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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

Different but Determined

In this city, Phuong Nguyen is nearly invisible.

At a hotel in downtown Washington, she cleans empty rooms. Customers at the U Street nail salon where she works part time barely acknowledge her, except to pick their polish. In the international melange of her Columbia Heights neighborhood, Nguyen's looks attract little attention. She doesn't mind.

Sandy Hoa Dang, second from left, cheers during her Asian American community group's spring celebration. From left, Jessica Valencia, Debbie Huynh and Miriam Cabieses look on. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

In Vietnam, she was singled out for her pale skin and faced discrimination for it. Here, she believes her opportunities are limited only by how hard she can work.

"This is nothing," she said, doing laundry in the bathtub after a 12-hour workday. "In Vietnam, life is much harder."

Her ticket out was her face.

The Amerasian Homecoming Act, passed by Congress in 1987 after much debate, allowed children born in Vietnam to American service members to come to the United States with their families. Few people had documents to prove their heritage, so U.S. Embassy officials based their decisions, in part, on whether they looked "American." About 26,000 eventually immigrated.

Nguyen, 35, said she knows little about her father. He left in 1969, before she was born. Her older half-sisters told her that he was a doctor for the military. Her mother never spoke of him.

Early on, Nguyen realized she was different. In a culture that values family background, Amerasians were considered the products of shameful liaisons. Nguyen recalls the taunt from her classmates, con lai -- half-breed.

"I would beat them," she said, her voice rising at the memory. "Boys, I would beat, too. They called me names. How dare they?"

Still, even a determined girl who towered over her classmates -- thanks to her "American" size -- could do only so much in Vietnam.

Shortly after the war, the communist government ordered her family from the seaside city of Vung Tau to the remote highland. Accustomed to city life, the family had to pick coffee beans and pepper on collective farms. Nguyen dropped out of school after the fourth grade and settled for what was expected of her: marriage, children and work.

When news of Amerasians being able to emigrate reached the countryside, Nguyen said she didn't hesitate.

"Older people always said, in America, everything is possible," she remembered. "They said people even had fish in cans."

She lives with her husband and three children in a studio apartment that is cramped but spotless. Canned fish is no longer a novelty -- they've moved onto bigger things: two televisions, a desktop computer and a sport utility vehicle.

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