…and City Heights became a refugee resettlement center
By Anna Daniels
The two forces that have indisputably shaped City Height’s trajectory since the 1960s are the adoption of the Mid-City Plan in 1965 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Mid-City Plan, with its emphasis on increased density as the way to support business, shaped the built environment that you see today. The fall of Saigon and the subsequent establishment of San Diego and City Heights as a refugee resettlement center forever changed the social environment. City Heights continues to exist as a refugee resettlement center, becoming a sometimes permanent and sometimes temporary home for displaced people from all over the world. But first, it was Vietnamese refugees.
The resettlement of Vietnamese in San Diego after the fall of Saigon roughly corresponds to my own relocation to San Diego’s inner city community of North Park in 1978. Like millions of other people, primarily young people in the country, I had protested the Vietnam War throughout the 60s and and early 70s. Vietnam Vets were schoolmates at the University of Pittsburgh, but neither they nor returning family members wanted to talk much about this blood soaked war. US military forays were re-played nightly on the television. The Time cover image of a little girl running screaming and naked from a napalm attack in June 1972 was seared into my own memory where it is has resided ever since. But it wasn’t until I moved to San Diego that I actually met anyone who was Vietnamese.
There are over 33,000 Vietnamese in the city of San Diego today. Megan Burks’ speakcityheights article on the topic of the 1975 airlift notes that “[O]ver six months, some 50,000 refugees passed through Camp Pendleton” where they remained for an average of six months until they were placed in American homes or able to establish themselves independently. I have always had Vietnamese neighbors in San Diego. In many respects they have become an unremarkable presence and a ubiquitous one in City Heights with its myriad restaurants advertising Pho (soup) and small storefronts offering services to the Vietnamese community.
Much like the returning Vietnam Vets in the 60s and early 70s, my neighbors have shared little about their personal experiences in Vietnam and the circumstances surrounding their departure. The demands of learning a new language and finding employment had kept them and subsequent waves of vastly different refugee groups focused on the present. The medical skills and teaching credentials in Vietnam often did not translate to commensurate employment here. My neighbor Clay, who had been a nurse in Vietnam, spent his days here pumping gas. He and his wife somehow managed to buy the home next door to us. When I researched the prior occupants of my own home, I came across a Vietnamese translator named Van-Than Duc who resided here in the late 70s. I tried to locate Mr. Duc in anticipation of writing this article but have come up empty handed.
Erin Wilson, a friend of mine and a library staff member at University Heights, was in middle school when the airlift occurred in 1975. She describes what it was like to suddenly find a new group of students who appeared to have been beamed down from the opposite side of the planet onto the school campus.
During the Fall of Saigon, I was blissfully unaware of most of the things happening on the other side of the country. My family didn’t have anybody who served in the military on either my mom’s or my dad’s side. Living in San Diego, you’d think I’d know someone on the block or around the corner, but I honestly don’t remember anything about Vietnam other than what I saw on the nightly news reports. But my parents were going through divorce at the end of the Vietnam War, so I guess the family unit had other things in mind.
In June of 1976 I graduated from sixth grade from a very suburban, read: very white, elementary school in Kearny Mesa. During the summer, I started summer school at my new school, Montgomery Jr High in Linda Vista. It was quite a culture shock going from a school that was about 98% white to a school that was fairly equally divided between whites, blacks & Latinos. I loved the diversity and found myself being thrilled to see and learn about these different cultures.
One group I did NOT get to learn about – even though they went to my junior high school AND eventually, my high school – were the steadily growing community of what we – on a good day – called “the boat people”. I am ashamed to say that there were more derogatory names for them in school. The name that I recall being thrown around was “yangs”. These were the newly arrived Vietnamese, Laotian & Cambodian people who had been placed in housing in the Linda Vista area.
Most of them were in different classes than me. I don’t mean to say that we were in separate classes, like a judgmental thing, I mean LITERALLY we were in different classes. Most of their classes were ESL (English as a Second Language) and completely separate from the rest of the school.
Everything about this invisible group of people was separate. They wore clothes that were obviously given to them from charity groups, we never saw them at lunch time (well, we were teenagers and probably obsessed with ourselves and our friends at the time, so they probably were right in front of our faces) From the time I entered seventh grade at Montgomery Jr High until the time I graduated twelfth grade at Kearny High School, our paths hardly ever crossed. There never seemed to be much of an attempt on getting the students to intermingle which seems like such a lost opportunity in retrospect.
The initial Vietnamese refugee population could not have possibly been prepared for what awaited them in San Diego. San Diego residents were likewise unprepared to accept and assimilate these newcomers. Those were socially wrenching times in which Southeast Asian refugees bore the brunt of a war that had not been completely understood and reconciled within our own American national consciousness. A case can be made that we have still not completely understood the ramifications of our participation in that war.
The recent media coverage of the fall of Saigon has been disorientating for me. Little Saigon exists a few blocks away from my home. It has become difficult to square the experience of sipping an avocado smoothy while listening to the conversations in English and Vietnamese around me on topics seemingly far removed from the past. This has left me with an odd sense of urgency to re-remember what has been swallowed up over the past forty years. I spent a weekend watching youtube footage of the fall of Saigon and commentary and interviews at the time.
There it was–what I needed to remember. Henry Kissinger’s placid face intoning the reason for cutting off the airlift of the last 400 or so souls who still remained in the American embassy, awaiting the promised helicopters that never arrived.
I can say with certainty that the dreams of the Vietnamese refugees who live among us, and the dreams of returning Vietnam Vets are different than those of war criminal Henry Kissinger, who once opined “Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets.”
Don’t miss Frank Gormlie’s post today on the OB Rag “The Connection between the OB Rag and the Viet Nam War.“
One of the big ironies of ironies is that in my own 20 year Navy career (May 1986 to May 2006) I met MANY Vietnamese transplants who had joined. In fact the very first time I myself ever met someone who was actually from Viet Nam (as opposed to an American of Vietnamese decent) was a uniformed ship mate. What makes this more interesting is when I reported to my first ship (USS Robison DDG-120), in a crew of 350 we had about 14 crew members who were from Vietnam and all of them were children who lived through this.
Oops. DDG-12, not 120.
bob dorn says
Vietnam was the last war that we all — draft dodgers, hippies, infantry, sailors, students, airmen, warhawks and chickenhawks and moms and dads — had to live through, and we still don’t really know why.
bob dorn says
… and I started out to say thank you, Anna Daniels, for this respectful and understanding and very difficult piece of writing, which included this:
“The demands of learning a new language and finding employment had kept them (the Vietnamese immigrants) and subsequent waves of vastly different refugee groups focused on the present.”
Maybe we’ll come to grips with our own present with more of this kind of understanding.
Such a well-written piece. When you say: “my neighbors have shared little about their personal experiences in Vietnam and the circumstances surrounding their departure,” this has been my experience also.
I have always wondered and also asked what the majority of Vietnamese living in Vietnam think of Americans today, what the common feeling from Vietnamese immigrants is about Americans and their role in the war, and then the details of the Fall of Saigon.
A hard topic, but I am glad someone is finally broaching it.
Jim Bliesner says
In many ways the resettlement of the Vietnamese to City Heights resurrected this neighborhood from its very apparent downward slide into ghettohood. There were many vacant storefronts on University and El Cajon before and seriously downtrodden streetscapes before the arrival. Within months vacant housing and commercial properties blossomed with new customers and products. One of the most stalwart members of the newly formed City Heights CDC and the newly formed University Ave Business Improvement District owned a great Vietnamese Restaurant on Fairmount that offered a dramatic escape from the few downtrodden restaurants serving eggs and bacon. Going out to eat became an exotic international experiment. And not a cent of money from the local government to do it all. Of course it took a major adjustments in stereotypes for an antiwar vet to assimilate this new world because everyone knew the new arrivals had been on the US side in the war. But it began a new process of the whole neighborhood learning how to see new people from new war torn countries that continues to this day and actually marks the neighborhood as a distinctive model of multi cultural assimilation and dialogue.
While I agree with you that the Viatnamese transplant helped bring some revival to CH, I don’t think they were so much pro US side of the war so much as they were not on the pro North Vietnames. That and they were (and are) very grateful to the US for letting them in and staring a new life.
Anna Daniels says
You are right Jim about the Vietnamese community infusing a vibrant economic and social life into City Heights during a period in which it was on the decline. I believe the restaurant you allude to was A Dong. Made the best squid dish that I’ve ever eaten. It was around Fairmount and University.
We asked Price/City Links to incorporate A Dong and other family owned ethnic restaurants into the Urban Village with no success. We lost a number of restaurants to redevelopment– Nicolosi’s and a Chinese restaurant on 40th street with “Dragon” in the name. National chains went into the Urban Village and the Vietnamese restaurants, markets and services continued to expand along University and El Cajon and were soon joined by other ethnic groups. City Heights residents may not have a lot of money but the unique nature of the community means that much of the money we do spend is local.
To be clear, I’m am NOT saying we had any right to be there in the first place.
Jay Powell says
“We will need everyone to rebuild our country”. This was the response by a North Vietnamese counterpart as related by Retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, US Army to him when he inquired through back channels “what is going to happen after the fall of Saigon, won’t there will be a blood-bath?”. Herrington was a Captain in US Army Intelligence and was one of the last of the US force to leave the Embassy on April 30, 1975.
He related this story along with other extraordinary responses and observations on the war as part of a panel accompanying a screening of a portion of the movie, “Last Days in Vietnam” on board the USS Midway Museum on April 25th.
He allowed as to how those that were South Vietnamese military and government officials were subjected to “education camps” over the next several years. But no “blood bath”. They were to be part of rebuilding “their country”. Many left Vietnam after being “reeducated”, some of whom settled in City Heights in the 80’s.
One, a retired Colonel, Sa Phung worked for the City Heights Community Development Corporation in the 1990’s as a Resident Manager. I was privileged and honored to be invited with my wife to an annual evening event with the local Vietnamese community by him and his wife during that period. It was as if we had stepped into a scene from the movie Indochine. Graceful, respectful, forgiving.
Yes a lot to learn from those new Americans.
I can not help but note the approach of the Vietnamese in rebuilding their country is a stark contrast to the slaughter that continues in Iraq and adjacent nations which were destroyed and/or destabilized by the US invasion in 2003.
Move to the future and live in the present.