How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Vietnamese Americans in Southern California react to death of General Vo Nguyen Giap

Xuan Hieu (L), 78, a Dien Bien Phu veter

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Xuan Hieu (L), 78, a Dien Bien Phu veteran, looks at a portrait of Vietnam's legendary general, Vo Nguyen Giap, displayed at an official photo exhibition on his life in Hanoi on August 25, 2011. General Giap, who drove French and U.S. forces out of Vietnam, died Friday.

The Vietnamese general who defeated first the French and then the Americans during the Vietnam war died Friday in Hanoi

General Vo Nguyen Giap was renowned as one of the most skilled military leaders of recent times. But Vietnamese immigrants who fled their native country as a result of the North Vietnamese victory under his leadership do not remember him fondly.

News spread quickly Friday about the general's death in Southern California's Vietnamese community, where his memory triggers emotions.

"I don't think they like him much here, because, you know, they are mostly anti-communist," said Nick Ut, a Vietnamese-born photojournalist with the Associated Press who lives in Los Angeles.

Ut covered the war and left around the time Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. He met General Giap a couple of times in 1980 and 2000 while on assignment in Vietnam. He says he found the general to be pleasant. But then again, he was a journalist on the job.

Other first-generation Vietnamese immigrants contacted weren't eager to talk about him, and there are reasons for this, said Ivan Small, a postdoctoral researcher in UC-Irvine's anthropology department.

Small studies the Vietnamese diaspora and is the son of a Vietnamese immigrant who left several years before Saigon fell. Even decades after leaving Vietnam, personal memories of oppression remain vivid for those who fled communist rule, he said.

"My mother who left before 1975 does not feel strongly anti-communist, but my uncle (her brother) who had to wait until 1986 to escape Vietnam and is very much against the current regime," Small wrote in an email. " In political conversations between the two of them he'll sometimes say 'you weren't there, you don't know.'"

Even among some younger Vietnamese Americans who grew up in refugee families, there's ambivalence.  More disconnected from the war than their parents, they are still familiar with stories of the past.
 
"I have two perspectives," said Garden Grove school board member Bao Nguyen, who was born in a  refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in the U.S. as an infant.

"One, as an American growing up here in the United States looking at history, General Giap, you can't deny he was a very talented man," he said. "On the other hand, as a Vietnamese American refugee, growing up in a refugee family in a refugee community, he was someone who fought on the other side. He was a communist leader. So that can't be denied either."
 
In his later years, General Giap took a more moderate stance, advocating for better relations with the U.S. and economic reforms in Vietnam.

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