Group tries to bridge Viet families' generational and cultural gap

During an after-school program at Boat People SOS in Pennsauken, Vinnie Feng, 17, helps 10-year-old Bao Bui with his homework. The agency, founded in 1980, has expanded its mission in New Jersey.
During an after-school program at Boat People SOS in Pennsauken, Vinnie Feng, 17, helps 10-year-old Bao Bui with his homework. The agency, founded in 1980, has expanded its mission in New Jersey. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 26, 2011

Thu Pham could see the argument in her cramped Pennsauken office was starting to get out of hand.

A couple who recently emigrated from South Vietnam were discussing their 17-year-old son. The father, 73, complained that the boy never left the computer and was disobedient, recounting how he had once said, "This is America. You can't tell me what to do."

As he spoke, his wife grew angry.

"He's the same, like the Americans," she said forcefully. "It's not like Vietnam. They're smart."

When the couple returned to their English class next door, Pham, a coordinator with Boat People SOS, smiled.

"I was worried," she said. "But there are a lot of parents having these problems."

A small storefront in a neighborhood of medical offices and Latin American restaurants, Boat People SOS's Pennsauken branch has become a destination for Vietnamese immigrants and their American-raised children trying to bridge the generational and cultural gap.

Founded in 1980, the national organization was established primarily to help refugees and political dissidents who fled Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973.

But the Pennsauken branch has now expanded into social services. It runs language classes - English for parents, Vietnamese for children - as well as an after-school program focused on Vietnamese culture and a youth group for teenagers interested in discussing issues facing South Jersey's Vietnamese American community, which is centered in Pennsauken.

Pham, who came to New Jersey in 1998, said language was a source of tension in many families because the majority of parents speak little English and their children's Vietnamese is often weak. Add in the long hours that parents often work and their children's fast assimilation, and disagreements frequently find their way into Boat People's offices.

"Most of the kids were born here, and they don't know the Vietnamese culture," she said. "If they know the Vietnamese culture, they can better understand the parents."

Such tension is fairly typical in Vietnamese American communities around the country, and to a certain degree in immigrant families at large, said Phu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The parents are in an unfamiliar society. There are a lot of things here they don't understand fully, and they feel like they don't have full control," she said. "And the children have the pressure to act like an American teenager growing up. They would like to have their independence in a society that values individual character, and that's where they come into conflict with the parents."

One afternoon last week, a group of teenage volunteers filed into Boat People's offices after classes at Pennsauken High School.

Dianne Le, 16, who was born in the United States, said many of her classmates' parents have high expectations for their children in terms of college and jobs. That sometimes conflicts with the teens' desire to have a typical high school experience, she said.

But Le said she and her mother had found a middle ground. Her mother tries to speak English with Le, but their household runs as it would in Vietnam, with rice and noodles staples at the dinner table.

"We take our shoes off," Le said and laughed.

Efforts to bring a sense of Vietnam to South Jersey have proved popular. Last year, 200 people turned out when staff organized a Moon Festival celebration, complete with traditional sweet cakes and children bearing colorful lanterns.

The summer camp, which includes a trip to a Buddhist temple and get-togethers with other Vietnamese American children, expects 25 campers this year - though fund-raising to pay counselors is slow and enrollment might need to be cut.

Nga Khong, a mother of two who left Vietnam in 1999, sends her sons to the Boat People office when she's not working at a nearby nursing home.

"I want them to know where they came from," she said.

But the desire to retain a sense of what it means to be Vietnamese in the next generation is not universal.

Hao Nguyen recounted how her two grown children, both of whom moved to the United States at age 10, have very different attitudes toward their homeland.

Her son, who recently graduated from Rutgers, speaks Vietnamese and tends to socialize with other Asians. But her daughter, as Nguyen put it, is completely "American."

Asked whether that bothered her, Nguyen shook her head.

"She works at Google. She makes six figures," she smiled.


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

 

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