By Kou Yang
April 30, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (which is called the American War in Vietnam), and the beginning of the resettlement of more than a million refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to the United States. During this occasion, I want to offer a review into the positive developments between the refugees and the United States, as well as the relations between the United States and the three aforementioned former French colonies on the Indochinese Peninsula.
The end of the Vietnam War was dramatic, tragic, and like a chain reaction, known as the Indochinese domino effect. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the government of Cambodia, and then on April 30, the Viet Cong took over Saigon; they quickly reunited North and South Vietnam into one country under the rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The last of the Indochinese dominos fell in Laos on December 2, 1975, when the King of Laos was forced to abdicate and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (Lao Communist Party). By the end of 1975, all three former French colonies became communist states, pushing more than a million refugees out of Indochina. The vast majority of these refugees came to the United States, which was the leader of the Non-Communist countries during the Cold War, and a major key player in the Vietnam War. More importantly, the United States was considered the defeated party of the Vietnam War.
In 1995, I wrote an editorial piece to the Fresno Bee, and in it, I stated that by being the loser of the Vietnam War, the United States has eventually become the victor in peace time. I also stated that, if the United States had won the war, it would lose the peace – as it would fail to effectively govern the three Indochinese countries (as we have seen this in Iraq). In this piece, to mark the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, I want to say that this claim I made ten years ago has not only turned out to be true, but the economic and political ties and other significant relations between the US and the people of Indochina have grown remarkably strong. Moreover, Vietnam is now one of the best friends of the United States in Asia.
Almost two million former refugees from Indochina and their American born offspring now call the United States their home. Many of them have already contributed their very best to this country. In California, there are Vietnamese American commercial areas, known as “Little Saigon,” in many cities, including San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and more importantly, Westminster. Thousands of businesses in San Jose are owned and operated by Vietnamese Americans, about 200 restaurants in Michigan are owned by Hmong Americans, and the Hmong Business Village in the Twin-Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis, which is slated to be open this coming summer, will house more than 100 businesses, and create thousands of jobs and generate income for these two cities. In California, Cambodian doughnut shops are found throughout the state, and the city of Long Beach is now home to the largest Cambodian American community in the country. The once crime-infested and economically depressed areas covering from Long Beach Boulevard to Cherry, and from Pacific Highway to Anaheim, have been revived by the former refugees from Cambodia into a lively business district, where business signs printed in the Cambodian language as well as English are seen everywhere in these areas.
These former refugees and their offspring have become actively involved in American civic and political processes. As of April 2010, there is one Vietnamese American serving in the US House of Representatives, and one Hmong in each of the Minnesota Senate and Assembly. In California, Van Tran serves in the California State Assembly; Madison Nguyen in the San Jose City Council, Blong Xiong in Fresno City Council, and Noah Lo in Merced City Council. Three Vietnamese Americans serve on the Council of the City of Westminster, home to one of the largest Vietnamese American communities, and its most well known Little Saigon, USA. The Board of Trustees of Fresno Unified School District also has one member of Hmong ancestry, and there are others holding positions in this level throughout the state and country.
The Hmong, who were one of the least prepared educationally, vocationally and technologically Indochinese refugee groups to resettle in the United States, have shown significant adaptability, flexibility and progress. After three decades in the United States, the Hmong have now gradually become part of the diverse American social fabric. Young Hmong Americans have entered many professions, including corporate America. One Hmong American who holds an MBA from Stanford and a Ph.D. from California State University, San Francisco, held the position of Western Region Finance Director of United Airlines for many years before joining Kaiser Permanente as Financial Analyst. There are more than 20 Hmong Americans currently holding tenured and tenure-track professorships in many American universities, including one each at California State University, Monterey Bay, and at San Bernardino; two each at California State Universities, Fresno and Sacramento; and three at California State University, Stanislaus. Scientists of Hmong ancestry are found working in various fields and sites, including the Chemistry Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, and in the wild life of Alaska, and the lab of Intel. There are thousands of young Hmong Americans serving in the United States Armed Forces, including four Lieutenant Colonels and several Majors. Two of them are graduates of West Point; and one of these two is now the Military Attache at the US Embassy in Ghana. One soldier of Hmong ancestry was killed in action in Iraq, and one Hmong, Kham Xiong, was among the 13 American soldiers killed in Fort Hood, Texas, last year.
In Fresno, Hmong are found working in various occupations, ranging from fast food restaurants to sushi bars, from agriculturally-related occupations to university teaching, from pharmacy to dentistry, from social work to psychology, and from K-12 teaching to high-tech occupations. One can easily find workers of Hmong ancestry from the City Hall to County offices, from the school district offices to the chambers of the school Board of Trustee, and from the Police Department to Fresno courtrooms, and from the Health Department to the Medical School of the University of California, San Francisco. There are hundreds of small specialty-crop farming projects that are operated by Hmong, and their produce has been sent to markets throughout California, as well as out of the state and country. The Cherta Farms, the largest Hmong packing and shipping company, packs and sends produce from Fresno to the markets within and out of California. The annual Hmong New Year Festival has become part of Fresno’s cultural diversity; in December of every year, at least ten thousand Hmong from out of towns or states come to Fresno to celebrate Hmong American New Year. Most of them use Fresno hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.
In the Twin-Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hmong language has become the third most spoken language, after English and Spanish. More than 30 percent of students in the public school of St. Paul are children of Hmong ancestry, and one of the Trustees of the Board of St. Paul Public Schools is a Hmong. These two cities are home to the Center for Hmong Studies, Journal of Hmong Studies, Hmong Culture and Resource Center, Center for Hmong Arts and Talents, Hmong Times, Hmong Today, and other Hmong American institutions and establishments. There are Hmong working from city hall to the Minnesota State Senate and Assembly. Hmong in the Twin-Cities own many businesses ranging from small mom and pop’s grocery stores to medium size shopping centers, from medical offices to plastic surgery clinics, and from supermarkets to international businesses. Hmong are found to live in many parts of these two cities, ranging from public housing to very prestigious and upscale neighborhoods.
By being the loser of the Vietnam War, the United States is now seen as the victor, as it is now a very good friend of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The diplomatic relations between the US and Laos have never been totally broken after the war; and in 1992, the two countries restored full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial-level. In December 2004, the United States granted its Normal Trade Relations (NTR) to Laos, expanding the relations between the two countries. Although there are small pockets of resistant movements in the jungle of Laos, the former refugees from Laos who are now in the US, enjoy a greater opportunity to visit Laos and their relatives in Laos. Vang Rattanavong, the former LPDR Ambassador to the US, has publically acknowledged that Hmong Americans who returned to visit relatives in Laos have contributed to the economy of Laos. Last year, the government of the LPDR made public several measures to accommodate overseas Laotians who want to visit, purchase properties, or return to live in Laos.
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia led to an election in 1993, and then to the September 1993 establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cambodia. The scars of the Vietnam War have healed very quickly for both Vietnam and the United States. The two countries formally normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, and their friendship grows very faster and stronger every years since then. Today, Vietnam is one of the closest friends of the United States. US Navy ships have returned to station in Cam Rang Bay, and in 2009, Commander H. B. Le, the first Vietnamese born American to command a United States Navy Destroyer, had made a formal port call in Vietnam, which was a historic event for both countries. He was welcomed in Vietnam as both a son and an American Navy Commander. The Communist Party of Vietnam (the ruling party) has publically recognized that Vietnamese overseas, known as Viet Kieu, have made significant contributions to the economy of Vietnam, which is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. Vietnamese Americans may now return to visit Vietnam without the need to get Vietnamese travel visas. Lastly, many skyscrapers and housing sub-divisions in Vietnam look more American than Vietnamese. While Little Saigon USA emerges in many American cities, many housing sub-divisions in Vietnam carry American city names, such as Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. Americans went back to Vietnam without military weapons, but business capital, scientific know-how, and technology; most of these Americans are no other than former refugees from Vietnam to the US and their offspring.
The United States is now the most talked about country in Indochina. People in almost every village and town in Indochina know someone or have a relative in the Unites States. Many Hmong in rural Laos know the telephone area codes of Fresno and St. Paul, Minnesota. Many young Hmong in Vietnam use the Romanized Phonetic Alphabet, the most widely used writing language of Hmong Americans, to browse Hmong American websites. More interestingly, English has replaced French as the second-most spoken language in Indochina. Although the United States is the most known country to the people of Indochina, the US should be aware that thousands and thousands of Chinese go to these three Indochinese countries every month; most of them stay there to engage in business or other industrious activities. Many shopping centers in Laos look more Chinese than Lao, very similar to those shopping centers in Lhasa, Tibet or Urumqi, Xingjiang. Thousands of promising students and officials of these three countries receive Chinese scholarships to get their advance education in China. Many roads, hospitals, and public buildings are built by Chinese, more so in Laos and Cambodia. Many of the thousands of acres of rubber trees in Laos are owned by Chinese. Soon, there will also be a brand new Chinatown in Vientiane, Laos. Indirectly, China has already begun to insert its presence and influence in Indochina.
About the author:
Kou Yang is Professor in the Department of Ethnic and Gender Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. He has published extensively on Hmong and Hmong Americans. He has also visited Vietnam and Laos many times. He has led scholars to do educational tours of China twice, and made many other official and private visits to China.