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March 2003

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ZipUSA: 73106

By Frank Browning
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 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."

That tension between the bonds of tradition and the blandishments of the American dream sizzles all across Little Saigon. Stop by Su Nguyen's Hop Ky café most any morning around 10 and, if you speak Vietnamese, you can hear Su trading stories with his old military buddies about their grandchildren and the mistakes that lost the war. One large South Vietnamese flag is tacked to a wall, another flies in the wind outside, and a third sits beside the Stars and Stripes atop an old deli case stocked with pig intestine, roast duck, and stuffed buns.

Three veterans in their 60s sip tea with Su. All, like him, went to prison for several years after the fall of Saigon; some spent more years in refugee camps.

"They come here every morning; some are retired, others work night shift. It's a good place to talk and remember," Su says through my interpreter, Khanh Tang, a young Vietnamese-American police officer. Su arrived in Oklahoma City with the second wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1991. Most of the people who now live in Little Saigon came about the same time. The first wave, who were placed here by Christian refugee agencies in the '70s and '80s, have mostly moved to the suburbs. "The rich move out and poor stay in town," Tang says.

Two nights later in his patrol car, Tang inches along the small side streets of Little Saigon, lined with simple frame bungalows. He flashes his spotlight into the yards, most tidy, a few with backyard junk.

"I wouldn't want to raise my son around here when there's drug dealing, prostitution, shooting just down the street," Tang says, referring to a seedy neighborhood nearby. Even closer is one of the most exclusive square miles in Oklahoma. The possibility of either encroaching on Little Saigon has spurred community leaders to build up the neighborhood's civic institutions. When the golden dome was in danger of being razed, a committee of longtime Oklahomans launched a "save the dome" campaign. Their effort seemed hopeless until Irene Lam, who is one of several thousand Chinese in the city, offered to buy it to create an Asian cultural center.

"Asian people are always looking for public space to have community meetings, and there was nothing here," she says, taking me on a tour of the building. "Now we can have cultural displays, music, dance, there's so much open space."

A shrewd businesswoman, Lam quickly lined up enough retail businesses that rents would easily pay off the building's 1.1-million-dollar asking price. Lam also understood the cultural and political value of saving this icon of Oklahoma life: "We could say it's a way for Asian people to give something back to Oklahoma City for the good fortune they have had here."

Giving back. Holding on. Moving up. These are old issues among immigrants to the United States. Part of the attraction of Oklahoma City is its scale. Orange County, California, where the first flood of refugees arrived after the fall of Saigon, now is home to 135,000 Vietnamese; nearly as many live in greater San Jose. Housing prices in both are higher and urban tensions more severe. Still, the sprawl that is Oklahoma City casts families and friends apart. Loan Nguyen has watched her three oldest children move away, something that would be unthinkable in Vietnam. The children badger her and Thuong to move out of Little Saigon, to join them in the suburbs away from the "crime," but the parents say no.

"Our idea is anywhere crime can happen," Loan says. "Soon we will be too old, and our children not stay with us. When we are alone, it is very convenient to walk to Vietnamese stores. It is more comfortable to be alone here."


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