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THE NEW ALL--AMERICANS : Immigrants Came, Saw and Conquered a Different Life With the Help of Sports

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Like it or not, Hung Nguyen must live with what he has become.

A pioneer.

He must live with it because of what he is.

An athlete. A Southeast Asian athlete--Nguyen is Vietnamese--playing at an American high school.

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Nguyen, whose family immigrated to America six years ago, played on the Bolsa Grande basketball team the past four seasons. He was the junior varsity’s most valuable player as a sophomore and a starting guard on the varsity his junior and senior seasons.

Six feet tall and wiry at 140 pounds, he’s popular at school--with friends of varying racial backgrounds--and is president of the Vietnamese Club. Bolsa Grande (enrollment 1,581) has the highest percentage (28.4%) of Asian students of any Orange County high school, according to Alan Trudell, Public Information Officer of the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Uncomfortable with the label, Nguyen begrudgingly admits he is a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to high school sports and his countrymen.

“Sports helped me feel more a part of the school, more a part of America,” he said. “I’ve made lots of friends through sports. I wasn’t the first to play, but I guess others from my country might see what it has done for me and want it, too.”

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Orange County has one of the largest populations of Southeast Asians in the United States. According to Loc Ngyen, director of the Orange County chapter of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, it has the largest concentration of Vietnamese--95,000--with the majority living in Garden Grove, Santa Ana or Westminster.

Eighteen percent of high school students in the Garden Grove Unified School District are Asian, Trudell said. Many of those students speak English as a second language, he said.

But more of Nguyen’s contemporaries are participating in high school athletics. Successes such as Nguyen’s have given many the confidence to go out for teams. Their appearance on the field and in the gym is having an immediate effect on team performances:

-The Santiago soccer team, which had won six games over the previous four seasons, placed second in the Garden Grove League and earned a Southern Section playoff berth with seven players from Southeast Asia.

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-The Los Amigos boys’ tennis team won its first Garden Grove League title last season with eight Vietnamese players.

League titles aside, the emergence of Southeast Asian athletes has pleased school administrators, eager for these students to feel at home. It has given many coaches a new enthusiasm about their roles. And many times it has broken down stereotypes and cultural walls.

But their successes often are tempered by the fact that sports is not always accepted by their parents or their cultures.

Adolescence is difficult enough, without ancestry bearing down on your shoulders.

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But for many Southeast Asians, the decision to participate in high school athletics is a significant cultural step.

Their parents came in pursuit of an American Dream that placed education at a premium. Unlike the American notion of a well-rounded student--in mind and body--they often disdain sports as a frivolous hindrance to their children’s ultimate success, which they believe lies in academics.

“The values are different,” said Dr. Jonathan Brower, a Cal State Fullerton professor of sociology. “No matter what group you talk about, immigrant parents are usually going to want their children to cling to the ways of their former culture. To the Southeast Asian, this means study. Sports are thought to be frivolous.

“But their children find it fun to participate in sports. They make friends. Athletics can be a valuable part of socializing for a young person.”

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Said Donald Wise, Bolsa Grande principal: “We encourage all kids, and especially those who are foreign-born, to get involved in sports. We feel it brings the kids closer together as a school, and makes the kids feel good about themselves.

“If you’re sitting in a classroom and two kids are speaking a foreign language, someone’s going to feel left out and that’s when bad feelings can start. But put the same kids on a sports field and you’ll see the barriers in language and culture break down. Everyone has the same needs, really. They want to belong; they want to be liked. Sports makes that easier for them.”

Basketball always was easy for Hung Nguyen. It’s easy when you love something.

Tony Lipold, Bolsa Grande coach, describes Nguyen as a gym rat. “A kid who will spend four, five, six hours a day just hustling up games,” he said. “He loves it. Plays all the time.”

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When Hung entered Bolsa Grande, though, he had promised his mother that good grades in high school came before anything else. The family (his father remains in Vietnam) wants Hung to go to college to eventually become an engineer.

He maintained a 4.0 grade point average his first two years at Bolsa Grande. But by his senior year that had slumped to a 3.6.

Understandable to most, it was unacceptable to the Nguyens, particularly his older brothers, who told Hung he would have to quit the team to concentrate on his studies.

From November to the end of December, Hung returned home late each night, explaining that his job at a local auto parts store had kept him.

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The story held until Bolsa Grande won the Canyon basketball tournament in late December. One of Hung’s brothers read a newspaper account of the game with Hung’s name in it.

“I had been playing on the team the whole time,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t want to tell them because I know they don’t want me to. They weren’t too happy when they found out.”

Nguyen completed the season and is being encouraged by Lipold to continue basketball at UC San Diego.

“I’ve talked to people there about him and they seem very interested,” Lipold said. “I know he could play there. But he’s going to UC Riverside (and will not play basketball) because of a promise he made to his family.”

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The promise was that he would study engineering. Nguyen said it will be difficult to leave basketball behind but, “They let me play in high school, I promised them I would do this for them.”

But won’t he miss basketball?

He pauses, then, says softly: “Yes.”

This is the lot of the “Marginal Man,” a sociological term for a person with one foot in the old culture, and the other in the new.

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“It divides the person’s loyalties,” Brower said. “Marginal Man wants to honor the ways of his old culture, but he is usually more attracted by the ways of the new culture. It can be quite a dilemma for a young person.”

Difficulties? What difficulties?

Wise said that if he hears any of his coaches complain about problems with athletes who speak English as a second language, well, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

“If a coach comes here wanting to only work with the 6-4 blond kid with blue eyes, he better go somewhere else,” Wise said.

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Actually, most coaches like, and many prefer, the experience of dealing with athletes who are new to the U.S.. They say it gives them added purpose and reinforces their reasons for coaching.

“You can really make a difference in a lot of these kids’ lives,” said Scott Penner, Los Amigos tennis coach. “You’re not just baby-sitting kids. You help them adjust. They trust you, because you’ve helped them. That’s a tremendous thing. And not something you find at every school.”

Which is all very fine, but how do you tell a 15-year-old Vietnamese kid to slice his backhand?

“There are hand signals, movements,” Penner said. “Sports is movement, really, not words. You can act out most of the things you want the kid to do.”

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Ferdinand Rivera takes the same tact at La Quinta, where he coaches badminton. A three-time Southern Section singles champion at Pacifica--he won his final title last year as a senior--Rivera has four Southeast Asian players on his team who have difficulty with English.

“We just kind of make our way through it,” he said. “Sports seems to have a language all its own. You can grunt or say no or show them. They understand.”


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