The old man eyed the gently sloping field of grass, his greying hair wafting in the soft breeze. There was a field beyond. Good. And trees. Good. And, at one end, a small stream. Very good.
Pan Van Thom, 70, an expert in the art of determining the proper sites for burial, turned to the little group of aging Vietnamese standing silently behind him in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Prince George's County. It was a perfect location, Thom said. I approve.
The elderly Vietnamese refugees, struggling to hold onto cultural traditions that attach great importance to death and ancestors, were making plans to die in their new homeland. The block of 500 gravesites they had chosen will provide a resting place for many of them, their tombstones overlooked by modern highrise apartment complex and the rush-hour traffic of blue-collar workers and bureaucrats on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue.
You in America, you neglect the fine art of dying," said Vu Khac Thu, one of the leaders of the Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association here. "But we cannot forget it, not even here, in this land, so distant from the land of our birth."
Coming from a country where death anniversaries are far more important than birthdays, the simple lack of a cemetery where the 1,500 elderly Vietnamese here can be buried alongside their fellow countrymen triggers an uneasiness that most Americans have difficulty in understanding.
It is but one of several problems the elderly refugees experience here.
Immigration Service and resettlement officials say that many of them may never fully adjust to their new country. Some are simply too old or unsure of themselves to learn English, others too old to learn new trades or find employment. Still others are too old to emotionally withstand the assault on the ancient traditions and familial relationships that results from the relentless Americanization of their children and grandchildren.
"Some wish they had not come," said Hanh Minh, 58, a member of the senior citizens group. "This is a very nice country. But their life in Vietnam was everything to them."
Mrs. Minh is one of the fortunate few who can speak English. She came with the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975, most of whom were from the educated classes. Many of those were able to flee with some of their wealth.
Yet, even for those such as her, the problems of making a new life at such an age and of coming to terms with death so far from the tombs of their ancestors are enormous.
According to Mrs. Minh and others, including many who work with the refugees, most of those problems are rooted in loneliness.
"When they come here, they must move into apartments wherever they can find them," said Jackid Bong Wright, 39, a refugee who heads Indochinese Refugee Social Services, a refugee resettlement organization. "So they live all over the area. They cannot drive so they cannot visit friends. They cannor speak English so they cannot visit their neighbors. In Vietnam, they lived in the same community all their lives, and they know everyone. But they know no one here."
The rules and regulations of their new country can have a huge impact on their lives, too, said Wright, who is married to an American.
"Zoning regulations and health codes restrict the number of people that can live in one apartment or house," she said. "In my country, the grandparents, the parents and the grandchildren all live together. The younger family members take care of the older ones. But sometimes here, the parents and grandparents must live in different apartments. Then the old people are even more lonely."
The elders suffer loneliness as well because many family members inevitably remain behind in Vietnam through choice or because they were not able to leave at the same time. Others are caught in huge waiting lists in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Still others disappear in their efforts to escape.
But in the end, the most devastating blow is the erosion of tradition that inevitably begins with the young who adapt to the new culture more readily. Many youngsters are even refusing to speak Vietnamese to their elders or are embarrassed by their grandparents' adherence to tradition. The isolation that results within the family, the central unit of Vietnamese society, leaves the elders with no place to turn.
It was partly for that reason that the Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association was founded here in 1977, according to Chu Ngoc Lien, 70 president of the group. It was the first such organization in the United States.
The old people are very homesick," said Lien, 70. "They love their country very much. That is why they still live in the past. It makes their adjustment very difficult."
The association, he said, is dedicated to "retaining the culture. That is the most important thing, to retain the traditions. But it is also there so that we may come together and find friends, and to teach the language to our children and grandchildren who might otherwise forget."
Three times a year, he said, on Vietnamese holidays such as the lunar new year, the association performs traditional Vietnamese celebrations, complete with gongs, altars and colorful clothing. At every chance, the assocation enlists young people to aid in the pageantry.
It was the association that was responsible for the creation of the cemetery, the nation's first for Vietnamese refugees.
One of those active in the search for a proper sit was Vu Trinh, the president of a Saigon textile company before the 1975 collapse.
Shortly after he and his family arrived here in 1975, his mother, long suffering from cancer, died at age 75. He searched for a cemetery, eventually settling on Cedar Hills. But there were problems. She would have to be buried without any Vietnamese nearby. And the cemetery at first balked at allowing him to put his mother's full name, Trinh Thi Chuc, on the tombstone as tradition required, when cemetery rules permitted only last names.
While the cemtery allowed him his wish in the end, Trinh and others saw the need for a separate section just for Vietnamese.
Last November, after Thom's visit, the association signed a contract with Cedar Hills reserving 500 spaces in one section. The associaiton names the section, Lac Cahh Vien, the Vietnamese Paradise Garden, and elder Vietnamese bagan buying lots. Now 100 of them have either paid the $180 price to reserve a gravesite in full or are paying $5 a month towards the eventual purchase of one, Lien said.
Less than a dozen miles away from the cemetery, Vo Thi Hai, 64, sits in the two-bedroom Arlington apartment she shares with four of her 31 still-living grandchildren, waiting for the day when the 14 members of her family in a Malaysian refugee camp can gain permission to join her.
Her heart troubles her, she tells an interpreter, but because she has not yet qualified for Medicaid, having arrived in the United States only two months ago, and because she has no money, she has not yet seen a doctor. Now and then her thoughts turn to death, and though it holds no terror for her, the prospect of being buried in the cemetery next to Americans with no fellow Vietnamese nearby makes her uneasy.
"I am not afraid to die," she says earnestly. "But I would like to have enough money to be buried in the Vietnames Senior Citizens) cemetery. I would feel comfortable there. If I were buried elsewhere, I would not be able to talk with the Americans next to me because I do not speak English."
She laughs at the though. "I am going to learn English," she says. Then the smile slowly fades.
"There is no more Vietnam country now," she says at last. "We can die anywhere now."