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ZipUSA: 73106
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By Frank BrowningPhotographs by Penny De Los Santos



You won't find steak houses in this corner of Oklahoma City. In Little Saigon, noodle shops reign.




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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."

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Thuong Nguyen, who is featured in the "Lemongrass on the Prairie" ZipUSA, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1980 with his wife and four children. In Vietnam he was an accomplished bone surgeon and spoke French as well as Vietnamese. When he settled in the Little Saigon area of Oklahoma City, he quickly taught himself English in order to pass the necessary exams to become a family physician. But his pursuits did not end there. After Thuong opened his own practice, he started seeing several patients who were Hispanic and did not speak English. He thought it would be worthwhile to learn Spanish to better communicate with them, so he taught himself. Word spread that there was a doctor in Little Saigon who could speak Spanish, and now 80 percent of Thuong's patients are Hispanic.

—Julie Cederborg

Did You Know?


Related Links
Vietnamese Studies Internet Resource Center
site.yahoo.com/vstudies/
This website breaks down the 2000 Census for Vietnamese statistics.

Oklahoma City News
www.newsok.com
This website gives the latest happenings in the city and has extensive archives of the Daily Oklahoman, which includes numerous features on Little Saigon.

Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce
www.okcchamber.com

Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau
www.okccvb.org
Information about the city—what to do, where to eat, where to stay.

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Bibliography
 

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NGS Resources
Swerdlow, Joel L. Changing America. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Gartrell, Kathie. "Oklahoma Oasis," National Geographic Traveler (September/October 1997), WE10.

Raichlen, Steven. "The Joy of Pho," National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1996), 32.

Jordan, Robert Paul. "Oklahoma, the Adventurous One," National Geographic (August 1971), 149-89.

Simpich, Frederick. "So Oklahoma Grew Up," National Geographic (March 1941), 269-314.


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