Community Colleges in Vietnam > Vietnamese stripe ... Last updated 2002-02-24



This site presents a collection of articles by Dr Do Ba Khe and colleagues on education and, in particular, on the community college system in Vietnam.


Comments are welcome.

The Vietnamese Stripe in the American Rainbow (*)

Đỗ Bá Khê
February 2002

The United States is a "nation of immigrants." People of different races and beliefs from different corners of the world, at different times, under different threatening situations, have come here to escape hardship, seek freedom and look for a better life. It is a promised land. Over the years, their differences subside, and more similarities develop toward a rapprochement within the crucible of common social, economic and political challenges to shape a citizenry under the same constitution of a nation most influential on earth.

That is the melting pot model of a pluralistic society as expressed in the Latin motto e pluribus unum ? out of many, one. Out of 285 million individuals, one people emerge, the American people. This model has been accepted for a long time as the successful image of the United States of America. Unfortunately, at times the image has been tarnished by instances of frictions and inequities causing civil turmoil and social unrest.

In 1976, I worked at the Institute for Cultural Pluralism of the San Diego State University that provided school districts in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas with services on bilingual education and cultural diversity. The multi-ethnic staff had lost faith in the melting pot concept. People were labeled bananas, apples, kiwis, or Oreos. Though their skins were yellow, red, brown or black, their insides were not!

Since the melting pot was rejected, another model was proposed to replace it, the "salad bowl": an assortment of different raw vegetables tossed in a bowl with no common flavor except for the dressing. Lettuce, tomato, cucumber?the ingredients retain their distinctive colors, just as the ethnicities preserve their identities in the community.

Yet neither the melting pot nor the salad bowl is viable. Conceived with material, they may tarnish or perish. To reconcile, I propose a model which transcends matter and of undeniable beauty. It is borrowed from physics, based on the phenomenon called dispersion of light and first demonstrated by Isaac Newton. Sunlight is the universal source of energy. A beam of sunlight, intercepted by a prism, emerges in a color spectrum, fanning from red to violet. Withdraw the prism, the colors recompose into the original beam. In the atmosphere, when it drizzles, fine drops of water act as tiny prisms, dispersing sunrays to form a rainbow. I suggest the rainbow to depict the American pluralistic society. It represents diversity within unity. Each band of the spectrum has a distinct color, a distinct wavelength. But being light, monochromatic or compound, all bands share a common property, traveling fast with the same speed, the speed of light, highest in the universe. Light is indestructible. The rainbow is magnificent. For a dreamer with imagination, at the end of the rainbow there is a pot of gold!

Incidentally, I published my concept in 1982. In 1983, one candidate of the presidential electoral campaign called for a "rainbow coalition." I cannot claim any credit for it! I only wish to say that the American rainbow in itself is an undeclared coalition. Facing a common danger, individuals who care for the past less than the future, overcome adversities and disasters, rise from the ashes of dark times to soar together toward brighter horizons.

The Vietnamese are newcomers. They add a narrow color band to that rainbow. They escaped from a country ravaged by three wars during thirty-five years: World War II that ended with the withdrawal of the Japanese occupation army from French Indochina in 1945; the Indochina War that ended with the French defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Agreement resulting in the partition of Vietnam into communist North and republican South; and the Vietnam War that involved the United States, that was concluded by the fall of Saigon in the end of April 1975.

To avoid revenge and domination, millions of people in the south fled the country, scattered to all the continents, but mostly to the United States where they came in four waves known as: the "high risk people," the "boat people," the "O.D.P. people," and the "H.O. people."

The first wave consisted of people considered at "high risk" of retaliation from the victorious forces, including government officials, army officers, professionals, intellectuals, and business people who had some working relationship with Americans. Numerous "no risk" people also succeeded in mingling with the frantic mass in the first evacuation before Russian-made tanks roared into Saigon. All of them were transported by the U.S. Air Force and Navy to Manila, Guam, then the mainland U.S.A., temporarily sheltered in three military camps in California, Arkansas and Philadelphia. American sponsors helped them begin a new life. Camp Pendleton in California received the largest group, and the federal government tried to disperse them to other states. But, by a second migration they found a way to return to the Golden State, which counts today more than half of Vietnamese émigrés in the United States.

Next were the so-called "boat people." A cross-section of people who dreaded poverty and communist oppression risked their lives and slipped away from the long Vietnamese coastline. With no seafaring experience, they set out to the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea in precarious vessels, in hope of reaching hospitable shores. Many perished, victim of pirates who robbed, raped, and killed. The luckier ones arrived exhausted in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and Japan. Many boats ran out of fuel and food. Drifting helplessly, some were rescued by international merchant, navy, or mercy ships such as the one operated by the humanitarian organization called "Medecins Sans Frontieres" (Doctors Without Borders), while countless others were finally swallowed by the waves.

The third wave consisted of Vietnamese who were admitted as immigrants under the Orderly Departure Program (O.D.P.) that allowed the early refugees to sponsor spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters to be reunited in the United States. Travel and processing expenses were paid for by the refugee sponsors.

Finally came the "H.O. people," unfortunate "high risk" people who were unable to escape in April 1975. Many of them had fought side-by-side with American troops during the war. Arrested by the communist victors, they were punished in the desolate, euphemistically named "reeducation camps." A number succumbed to indoctrination, hard labor, malnutrition and lack of medical care. The released survivors were admitted to the U.S. as immigrants under a federally funded program called "Humanitarian Operation" (H.O.).

Millions of Vietnamese were thus uprooted, transplanted in all directions to different landscapes. After many adjustments they were granted a new citizenship. Here, in the United States, they breathed freedom and met many opportunities. A number of failures were caused by cultural shock, but success stories were not few.

Indications of the brightness of the Vietnamese contribution to the American rainbow emerged early. In the spring of 1976, the California Department of Education was surprised when some Vietnamese 8th graders in the Oceanside schools next to Camp Pendleton, in the second semester after their arrival on these shores, outperformed their American-born peers in mathematics, science, and even English. In the subsequent years, the media reported more cases of overachievers, high school valedictorians, college graduates with honors. They had been taught in the family to value education, "Happy is the home wherein the son is doing better than the father." They must do better than a C.

Today, people of Vietnamese origin embrace many walks of American life. They are fishermen, teachers, journalists, engineers, mechanics, judges, singers, doctors, contractors, manicurists, nail artists, etc. They have joined the police, the state and national guards. They have graduated from the national academies at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs. One Vietnamese-American astronaut at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has conducted scientific experiments in space. They have turned formerly rundown areas into bustling commercial centers. They have developed in southern California a prosperous neighborhood dedicated by Governor Deukmejian as "Little Saigon," to recall the cherished capital city they lost in their homeland. They have begun to build a political base by joining the government, getting elected to political bodies at local, state and federal levels. A young Vietnamese-American is currently a U.S. Assistant Attorney General. During the stock-market boom many Vietnamese-American engineers in the Silicon Valley became instant millionaires. They called themselves M.O.P.s (Millionaires On Paper).

In the process of integration the Vietnamese have shared the fortune as well as the misfortune of the American people. Having received many favors they took any opportunities to return the favors. On September 11, engineer An Nguyen was killed at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. On October 31, Kathy Nguyen, a hospital worker in Manhattan, died of anthrax. Sailor Eric Nguyen participated in the air war against terrorism aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Tran Dinh Truong, who owns Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo and Hotel Carter in New York Cit, donated $2 million in cash to the national relief fund and provided rescue workers with hot meals for many days. In many communities Vietnamese-Americans waited in long lines to donate blood, organized memorial services in honor of the victims, gave concerts to raise money to aid their families.

The Vietnamese have embraced America, and some of us have found ways to express our feelings towards our new home. In Pasadena, the Rose Parade this year included for the first time a float with a Vietnamese theme. It was small and simple but attracted no less attention than the bigger and more sophisticated ones. It was the dream of one person, Madelena Lai, who sold her house and used her life savings to build it. Her float had the shape of a boat to symbolize the perilous odyssey of the boat people. Flowers were arranged to read, "Thank You America and the World."

Deep from her heart and with roses, Madelena Lai spoke gracefully on behalf of the Vietnamese expatriates, now Vietnamese-Americans, to express their profound gratitude.

(*) Adapted from an address to the Rotary Club of Concord/Diablo, Wednesday, 20 February 2002.