Fresh Division Appears in Little Saigon

A New Film -- Saigon, USA -- Shows Younger Vietnamese Americans Ready to Fight Their Own Battles

The younger Nguyen was an infant when Saigon fell and his family fled to the U.S. As a teenager, he says, he "didn't care about where I came from because who cares? I am here. I was busy with all these other things: playing with my friends, playing football, going to the right parties, drinking—doing the things kids do." Now, he says, he understands the importance of politics—especially politics that make a difference in peoples' lives. Tran's flaunting of Ho Chi Minh was "repugnant" but not enough to alarm, he says. "The older generation protested [Tran] like crazy, and that's great and all, but what did it accomplish?" Nguyen asks. "It accomplished nothing. The Vietnam that my parents talk about is dead. It doesn't exist anymore."

Xuyen Dong-Matsuda, an Orange County therapist, saw the anger and the frustration during the Tran demonstrations and wanted to channel the energy into something positive. She helped organize a candlelight vigil to help "heal the community" and to "pray for the freedom of people in Vietnam." Footage of the event in the film shows her success. A news camera scans an enormous crowd that, at least temporarily, has set aside its exaspersation.

* * *


Nguyen Protesting Sen. John McCain's use of the term "Gook"
Photo courtesy of Lindsey Jang & Robert C. Winn

But the most important figure in the film is Q. Bao Nguyen, a sophomore UCI political science major when he was interviewed. Nguyen tells the story of how his parents narrowly escaped Vietnam in 1975, how he was born in a Thai refugee camp and that among his most memorable childhood experiences was an American elementary school teacher who tried to get him to change his name to "Bob." His parents hated Tran's posting of the Ho Chi Minh picture, but their son shrugs his shoulders and said it was Tran's right. "My parents think we have too much freedom in this country," says Nguyen. "I don't think we have enough."

At first glance, Nguyen is easily underestimated. His lanky body and innocent-seeming smile belie a quick mind, fierce independence and a poise beyond his age. The sixth of seven children, he's not a stereotypical, apathetic youth. His ethnicity is a source of pride, he's active in community issues and it almost brings him to tears when he talks about his dream of someday visiting Vietnam with his mother. (He is visiting Vietnam for the first time now.)

"I think the older generation feels that the younger generation is losing its roots, is detached from their cultural heritage and is becoming American in a bad way," he tells Jang and Winn. "And I feel like we don't have enough dialogue."

It was Nguyen who spearheaded what truly is the seminal moment in Little Saigon history and who gave Saigon, USA its greatest image: an animated Nguyen holding a megaphone and leading about 15 other Vietnamese college students to protest Senator John McCain's calculated use of the term "gook" during the 2000 Republican presidential primary.

During the McCain campaign rally at Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, older refugees—as a rule, diehard supporters of Republicans, whom they see as most anticommunist—wanted their community to express nothing but cheers for the onetime Vietnam War POW. The students, however, didn't see anticommunist sentiment as a relevant electoral litmus test and weren't willing to blindly follow the Republican Party. They praised McCain's military heroics, but held him accountable for employing the racially derogatory term.

"We are Americans—not gooks!" Nguyen said repeatedly to the crowd of 3,000. "Are you a gook? No!"

Hoping that national media outlets such as the Washington Post, Associated Press and CNN would follow his lead, McCain ignored the protesters who wore handmade T-shirts that mockingly said "American Gook." Some older Vietnamese Americans did not appreciate the dissent. For more than 40 minutes, at least two dozen adults screamed at, spat on, punched, pinched and kicked the students. Nguyen was called a communist, told to "go back to Hanoi," and pushed violently into a busy street where smirking Westminster cops stood by.

But Nguyen didn't give up. "Dear people, we love our country like you do," Nguyen said in Vietnamese. "We hate communism like you do. But we don't agree with the word gook. It's wrong. It's hurtful. People need to be educated about that."

His explanation was ignored. Older refugees seethed. They described the students as patsies and claimed preposterously that "gook" means "communist." One irate man shouted that only communist sympathizers would say anything against McCain.

Vu Nguyen was there as a Weekly reporter and met Bao Nguyen (no relation) that night. He couldn't believe the violence he witnessed. "A girl [protesting with Bao] had her poster torn down," Vu recalls. "They kicked and punched her—like, 40- and 50-year-old men." Journalist Andrew Lam summed up nicely the older generation's behavior: "Those people who lost the war are full of hurt and angst and bitterness and there is a sense that this is still being worked out."

Although she wasn't part of the violent crowd at the McCain rally, Thi Ha Pham shared their irritation. "Young people, they don't know," she says. "Only old people know everything [about communist atrocities in South Vietnam]." A soft-spoken Bao Nguyen insists it was right to challenge McCain, but regrets upsetting the older crowd. "Maybe our message didn't come across right to them," he says.

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