Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Little Saigon name is a big deal

The Little Saigon name is a big deal

By Nguyễn Hoàng Lân

Người Việt 2

SAN JOSE ― If Vietnamese were as adaptive and reflective of pop culture as English is, this past week “Madison Nguyen” might have become a new Vietnamese idiom meaning to be betrayed by someone who you supported wholeheartedly.

Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and around the United States are outraged at San Jose City Councilmember Nguyen ― a Vietnamese American herself ― for leading the charge to designate a strip of Story Road as “Saigon Business District” against the wishes of most Vietnamese Americans, who want the area to be known as “Little Saigon.”

The matter was settled last week when San Jose ’s City Council voted 8 to 3 in favor of Saigon Business District, but the fallout from the decision has changed the political status quo of San Jose . Nguyen has lost her support among Vietnamese Americans while they, for all their efforts, have been perceived as unreasonable, fanatical, and as one councilmember put it, “disrespectful.”

But most frustrating to followers of this controversy is the fact that nobody seems to understand why there is a controversy in the first place. Supporters of Saigon Business District feel the name honors the fallen capitol of the former Republic of South Vietnam and cannot understand why the Vietnamese community would take issue with this name. Meanwhile Vietnamese Americans have good reasons for insisting the area be called Little Saigon, but have failed to successfully articulate those reasons in English.

What then, is the big deal about Little Saigon? To understand this, one must first understand the nature of Vietnamese American politics.

The Vietnamese community came to America in waves following the fall of Sai Gon on April 30, 1975. They did not come in pursuit of the American Dream, but as political refugees fleeing from the totalitarian regime that is the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Thirty-two years later, anti-communist sentiment still runs strong in the Vietnamese American community and the desire to see a free and democratic Viet Nam eclipses all others. This essentially means ending the one-party rule of the VCP or at the very least, obstructing the VCP in its attempt to trick the world community by passing off superficial changes as the gradual start of deeper democratic reforms.

The task is a massive one, and at times those Vietnamese Americans who were boat people feel that they are Viet Nam ’s last best hope ― a dying breed with no heirs to carry on their fight. While the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans shares with elders a general concern regarding human rights, democracy, and freedom in Viet Nam , they are not as invested in the cause. The language barrier and lack of experience with the VCP make younger Vietnamese Americans unable to connect with their elders.

The Vietnamese American youth of today ― smart and idealistic, but unfamiliar with Vietnamese history and culture ― often are disillusioned as it seems their every effort to help Viet Nam is met with criticism by their elders. The elders in turn are horrified to see the youth organize philanthropic missions to Viet Nam as such well-meaning missions accomplish the work of the Vietnamese government and allow the VCP to take credit when in truth the government is underserving the Vietnamese people.

This is compounded by the fact that the international community has become increasingly supportive of the Vietnamese government these past few years, despite its oppressive ways. Most recently, the U.S. granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Viet Nam , supported Viet Nam ’s entry into the WTO and invited Viet Nam ’s President Nguyen Minh Triet to meet with President Bush in the White House. Despite heavy rhetoric decrying human rights abuses in Viet Nam , the U.S. seems willing to tolerate one-party nations such as Viet Nam so long as U.S. companies have access to their frontier markets.

Most devastating for Vietnamese Americans working to free Viet Nam , however, is that the VCP has announced a policy to marginalize anti-communist sentiment. In March 2004, Viet Nam ’s Foreign Ministry unveiled Resolution 36, which deals solely with Viet Nam ’s relations toward its overseas brethren. The resolution outlines detailed plans to woo the post-war generation of Vietnamese living overseas to apply their foreign educations to solving Viet Nam ’s problems. Additionally, the resolution makes it a priority to win the hearts and minds of the overseas Vietnamese community, a potential resource to the VCP, as they are now in positions of wealth and power.

Not able to entrust Viet Nam’s freedom to the international community or to the next generation, and faced with an active campaign by the VCP to convince the world that Viet Nam is changing for the better, Vietnamese Americans who came to the U.S. as boat people want to ensure that their opposition to the VCP continues beyond their lifetime.

One way to do this is to permanently entrench overseas Vietnamese areas as anti-communist outposts and to distinguish the overseas Vietnamese community as in opposition to and unsupportive of the VCP. This will embarrass the VCP and remind nations that do business with Viet Nam that their own citizens of Vietnamese decent frown upon and will not vote for people who are sympathetic to the Vietnamese government.

This is the spirit behind the nationwide campaign to lobby local and state governments to recognize the yellow flag of South Viet Nam as the modern day Vietnamese Freedom and Heritage flag, the official symbol of freedom-loving Vietnamese Americans. It is also why the name Little Saigon is so important. While names like Viet Nam , Sai Gon, or New Saigon can be interpreted in a beneficial way by the VCP’s propaganda machine, Little Saigon is a long established brand-name that invokes powerful images of opposition to the VCP, yellow flags with three red strips, and the Tran Truong protests of 1999.

To casual observers, it may seem odd to link the name of a designated area in San Jose to the ongoing struggle for freedom and democracy in Viet Nam . But in the eyes of Vietnamese Americans, every action has an implicit meaning, and by choosing Saigon Business District over Little Saigon, the San Jose City Council has unwittingly aided the VCP in its quest to marginalize anti-communist sentiment.