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Communist Flag Flies in the Face of Village Unity

Jeffrey Brody, aa communications professor, teaches "The Vietnamese American Experience" at Cal State Fullerton

One of the major problems of the Vietnam War was that Americans failed to understand the intricacies of Vietnamese society and win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. As evident by the ongoing demonstrations in Little Saigon, it may be some time before Vietnamese immigrants understand the intricacies of American society and become acculturated to the “hearts and minds” of the American people.

Underneath the conflict between a Vietnamese immigrant store owner who desires to display a picture of Ho Chi Minh at his video shop and angry refugees who want the picture torn down lies a clash of cultures. It illustrates the complexities of immigrant life in the United States, and underscores fundamental differences between the Vietnamese and the American ways of life.

To reduce the conflict to a battle over First Amendment rights or a refusal on the part of some Vietnamese to accept the end of the Vietnam War is overly simplistic. Truong Van Tran’s decision to put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh and display the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam strikes at the heart of the Vietnamese emigre community that has established a beachhead in Orange County, some 24 years after the fall of Saigon. More Vietnamese live in Southern California than any other place in the world outside Vietnam.

Tran is not merely putting up a picture of a communist and displaying a flag in his home. He is planting the flag and flaunting the picture at his store in Little Saigon, the symbolic capital of Vietnamese in the United States. The estimated 2,000 businesses in Orange County’s Little Saigon, along with the churches, the temples and the community centers, comprise an ethnic enclave that has become a home away from home for Vietnamese.

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It is possible to live in Little Saigon, never speak English, and have all of one’s basic needs--accounting, business, entertainment, food, medical, legal--taken care of by Vietnamese immigrants. Just as Miami’s Little Havana serves the Cuban community, Little Saigon serves as a locus of Vietnamese life and resembles a Vietnamese village in the United States.

It is the concept of the village as the center of Vietnamese social life that provides the key for understanding what has been occurring in Little Saigon. If Little Saigon indeed functions as a village, then Tran has violated the customs and the traditions of the village by embracing the enemy.

In traditional Vietnam, villages were autonomous social units that had their own codes of conduct and unwritten laws. A Vietnamese adage (Phep Vua Thua Le Lang) says the emperor’s authority stops at the entrance to the village; that is, national law must bow to the customs and traditions of the village.

Furthermore, family comes first for Vietnamese. Children are taught filial devotion and that family harmony takes precedence over individual needs. Within Little Saigon, Vietnamese regard each other as part of an extended family. They group together, just as the Irish, the Italians and the Jews grouped together when they first settled in the United States.

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Tran’s public act of defiance has brought disgrace to the Vietnamese, in their way of thinking. He has broken ranks with his ethnicity, committed a brazen act of individualism and sought protection from the nation state.

Tran’s appeal to the U.S. Constitution and the 1st Amendment rings hollow to the refugees. They have judged Tran by the standards of their community--village and family values--and want the flag and picture removed, regardless of U.S. law.

Tran has asserted his rights as an individual in a nation that prides itself on freedom of expression. But Vietnam has no history of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Vietnamese would face arrest today for displaying a South Vietnamese flag in Ho Chi Minh City.

The protesters and government leaders of Vietnam share similar notions about civil liberties. According to a recent study that surveyed Vietnamese residents of Orange County, they have less tolerance for 1st Amendment rights than most Americans. The study found that 58% of the respondents agreed that communists should be denied free speech and that 94% agreed that the United States has too much freedom of speech.

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It is unlikely that any action taken by the American Civil Liberties Union or any court order will change public opinion in Little Saigon. The refugees possess a different value system.

The tragedy of this entire incident may be that both parties have backed themselves into a corner. There can be no solution that permits either Tran or his opponents to lose face. Saving face is ingrained in Vietnamese culture. If anyone doubts the resoluteness of the Vietnamese, just remember the American experience in Vietnam--our nation’s longest war and first defeat.


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