Girl Scout Troop Bridges 2 Cultures : Vietnamese Teen-Agers Slowly Ease Into New Home’s More Open Society

Times Staff Writer

Just as Girl Scouts do anywhere in America, these 15 girls wear badges embossed with the official scouting emblem. They hold up three fingers, vow to help others and to serve God and country. And just as their fellow Scouts do, they sell lots of cookies.

But they also play the dan tranh (a string instrument), make cha gio (egg rolls) and perform the mua non (a hat dance).

Welcome to Troop 2588 of Canoga Park, the first all-Vietnamese Girl Scout chapter in Los Angeles County, whose leader had to assure skittish parents that she would conduct meetings mostly in Vietnamese before they would allow their daughters to join.

The troop of 11- to 19-year-olds started three months ago, more than a year after the San Fernando Valley Girl Scout Council planted the idea with Hao Doan, coordinator of the Southeast Asian Community Center in Van Nuys.

Wooing of Parents

It took some wooing of parents to get their blessings, mostly because Vietnamese families tend to be protective of their daughters, troop leader Huong-Mai Elliott said.

The troop--along with another Vietnamese troop in Orange County--is one of a small number of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. chapters nationwide formed for specific ethnic groups. Such troops have their critics, who say that one purpose of the Girl Scouts is to expose youths to diverse viewpoints, backgrounds and cultures.


Doan said that he just wanted to help serve the Valley’s about 6,000 Vietnamese youths and groom leaders for the area’s growing Vietnamese population. Doan said he sees the Valley as becoming a major home for the Vietnamese, as Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley are now.

“The Vietnamese family system is very strong,” Doan said. “But to survive in America, we need skills to work with others beyond the family--leadership skills, organizing skills.”

Elliott, who lived in Vietnam and Singapore before coming to the United States in 1979, said the Canoga Park chapter will be a valuable bridge between the American and Vietnamese cultures.

Try as they might, Vietnamese parents cannot insulate and control their children in America as they did in their homeland, Elliott said. Social and family traditions in Vietnam keep daughters submissive, she said.

“The ones that don’t listen to their parents get laughed at and are shamed. The children might not be so curious because everyone’s the same, everybody is like everybody else.”

But here, they see American classmates dating and performing fewer chores at home, Elliott said. And parental authority is challenged when the parents who speak Vietnamese in the home must turn to their children to deal with the English-speaking world.

“So if they’re to be exposed, you may as well expose them in the right way,” Elliott said.

That’s where Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. steps in.

The familiar scouting pledge teaches girls to help others, be honest, cheerful and respectful.

And when Troop 2588 met recently at Canoga Park High School, the girls recited that promise--in English, along with the Pledge of Allegiance--before turning to their native language to chat about cookie sales, an upcoming Disneyland outing and an invitation to a fashion show.

A play and Vietnamese folk dances were among activities the girls were planning for an appearance this month at the Southeast Asian Community Center.

Thanh Nguyen, 15, who was designated playwright, explained the plot this way:

“It’ll be about Girls Scouts helping with family problems. It will be very dramatic, they’ll cry. One girl--she’s like New Wave and stuff--her parents don’t let her do anything. One time, her parents are not home, and her bad friend calls and asks her to go to a party. She’s scared, but her bad friend makes her go.”

When the parents discover that their daughter has disobeyed them, they lock her out of the house. “So she’s walking around all night. She sees one of her good friends, who’s a Girl Scout.” The scout pleads the girl’s case to the parents, who relent. The girl, of course, joins the Scouts.

The plot is not entirely fictional. Nguyen, who came to the United States in 1987, said that her mother “doesn’t let me go out a lot, but she understands that if she’s so strict, I might get bad, I might sneak out.”

Coaxing the parents to let their daughters join the troop took plenty of good will. Elliott, a volunteer at the Southeast Asian Community Center, had helped some of the adults with translations or trips to doctors’ offices. In that way, she eventually won them over.

“I said to parents that here they cannot protect the child by keeping them at home. If you keep them at home, they might be frustrated, leave home and end up on the streets, on drugs, with boys or gangs,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s visit to high school senior Kim Vu’s father persuaded him to let her join, albeit with the warning, “ ‘Always remember you’re Vietnamese,’ ” Vu recalls.

“I have so much responsibility,” said Vu, who lives in Northridge. In addition to household chores, she takes care of five younger brothers and sisters and is trying to get ready for college.

Running a Vietnamese troop has its unusual demands. The girls’ membership forms had to be translated from English so parents could read and sign them. Elliott generally speaks Vietnamese at meetings, because she doesn’t want to upset the parents. “I don’t want them to say, ‘Huong-Mai is Americanizing my daughter.’ ”

And she proceeds cautiously in introducing social events, believing that it’s too early to propose a troop slumber party to the parents.

Troop 2588 reflects the changing nature of the 77-year-old Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., which is constantly fighting its image as an organization for white, middle-class girls who sell cookies and go camping, said Barbara Smith, a Girl Scouts’ spokeswoman in New York City.

Fifteen percent of the 2.3 million Girl Scouts nationwide are minorities, and the organization’s goal is to increase that to 17% by September, Smith said. In the Valley, more than 25%--or 2,320--of Girl Scout members are minorities, said Kathy Andersen, a Valley Scout field executive.

Most of these girls are in mixed troops. Troops of members from just one ethnic background, such as Elliott’s, are exceptions among the estimated 184,000 troops nationwide, Smith said.

In addition to Troop 2588 and Orange County’s all-Vietnamese troop, there is an all-Armenian troop in the Valley, a Laotian Hmong troop in Minnesota and a Haitian chapter in Florida.

Other Los Angeles-area Girl Scout officials said that they prefer to encourage ethnic diversity in their troops.

“We don’t try to intentionally set up all-one-ethnic troops,” said Julia Weiman, executive director of the Greater Long Beach Girl Scout Council.

“It’s one of the things that’s so good about Girl Scouts--you get to meet girls and families of so many different backgrounds, heritages and languages,” said Mina Post, a spokeswoman at the Angeles Council, which covers Los Angeles and some western and northern Los Angeles County suburbs.

But many Troop 2588 members said they treasure the time they spend together chatting in Vietnamese and planning to make native dishes such as cha gio to sell near Vietnamese shops.

“At my age, I learn fast the American way. I have lots of American friends,” said Loan Hong, 16. “But I just don’t want to forget where I came from.”

Gerry Zelenka, who supervises Orange County’s troop of 13 Vietnamese, said her girls meet for language and culture lessons as well as badge work and traditional scouting activities.

“The ideal is to have girls mainstreamed,” Zelenka said. “However, it does meet the need at this time because the parents so much want the girls to retain some knowledge of their culture.”

Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. has no policy on whether a troop should be tailored to a specific ethnic group, Smith said.

But San Fernando Valley Girl Scout Council officials stressed that Troop 2588 is not isolated because the girls are learning scouting values and mores that are universal.

“They’re selling Girl Scout cookies. What can be more traditional than that?” asked Robert Dyer, executive director of the Valley council.

Most important, Elliott said, the girls are learning to “increase their voices” without necessarily Americanizing them.

And a stronger voice is what the Valley’s growing population of 15,000 Vietnamese needs, particularly since it is scattered from Canoga Park to Glendale and is less visible as a result, Doan said.

There are some traditions that Elliott would rather see fade away.

“There’s a Vietnamese saying: A girl is like a raindrop. The lucky one will fall on the roof of the palace, the unlucky one will fall in a puddle of mud. That’s the fate of women.”

But here, “I’d like them to decide their fate,” Elliott said.

“If it doesn’t work, they can fix it. Silent suffering in Vietnam is viewed as courage and maturity. But here, you need to be more assertive.

“If you just study and don’t talk or ask questions, teachers think you don’t care,” Elliott said. “And you can’t just be shy and smile and get a job. You have to speak up.”