Cathy Wang of San Gabriel, left, sells jewelry to Leon Nguyen of Garden Grove and his family at the second annual night market at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster on opening night in 2012. (File photo By Ana Venegas, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Thousands of people line the parade route to celebrate Lunar New Year during the Tet Parade in Westminster on Feb. 17. (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)
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A convoy flying the flag of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) before 1975 celebrates the Lunar New Year during the Tet Parade in Westminster on Feb. 17. (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)
Members of a Vietnamese Harley-Davidson owners club ride in the Tet Parade in Westminster on Feb. 17, 2018. (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)
President Gerald Ford sits on a bus with one of the first children evacuated from Vietnam during Operation Babylift at San Francisco International Airport on April 5, 1975. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images)
In case you wondered, the American dream can be found along the 22 Freeway.
For recent Vietnamese immigrants, the American dream is the California dream and, specifically, the Little Saigon dream, said a Cal State Fullerton faculty member who took part in a panel on “Vietnamese California” earlier this semester.
Sarah Grant, assistant professor of anthropology, told the audience about a woman who emigrated from Vietnam, expecting to live in Orange County’s Little Saigon community — centered in Garden Grove and Westminster — or San Jose, as her friends did, but ended up in rural Louisiana.
“Everything she knew about the U.S. was rooted in an Asian grocery store in Garden Grove or a Vietnamese family household in Westminster or Lunar New Year’s celebration in Garden Grove,” Grant said. “When she shows up not in New Orleans, not in Lafayette, it shattered her dreams a little.”
When the woman came to visit Grant, she wanted to eat every meal in Little Saigon or buy ingredients there to cook for herself. “To her, California was Vietnam,” Grant said. “It was like going home to Saigon for her.”
Grant wrote a story on the woman for Boom California, an online publication whose editor, Jason Sexton, is a Pollak Library faculty fellow at Cal State Fullerton. Boom presented the panel discussion on the CSUF campus and a second one in Westminster, and Sexton moderated.
The events’ goal was to explore the role California plays in Vietnam and the role Vietnam plays in California’s past, present and future.
Phuoc Duong, a Cal State Fullerton lecturer in Asian American studies, has written that “California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life.”
During research in Vietnam, Duong found that young adults seek a better life by winning admission to a university or moving to a Western country. He contrasted that with previous generations of young adults who devoted themselves to socialist revolution at three periods of Vietnam’s history: imperialism, the centralized economy and neoliberal times.
The idea of California becomes its own historical force, said Allison Varzally, professor of history and author of “Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migration.”
“It defines their longing,” she said. “California stands in for people’s dreams.”
She pointed to photos of Gerald Ford during Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. The then-president was photographed in San Francisco, holding babies as they arrived by the planeload, to show American compassion.
Vietnamese immigrants in that first wave were scattered around the United States; the idea was that pockets of settlers would hinder assimilation. But they moved where they wanted, so the country ended up with pockets like Little Saigon, an area that contains more Vietnamese than anywhere in the country, with East San Jose a close second.
Grant said it’s hard to not think about the Vietnamese diaspora every day, whether driving from home to campus or while on campus.
“I make all of my classes at least partially about Vietnam,” she told the audience.
Grant, a cultural anthropologist, is especially interested in the U.S. appropriation of Vietnamese food and, in particular, coffee. Vietnam has grown into the second-biggest coffee producer in the world, according to the International Coffee Organization. Grant was so surprised to learn this — and that so many multinational corporations buy so much Vietnamese coffee and yet it remains invisible to consumers — that she decided to do her doctoral project on it.
“If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Where do I buy Vietnamese coffee?’ the answer is you’re probably buying it and drinking it all the time,” Grant told the audience. Americans don’t realize what they’re drinking is Vietnamese coffee because most of it is unbranded and unlabeled. But it’s what’s in coffee such as Costco’s Kirkland brand or Folgers or the coffee you get in cafeterias such as those on campus, she said.
“If it doesn’t say it’s 100 percent Colombian, or made in Brazil, or Indonesian or Sumatran, or where it’s produced, chances are it’s Vietnamese or a blend of Vietnamese,” she said. “I think it’s quite interesting that you can buy a $7 cup of cafe sua da (made with sweetened condensed milk) in Silver Lake but no one knows that Vietnam is this massive producer of coffee.”
The growth of the coffee industry is part of an explosion of opportunities that exist today in Saigon and Hanoi that don’t exist in Little Saigon, Grant said. She spots Lunar New Year craft beer menus from Vietnam that she realizes she can’t get in Southern California, for example. This blossoming has created a flow of Vietnamese from the U.S. back to Vietnam, she said.
“There’s a lot of people going to Vietnam to explore cultural opportunities for someone who doesn’t have a six-figure salary,” Grant said. “There’s this whole youth culture of people who’ve spent time in California and are now going back because they can have a different lifestyle than they can have here.” They can get by with a motorbike instead of having to buy a Honda Civic plus insurance, she pointed out.
Knowing English makes it that much easier to make a living in Vietnam, added Grant, who said there’s a budding business in graphic design there. Traveling back and forth between the two countries to take advantage of new possibilities has gotten easier in the past 15 years, she said.
“A lot of people want to move to Hanoi because of colonial architecture and how cool it looks on your Instagram feed.”
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