Houston's Vietnamese Blend Old Ways and New

HARD work, education, family, anti-communism ... and Elvis?

Even as they cling to their traditional culture and values, Vietnamese Americans - and not just the younger generation - are assimilating new ones from their adopted country.

More than a million Vietnamese have come to the United States since April 1975, when US-backed South Vietnam was overrun by the forces of the communist-led north.

The second-largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans, numbering 80,000, dwells in the vicinity of Houston (the largest Vietnamese community in the US is in southern California).

Uy Nguyen was a year old when his parents fled Vietnam with him. Now he's enrolled as John Newinn in a college pre-dentistry program. And for functions ranging from weddings to the Asian assembly at last summer's Republican National Convention, Mr. Newinn becomes "Elvis John," the first Vietnamese to impersonate the King.

"I've been inspired by Elvis since I was five years old," he says. "I do everything. I dance, I sing, I have a costume like his. I sound just like him. I move like him." Audiences, he says, are delighted.

So are his parents. Both have professional careers as engineers, but his father also acts as Newinn's manager, and himself can play guitar and sing country-western tunes in five languages.

Signs of cultural diversity also can be seen at Phuong My's Laser & Video shop. To be sure, traditional singers like Khanh Ha and Tuan Ngoc are some of the top-selling artists, says Lam My, the owner's wife. But another is Dalena, a blond American whose Vietnamese boyfriend taught her to sing in the language. And Duy Quang, a popular group, performs some rap numbers.

When it comes to movies, Chinese-made Kung Fu movies dubbed in Vietnamese are the sought-after titles, Mrs. My says. The shop stocks two dozen copies of each title because families rent them for two weeks at a time.

David Pham probably does more than anyone to help acclimate older Vietnamese to the United States and to educate young ones about a country they may not remember. Mr. Pham is the producer of Vietnam Vision of America, an hour a week of current events, talk show, and entertainment in the Vietnamese language.

Of particular interest are stories about the issue of missing American servicemen and about political prisoners. Vietnam Vision is popular enough that it has attracted advertising from major corporations like AT&T.

"The elderly say it makes them feel like they're at home," Pham says. "The young ones say they can try to learn to speak Vietnamese by watching it, and learn about the culture of Vietnam."

The program currently airs in Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Washington. Chicago, Atlanta, and Minneapolis will soon join the list. Orange County, Calif., home to the largest Vietnamese community in the US, already has several such shows, Pham says.

While many of their perceptions are changing, Vietnamese Americans have been slow to alter their attitudes about the police. In Vietnam, the police enforce the will of the politicians in power, rather than the law, many immigrants say. So Vietnamese are suspicious of the police here.

"In the beginning, I had a real rough time, because everybody tries to avoid contact with a police officer," says Sonny La, one of just eight Vietnamese officers on the 4,200-member Houston police force. "I have a better chance [of talking with Vietnamese people] in plain clothes. People don't want to appear to be an informant."

As for a police career, that would be "their last choice" for most Vietnamese here, Officer La says. One recent Vietnamese recruit asked that his parents not be notified until he had been accepted to the police academy. Still, if all current recruits graduate, the number of Vietnamese cops will soon rise to 14.

Other Vietnamese become professionals or businessmen. Anh Cong Huynh escaped from a Vietnamese labor camp and came to Houston in 1985 with $40 in his pocket. Today he is wealthy, owning a string of convenience stores and restaurants.

"Over here, we have freedom. If we work hard, it's easy to make money," Mr. Huynh says.

He also serves as the national president of the Vietnamese Former Political Prisoners Center, which helps refugees in 21 North American cities to learn English and acquire job skills.

Kevin Nguyen, a legal assistant, agrees with the perception of the Vietnamese as a model minority. "We are hard workers," he says. But he says that Vietnamese teenagers, not having experienced the difficulties their parents faced, "tend to kick back more."

By no means are all Vietnamese Americans wealthy. At the barren-looking senior citizens center operated by Vietnamese Community Services, elderly people play cards or lunch on gummy drumsticks and rice. Khiet Doan, the volunteer manager, chides the Vietnamese business community for donating little money. The center lacks air-conditioning and has a waiting list of people who need meals.

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