From Vietnam to the Ozarks

ON the employees' time cards at Giong Antiques, names like Xayavong and Truc mix with ones such as Collins and Crawford. But that tells only half the story. What the cards don't reveal is that the small furnituremaking factory across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith is owned by a Vietnamese family that came here 10 years ago with little more than a dream.

``I like the freedom here, and the fact that if you work hard you get your reward,'' says Vao Pham, who owns the bustling plant with her husband. ``I thank the United States for taking my family in so we could earn the money to start this business, and maybe give something back.''

Often overlooked in the debate over illegal aliens in the US is the fact that the majority of the estimated 1 million foreigners who put down stakes in this country each year do so legally. These include the 3,500 Southeast Asians -- primarily from Vietnam and Laos -- who are building new lives for themselves in this city of 71,000.

Their presence has been growing ever since 50,000 Vietnamese passed through nearby Fort Chaffee after Saigon fell in 1975.

Now Oriental food stores, restaurants, and gift shops continue to sprout on the city's streets.

The Southeast Asians of Fort Smith list freedom, a chance to better oneself, and access to education as the finest aspects of life in America.

``Over here, school is for everyone, even someone over 50 years old,'' says Muoi Van Nguyen, a Gerber Products machine operator who lives with three of his sons in a three-room duplex. He says he dreams of the day when his wife and five other children are able to leave Vietnam for Fort Smith.

Asians, who make up 5 percent of the city's public school population, already appear in ``more than their proportional share'' on school honor rolls, says Craig Wilson, the city's bilingual education supervisor.

Yet many of Fort Smith's Asian residents admit that they have some qualms about life in America. They lament what they consider an unraveling family structure, and believe, paradoxically, that life here may afford too much freedom.

``I would like our children to retain family customs, but they have so much freedom here,'' says Nhiem Le, a father of five. ``I'm afraid they learn more from other children [than from their parents].''

His wife, Kiem, says she does not want her children to marry Americans. ``We do not have your tradition of so much divorce,'' she explains.

Even so, Mrs. Le says that most immigrants do not return nearly in kind what the US has given them. But then she rethinks that opinion, pointing to a yellowed news clipping of a local Vietnamese family that improved an aging neighborhood by rehabilitating a dilapidated house.

``Maybe it's a small thing,'' she says, ``but I think they gave something back.''

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