Stories of flight from Vietnam
BY Huong Le - Austin American Statesman - Inside her wooden story box, Kimberly Do put an American passport, a family picture and a lucky money envelope. She painted the box with red and yellow stripes, the colors of the former South Vietnam flag."That's the flag that my parents like more, because they didn't like the one with the star," Kimberly said. Her family came to America in 1981, six years after the communist takeover. "The South Vietnam flag was the one with these stripes. My parents wanted more freedom. They liked that flag better."
The box contains what Kimberly, 11, understands about her Vietnamese heritage and the story of how her family immigrated to America and Austin. It is part of the art exhibition, "We are from Vietnam: Family Immigration Stories from Austin, Texas," on display at the Austin's Children Museum through July 20.
The artwork was created by American Vietnamese second- and fifth-graders enrolled in the Vietnamese Culture Program at Walnut Creek Elementary School in North Austin. After interviewing their grandparents and parents, second-graders retold their family stories through drawings. Fifth-graders created story boxes and wrote about why their families immigrated and the hardships that they endured to reach America and build new lives.
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees have found sanctuary in the United States, many in the 1970s and 1980s by perilous sea escapes in tiny, overcrowded boats. In Texas, Vietnamese immigrants generally settled in larger cities, including Houston, Dallas and Austin, and in coastal areas. Austin is home to about 20,000 Vietnamese, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Born in Austin, Kimberly visited Vietnam for the first time when she was 4 during a family trip to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
"My family wanted to immigrate because they wanted to escape the great danger of the Vietnam War," Kimberly wrote in her story for the exhibition. "They were transported here by boats, so they had to leave many valuables behind."
"If they got caught, they would get killed," she later added to her parents' story. Her mother told her there were 1,000 people and little food on the small boat that brought her family to asylum.
Chat Thiet Tran, founder of the Walnut Creek program, said the project helps American Vietnamese students find and preserve their identities.
"Some of the parents still feel the pain of having to leave your country, to live in another country without knowing when they can come back," Tran said. "Sometimes, they don't talk about it to their children."
In the program, which started in 1983, students receive additional instruction in math and reading. On Fridays, they take Vietnamese cultural classes that include studying the language and Vietnamese history and traditions. About 18 percent of Walnut Creek's 1,100 students are of Asian decent, giving the school one of the largest Asian enrollments in the Austin district.
"I think it's beautiful to grow up in two cultures," said one of the program's teachers, Thuan Tang, who left Vietnam when he was about 18 months old. "The whole idea of bilingual (education) is (for the students to) grow up learning English and retaining their native language."
In her story box, 10-year-old Thy Tran put a note worth 50,000 dong, the currency of
Vietnam, family pictures and a lucky money envelope. The envelopes are traditionally given to children during Tet, the Vietnamese new year celebration. Thy has never been to Vietnam, though she's curious about seeing her mother's country.
In her story for the exhibition, Thy wrote that her mother left Vietnam with "a small hope to be free."
"When the moment broke out of the comonist coming to claim South Vietnam, my mom was in panic," Thy wrote. "She was only 16. . . . My mom found kind Chinese people which created a plan to travel on a boat to go to a different country."
That country was America.