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Vietnamese in U.S. Take Stock of Community

These struggles are obvious in Oakland, 40 miles north of San Jose, where more than one-third of the city's Vietnamese live below the poverty line and per capita income is half that of the overall population, census data show. Poverty contributes to other problems, particularly crime, said Gianna Tran, deputy director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center in Oakland.

"Vietnamese youth, nationally, have the highest rate of incarceration among Asians," she said, adding that the myth of Asians being model minorities hits these teenagers particularly hard because few expect them to need help. "There's a lack of awareness of the problems."

A big hurdle is that most parents don't speak fluent English, according to Thanh Nhat Pham, a counselor on Tran's staff.

"There are language and cultural barriers," said Pham, who estimates that only one in five parents has strong English skills. "The family is obviously detached from what the Asian youth are doing."

Ironically, experts say, this isolation is rooted in one of the community's biggest strengths: strong, cohesive neighborhoods and business districts offering Vietnamese-language services. For example, along a dozen city blocks on International Boulevard in Oakland's Little Saigon district, there are business signs for beauty salons, accounting services and international phone cards - all in Vietnamese. It is possible, Tran said, to live, work and socialize in this and similar areas and only speak Vietnamese.

But, among Asian groups in California, Vietnamese have the lowest rates of English language proficiency, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and this means many have minimal communication with public officials. In the San Jose Police Department, for example, just two percent of sworn officers are certified as fluent in Vietnamese, a spokeswoman said.

Political representation also is lacking. There are only a handful of Vietnamese American elected officials nationwide, including Van Tran, a California state assemblyman recently elected to represent Orange County. Though most Vietnamese qualify to become naturalized citizens, experts said, they often opt not to because of language barriers - and so voting rates are lower than average.

Linda Nguyen and Madison Nguyen hope to change that in San Jose.

The two women, who are not related, are among eight candidates who want to fill a vacant city council seat in a June 7 election - and become the first Vietnamese American elected to a citywide public office here.

Madison Nguyen, 30, whose family came to America when she was 6 years old, is president of San Jose's Franklin-McKinley school board. In 2003, she garnered attention after organizing protests when a Vietnamese woman was shot to death in her kitchen by a San Jose police officer who mistook her vegetable peeler for a cleaver.

"There are cultural differences and cultural misunderstandings," Nguyen said recently. "The officer also lacked in cultural training."

If either candidate is elected, "this will mark the coming of age and political maturity of the community," said Tran of the Viet Mercury.

But one of the biggest hurdles will be simply convincing former refugees that they have a stake in the political process. Even today, decades after they left, some still feel more connection to their distant homeland than to America.

Many send money back to relatives and keep close tabs on social and political changes in Vietnam.

"People have built homes in Vietnam," Duc Do said. "They call them Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo."

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© 2005 The Associated Press