…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.“