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The Young Ones: Vietnamese Youth Redefine Their Community

Krystle Nguyen, Rene Nguyen, Bao Le-Huu. Photo: Catherine Welch
Krystle Nguyen, Rene Nguyen, Bao Le-Huu. Photo: Catherine Welch

Forty years ago was the fall of Saigon, marking an end to the Vietnam War. Soon after Central Florida quickly became a magnet for the wave of Vietnamese refugees, creating the state’s largest Vietnamese community. Now as that generation gets older, their children are starting to redefine what it means to be part of Orlando’s Vietnamese community.

Krystle Nguyen sits at a table near the window at the Viet Garden restaurant on Colonial Drive. Ready for lunch, she glances at the menu and orders. “This restaurant Viet Garden, My parents were the first owners of this location restaurant and the restaurant was originally called the Mimosa Café,” said Nguyen.

Her parents came over during the war. They have two very different stories. Her father barely escaped Saigon. He and his three siblings arrived together in the U.S. but were separated. It took him seven years to find them. Her mother was one of eight children. The family left Vietnam the night before the war started. They were rescued at sea by the U.S. military and brought to the states. They settled in Louisiana, working at a fishing dock, peeling shrimp. Her parents found each other at a church event and moved to Daytona to be near Orlando’s growing Vietnamese community.

“My parents and lot of other families a lot of people got separated,” she said. “So I think for their future families and their families now that’s something that they never want their children to experience, they never want to have people become separated from each other.”

The 28-year-old graduated from UCF and now works at Florida Hospital developing corporate partnerships. Growing up, she made friends easily. What wasn’t so easy was explaining to her parents the things American teenagers do, like hanging out at the mall or sleeping over at a friend’s house. “And it took a lot of explaining to my parents that sleeping over is just for fun it’s just like a girl’s night, we just want to watch movies, talk and play games, it’s nothing bad,” she said.

To balance the American influence, her parents enrolled her in a school where she learned how to read and write in Vietnamese. Staying active in her predominantly Vietnamese church also kept Nguyen steeped in the culture. At UCF, she was president of the Vietnamese Student Association and directed a pageant for Vietnamese girls. “The experience I gained from working in this community I’m not sure if I could get that anywhere else. It’s so connected here,” said Nguyen.

At this restaurant near Colonial and Mills, in the heart of Little Vietnam, or what she calls Vietnam Town, the neighborhood feels like home. “My dad used to tell my mom that sometimes he wishes he was back in Viet because when he used to live downtown he could walk outside and say hi to his friends and know everyone around the street. And I don’t know if I can ever get that sense of feeling here. So when I’m in Vietnam Town, if I walk somewhere I’ll see a friend and just connect with them,” she said.

Rene Nguyen Carves His Own Path
Rene Nguyen is 32 years old, he manages and bartends at Hanson’s Shoe Repair. It’s a quiet little pocket bar in the heart of downtown. It’s so hip that it doesn’t have a sign. You have to know it’s there. This was not where Nguyen’s mom thought her son would land. “It was hard for her to accept at first, because you went to college, got a degree, now you’re a bartender,” he said.

Nguyen graduated from UCF with a degree in marketing, worked a corporate office job, he then decided to follow his passion. His mom understands that he has to find his own way. But it took her time to get there.

Her journey started on a makeshift boat right after the fall of Saigon. First she lived in Portland. Then she had Rene, and as a single mom she moved to the Melbourne area near family.

“For someone to be a single parent to raise a kid and to come over here and to not know the language and to make a living and buy her own house and work for the same company for thirty years, that’s incredible in my opinion,” said Nguyen.

He grew up in a working class neighborhood, one where you were either black or white. He was neither, and through sports he found his place in both worlds. Nguyen worked to please his mom, but he wanted to be as American as possible. A balancing act in a home that still performs many of the old rituals. Nguyen takes part in these family traditions, but hasn’t brought them into his own home. “I don’t know, to be completely honest. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was somewhat resistant to some of that culture growing up,” he said. “I appreciate it now but so much time has passed where I did not embrace some of those traditions.”

As for his role in the larger Vietnamese community, he sees himself more as an outlier. “I am someone who is trying to embrace that culture that perhaps I pushed away when I was younger. I have the upmost respect for my family and what they’ve done for me to be here now, and I think that comes with maturity,” said Nguyen.

Bao Le-Huu Balances Both Cultures
Just on the edge of Little Vietnam, Bao Le-Huu orders a drink at one of his favorite bars, Little Indies. He’s a music writer for Orlando Weekly, so there’s a good chance of finding him here or next door at Will’s Pub.

The music writing is his night job. During the day the 41-year-old directs an architecture firm. Le-Huu has a bit of a different story. He was born in Saigon. So he and his parents learned at the same time what it means to be American, “we all probably took slightly different paths but sort of learned it together as we were going through it,” said Le-Huu.

It helped that his father made friends with American GI’s fighting in the war. “So for example, my father grew up on rock and roll, they went to these private little parties that were illegal, post-curfew parties but were all dancing to American rock and roll,” he said.

Growing up he admits to some misguided attempts at fitting in, then decided the best way to be American was to surround himself with the diversity this country offers. That’s not to say he’s turned his back on his culture. He speaks Vietnamese with his parents. And they help him perform rituals on the Lunar New Year spreading incense and delivering fruit and dirt as an offering.

“I actually don’t know the significance of all of those things,” said Le-Huu, “I’ll probably do on my own the fruit, but to put the incense and the dirt, I wouldn’t know the particulars of all of that and I don’t know if on my own I would have done it.”

The Next Generation Seeks Its Own Path
Whether they fully embraced their community or pushed against it, each of them – Le-Huu, Rene Nguyen and Krystle Nguyen – struggled to chart their own course, to dismiss the expectations both from the outside and especially from the inside, from the family, where the meaning of success is specific: be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a pharmacist.

What this younger new generation is learning, and teaching their parents is that there are many ways in this country to measure a life.
“I think that the older generation should have faith in the moral fiber that they’ve stitched with their children. That’s something that despite all the things I’ve tried to outrun, that my parents have tried to impress upon me, there are certain very valuable things that shaped my core,” said Le-Huu.

And those values will carry on and shape the coming generations of Vietnamese Americans who call Orlando home.