Today, the extended family is scattered across the country. Bernard, who worked for United Airlines for many years, divides his time between Arlington and Atlanta; Rene, who retired from the World Bank last year, has homes in Fairfax and California; and Gabrielle, Albert and Leonard, who worked for years at Lockheed Martin, all live in California.
Now in their 80s, Germaine and Dick live in Gaithersburg. ?Photo by Deborah Jaffe
Dick and Germaine moved from Bethesda to Gaithersburg a few years ago. Although their lives have slowed considerably, Germaine continues to do catering jobs and Dick worked for a time on his photo archive at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Rene, who has returned to Vietnam several times for work, believes the country is much better off than it was in the days after the Americans left, but scars remain. There are many new businesses in the southern part of the unified country. “But North Vietnamese own them all,” he says. “The South Vietnamese are the workers.”
Albert couldn’t bring himself to return to Vietnam until 2011. “I am still angry at what the communists did to my country,” he says while talking with Dick and Germaine from California on speakerphone. “It hurts to see all the soldiers everywhere.”
Germaine, perhaps reacting to her brother’s sadness, tilts her head sideways and grins as if she’s just remembered something. “Albert, when is your birthday?” she asks.
He responds in a loud and proud voice, “I was born on the Fourth of July.”
Dick laughs from the other end of the dining room table: “That’s just about perfect, isn’t it?” n
Behind This Story
Dick and Germaine Swanson’s son Philip graduated in 1981 from Walt Whitman High School, where he and the author, James Michael Causey, became close friends. “In all the years I’ve known him, we’ve rarely talked about his life in Vietnam,” Causey says. “He’s an optimistic, easygoing person, and I don’t think he likes to dwell on the past. In fact, I learned more about his family’s incredible story while researching this article than in our nearly 40 years of friendship.”
At a Glance
A look at Montgomery County’s Vietnamese community 40 years after the end of the war
THE INSPIRING Swanson family story is the exception and not the rule for Vietnamese immigrants in Montgomery County.
The population struggles far more with language barriers, isolation and economic hardship than other Asian groups, says Thomas Tran, executive director of the Association of Vietnamese Americans in Silver Spring. The nonprofit organization opened in 1979, during the massive “Boat People” exodus, when hundreds of thousands of people from southern Vietnam attempted to escape the increasingly harsh treatment of their conquerors. Tran’s brother-in-law died during the exodus.
Misperceptions about Vietnamese people persist in the area, says Diane Vy Nguyen-Vu, Asian liaison and language access coordinator with the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships. “When people talk about how well Asians are doing, they include the Vietnamese with the more successful and long-standing immigrant populations such as the Koreans and Chinese,” Nguyen-Vu says. That’s misleading, she says, because the Vietnamese tend to be less educated and have fewer family roots in the area. Many work in nail salons or other service jobs without benefits such as health insurance, retirement income or vacations.
More than half of Maryland’s Vietnamese population lives in Montgomery County, where a 2010-2012 census survey reported 11,047 Vietnamese speakers. Social services and support are often available, Tran says, but language issues prevent many Vietnamese from taking advantage of them. “I’ve probably helped 500 Vietnamese sign up for Obamacare in the past year,” he says. “They don’t own computers and didn’t know how to enroll.”
County Executive Ike Leggett, who served in the Vietnam War and is active in the local Asian community today, works to help the Vietnamese improve their quality of life, especially in the area of education. “I have a special affinity for the Vietnamese,” Leggett says. “I connect with them in part because of my experience in the country and my knowledge of their struggles, and they simply have a greater need [than other Asian populations].”
It is the seniors who struggle most, Nguyen-Vu says. She believes the problem isn’t getting the attention it deserves because people assume Vietnamese families are tight-knit groups in which elderly members are protected. “That’s not true anymore,” Nguyen-Vu says. “Many live alone. Ninety percent can only speak Vietnamese. They’re one of the most isolated populations in the county.”
James Michael Causey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.