North and South

In 2013, at a work function, a Chinese gentleman approached and asked me if I was Vietnamese. “Yes, why?” I responded shyly, wondering what would follow.

“Well, I am working with some Vietnamese people in Little Saigon on economic development. They really need more help. You could, well, help them out if you have time,” the man suggested eagerly.

I did not answer him right away even though the project seemed interesting. Despite wanting to agree, I was full of doubt, the biggest one being whether I would be welcomed in the group. The man did not know that I was a little different from most of the Vietnamese American population here.

It had been almost six years when I first arrived in the U.S. I had never been to any foreign lands before and America was a fascinating place, being the most powerful nation in the world. Despite my strong interest in the country, I did not forget that America was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. My uncle fought in that war and my parents would have done the same thing had they not been underage. As a result, America made me excited and hesitant at the same time.

Unlike most Vietnamese Americans living in the States, I am from the northern region of Vietnam. The War was fought primarily between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, and the latter made up the majority of Vietnamese in America. “There are many Southerners in the States. Do not talk politics with them,” my mom warned me repeatedly before my trip. A good American friend also emailed before my arrival with advice: “Don’t take things personally if you happen to have awkward interactions with some Viet Kieu here.” I had never met any Viet Kieu before.

At first, I was one of the only few Vietnamese people in the small eastern Washington town where my school was located. However, things changed significantly when I moved to Seattle after graduation. Suddenly, I was among tens of thousands Vietnamese Americans. I ran into at least one every day around the city. All the advice from my family and friends came rushing back, bringing with it a sense of discomfort. I unconsciously started hiding my Northern accent whenever I shopped at Vietnamese markets or ate at Vietnamese restaurants, worried about being discriminated against because of my accent and family background. Naturally, my social circle composed of only fellow Northerners.
As I stood in front of the man, weighing the intimidating proposition of working with a group of local Vietnamese Americans, another thought also occurred. “What could go wrong”? I asked myself. It sounds like I can help. Plus, it would be fun to learn more about this part of the city where I frequented all the time for yummy food and groceries.

So I agreed to be connected to the group.

Two weeks later, I was talking with Quynh Pham, who works for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation District Authority (SCIDPDA) and Friends of Little Saigon. Quynh immigrated to the States with her family when she was very young. Through our conversation, I learned that she cared deeply about the economic development of Vietnamese mom-andpop shops in Little Saigon. She wanted to promote Vietnamese businesses to the rest of Seattle through an annual festival called Celebrate Little Saigon (CLS). With very few organizers working on the annual festival, she was trying hard to recruit more volunteers for the project. Quynh’s ingenuity, honesty, and enthusiasm won me over and I joined the planning committee.

The CLS planning committee included people from very diverse backgrounds who all want to empower the Vietnamese community one way or another, including the summer festival. Despite my initial hesitation, I slowly opened up as I realized that my contribution could be valuable in this committee. During the first year, I had to recruit volunteers. I called friends, emailed coworkers, and even tapped into my circle of friends from North Vietnam. Many of them felt tentative about engaging with Vietnamese Americans, but some signed up anyway. I was so happy when one of my friends brought her two sons to volunteer with me. Everyone had fun at the festival no matter where they were from in Vietnam and what Vietnamese accent they had.

“Everyone was having fun at the festival no matter where they were from in Vietnam and what Vietnamese accent they had.”

My fellow planning committee members were also very friendly and inclusive. Not only did people not discriminate against my different accent, they even asked me to be the MC! It was an unforgettable night when the planning committee went to Snoqualmie Casino for a night out after the festival. I made new friends and learned so much through the experience. The feeling of being able to contribute was very empowering. I finally felt like I was part of the local Vietnamese community.

The War ended over forty years ago but its brutalities deeply scarred the Vietnamese people’s memory. While millions of South Vietnamese died or had to flee the country, many North Vietnamese also withered throughout the War. I consider myself extremely lucky not to have lived through that time and to suffer very few of its negative legacy, so I am in no position to tell my fellow Vietnamese how to feel. Nevertheless, an increasing
number of North and South Vietnamese (from current-day Vietnam) are coming to study and work in the greater Seattle area. Many of us shop at markets owned by South Vietnamese, conduct business with South Vietnamese entrepreneurs, visit pagodas built by South Vietnamese, and form meaningful connections with our South Vietnamese counterparts on a daily basis.

I sincerely hope the two communities will continue to open up to one another and develop one connected Vietnamese community in Seattle. When I was a little girl, my mom taught me this folk saying that I believe will always stay true:
“Nhiễu điều phủ lấy giá gương. Người trong một nước thì thương nhau cùng.”

 

“Nhiễu điều phủ lấy giá gương. Người trong một nước thì thương nhau cùng.”

“The red cloth covers the mirror stand. People from one country should love each other.”

Explanation: Nhiễu điều is a red silk cloth that was used in olden days to cover and protect valuable things from dust and dirt. Like so, people should cover and protect one another from bad things in life.

 

 

 

Thu Tran is from Hanoi, Vietnam but currently lives in Seattle, WA. She is passionate about building healthy, livable, and sustainable communities. During her free time, Thu enjoys being in nature, reading books, playing soccer, and testing different cooking recipes.

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