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Baltic Independence Gives Vietnamese in Exile Bittersweet Joy

I was never so envious in my life. It was a Saturday, and I found myself writing a story about a school that teaches Lithuanian descendants the language and culture of their heritage. School officials, students and their parents were excited about the newly gained independence of the Baltic states, and they were telling me how many of them plan to visit Lithuania and offer their help to the newly independent nations.

Their excitement was contagious, and I was happy for them. But questions kept screaming in my mind that concerned another country.

When will freedom come to Vietnam, which fell under total Communist control in 1975? When will I, who left Saigon that year as an 8-year-old, be able to return to help rebuild my birthplace? Or, if the dream does not come true in my lifetime, will I have to bequeath that mission to my own children?

People of Lithuanian descent told me that much of their lives has revolved all these years around keeping their heritage alive as they advocated U.S. recognition of the “old country.”

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While the dislocated Vietnamese community has been waiting for either a revolution in our native land or a normalization of diplomatic ties between Washington and Hanoi, I have also tried to soak up the Vietnamese language and culture from my elders and in turn pass it on to those younger than me.

As an Arizona resident whose family made annual trips to Little Saigon in Westminster, I used to spend much of my money on Vietnamese books. These road trips also gave my parents a chance to talk about the old days and, while my four younger siblings slept, me a chance to question them about Vietnam’s history and the present regime.

From 1976 until my graduation from Arizona State University in 1988, I belonged to Vietnamese traditional dance groups that performed for the Vietnamese community’s celebrations and at international festivals.

In high school, I contributed short stories and poems to a seasonal Vietnamese literary magazine that was published by the Vietnamese Students Assn., of which I was a member when I started college. I was club president my senior year.

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And just as 19-year-old Tara Barauskas of La Mirada teaches courses about Lithuania at St. Casimir’s Lithuanian Catholic Church in Los Angeles, I taught Vietnamese on Saturdays while attending college. The Vietnamese Students Assn. paid for such teaching supplies as grammar books; pupils brought their own notebooks and pencils, and the rooms were generously loaned by community colleges in Phoenix and Mesa so that we could serve people from the northern and southern areas of Maricopa County.

Most weekends, the 9 a.m.-to-noon classes seemed to last forever, both for the students and the “teachers,” who were mostly college students worrying about exams, like myself. But things were more lively when we prepared our students to perform children’s traditional dances for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, or Tet Trung Thu, the Vietnamese mid-autumn festival.

Watching students of the Lithuanian school dance in a circle to a Lithuanian folk song last week, my eyes reddened as I smiled at their joyfulness.

They could return to the land of their ancestors and help in the rebuilding of a nation. Parents who were born in the “old country” can guide their American-born offspring around their childhood haunts.

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Together, they will be able to gaze at historical monuments and landmarks that might have been lauded in songs and folk tales passed down from the generations.

But the Vietnamese in the United States will have to wait.

TRADITIONAL CELEBRATION: Vietnamese hold Tet Trung Thu, the mid-autumn festival, in Garden Grove. B7


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