National Geographic : 2003 Mar
OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA shift. It's a good place to talk and remember," Su says through my interpreter, Khanh Tang, a young Vietnamese-American police officer. Su arrived in Oklahoma City with the second wave of Vietnamese refu gees in 1991. Most of the people who now live in Little Saigon came about the same time. The first wave, who were placed here by Christian refugee agencies in the '70s and '80s, have mostly moved to the suburbs. "The rich move out and poor stay in town," Tang says. Two nights later in his patrol car, Tang inches along the small side streets of Little Saigon, lined with simple frame bungalows. He flashes his spot light into the yards, most tidy, a few with backyard junk. "I wouldn't want to raise my son around here when there's drug deal ing, prostitution, shooting just down the street," Tang says, referring to a seedy neighborhood nearby. Even closer is one of the most exclusive square miles in Oklahoma. The possibility of either encroaching on Little Saigon has spurred community leaders to build up the neighborhood's civic institutions. When the golden dome was in danger of being razed, a com mittee of longtime Oklahomans launched a "save the dome" campaign. Their effort seemed hopeless until Irene Lam, who is one of several thou sand Chinese in the city, offered to buy it to create an Asian cultural center. "Asian people are always looking for public space to have community meetings, and there was nothing here," she says, taking me on a tour of the building. "Now we can have cultural displays, music, dance, there's so much open space." A shrewd businesswoman, Lam quickly lined up enough retail busi nesses that rents would easily pay off the building's 1.1-million-dollar asking price. Lam also understood the cultural and political value of sav ing this icon of Oklahoma life: "We could say it's a way for Asian people to give something back to Oklahoma City for the good fortune they have had here." Giving back. Holding on. Moving up. These are old issues among immigrants to the United States. Part of the attraction of Oklahoma City is its scale. Orange County, California, where the first flood of refugees arrived after the fall of Saigon, now is home to 135,000 Vietnamese; nearly as many live in greater San Jose. Housing prices in both are higher and urban ten sions more severe. Still, the sprawl that is Oklahoma City casts families and friends apart. Loan Nguyen has watched her three oldest children move away, something that would be unthinkable in Vietnam. The children badger her and Thuong to move out of Little Saigon, to join them in the suburbs away from the "crime," but the parents say no. "Our idea is anywhere crime can hap pen," Loan says. "Soon we will be too old, and our children not stay with us. When we are alone, it is very conve nient to walk to Vietnamese stores. It is more comfortable to be alone here." D There's more on 73106 at nationalgeographic.com/ ngm/0303. "I pledge allegiance .. "' is coming a little easier for a hundred Vietnamese children learning English at the Asian Summer Program. Although the largest waves of Vietnam ese immigrants arrived years ago, new families still come with hopes of thriving in the heartland.