More than two dozen second-generation Vietnamese Americans turned out for a Garden Grove City Council meeting Tuesday night, seeking to combat the message of some protestors who are angry with Mayor Bao Nguyen for refusing to sign a letter to the city of Riverside over its sister city relationship with the south Vietnamese city of Can Tho.
Nguyen has drawn heated criticism for declining to sign the letter, citing his belief that Garden Grove should “not tell another American city what to do.”
The sister city relationship has sparked outrage among Vietnamese activists across Southern California over what they see as endorsing an oppressive regime, not only for atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, but also because the country routinely violates human rights in the present day.
At the last council meeting, Nguyen’s detractors, mostly middle-aged and older refugees, filled the audience with signs like “Bao Nguyen Distorts The Truth” and “Bao Nguyen Does Not Represent Us.”
This time, the chambers were full of second-generation Vietnamese, most of whom had supported Nguyen during the campaign and came equipped with their own signs reading “We Shall Heal.”
Several of the speakers came to the meeting after Nguyen called them personally or through a Facebook invitation organized by Nguyen’s campaign manager, Hugh Tra.
“How does it make you feel when the moment you step off the plane in Vietnam to try and do something good in the world, to be immediately labeled by someone back home as a traitor? Or to be silenced when you have an opinion different from the older generation. What these people are doing is fear mongering and their way of thinking is insidious and needs to be stopped,” wrote Tra in the event description.
“They are a vocal minority over a silent majority that are bullying our city leaders to get what they want and their demands are hurting us, the second generation Vietnamese Americans,” he continues.
Some community leaders, who are now calling for Nguyen to be booted from office, returned to the council chambers for a third time, asking the mayor to respond to questions about whether he is pro-communist based on statements he made in an interview with OC Weekly.
“We want to know why you didn’t answer, even a word, to any of the questions we respectfully addressed to you. Maybe you ignore our questions, because you despise or look down on your people, or [because] you didn’t care of our concerns,” said Laura Tran.
Julie Vo, one of Nguyen’s supporters, said other aspects of the community, beyond its views on the Vietnamese government, need to be at the forefront of the political conversation.
Vo, who helped organize the Facebook event, cited statistics like poverty rates and educational attainment among Vietnamese Americans, which, along with other Southeast Asian ethnicities, are typically lower than that of other Asian American groups.
“I’m a young Vietnamese person, and our community also struggles. Not every student is a top achiever, not every person can afford to eat, not every elderly person has someone to take care of them,” said Vo. “Mayor Bao Nguyen is a good mayor that cares about this city.”
They also pointed to a rift in political focus between the generations.
“If we continue to accuse our leaders of being communist sympathizers, we negate the problems in our community now,” said Vincent Tran.
“This argument within the Vietnamese community stifles progress. It denies the second generation of being able to…go past the arguments of the first generation, and learn the problems within their own community.”
Lumpee Le, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and now lives in Los Angeles, spoke of his disagreements with his parents over what he views as different means to the same political end, a democratic and unified Vietnam.
“Focusing so much energy on pain and suffering will only lead to more pain and suffering…the Vietnam that my parents want to remember and have come back is not existent anymore,” Le said.
“The Vietnam my parents know has died…how can we let go as a people? To let go we need to be more flexible.”
“No way, no way,” repeated Laura Tran from the crowd, reacting to Le’s comments.
“[My mother] wants the same thing that I do – which is a unified Vietnam – but she wants to get to it by resisting and fighting. And I think we can get to the same unified Vietnam by forgiving and understanding,” Le continued.
Council member Phat Bui, who has led efforts against Riverside’s sister city relationship, said the issue wasn’t a matter of old grudges and traumas, but human rights abuses that continue to affect Garden Grove residents and Vietnamese people today.
Bui described himself as part of the “1.5 generation” of refugees, given that he immigrated at the age of 17 and has spent most of his adult life in America.
“I’m willing to forgive the Vietnamese Communist government for what they have done, but the reason that I speak out against the sister relationship is…that it may give the dictator, a brutal government, an excuse to say, ‘Hey, we are okay. We are entering a sister relationship with a very good city in USA. So we must be doing okay in terms of freedoms, in terms of human rights,’” Bui said.
He compared not sending a protest letter to turning a blind eye if a nearby city entered a relationship with a group “similar to the KKK.”
Council member Chris Phan, who was an infant when the war ended and spent his childhood in Vietnam, jokingly called himself part of the “1.75 generation.”
“It’s hard to be part of the 1.75 generation who lives on both sides and say one side is wrong and one side is right. We all make great points…we’re both right, it’s just a matter of what lens you’re looking from,” Phan said.
Nguyen had the last word on the issue, ending more than an hour of public comments, which mostly focused on his decision not to sign the letter, by calling the controversy a “done deal” because the letter already had been sent without his signature.
“I was born five years after the war – I don’t have a relationship with my parents’ home country. Garden Grove is my homeland, and I think it’s important that we focus on what’s happening here,” Nguyen said.