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A sense of the surreal swirls up like prairie dust as you drive through Oklahoma City and pull up to the flat, sprawling intersection of 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard. Just ahead hovers a giant golden geodesic dome, built by a local bank in 1958. Across the street, atop a trapezoidal hut, stands a 15-foot-tall (5-meter-) white milk bottle (emblazoned with a pink ice-cream cone). A couple of blocks beyond rests a Gothic church, its enormous stained-glass windows sheltered by carved gray stone.
Somehow it's not where you'd expect to find a thriving community of Vietnamese, locally known as Little Saigon, the fragrance of lemongrass, garlic, and hot chili paste drifting out from a garish string of strip malls. Ten minutes away from the intersection, the heart of Little Saigon, you can easily walk to five restaurants specializing in pho (the classic Vietnamese beef broth soup), two Asian supermarkets, and several Chinese barbecue cafés.
The afternoon Loan Nguyen arrived in Oklahoma City in August 1980 remains as fresh as yesterday. Having left a refugee camp in Thailand, Loan, her husband, Thuong, and four children walked down a set of steel stairs onto the roasting tarmac at Will Rogers World Airport: "It was hot," she remembers, "like going into the stove." Thuong had been a bone surgeon in Vietnam, and within two years he taught himself enough English to pass relicensing exams and undergo retraining as a family physician. Loan found a job with Coca-Cola, selling soft drinks to Asian convenience stores. In 20 years they have put four of their six children, plus a son-in-law, through medical school.
Thuy, an elegant, feisty young woman, is the eldest of the four doctor children. "In our family you grow up to be a doctor or else," she says, taking a break between patients in her two-room office a half mile down 23rd from her dad's. When she and three siblings were in high school earning straight A's, they were expected to concentrate on homework; the television was to be on just an hour each night. To enforce the rule, Thuong encased the television in a plywood box so that after the hour was up he could padlock it shut. Thuong and Loan still live in the same one-story brick house they bought for cash 17 years ago, two doors from a nearly identical house where he keeps his office. Thuy lives in a two-story, upscale suburban house half an hour away.
"I don't want to live in an old, small house," Thuy says. "I'm living the American dream. We grew up poor. We want to move up in society."