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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

Nguyen has changed, too. When Man, her eldest child, was having trouble in school, she sought help from Asian American LEAD. She has worked with caseworkers to learn more about American schools and how she can help her son and daughters.

A couple of years ago, she accompanied a social worker to a conference in San Diego, leaving her husband to care for the children for the first time.

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)

Nguyen said she has no desire to find or meet her American father -- "I don't need him. He left." She only wants his citizenship.

She has struggled to learn English and fears that she cannot pass the citizenship test.

U.S. law usually allows citizenship for children born overseas to Americans, but Amerasians don't qualify. A bill in Congress that would have granted that right to Amerasians living here died last year in committee.

"I want to be an American," Nguyen said. "I don't want to go back to Vietnam to live."

In 2002, Nguyen returned to her homeland for a visit and, as usual, she stood out.

Friends envied her smooth skin and confident walk. They were tanned and worn from farm work.

In the cities, when shopkeepers noted she was a bit taller, paler and plumper than typical Vietnamese, they quickly fingered her as a Vietnamese who lived in the United States, a Vietnamese American.

The strangers, she recalled with a shy grin, never called her con lai.

In Community, a Mission Emerges

Sandy Dang keeps the letters of complaint in a white notebook.

They are dated from 1998, after she founded Asian American LEAD, and were written by Vietnamese Americans to officials in the District government.

"Sandy Dang cannot speak Vietnamese correctly," wrote an older woman questioning whether Dang could properly represent the community. Several others accused her of seeking publicity. A few called her a communist, probably the worst epithet among Vietnamese Americans.

"Can you believe this?" said Dang, 37, a petite woman with a loud voice. "I was really disappointed. But I am stubborn."

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