Swimming from Vietnam

Swimming From VietnamWhile the first official art exchange between the U.S. and Vietnam caused some of their former countrymen to rail against "communist" art in Santa Ana, a group of 18 Vietnamese nationals arrived quietly in Orange County to spend two weeks swimming, playing water polo, watching movies, enjoying an Angels game, and having picnics and barbeques with their American hosts. The visitors arrived on June 30 and left on July 13—time enough to watch Independence Day fireworks in Irvine. They infiltrated Little Saigon numerous times and dined with many of their relatives, all without the vehemently anti-communist elders of Little Saigon—or the mainstream and vernacular media—catching on, exactly as organizers had hoped.

This was a return visit of an officially sanctioned cultural exchange with the Ho Chi Minh City Aquatics Sports Federation. A year ago, an Irvine High School swim team visited and won plaudits from President Bill Clinton and U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson. Vietnamese TV and newspaper reporters followed the Irvine visitors, who were treated as celebrities ("Swimming to Vietnam," Aug. 7, 1999).

But given recent local events, the return visit was necessarily more low-key. Mary Payne Nguyen, one of the exchange's organizers and a former Garden Grove schoolteacher who now directs the Amerasian Network in Ho Chi Minh City, was blunt when talking to local Vietnamese-Americans eager to see their visiting relatives.

"We told them to tell no one," she said.

Still, there were was at least one tense moment when several of the visiting coaches and sports officials accompanied me for dim sum at my favorite restaurant near Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. As we sat down, I noticed that one of the Vietnamese-federation officials was wearing a yellow cap decorated with numerous pins, including half a dozen showing his country's red and yellow star flag with five intertwined Olympic circles atop it.

He put the cap on the table. I quickly grabbed it and hid it on a chair below the table, saying, "It's safer there," hoping no one had noticed it as we were standing in line earlier. The official, perhaps oblivious to why anyone would be concerned about his cap, figured I admired the pins so he gave me one with the flag, as well as another one with the symbol of his swimming federation.

At Irvine, when I told another visiting coach and the swimmers about the incident with the cap, they all laughed. Mimicking the reaction they anticipated the red flag would get in Little Saigon, they made their hands into pistols while saying, "Bang! Bang!"

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