I listen helplessly to the staccato singsong words that volley between my translator, Linh Le, and the rough-hewn Vietnamese woman in my pediatric office at the Upper Cardozo Health Center. Sitting next to the woman is her daughter, a pretty 4-year-old wearing an immaculate white party dress with intricate lace and black patent leather shoes. The mother wears jeans, sneakers and a worn sweater. There is not a sound, a phrase, an intonation that passes between Linh and the mother that means anything to me.
"She says her daughter is not eating and is losing weight," Linh explains to me. "She worries about her. She thinks she may be sick." The 4-year-old smiles at me. She is as cooperative as she is cute. Her exam reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Although the child is small for her age compared with American norms, the mother is also small and the girl is growing well from visit to visit.
I ask more questions about the girl's eating and activities and order blood tests and stool samples. Then I ask about the mother's background. The conversation now proceeds a little more slowly and a little less matter-of-factly. "She arrived in the U.S. in 1992," Linh reports. "She was very, very poor. She could not go to school in Vietnam. She came with her mother. Her father is American."
The mother's story is, in fact, Linh's story as well. Linh is a handsome 26-year-old--with rich black hair, a broad nose, wearing hoop earrings and a white scrub outfit decorated with sea shells--who came from Vietnam in 1989. Today she is a certified medical assistant, drawing blood, giving immunizations, taking blood pressures and translating for her fellow Vietnamese.
Linh's story really starts with her mother, De Le, who grew up in a rural area of southern Vietnam. In the late 1960s she moved to the city of Can Tho, where American soldiers were stationed. In 1970, she had a child, Loan, by a white soldier with whom she lived briefly and who sent her clothes and money until he left Vietnam in 1972. Linh was born the same year, fathered by a black soldier whom De Le never saw again. When the war ended, De Le returned to her family in the country with the two children. But she was stigmatized for having American children and was sent away by the Communist authorities to do farm work as punishment. Linh and Loan suffered their own punishments, being called con lai ("half breed") or bui doi ("dust of the earth") and being taunted at school.
"It was bad, very, very bad," recalls De Le, now an affable 50-year-old. "So I made papers starting in 1983," by which she means she began the application process to leave Vietnam. It was not until 1987, when the U.S. Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, that emigration became possible and not until 1989 that the determined De Le arrived in Washington with her two teenage daughters. Linh started in ninth grade at Bell Multicultural High School. "I would say 'Hi' and 'How are you?' but mostly I would just sit because I didn't understand anything."
The International Rescue Committee helped De Le find an apartment and got the family a language tutor. De Le worked as a housekeeper at the Willard Hotel and Linh started at the Westin, turning down beds, replacing towels and ice from 6 to 9 in the evening.
During her last two years at Bell, Linh had an after-school job answering phones at the D.C. Refugee Center on Columbia Road NW. The center sent her along as a translator for Vietnamese clients going to Upper Cardozo Health Center for medical visits. "When I graduated from Bell in 1993, I thought maybe I would study computers. But I kept coming to Cardozo to translate and I got to know the nurses. They loved their work and they liked me, and I thought maybe I'd study nursing."
The clinic offered Linh a job in medical records with part-time work as a translator. In 1995, with her money saved up, she enrolled in a medical assistant training course given by the Fairfax County adult education program. When she graduated, she returned to Cardozo as a certified medical assistant, a member of the clinical team working alongside the nurses delivering patient care.
Not everybody who travels the Amerasian route gets that far. A Vietnamese mother who brings her grade schooler for doctor visits tells me about her two older children who have never come to the clinic. The boy, in his early twenties, spent two years in high school without learning English before he developed a drug problem and a police record. She sees him rarely now but worries about him all the time. Her 18-year-old daughter did learn English but dropped out of school when she got pregnant. The mother is supporting them both while her daughter tries to find work.
Two blocks north of the clinic is the center of the Vietnamese community on Park Road, where Vietnamese families share battered housing with African Americans and Salvadorans. Vietnamese, Spanish and English mix on the street but Vietnamese commerce is dominant, with two grocery stores and a pool hall in the block between 14th and 16th streets. The pool hall, in particular, is populated by young men, many clearly Amerasian in background, wearing Nike T-shirts, smoking, chatting in Vietnamese, killing time. Some 5,000 Vietnamese live in this area, most having arrived in the early 1990s as a result of the Homecoming Act.
Linh is married to an Amerasian man who also came from Vietnam in 1989. One day Linh arrived in my office carrying a child in her arms. "Where's the mother?" I asked.
"I'm here," she replied proudly. Her baby was a fine, rambunctious boy with a cough and a runny nose. "He has a cold, and I'm taking good care of him, but I thought he should see a real doctor."
We both laugh. In many ways Linh is like a real doctor to the Vietnamese patients whom she shepherds at all of Cardozo's clinics. She takes their vital signs and translates the clinical world for them.
One day I asked Linh if she ever intended to go back to Vietnam. "I've been back two times already, in 1993 and 1996. I was so happy to see my grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles. They listen to us and treat us good now. But it has been much better for us here. Nobody calls me names now."
CAPTION: Linh Le, 26, began working at the Upper Cardozo Health Center as a high school student. Today, seven years after arriving in the United States, she is a certified medical assistant.