On why he does what he does: “Because they [Vietnamese people] are under-served by the public and nonprofit sectors. They need someone to be their voice to demand for justice and fairness!”
We of the 1.5 and 2nd generation look to our elders to provide us with avenues to remember our past from the mouths of our ancestors rather than the victors, American journalists and politicians, or Hollywood. But I have found many of my elders to be reluctant. They are forward looking, not prone to dwelling in the past, especially a past in which they lost their homes and fled for their lives on this very day four decades ago.
I come from a family in which PTSD has fostered silence rather than sharing. So for someone like me, who has an almost obsessive longing bordering on loneliness for the history of South Vietnam that feels so out of reach, mentors like Vinh Lưu, who has dedicated his life to enriching and empowering the lives of Vietnamese ex-pat, young and elder alike, are an unimaginable blessing.
Every year Vinh sends out his customary email invitation to an unknown number of Vietnamese in the Bay Area to join him in commemorating the Fall of Saigon in Marin County. Living in Oakland, 8 hours away from Westminster, California and 45 minutes away from San Jose, I often find myself removed from the larger commemorative events for the Fall of Saigon.
Vinh’s is the closest event, held in Marin County where the Vietnamese community is only 0.5% of the county’s population. The event is small, the attendance numbering a little less than a hundred, the ceremony simple. We gather, we sing the South Republic’s National Anthem, we honor American and Vietnamese veterans, we march following uniformed retired ARVN carrying the largest Vietnamese flag I’ve ever seen around the park to the Vietnam War Monument, we lay a commemorative wreath of flowers fashioned in the colors of the South Vietnamese flag at the foot of the Memorial.
Then we return to eat a buffet of Vietnamese food. One would think that in doing this year after year, you may grow weary of it, you may even experience nothing new from it but I find the re-connection with my elders important for my soul and every year, the event always draws out old memories or new realizations I must have buried of that time so long ago when the events of April 30th could have resulted in my successful escape from a falling country, or in being trapped in a country that stole ARVN away to re-education camps and relegated their sons and daughters to the impoverished.
Though Marin County’s Vietnamese population is small, it has, without a doubt, one of the most established social support networks for Vietnamese ethnics in the United States owed in part to the tireless efforts of advocates like Vinh who is the Director of the Marin Asian Advocacy Project (MAAP). MAAP is a non-profit that has been actively supporting and organizing the Vietnamese community for a little less than three decades. It provides services to the immigrant and refugee communities of Marin County including cultivating community leadership by empowering them to participate in educational, economic, social and political opportunities and promoting physical and mental health and well-being through cultural events, activities, and trips.
Vinh knows too well the journey of many of the people that he serves. A former Green Beret with the South Vietnamese army, he fled Vietnam days before the Fall of Saigon through the ROVER program, a humanitarian resettlement program. At that time, he was newly wed and only 25 years old. He and his wife, Kim, spent their honeymoon in refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam grieving those they left behind. Vinh lost his brother, Hue, who tried to escape just after the Communist takeover, but who never arrived at any of the refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
He landed in Arkansas where his first job was in an Arkansas sawmill, where he was paid the minimum wage of $2.25 an hour and provided with food and a trailer for housing.
The Chinese have a saying, “When the horse dies, you walk,” You adjust yourself to a new environment.
Trained in economics and sociology at the University of Saigon, Vinh eventually decided to head west to the Bay Area. With a map and a straight line to California as his guide, he and his wife got in their car and drove. He arrived in Marin where he eventually attended the College of Marin to improve his English. In 1978, he, like many who were able to flee Vietnam, began sponsoring family members to immigrate to the United States. He landed a job at a refugee resettlement center until 1992, when he took a position with Catholic Charities in San Rafael as an advocate for Vietnamese immigrants. He eventually found his way into the Directorship position at MAAP.
“There are [exiled Vietnamese] people who think the war is never over because of the suffering.”
Vinh also serves on the Directing Committee and Oral History Collection Team for the Vietnamese American Oran History Archive, a collaboration in its sixth year between Marin Asian Advocacy Project, Marin County Mental Health Services BRIDGE Program, and Dominican University of California Service-Learning Program. The project seeks to document the diverse experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in Marin County and their pathways in the U.S. and its many obstacles including racial discrimination, language barriers, poverty, and lack of access to education, healthcare, and affordable housing. The project seeks to build trusting relationships between students and Vietnamese elders and then to eventually collect and record oral narratives of their life story. Besides the external socio-economic challenges, many Vietnamese refugees, even after decades, are still haunted by their war-time experiences and the displacement from their homeland. The unhealed psychological trauma affect generations of their families–their children, and grandchildren. The project seeks to bridge this intergenerational divide and to provide an avenue for healing.
Vinh has been honored in the past at Marin County’s “All Stars of Marin Gala” in 2013 by the Marin Justice League which recognized that Marin County has benefiting from Vinh’s efforts which has been directly credited for improving legal services for Marin County’s Asian community.
Vinh also leads my favorite event: the “Love and Caring luncheon at San Rafael St. Vincent de Paul” which honors American and Vietnamese veterans on Veteran’s Day.
It is one of the few events that provide opportunities to give back to veterans on Veteran’s Day. Veterans of the Vietnam war have often been vilified by many–something that Lưu wishes he could change. “I still salute those guys who went there and fought for our beliefs. They should feel good about it,” he says. “So much of the media has portrayed them as mercenaries, going up there and killing people. It’s just not fair.”
Movies like the critically acclaimed 1999 documentary Regret to Inform also perpetuate the problem, Lưu claims. “Nothing good about the Republic [of South Vietnam] was said in there,” he observes of the Oscar-winning movie that chronicled an American woman’s journey to the place in North Vietnam where her soldier husband was killed. “It was one-sided propaganda. War is ugly on both sides.”
Today, I honor Vinh Lưu, my mentor, colleague, and friend.