With relatively few Orange County colleges offering any instruction in Vietnamese language, everyone from history students to city officials is clamoring for training that officials say is in short supply in a region with the nation's largest Vietnamese population.
Only two of the county's 10 community colleges have consistently offered Vietnamese language classes, school officials say.
UC Irvine plans to help meet the demand for language instruction by offering two courses in Vietnamese next summer as part of its continuing education program.
"The classes have been a long time in coming and we're very happy to offer them soon," said Melvin Hall, dean of UCI's Extension program.
Officials are working on marketing the courses, which will be offered at the main campus, he said. But Vietnamese community leaders and educators say filling them should not be a problem.
History students researching the Vietnam War, entrepreneurs preparing for normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, and young Vietnamese Americans seeking to learn the language of their heritage are just some of the people interested in studying Vietnamese.
Some city officials also say they need more Vietnamese speakers on their payrolls, especially in law enforcement.
"We need more Vietnamese speakers, more Spanish speakers, more Korean speakers to fully exercise community policing," said Vicky Berg, personnel administrator for the city of Garden Grove, which is recruiting Vietnamese American police officers.
For the past 10 years, those people have found introductory Vietnamese courses at Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, and intermediate-level instruction at Golden West College in Huntington Beach.
To many in the Vietnamese community, UCI's plans to teach their mother tongue is welcome news. Yet they still say that the county--home to the largest population of Vietnamese residents outside their native land--should have more college courses specializing in Vietnamese studies.
There are at least 72,000 Vietnamese residents countywide, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.
"The schools are getting there, but they're moving too slow," said Frances Thuy Nguyen, an adviser for The Union of Vietnamese Students Assns. of Southern California, a group based in Westminster. "They should have had more classes a long time ago."
"What is culture here? Culture here is a combination of everything," she said. "If you don't know where you came from, how can you explain yourself to others, how can you find out what's good in your background to contribute to society?"
Golden West was the first in the county to fulfill Vietnamese Americans' desire for studies of their heritage, after several Vietnamese community leaders lobbied administrators there a decade ago.
The campus is near Little Saigon in Westminster and for years has had a big Vietnamese student population.
"We saw that we needed to introduce our culture to the mainstream society so there'll be less misunderstandings," said Phuc Bui, who teaches two intermediate Vietnamese classes at Golden West at night. "And we thought we should begin with our language."
His classes have about 40 students each, with waiting lists of nearly 50 more at the beginning of each semester, he said.
About 15% of his students are non-Vietnamese. The average age is 24, and a few in the more advanced of the two classes are in their 50s or 60s.
"Class discussions sometime get very interesting," Bui said. "The young Vietnamese, who have vague knowledge about their roots, exchange ideas with the older Vietnamese, who may have a hard time dealing with modern society. My class gives them a chance to see each other's points of view."
Unlike the students in Bui's classrooms, only 5% of Son Kim Vo's pupils at Coastline are Vietnamese.
Vo came to Coastline eight years ago, when the college's regional dean for central Orange County, Ken Iglesias, hired her to teach beginning Vietnamese two nights a week.
"He saw the number and the strength in the Vietnamese community," Vo said. "It was because of his foresight that I am here. And the school has remained supportive of my classes."
There is always a waiting list of about 20 for her courses, she said.
"Some take it because they're in international business, others because their spouses are Vietnamese," Vo said.
"There are always a few American senior citizens who just want to learn more about our culture," she continued. "And I had one woman, pregnant at the time, who drove in from Ventura County every week to take my class. I am very much moved by them."
Next summer, UCI will offer one class of basic Vietnamese and another at the intermediate level. Hall, the dean of the Extension program, said he hopes to have an advanced course by fall.
The continuing education program also plans to offer other subjects of interest to the Southeast Asian population in general, the dean said.
"These classes came out of our focus group meetings with the community since last summer," Hall said. "They told us what they need. That's our reason for being. It's to serve the entire community."
Currently, UCI offers one class about the Vietnamese American experience.
The course was the only survivor of an experimental project at UCI in the 1989-90 school year.
That year, Duong Pham, a teacher of history and Vietnamese, came to UCI through the Student Recommended Faculty Program to teach six classes: reading and writing Vietnamese, Vietnamese literature, Vietnamese history, Southeast Asian history, Vietnamese culture, and the Vietnamese American experience.
"There were anywhere from 50 to 100 for each class," Pham said. "The waiting lists for each class would have about 30 more. They would sit on the floor so they could stay."
Now his Vietnamese American Experience course has about 120 students, he said.
"And that's after turning away many of them. I felt very bad," Pham said. "My (assistants) had to do it by lottery at one point."