parents, he asks where there children are. If they are in school, he tells them: ''Fifty percent of our life is already a success.''

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