When Linh Khanh Banh arrived in Washington from Vietnam in 1975, she was so nervous about taking the D.C. driver's examination that she failed the road test five times.
On the sixth try, she passed. Since then, Banh has gradually grown more self-confident in her new country.
"Circumstances have made me independent," says Banh. "Since I am alone here, who can I rely on but myself?"
Binh's blunt question pinpoints the situation of many Indochinese refugees in the District who, like Banh, escaped Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.
These refugees have since suffered the traumas of a sudden arrival in a new land, a desperate scramble to find housing, jobs and schools and children, and a persistent nostalgia for the country they were forced to leave behind.
Of the estimated 16,000 Indochinese living in the Washington area, less than 5,000 live in the District, most of them in the blocks around 16th Street and Park Road NW. With the arrival of the "boat people" and other refugees in the last year, more have begun to move here.
In contrast to the large Indochinese families who located in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs where they found ample and cheaper housing, those in Washington are primarily single people or small families who do not require large apartments.
Nhi Do, 40, for example, chose the District when he came to the United States five years ago because he was alone -- his wife is still in Vietnam -- and since he had no car at first, had to rely on public transportation.
An exuberant man, Do says he wanted to "know everything" about the capital and be near the Library of Congress, where he spends hours at a time absorbing books on U.S. history and government.
But now he would like to move from his Kalorama Road NW apartment to Virginia to be closer to his part-time job as a high school social studies teacher.
Because their communities are concentrated, the Indochinese in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs have created large, close-knit networks served by a kaleidoscope of government and private agencies.
Several local governments in Virginia and Maryland offer counseling, English and vocational classes to Indochinese as well as help in finding housing, jobs and schools.
But not the District. The D.C. government offers them no special programs, although it does provide money and homes for unaccompanied children and welfare for those who need it.
Betty Queen, acting administrator of the Family Services Administration of the D.C. Department of Human Services, says her office has received little if any demand for services to the Indochinese.
Queen says, however, her office is putting together a refugee assistance program for all nationalities including Indochinese refugees.
To fill the void in serving Indochinese refugees, private agencies have stepped in. Organizations such as Catholic Charities and the Buddhist Social Service Organization help them find housing, jobs and schools.
Both the Buddhist Social Service Organization and Sacred Heart Church's Adult Education Center offer English classes. Sacred Heart's center also offers reading and math courses and sees that refugees receive the food and clothing they need.
Each Sunday Sacred Heart Church and the Buddhist Congregational Church of America hold services in Vietnamese.
A group of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians runs the Indochinese Community Center which sets up cultural festivals and arranges orientation sessions and health checkups for new refugees.
In addition, the Psychiatric Institute Foundation (PIF) offers classes to aid those refugees who have lived in the United States five years and are now eligible to become U.S. citizens. The PIF classes, given in Vietnamese, Cantonese and English, teach refugees about U.S. history and government, information they will need to pass the oral examination for U.S. citizenship.
Unfortunately, the communications network among refugees in the District sometimes fails, and Indochinese do not always find out about these services and activities.
Minh Tan Hoang, who is enrolled in a PIF class, says she does not know of agencies that provide job services. She has a temporary clerical job, but said, "I don't know how to find a permanent job."
Back in Da Nang, her home town, Hoang worked in her parents' gift shop. "But over here," she says with a note of regret, "I cannot do like that because my language is my problem. In my country," she adds, It is not so hard to find work like it is here."
Even a simple matter like grocery shopping can be a challenge for the refugees in the District. For one thing, Vietnamese grocery stores aren't common in D.C.
Hoang must drive twice a month to the Vietnamese groceries that line Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. There, she buys what the District food shops don't offer -- special Indochinese foods, in bulk. She laughs as she says that every six weeks her shopping basket includes a 25-pound bag of white rice because "every day we cook rice."
Hoang says she would prefer to live in a Vietnamese enclave such as Falls Church. But her husband Chau studies electronics at the University of the District of Columbia, and they wouldn't be able to afford the higher UDC tuition he would have to pay if he were a Virginia resident.
"We feel a little bit lonely because everybody here is American," she says. "Sometimes I go downtown and somebody looks at me. I look at their eyes and feel like they don't like me."
Sighing wistfully, Hoang adds, "If I lived in Falls Church, I would have more Vietnamese friends."