Swept into the Background: Scholars Say That Distrust of Government Officials by Vietnamese Hurricane Evacuees May Have Had Its Roots in the Black Community

Article excerpt

The entire world saw the images of Black New Orleans residents left homeless, jobless and helpless by the arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The pictures and stories dominated mainstream news outlets for weeks.

What hasn't been widely publicized, however, are the Katrina-related ordeals of Vietnamese Americans, another socio-economically disadvantaged population along the Gulf Coast. While many Blacks sought shelter from rising floodwaters at the New Orleans

Superdome, many Vietnamese residents hurried to Houston, home of the largest Vietnamese community in the South. And while Black survivors sought refuge at mammoth shelters like Houston's Astrodome, Vietnamese evacuees instead looked for help from their own. The location of choice for many was a Houston shopping center of mostly Asian-owned businesses. In the days and weeks after Katrina, the parking lot of the popular public meeting place morphed into an impromptu staging area. According to reports, some evacuees slept in their cars for several days before community leaders arrived and referred them to Vietnamese temples, churches and families willing to house them. Houston residents showed up at the shopping strip with donations of food, clothes and cash. Evacuees who had already found refuge in the city returned to the shopping center to learn the latest flood-related news.

Scholars find it not at all surprising that so many Vietnamese, who repeatedly fled turmoil and persecution in their native country, bypassed official channels during the Katrina crisis. The reasons are complex. Yet they illustrate the commonalities Vietnamese share with other minority populations. They also show how two races can enjoy cooperative, interdependent relationships with each other yet simultaneously struggle with hostilities and tension.

A COMPLEX HISTORY

According to the 2000 Census, there are more than 1.1 million Vietnamese Americans nationwide. Southern California is home to more than 230,000, making it the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Perhaps not surprisingly, the single largest community, in Orange County, Calif., is just an hour away from Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base where thousands of Vietnamese refugees were housed in camps after the fall of Saigon in 1975. More than 24,000 Vietnamese live in Louisiana and made up the majority of New Orleans' Asian American population. Many of those Vietnamese have gained professional visibility in the fishing and shrimping industry, often facing hostility from other Americans in the process. In nearby Galveston, Texas, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated against and intimidated Vietnamese fishermen until court orders in the early 1980s stopped them.

Nationally, many Vietnamese moved from the refugee camps to urban, working-class areas, where their neighbors were more often Black and Hispanic than White, Japanese or Chinese. So over the years, Blacks have influenced Vietnamese American life more than Whites, scholars say. Vietnamese youth embraced Black hip-hop culture before most of mainstream America did. Performance poet Bao Phi, for instance, has earned fame in slam competitions with works drawn partly from growing up in a Black neighborhood in Minneapolis.

Vietnamese for years have carved out their living with the help of other minorities, says Dr. Thu-Huong Nguyenvo, an assistant professor in the Asian languages and culture department at the University of California, Los Angeles. For instance, Vietnamese restauranteurs in Los Angeles often use Asian vendors and suppliers, but rely on Hispanics--who make up one in three Californians--to wash dishes and bus tables, she says. Some restauranteurs buy produce from Mexican farmers. While it's been a stable business model for years, the practice is laced with inequalities, because dishwashers and other laborers are typically low-paid.

"These ethnic communities are intimately linked, with relationships of solidarity mixed with tension," Nguyen-vo says. …