Cộng đồng người Việt hải ngoại /The Future of Vietnamese Youth Overseas

The Future of Vietnamese Youth Overseas Nguyen Xuan Vinh, PhD, DSc, Dec 14, 2003

Nhân dịp kỷ niệm năm thứ 25 môn Văn Hóa Việt Nam được liên tục giảng dạy tại San Jose City College và Evergreen Valley College vào chiều Chủ Nhật 7--12--2003 tại San Jose, trong buổi tiệc họp mặt với sự hiện diện của một số đông giới chức lãnh đạo nền Đại Học cộng đồng của thành phố San Jose, Giáo Sư Toàn Phong Nguyễn Xuân Vinh đã là vị diễn giả với đề tài «The Future of Vietnamese Youth Overseas».

Trong những thập niên qua ở hải ngoại, GS Nguyễn Xuân Vinh đã nhiều lần nói chuyện về sự trưởng thành của giới trẻ Việt Nam và giá trị của nền Văn Hóa Việt Nam tại nhiều Đại Học trên thế giới. Chúng tôi đăng lại bài «The Future of Vietnamese Youth Overseas» vì nhận thấy bài nói chuyện của GS Nguyễn Xuân Vinh sẽ có ảnh hưởng tốt với cộng đồng người Việt hải ngoại nếu được giới trẻ, sinh viên học sinh lưu ý và chuyển tới các Hội Đồng giáo dục ở các Đại Học để yêu cầu cho các môn Văn Hóa Việt Nam mỗi ngày được giảng dạy thêm trong học trình.

I am very much honored to be here today, to attend the Reunion Banquet on the 25th Anniversary of Vietnamese Culture Course at San Jose City College and Evergreen Valley College. In preparing my notes, I expect my audience to be mostly Vietnamese, young Vietnamese. But by a quick survey of the attendance, I am very pleased and grateful to see many distinguished guests and realize that my topic for discussion also attracts senior people and friends from other ethnic groups. This occasion brings my memory back to several years ago, on the 7th day of May, 1990, when I had the honor to be among a group of Asian Americans invited by President George Bush to a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House for a presidential recognition of the significant contributions of Asian Americans to the progress of this nation we call the United States of America. That day, the President signed the declaration that from then on, in this country, the month of May is designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

If you are talking about diversity, I can assure you that it was fully reflected in the gathering of the personalities in attendance that day at the White House. The guests at the ceremony were all Asians, or rather Asian Americans, very capable and famous Asian Americans, with their ancestors coming from all parts of Asia and the Pacific islands. Their areas of expertise span the whole spectrum of human knowledge and of physical and spiritual capability and talent.

To mention a few examples, in the armed forces I met Major General William S. Chen, the surgeon general of the USAF, Rear Admiral Ming E. Chang, now retired, but at that time the commander of all surface fleet in the Pacific. In sciences, if you sat close to the front row, you can see Nobelist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar from India, at that time a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago and whose name was given to the space telescope Chandra, and of course there was physicist Michio Kaku from Japan. Dr. David Ho, the Time Magazine Person of the Year a few years back, I believe that at that time he was still too busy with his research to find a cure for AIDS to attend the function, but there was the presence of cellist Yo--Yo Ma, architect I. M. Pei and actress Nancy Kwan and several other well known people in various disciplines.

The politicians were also well represented, from US senator Daniel K. Inouye from Hawaii to congressman Norman Y. Mineta who became Transportation Secretary in the new administration and whose name is now attached forever to our City International Airport. The first Asian American woman to have Cabinet rank, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao, at that time a sub--cabinet officer, was also among the Washingtonians invited to the ceremony.

It took Asian Americans over 200 years for their hard labor and their significant contributions in building this nation to be recognized. Should we say that because of the lobbying effort of the personalities I just mention that the President signed that important declaration, a day in May, nearly fourteen years ago? No, I beg to disagree. In Asia, we use to say that: »a single swallow doesn't make spring time». It is rather the effort of all of us, a little bit at a time, patiently over the years, over two hundreds years, to layout, to construct, layer by layer, the trust of this nation, and enhance it. It is the monumental work of all of us which made it imperative for our laws makers to officially acknowledge the achievements of Asian Americans. And it is rather long overdue.

How do the Vietnamese immigrants fit into that picture? If I remember correctly, at that time, the highest ranked Vietnamese American in the US Government is a senior member in the Office of Bilingual and Minorities Affairs in the Department of Education. What is the reason for that poor representation? Well, the answer is simple.

The Vietnamese community in the US is the newest member of the Asian American Family. I remember reading a U.S. Census report which stated that between the years 1800 to 1973, in a span of 173 years, only some 6,000 Vietnamese nationals settled in America. But thing has changed significantly during the last twenty eight years. In 1975, after the fall of South Vietnam to the communists, in a sudden exodus, nearly one million Vietnamese left their native land and more than half have come to this country.

According to the 1990 census, the number of Vietnamese Americans settled in the U.S. was 614,547, and from an official report, the immigration figure for Vietnamese Americans in 1993 alone were about 59,614. Following this trend, from the latest figures in the US 2000 census, the Vietnamese American population in the U.S. is estimated to be at 1.1 million, and ranks as the fourth largest Asian group, after the Chinese Americans at 2.4 million, Filipino Americans at 1.9 million and Indo--Americans at 1.7 million. Hence, this Vietnamese population is larger than the population of some American states and it is obviously a significant constituency in American society. According to the 1990 census, among people of Vietnamese background 58.9% had finished high school and 15.9% had college degrees. Furthermore, the census also showed that of the Vietnamese American population, 10.7% were professionals and 20.8% were in the labor force. These numbers compare well with other foreign--born groups, and we expect some improvement in the year 2000 census.

Yes, definitely we do have significant improvement during the last decade. If you follow the national news, a young Vietnamese American, Georgetown University Law professor Dinh Viet has served for two years as Assistant US Attorney General. As soon as he took office, after that his nomination by President Bush has been approved by the US Senate, we saw him with the US Attorney General travelling to several hot spots, East and West of the country. In his capacity as a high ranking official in the Justice Department, he is eager to serve this nation. As a matter of fact, Professor Dinh was the author of the Patriot Act, a much needed piece of legislation in our fight against international terrorism. Another young Vietnamese, new immigrant Duong Viet Quoc, also has served for a period of time as a White House Coordinator for Asian--Pacific Islanders affairs. Besides Vietnamese American successes in the private sector, in public service we now have many judges and lawyers at various levels, professors at outstanding universities, medical directors at big hospitals and so on.. .. We have seen Vietnamese Americans elected as city council members. In a period of ten years, for the Vietnamese community, not only that we have realized some progress, but we have made a big leap forward.

In 1992, at a conference on the shortage of professionals in Canada, Mr. William Winegard, the then Canadian minister for science and technology, said: »We won't have a competitive society if we don't have the people to make it competitive». Well, I humbly submit that if we take a look at the achievements of the United States in any field of endeavors we will find outstanding contributions from Vietnamese Americans.

Statistics from the recent U.S. Census show that Vietnamese immigrants help to make this society more competitive. In the past twenty years, as a professor at a research university, the University of Michigan, I have had the opportunity to visit several parts of this country in attending technical conferences, giving lectures at various universities. During those trips, I have been in contact with the Vietnamese communities thriving in large metropolitan areas and talked to our younger generation and observed a steady progress in our resettlement as new refugees in the United States. In a recent interview, I have been asked by a young Vietnamese scientist, with a PhD in physics from Yale University, if there is anyone or anything that I consider to be my greatest inspiration.

There were many great patriots, scholars, artists .. .. in the Vietnamese history whom I admire. I construct for myself a mosaic of heroes, learning one aspect from one person while idolizing the virtue of another one. And in recent years, in the twilight of my career as a scientist and educator, I look at our young generation as a source of inspiration. Some of the achievements of our young generation are quite extraordinary. For instance, there are more than 300 Vietnamese--American inventors with three or more U.S. patents. One of them, Mr. Doan Trung, a young engineer and vice president at Micron Corporation, in Boise, Idaho, has 132 patents. Medicine is another area where young Vietnamese--Americans excel. Across the United States, from Harvard University to the University of Chicago and to the University of California at San Francisco where some of the top medical schools are located, we see Vietnamese--American students donning white uniforms and graduating with honors.

A conservative estimate places the number of Vietnamese physicians practicing in this country at close to 4200. This means that we have on the average nearly 4 doctors for every 1000 Vietnamese--Americans, a ratio otherwise attained only in some wealthy localities. Some students go on to teach medicine. We now have several prominent Vietnamese professors in American medical schools. One of them, Dr. Nghiem Dao Dai, who initiated an innovative procedure for pancreatic transplantation in patients with Type I diabetes is a frequent contributor to leading medical journals in the U.S. and Canada.

In the Washington D.C. area, there is an annual listing of the top physicians as voted by their colleagues. They are the people fellow doctors would send their relatives to if they were to become sick. You can see a Vietnamese name, Dr. Trinh Duc Phuong, in the sub--specialty of infectious diseases. He has made the list four years running. His brother is on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School. I recently learned of the nomination of Dr. Michelle Nguyen, a fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, for membership on the International Committee of the prestigious American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. In Long Beach, California, the medical clinic and laboratory of Dr. Truong Dung, a world renown specialist in Parkinson disease, has a long list of patients coming from foreign countries to seek treatment .

We came from a country where half a century ago the standard means of locomotion was the bicycle. And yet, our youngsters have accepted the challenge of learning to fly supersonic aircraft. One of them, Lieutenant Tran Nhu Hoang graduated at the top of his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He went on to Harvard Medical School after a stage as a Rhodes scholar in England. He is now an Air Force surgeon in San Antonio, Texas. His wife is also a Vietnamese medical doctor. Many of us have seen on national television the graduation ceremonies at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Out of the Class 1999 consisting of 737 midshipmen, a Vietnamese girl, Nguyen Thi Cam Van ranked second in the graduating class. I have also met several senior officers among our second generation Vietnamese--Americans serving in the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

Many of us have opted to teach at universities and professional schools as a way of propagating knowledge and, at the same time, in accordance with Asian tradition, giving back what we have received with our education. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, at the University of Paris for example, and at Harvard University, Vietnamese scholars are listed on the faculty rosters. Those of us who subscribe to the ideal of scholarship also believe in the service to humanity. It is now not surprising to see young Vietnamse scholars lecturing at prestigious institutions around the world.

Some of our younger professionals were also in the national news. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Nguyen Tue holds the record of receiving five bachelor degrees ranging from Physics and Mathematics to Electrical Engineering before settling in a Master’s degree and then a Ph.D. degree in Nuclear Engineering. These gave him a total of seven degrees from MIT in seven years. In May 1996, we saw on national television the selection of a young medical graduate, Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Quang, as ABC’s Person of the Week. He overcame critical brain damage after an automobile accident to graduate with distinction from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. Using his own experience, he is now a devoted physician in medical rehabilitation. In sports, we can mention the extraordinary achievement of Nguyen Dat at Texas A & M University, winner of the 1998 Lombardi trophy as the best defensive lineman in football in the nation. He is now playing for the Dallas Cowboys, and in the football season, it is always a pleasure for us to see him on television with the distinctive Vietnamese name Nguyen printed in his uniform.

In the Arts, Vietnamese living abroad and at home, we all feel proud of the success of Tony Bui, the young Director of the movie «Three Seasons», winner of the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival. On July 21, 1999, the National Public Radio in Washington D.C. had a special program on their «Talk of the Nation» to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway. If you are one of the millions American devotees who listen to the program, you wouldn’t believe that a young Vietnamese scholar had a hand in the writing of the script, and that he was also the one who provided the voice--over for Papa Hemingway in the studio rendition of the few passages relating to the famous writer and journalist’s stay in Paris in the late twenties .

The few examples I have mentioned were among those abounding within the Vietnamese communities I have visited. The success of our resettlement, especially in encouraging our children to receive an education and be trained as professionals is in part due to an excellent family tradition of togetherness. In a paper published in the February 1992 issue of Scientific American by Drs. Caplan, Choy and Whitmore from the University of Michigan, the scholastic success of the Indo--Chinese children is credited to the support from their parents.

As immigrants coming from Vietnam, and then, as Vietnamese Americans, we have come a long way. In parallel with other ethnic groups, our group has first gone through a sustained growth and has achieved much successes especially with our second generation. But I think it is not yet time for us to celebrate. Although at the beginning of this century, we have seen Asian Americans in high places, in the Government, in high echelons of corporate leadership, disturbing news still surfaces. Recently, the Committee of 100, a group aiming to bring the Chinese American perspective to the mainstream, undertook a national survey of attitudes toward Asian Americans. Among those surveyed, the study found: 25 percent indicated strong negative attitudes and stereotypes towards Asian Americans, 24 percent disapproved of inter--racial marriage with Asians and Pacific Islanders, and 23 percent said they would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian American presidential candidate.

The survey was the main topic of discussion during the organization’s annual national convention held in Washington D.C. a few years back. Many participants agreed that long--held suspicions and negative feelings about Asian community continue --and may be even on the rise. At the meeting, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said to attendees: «The myth of the perpetual foreigner is alive and well.» In a brief remark he said: «The experiences of Japanese Americans during the second World War, the so--called Oriental exclusion acts of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, and the alien land laws were all based on the belief that we, as Americans of Asian Pacific ancestry, are so different that we can never be fully American». Mineta said he was shocked to learn that 46 percent of those polled by the Committee of 100 believed that Americans of Chinese ancestry would readily pass on information to the Chinese government. With the release of this new poll, the Secretary of Transportation warned: «no single ethnic group within our community can afford to sit on the sidelines in this fight. Very few non--Asian Americans make the distinction between the dozens of ethnic groups within our community, and that comes as no surprise». And in an address to mark the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the year 2001, Mineta again repeated the prejudice Asian Americans have faced over the years, including laws that limited immigration, refusal of citizenship and denial of land ownership. In his remark he said that Asian Americans have broken down the legal barriers to equality but still have a long way to go to win their fellow Americans’ hearts and minds.

Now returning to our community, the Vietnamese American community, being the fourth largest Asian group in the US, we have our equal share of responsibility to win the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans and make us truly an equal partner in building this democratic society. Let us pause for a moment, to look at ourselves as Vietnamese Americans, and to figure out how can we shake this legacy of somehow being less than 100 percent Americans. A few years ago, I was invited to give the keynote address at the annual celebration of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the Headquarters of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the theme for the year’s program was «Dedication, Dignity and Distinction.» I have found these three D’s particularly appropriate as the guiding lights for us to win the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans.

Since coming to this country, slightly over a quarter of a century ago, we have brought our own customs, and traditions from our ancestral homeland to enrich the wonderful multi--ethnic culture of this nation, known and respected in every corner of the world as the United States of America. Here, we are seen as Vietnamese Americans. We treasure that distinction, because it caries with it the reputation of a new but self respected and economically successful community. As Vietnamese Americans living in the state of California, we are particularly fortunate because we have the understanding and the support of the people in his part of the country. Here, in the Spring of 1980, San Jose City College was the first institution in the United States to offer the ethnic studies course «Social Science 40: Introduction to Vietnamese culture» with 3.0 units transferable to four--year colleges and universities in California. After interviewing the instructor of the new couse, reporter John Askins wrote on San Jose Mercury News, January 1980: «He's bridging gap between two worlds». We thank you for that article, and your continuing support for the course because this type of course will help our children retaining their identity and be proud of it. But we can assure you that in this society, we are not an isolated group. It is true that we are distinct, but we do not stand alone because our group is a component, and each one of us is a member of a greater society.

We keep reminding our children that in this country we can have access to everything, and although sometimes we are not treated as equals, but we should never forget that we have our equal share of responsibility in shouldering the foundation of democracy. Although we are distinct, may--be because of our physical appearance, and/or our cultural heritage, we are not a separate group because we are part of this united nation. We care, love and respect everybody, and although we maintain our dignity, we never think of ourselves as the best, the number one. To us, one is a lonely number.

That is the message we get accross to our students. We want companionship, we want friendship, and we encourge our children to work hard and progress, step by step, each day closer to the vision of our dream to reach true acceptance as Americans in this society. To progress, we must develop our inner power, and that inner power is our dedication to our duty as a professional and a good citizen of a great nation. We may reach the heights of professional achievement, but devoid of love and appreciation of the people around us, of recognition by our peers and fellow citizens, our individual successes will mean absolutely nothing if we have no one to share them with.

The three D’s I mentioned, namely Dedication, Dignity and Distinction, are truly the guiding lights for success of the Vietnamese Youth, not only in this country but the world over. It is certainly a great honor for me to present to you some of my views on the challenges facing us as Vietnamese Americans in the United States at the start of the third millenium . It is also a rare opportunity for me to have a large group of young Vietnamese in the audience . Therefore, I would like to ask your permission to use a few minutes in my concluding remark to address them directly.

My dear Vietnamese friends.

As a former aviator, I consider our journey across life as the flight of an aircraft across a vast ocean. Sometimes we are favored by a tail wind which gives us faster ground speed. But sometimes on other occasions, we may face a head wind with adverse effects. Your parents who are first generation immigrants, are the pioneers and together they have faced many obstacles. They have weathered down a lot of them. Without your parents sacrifices and sufferings you wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow and prosper in this country and become as you are today. Now as you are progressing along your journey, already smoothed out by your predecessors, there is still bumpy weather ahead, called clear turbulence. Just as the aircraft has to get to the other side of the ocean because it has passed the point of no return, when you run into turbulent weather, it is necessary to slow down, but make every effort to be in control of your course. In real life, when you run into adversities, such as in the case of social injustice, you should keep your heads high, your chins up, and then with physical endurance, technical expertise, and with spiritual strength, by dedication and dignity, you shall join force together to overcome adversity and fulfill your dream of equal opportunity, equal rights and equal responsibility. This past century has seen the collapse of the world communism in Eastern European countries.

At the beginning of a new century, with the spread of democracy in Asia, the remnants of communism in Vietnam, our native country, will certainly fall into oblivion. Be prepared to assist the reconstruction of that emerging and democratic country, the place where your parents were born.

Nguyen Xuan Vinh