Hai Ho of Syracuse, N.Y., went to the University of Maryland yesterday to play soccer, to beat the California team, perhaps to take home a silver or gold medal.
But Ho, a 19-year-old computer science student, knows that his presence at the North American Vietnamese Olympics, being staged on the College Park campus this week, reflects more than just participation in a sporting event. The gathering, which has drawn more than 2,000 Vietnamese American athletes from the United States and Canada, is an annual reunion of sorts for Ho and others forced from their homeland.
"When we come here, we get the feeling that we still have the closeness of our people, of everybody who has been through the same struggle," said Ho, who left Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, eight years ago. "I am an American now, but the rest of my family -- six brothers and sisters -- are still back there. And I can never forget where I came from."
At the opening ceremonies at Cole Field House yesterday, the strength of that double culture was obvious. Signs marking seats reserved for the athletes were written in Vietnamese. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was followed by the Vietnamese national anthem. There were American flags and Canadian flags, but the dominant flag was a bright-yellow banner with three horizontal red stripes -- the flag of the former country of South Vietnam.
"It'll always be my flag," said Quang Vo, a draftsman from Silver Spring who brought his wife and two young sons to the games.
The North American Vietnamese Olympics had its beginnings in 1971 when some Vietnamese college students living in Montreal decided to organize a sporting competition as a gesture of unity. A hundred athletes participated.
The games were suspended in 1974 "because of the political situation back home," and they resumed in 1977, said Thu Bui, a University of Virginia student who is the event's treasurer.
"After that, it took on a different meaning," Bui said. "It became just about the main opportunity for the Vietnamese on the North American continent to get together and to help keep our culture."
The annual event, held this year for the first time in the Washington area, depends entirely on private fund raising, Bui said.
As late as April of this year, "there was nothing in our bank account," she said, but dances and fashion shows and contributions from Vietnamese business executives in this country supplied the $50,000 necessary to stage the games.
Most of the athletes are college students or young professionals who came to the United States as children. Many live in Southern California, Texas, Philadelphia or the Washington area; this year, Vermont and Minnesota also sent teams to compete in the eight sporting events, which include tennis, table tennis, swimming, soccer, badminton and basketball.
While the competition is serious, the athletes said, the qualifications for participation do not approach those of the international Olympics.
"It's really for anybody," a track and field star from Philadelphia said of the Vietnamese games. "You must have a willingness to practice, but it really isn't about the world's greatest athletes."
"As long as you can play, you can do pretty good," said Tuan Nguyen, 25, an electronics engineer who is a member of Virginia's volleyball team.
Besides sports, two dances are planned "featuring live Vietnamese ballroom music and popular western fare," according to the program. Participants at a youth conference today are to discuss "becoming more active contributors to our new cultures and communities." An exhibit features images of Vietnamese culture and community life.
"We couldn't have come here to this country without our sponsors, without the moral support of the people here," said Khiet Dang, the games' chairman. "We want to show to our American counterparts that what they've done for us in the past, 12 years ago, was the right thing."