Get local news delivered straight to your phone
On Election Day afternoon, as Washingtonians were trekking to the polling booth to chose the next president, dozens of the District’s Vietnamese children were making a pilgrimage of a different sort. Walking from Lincoln Middle School, across Irving Street past La Casa shelter, up 14th Street NW past the Giant and the Way of the Cross Bookstore, they finished their journey at the door of the Bacon Funeral Home.
Inside, the funeral parlor was already crowded. The room was stuffy and the air thick with incense. The students passed through the haze with trepidation to pay their respects to 13-year-old Hang Nguyen, a student at Lincoln who’d been in the U.S. a brief four months. Elevated on a platform, surrounded by flowers and drawings of the Buddha, Hang’s body was draped with a simple white sheet that spoke of innocence and peace. Only the blue bruises peeking through the heavy mortician’s makeup on his smooth cheekbones hinted that Hang’s had been a violent death.
Vietnamese women were doubled over before the boy’s body, wailing inconsolably. Men placed offerings of grapefruit and other foodstuffs on a simple altar festooned with red candles, incense sticks, and little cups of Sprite. People took many pictures. The kids from Hang’s school were polite, respectful, but oddly stoic as they sat silently behind their elders. Suddenly, a wave of panic washed over the rows of seated children as Hang’s mother, Nguoi Tran, collapsed in her chair in front of them. Her head dropped to her chest and her spine went slack; friends jumped to her aid. They wiped Nguoi’s unconscious face with oil and fanned her with their hands. A man with a video camera shined a hard light on Nguoi’s small, limp body as men carried her away from the altar and placed her on a row of vinyl chairs near an open door.
Nguoi had stopped eating three days earlier, shortly after Hang’s death. On Nov. 2, she had come home from a birthday party and discovered the door to her apartment unlocked. Her son spent his free time locked tightly inside, and her husband was working late, so the open door immediately signaled trouble. Nguoi called Hang’s name three times and got no response. As she crept into the tiny efficiency apartment, Nguoi saw Hang’s underwear on the floor. Following a trail of small clothes to the bathroom, she found her son’s lifeless, partially naked body in the bathtub. She started wailing, the haunting sound echoing through the building’s desolate pink hallways. Police later determined that Hang had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and then strangled with some kind of rope.
Hang’s family had lived in fear of crime since coming to Mount Pleasant. Their friends had warned them, and they had seen the shades of evil lurking in the neighborhood’s dark corners. They had been careful, instructing their young son in the dangers of strangers in their new home. They never imagined that evil could come disguised in the form of a friend.
For the Nguyens, life in America brimmed with sorrow and irony. After surviving years of war, prison camps, near-starvation, 10 years of Communist dictatorship, and five years of bureaucratic red tape that blocked their move to the U.S., their lives were destroyed after only four months in the U.S., allegedly by a fellow Vietnamese. Hang’s murder showed them in the starkest terms that they could leave Vietnam but they would never entirely escape it.
A week after the memorial service, a handful of Vietnamese activists organized a candlelight vigil to put pressure on the authorities to punish the man who killed Hang. The community had immediately suspected a 24-year-old Amerasian man, Chau Ngoc Nguyen (no relation to the victim), who had befriended Hang’s family upon their arrival in D.C. The police had questioned Chau the night of the murder but released him for lack of evidence. By the day of the vigil, Chau was on the lam, the police had no other suspects, and the Vietnamese community was starting to get angry.
A small crowd of mostly Vietnamese students joined obliging TV cameras in front of Lincoln Middle School on 16th Street on an unseasonably frigid afternoon. Dressed in a hodgepodge of donated winter coats, baggy jeans, and the latest Tommy Hilfiger sweat suits, the Vietnamese kids assembled on the lawn of the school reflected many stages of assimilation. The older boys—with their long, dyed hair and hard stares—affected a gangster pose, keeping a cool distance from the crowd. The younger kids busied themselves passing out candles and programs with an oddly generic slogan on the back: “Take a stand to stop violence against children and youth,” as if Hang’s death had been the product of a drive-by shooting. At first, the kids waved signs with pictures of Hang that they had made in school. Eventually, though, they lost focus, jabbering with friends and starting little fires with the candles.
Hang’s parents sat near a small shrine covered with flowers and Hang’s picture. A Buddhist monk opened the memorial service with a chant. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, Lincoln principal Enrique Watson, and Vilay Chaleunrath, the executive director of the Indochinese Community Center (ICC), all donned somber visages and exhorted the people to fight violence against children. A creaky PA system muffled the speeches, and because most of the crowd spoke only Vietnamese, the audience had a delayed reaction to the English speakers as their words were translated. Despite its lack of drama, though, the vigil was a monumental event. It didn’t have the volume or scale of the neighborhood’s Latino riots of 1991, but the vigil for Hang marked the first time the city’s Vietnamese had found a public voice.
Since the last U.S. troops left Saigon in 1973, more than a million Vietnamese people have entered this country with the government’s blessing and support. They have moved among American city dwellers as specters, mostly. Here in the District, the city’s 5,000 Vietnamese usually appear to other inhabitants only as hotel maids, bus boys, and waiters at pho shops. They are more likely to be crime victims than criminals, and they don’t demand services from a city that can’t afford them. Cloistered in Park Road high-rises in Mount Pleasant, D.C.’s Vietnamese are lumped together in the public’s mind with the mythic, hypersuccessful Asian immigrants whose children all graduate magna cum laude from the University of Virginia. In reality, the Vietnamese kids in Mount Pleasant struggle to get through high school.
Mount Pleasant’s Vietnamese are not the lawyers, doctors, or other members of Vietnam’s intelligentsia who settled in Northern Virginia nearly 20 years ago. They are the families of men who worked for the U.S. military or the South Vietnamese government during the war and were later imprisoned in “re-education” camps by the Communist government. Mount Pleasant’s Vietnamese immigrants also include large numbers of the Amerasian children of American soldiers. The Orderly Departure Program (ODP) that allowed both groups to immigrate to the U.S. was conceived in guilt, a bone tossed to those who bore the heaviest burden for American involvement in Vietnam. And while ODP started shortly after U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended, it has taken the U.S. 20 years to finish the job.
Most of the Vietnamese in the District have been in the U.S. for less than three years, and they are generally what the U.S. Department of State calls “free cases.” That’s bureaucratese for refugees with no family sponsors in the U.S. who will help them make their way in a new land. As a result, they have been brought to the District primarily by a nonprofit resettlement agency called the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which contracts with the State Department to provide refugees with financial support, housing, and other social services.
The Vietnamese who arrived in the District over the past three or four years came to this country with very few resources, and they have problems that go widely unnoticed by the larger society—and even the resettlement agencies themselves. On the surface, new Vietnamese refugees face the same basic obstacles as any other immigrants in this city. Most have no money or assets to cushion their landing here, many are not well educated, and almost none of them have ever studied English.
But the recent Vietnamese arrivals also bring some additional baggage that makes the transition to American life particularly difficult. Former re-education camp prisoners like Hang’s father are well over 40 years old now, and years of deprivation in the prison camps have left many of them physically unable to do the backbreaking, low-skilled work available to them in the service industries.
After their often decadelong struggle to get to the United States, many Vietnamese refugees suffer bouts of serious depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after a few months in the country. Mount Pleasant also has a fair number of single-parent Vietnamese households, since so many of them are families of Amerasians. Vietnamese women who bore American children were often prohibited from remarrying in Vietnam, and even when they did, the U.S. would not allow the women to immigrate with the fathers of their other children. Amerasians—especially those who are half black, half Vietnamese—are also especially vulnerable to ostracism by both ethnic groups here in the U.S.
The re-education camps, too, took their toll. Many of the former prisoners coming to the District are on their second families, having lost contact with their first wives and children after the fall of Saigon. Case managers in resettlement agencies are seeing lots of 50-year-old Vietnamese men with toddlers in tow. Sandy Dang, executive director of the Indochinese Community Center’s Youth Leadership Project, says that while the community doesn’t like to acknowledge it, “These families have so many complex psychological problems.”
Out of all the places in this country to which the State Department could have relocated this struggling group of Vietnamese, the District seems an odd choice. The city can’t even attend to the needs of its indigenous poor, much less an additional 5,000 poor, non-English-speaking people. But the Vietnamese are here because IRC, the city’s primary resettlement agency, has a stellar reputation for getting refugees into the job market—and fast. And in the refugee biz these days, that’s all that counts.
Not long after Hang’s family arrived in the District, they hooked up with a man who had known one of their neighbors in Saigon. Chau Ngoc Nguyen had been in the U.S. for six or seven years, and he offered Nguoi and Tung, Hang’s father, his assistance and knowledge, a priceless commodity for any new arrival. He translated paperwork and job applications, and he became a mentor to Hang, assisting him with his homework and showing him the ropes of American culture. Hang’s family was grateful; poor as they were, they even lent Chau $500 to buy a car.
Hang’s benefactor, however, was apparently grappling with his own demons. According to Long Tran, the Vietnamese liaison for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), when Chau got married, his wife was a pregnant 14-year-old Vietnamese student from Bell Multicultural High School. The girl’s mother was beside herself over the situation, especially since the girl was forced to leave school to care for her child. Eventually the mother summoned Long to see if he could help untangle the relationship.
Chau and his wife eventually divorced, but not before the girl had a second child. Last summer, the tension between the two families (Chau’s mother lives here in D.C.) escalated and turned violent when Chau’s ex-wife’s mother wanted to move her daughter and grandchildren to Arlington. The girl’s mother called Long to mediate the dispute, and eventually she moved out of the city.
We can't make City Paper without you
According to Long and Sandy Dang, executive director of the ICC’s Youth Leadership Program, Chau began acting strangely after he got divorced. They say he began to befriend young Vietnamese boys in the neighborhood, luring them to his apartment with candy and presents. Hang was among them, and he eventually told his mother that Chau had made sexual advances toward him. Nguoi had advised him to stay away from Chau and never reported the incidents. A month later, Hang was dead and Chau the No. 1 murder suspect.
At the scene of the crime, police found no evidence of forced entry, but they had reason to believe that Hang had fought off his assailant. Further, when Chau was interviewed by detectives the night of the murder, they noticed bruises around his neck. Chau explained the bruises as the product of roughhousing with friends. But his friends later debunked the story and also told the police that when they saw Chau the night of the murder, his pants had been soaking wet.
After news of Hang’s murder began to ripple through the community, more stories about Chau began to surface. Mrs. Bien Hui, a former assistant principal at Bell, came forward and said she had started receiving complaints about Chau from parents last year. Now police are investigating reports that Chau may have sexually assaulted two other boys. According to police testimony at a recent court hearing, a 10-year-old boy said he was sexually assaulted at least four times in the last year at Chau’s apartment. An 11-year-old told police that Chau attacked him two years ago and offered him $6 to keep his mouth shut. The boy rejected the offer and told his mother what had happened. The police said she confronted Chau, who allegedly apologized and offered to pay for the boy’s medical expenses. The family reportedly moved to Virginia to avoid further contact with him. Neither of these incidents were ever reported to the police at the time.
Chau Nguyen is Amerasian, the son of a Vietnamese woman and an American GI stationed in Vietnam during the war. The fact that Chau was regarded as a trusted member of Mount Pleasant’s Vietnamese enclave is further evidence of the community’s complexities. In Vietnam, Amerasians like Chau were called con lai, “half breed,” or bui doi, “dust of the earth.” The Vietnamese treated the biracial children of invading foreign soldiers as outcasts. Such kids were often abandoned to live in public parks and scrape together a meager existence selling rice and gasoline on the streets of what was now Ho Chi Minh City. Stuck on the margins of a country that didn’t accept them as one of its own, they were often conscripted as soldiers and prevented from going to school, and their families from owning property.
In the mid-1980s, the American media stumbled onto the postwar tragedy of the Amerasian children. The heart-rending stories that came out prompted veterans’ groups and others to petition the U.S. government to take responsibility for the last vestiges of its unpopular war. In 1987, Congress finally passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act to bring America’s Asian children “home.” However, political tension between Hanoi and the U.S., as well as plain old red tape—both here and there—prevented many Amerasians from immigrating for years after the law passed. Finally, in 1990, the process was streamlined, and thousands of Amerasian families began flooding into the U.S. Nearly 2,500 of them came to Washington.
Coming to the U.S., though, didn’t solve the problems of the children of American GIs. By the time many of them arrived here, they were no longer “children” but adults, many with children of their own. Their hard lives in Vietnam had left many Amerasians undereducated and illiterate. Those who came here hoping for happy reunions with long-lost fathers discovered that most of those fathers preferred to stay lost. In the short time they have been here, Amerasians have experienced tremendous mental health problems and a high rate of suicide.
Ruth Ann Dawson, director of refugee and immigration programs for Lutheran Social Services, says, “So many of the young people thought it was all going to be all right once they got here. Amerasians have always been told they are American, and they are shocked when they get here to discover just how Vietnamese they really are.”
Dawson says that Amerasians would have had a much easier time becoming Americans if they had actually grown up here. The French took their children with them when they left Vietnam, she says, but the U.S. government “failed completely by waiting until the late ’80s to bring them here. There is a community responsibility that we completely abrogated. We brought them here far too late to give them any hope of a normal resettlement. You wait 20 years to do something, you can’t fix it in three. What a difference it would have made if they had been 6 or 7 when they came here.”
It’s not unusual, says Dawson, for Amerasians’ lifelong identity conflicts to occasionally express themselves pathologically. Chau would be a perpetrator in any language, but she says there are reasons he ended up the way he allegedly has. “You wonder what he did before he came here, how he got here,” she says, adding that it’s no surprise that the community wants his head. “I’m sure the reaction was, what do you expect? He was Amerasian.”
There is no word in Vietnamese for molestation. This linguistic lapse provides the first—but far from the only—explanation for why so many Vietnamese people seemed to know that Chau had allegedly been making sexual advances to young boys yet no one did anything to stop him. Thuy Dinh, a Vietnamese lawyer who has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s office to help investigate Hang’s murder, explains that the Vietnamese feel that talking about sexual abuse would open the floodgates and reveal problems among them that they’d rather not acknowledge.
“There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment. Culturally, it’s not a comfortable thing to talk about,” Dinh says. “In terms of being victimized, Asians think they are responsible. There’s always a sense of guilt.”
In Chau’s case, it wasn’t just the victims who suffered guilt and shame. Dinh believes that part of the reason the Vietnamese parents—including Hang’s—didn’t report Chau for allegedly molesting their children is that they would have had to accept some responsibility for what happened. “Basically, it would force them to face their own ambivalence about child rearing,” says Dinh. “They had to come to grips with the fact that they had been lax in supervising their kids.”
Culturally, Dinh says, Vietnamese parents aren’t as involved as American parents. The Vietnamese have an implicit expectation that even young children are supposed to be fully independent and well behaved. “The idea of constant adult supervision is not the Asian way,” says Dinh. “The responsibilities of the group and awareness of those responsibilities are supposed to be understood even if not articulated.”
The Vietnamese, according to Dinh, are also painfully sensitive to the idea of guilt by association. Therefore, it’s important for them to perpetuate the myth of Asians as model immigrants. As a result, Dinh says, the Vietnamese may have been reluctant to turn in one of their own. “There is a sense of national pride,” she says. “You want to feel that your nationality, your race, is exempt from flaws. That conviction helps you survive.”
Dinh says that, unlike Americans who go on TV every day to air their dirty laundry, the Vietnamese would rather keep their cultural pathology under wraps. “If something like this is publicized, they think it shames the entire society,” she says. “It’s not possible for them to see it otherwise. They don’t want to be seen by the mainstream society as having bad members, because it may affect them and their advancement. There’s that sense of denial. It’s still a very new community here.”
Another important factor that allowed Chau to move among the community’s youth unobstructed may be simply that Vietnamese refugees don’t see the police as their friends. After the fall of Saigon, most of the people interned in the Vietnamese gulags were never charged with any crimes, never tried, and their property was confiscated by the state. Police action was arbitrary and ruthless. Dr. Dhinh Phan, the community coordinator for the D.C. Public Schools’ international student office, says that after living under Communist rule for so long, the Vietnamese would rather keep quiet than call the police. “They don’t have an orderly society there. They fear from retaliation, complicity with the police,” he says.
Their desire to save face and to avoid the police makes the refugees easy prey for the city’s criminal element—Vietnamese or otherwise. Law enforcement experts estimate that anywhere from a third to a half of all crimes against the Vietnamese go unreported, and people who work with refugees believe that the Vietnamese are especially vulnerable to violent crime as a result. They would rather solve the problem geographically than institutionally. “They accept that it happens, and hope they can make enough money and move out of D.C.,” says the ICC’s Dang.
At 20, Long Tran carries himself with the poise of a man twice his age. He is a young man responsible for many lives, starting with his family’s. Long came here five years ago under the Homecoming Act with his Amerasian sister. While U.S. law allowed Amerasians to immigrate with their families intact, that didn’t stop corrupt Vietnamese officials from making a profit off the mass exodus. The U.S. admitted Amerasians based solely on their appearance, but Vietnamese officials required documentation of their heritage and lineage, documents that often didn’t exist 20 years after the war.
As a result, officials would extort exorbitant sums from petitioners wanting to leave Vietnam. Long’s family didn’t have enough bribe money to get everyone out of the country, so at 15, Long was sent ahead with his sister and now has the weighty job of working and saving enough money to eventually sponsor his mother and other siblings for immigration.
Long has become an important pivot point in Mount Pleasant, in part because he sees value in being of service to his community. A devout Catholic, Long lived in a seminary for six years, where he adopted the clergy’s service mission. “They taught me how to treat people. I help people even when they don’t like me,” he says.
Almost from the get-go, Long started helping other Vietnamese in the District find their way in their new country. When he wasn’t studying for classes at the University of the District of Columbia, he would help translate at hospitals, food stamp offices, and other social service agencies. Long’s volunteer work paid off during Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration, when he landed a job at the mayor’s Office of Asian and Pacific American Affairs. There, Long functioned with official sanction as a bridge between the D.C. government and the city’s growing Vietnamese population.
When budget cuts eliminated his job, Long’s boss got him relocated to the new Asian liaison office within MPD, where he has worked for the past two years. While Long is still too young to be a real cop, he has made himself invaluable to officers working to combat the Asian gangs that come from Virginia to prey on the District’s Vietnamese residents. During the day, he sports a dark suit and tie and is meticulously groomed. At night, Long transforms himself into gang member, homeless person, or trendy teenage clubgoer to gather information on the criminal elements inside the area’s Vietnamese community.
While Long’s extracurricular work has won him accolades from MPD, his altruism and willingness to work with the cops initially inspired as much suspicion as respect among other Vietnamese. His fellow countrymen have accused Long of being a Communist because of his work with kids at the ICC (supposedly a hotbed of Communist spies). The irony of this charge is not lost on Long. His father worked for the U.S. special forces. When the North Vietnamese took Saigon, he was captured. Long says that under torture his father told his captors, “I’m not telling you anything, so you might as well kill me.” So they strung him up on a flagpole and shot him.
Long understands the Vietnamese community’s mistrust of the police and says that the community’s skepticism is not without foundation. Before he came to work as a civilian liaison at MPD, when Vietnamese people would get attacked and robbed they would call the police and no one would come. Or when someone was arrested after they filed a report, the attacker would get out the next day and come looking for them. Now part translator, part lobbyist, and part social worker, Long is the single police conduit to 5,000 Vietnamese people who have since come to trust him—and not just with their crime problems.
One morning about a week after the vigil, Hang’s parents came down to Long’s office in Chinatown to solicit his help in opening a savings account. “Special case,” he says with a laugh. “My job is to work eight hours in this office, but I tell the Vietnamese people they can call me 24 hours a day. People are very surprised. I give people my home number; people call me crying in the middle of the night. I take my personal car and I go. No one understands what I do but me, my God—and my boss.”
As the only Vietnamese speaker among the city’s nearly 4,000 police officers, Long’s official job goes well beyond translating—which he has done practically nonstop since MPD began investigating Hang’s murder. Long also helps ferret out the things that cops would miss. He has made himself a switchboard for community gossip, concerns, and secrets, infiltrated all the buildings where Vietnamese people live, and cultivated contacts who keep him abreast of events. He knows everyone. He knew Chau before Chau became of interest to MPD.
After Hang was killed, Long helped homicide detectives interview the family and neighbors. Ken Wainstein, the assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to Hang’s case, says his office was getting a stream of reliable information from the street thanks to Long. For instance, he tipped off police when Chau bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam. As a result, law enforcement officials were able to confiscate the ticket at the travel agency. Thwarted there, Chau got on a bus heading north, and the border patrol eventually caught Chau in New York state trying to cross into Canada on foot. “The only way we could stop Chau from leaving was that Long was there,” says Wainstein.
The day after the candlelight vigil it’s snowing. The sky is slate gray, and it’s too cold for November in Washington. Hang Nguyen’s parents live on Center Street NW, an isolated one-way road in Mount Pleasant lined with nondescript red brick apartment buildings and slummy two-story town houses. The smell of greasy food sticks to the dingy pink walls in the stairwell leading up to the family’s third-floor apartment. Nguoi Tran and Tung Nguyen live in a spartan efficiency that is standard fare for Vietnamese refugee families here. The sterile metal blinds and the kitchen dinette set with flower-print vinyl-seated chairs don’t hint at the room’s violent history.
There is no yellow crime-scene tape, no blood stains, no physical remnant of the events that took place only two weeks earlier. The evidence lies in what is absent, like the sheets that should be on Hang’s twin bed parked next to the closet-size kitchen. Stripped bare, there will not be anyone else to fill it. Only a rickety table against the wall suggests something sinister. Converted into a makeshift shrine, the table is covered with red candles, incense burners, fruit, and a picture of Hang. Origami birds hang on the wall behind it, made by Hang’s classmates at Lincoln. Mournful Vietnamese music plays out of a tiny new tape player perched on one of the kitchen chairs.
Tung sits at the kitchen table, despondently tracing a ring of water with his finger. His hair is unkempt, he is unshaven, and he occasionally rubs his head in despair. He speaks very little and stares listlessly out the big pane of glass, watching as flakes of snow fall onto the narrow, littered street below.
Nguoi moves with great difficulty, as if sorrow presses down on her like gravity. Her eyes, glassy from days of crying, blink in slow motion. Through a translator, Nguoi says, “We just came here. We haven’t seen anything yet. Hang always wanted to see snow. I’ve been crying all morning because it’s snowing right now.” She sits cross-legged on a double bed across from the shrine, wearing bright red pants, a heavy sweater, and a gray wool coat with a blanket wrapped around her. She is so small the mattress looks as if it could consume her. Her size disguises the steel core that has brought her to this place. At 48, Nguoi is old enough to have seen French troops swarming into Vietnam, long before American GIs arrived.
Her husband, who worked as a secret policeman for the former South Vietnamese government, has survived unspeakable deprivations. After South Vietnam fell, Tung spent three years, five months, and 28 days in a re-education camp. When he was released in 1978, he and his wife were forced to go to one of the New Economic Zones in a rural area of the country, where the Communist government had collectivized farming and forced people to take up agrarian lives. The Nguyens, city dwellers all their lives, became rice farmers and had to give all the food they produced to the government. Like a good portion of the population, they nearly starved in the process.
With help from relatives, they sneaked back to Ho Chi Minh City and started over, opening a small shop. Their life improved, but because he was the son of a former prisoner of war, Hang suffered vicious discrimination at school. His questions about why the kids at school taunted him and called him names eventually prompted his parents to attempt to move to the U.S. While they really didn’t want to leave Vietnam, in 1991 they applied to emigrate for the sake of their son, who they believed would have a better life here. It took five years to finally arrive on American soil.
Hang and his family were sponsored by IRC, which procured their little Center Street apartment. IRC provided them with a month of free rent, and social workers hooked them up with Refugee Cash Assistance, which they’re eligible to get for up to eight months. Both parents got restaurant jobs nearby, and Hang enrolled at Lincoln Middle School. They had dreams and, with hard work, a promising future that was embodied mostly in their only son.
They haven’t been able to bring themselves to tell anyone back in Vietnam about Hang’s murder. Hang’s grandmother is very old, and they are afraid the news will kill her. Hang’s uncle, a doctor in Vietnam, is still sending him presents; an English-Vietnamese medical dictionary for Hang is sitting in their post office box, but they haven’t ventured out to fetch it.
Nguoi says that every day when she came home from work, her son would give her a massage. “My son, he always told me he wants to be a doctor, so he can help people. He said then you won’t have to work so hard, because you’ll be a doctor’s mom.” Now, she says, “It’s over. The chance to live our dream is over.”
Weeks before Hang was killed, Chau Nguyen was seen inside Hang’s school on several occasions, according to Greg Chin of the Community Prevention Partnership, who works with Asian youth in the city. Chin says that the evidence suggests that Chau was stalking Hang, yet no one at Lincoln ever questioned him. Chin is angry that Hang had no one at the school he could confide in, someone who might ultimately have been able to save him.
Hang was one of nearly 70 Vietnamese students at Lincoln Middle School. While the rest of D.C.’s Vietnamese schoolkids are scattered among schools in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, they make up the second-largest group of non-English-speakers in the school system, and their numbers have increased tenfold since 1989. The system has not come close to keeping up with the needs of its Vietnamese students. According to Dang, the school system doesn’t have a single Vietnamese-speaking counselor.
Jamie Wilson, Hang’s English as a second language (ESL) instructor, has been teaching in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) since 1981, long enough to have seen several generations of Vietnamese refugees come and go through the system. She says in the 1980s her classes would host reunions of kids who hadn’t seen each other since they’d been on a boat fleeing Vietnam. In those days, though, the Vietnamese kids didn’t stick around the District for very long. Wilson says that first wave of refugees would start out living on Park Road, just as the new arrivals do, but within a year they’d move to Arlington, where there are better services. She says this new group of Vietnamese has been staying put in D.C. partly because so many Vietnamese stay on public assistance, which makes moving impossible. As a result, the numbers in the schools have been growing, and the schools, says Wilson, just aren’t ready for them.
“This time a year ago, my ESL classes were predominantly Hispanic. Now they’re 50-percent Vietnamese,” she says. “We have only one Vietnamese speaker in the school.” She says that the kids coming into Lincoln did not have the benefit of transitional stops in refugee camps, which used to help new arrivals learn English. While DCPS does have an international student office that tests students for placement in bilingual education programs, the city is not in compliance with federal ESL requirements. The resulting lack of language skills creates awkward dynamics—kids end up serving as translators for their parents at teacher conferences, which makes it difficult for teachers to communicate with parents when their children are having problems.
And while the Mount Pleasant Vietnamese didn’t come with the baggage that accompanied Cuba’s Mariel boat-lift refugees, they are similarly underskilled. They have problems that often get worse once they get to the U.S., not better. Dr. Phan says there are between 450 and 500 Vietnamese students in DCPS. Most of them have come to this country with no English at all, and he says, “They have very little education.” After the Communists took over in Vietnam, the level of education declined, and the kids of former prisoners of war, like Hang, were discriminated against and often kept out of school. “They are in very bad shape when they come here,” says Phan.
Just a few miles from where Hang died, Northern Virginia hosts one of the country’s most successful and well-established Vietnamese communities. Northern Virginia is peppered with Vietnamese shopping malls, restaurants, and grocery stores, and the school system has been training Vietnamese speakers for many years. Those Northern Virginia residents would seem the natural bridge between Mount Pleasant’s refugee enclave and the English-speaking world, but once they cross the District line they rarely look back.
Attorney Thuy Dinh says, “The well-to-do have this fear of Mount Pleasant. It’s like you have to do education for both the well-to-do Vietnamese and the new. It’s also tied to not wanting to face up to problems in the community. They’d rather go to some sterile suburb.”
Dinh says that historically people became activists out of necessity, and the first wave of Vietnamese refugees now living in Virginia don’t have the same needs as the refugees in the District. Plus, she says that while the Northern Virginia Vietnamese may be successful in business and school, they are not politically savvy.
“They all think it’s neat to have breakfast with Dan Quayle. They like the photo-op thing,” she says, explaining that the Vietnamese give money to the major political parties, but they have no sense of grass-roots community work. “They talk about human rights abuses in Vietnam. That’s the politically correct thing. It’s far enough away and abstract enough that you don’t have to do much. Their sense of what’s possible is completely out of touch with what’s happening in the District.”
The same obsession with image that kept Mount Pleasant’s Vietnamese from reporting Chau to the authorities also prevents the more educated and affluent Vietnamese of Virginia from mixing with the grungier new arrivals in the District. Dinh believes that for Virginia’s Vietnamese, assimilation means keeping their distance and clinging to white, mainstream America.
“The community is very worried about how they are perceived,” says Dinh. She says there is not a lot of support for people who make individual efforts to bridge the two worlds. “You have to cut yourself off from the community and act as an individual, and that’s very anti-cultural. Everybody is a member of the group. The minute you act like an individual, you’re acting like an American.”
A few Vietnamese people, like Long Tran and Sandy Dang, have discovered that even when they do attempt to help the refugee community, their efforts are thwarted by Cold War political battles that didn’t end just because the Vietnam war did. Most of the Vietnamese who have come to the U.S. are anti-Communist, and their version of red-baiting makes McCarthyism seem accomodationist. Like many refugees who long to return to their native countries some day, Dinh says the Vietnamese community even entertains Cuban expat—style power struggles over who will run Vietnam when the Communists fall. There were even some well-publicized assassinations within Virginia’s Vietnamese community shortly before the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam, as the community split between those who supported the move and those who opposed it.
As a result, the war may be over, but the paranoia remains. For instance, Dang, 28, came to D.C. to develop a program for Vietnamese kids. The program, which serves 250 kids, is the only one of its kind in D.C., and runs on a tiny grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. With the help of volunteers, it manages to run daily ESL classes and provides computer training, dance classes, karate classes, and other activities for kids whose families live six to an efficiency in Mount Pleasant. Yet Dang says that some of the parents in the community won’t let their kids attend because they believe that ICC is run by Communist spies.
Dang says she explains to people that she has been in the U.S. half her life and she doesn’t even know what it means to be a Communist. “It’s the complexity of the community,” she says. “Some people think the Vietnamese government is trying to destroy their lives in the U.S., too. They’ve been through so much trauma that they distrust everyone. It’s so sad that they have so much distrust. It’s their kids who miss out.”
Two days after New York police sent Chau back to the District for prosecution, Dang and Dinh teamed up with ICC youth program case manager Nikki Nguyen to hold a seminar for Vietnamese parents on the justice system. They hoped to seize on the community’s interest in Hang’s case to start educating people about the police. Initially they had intended to do a workshop on preventing sexual assault as well but decided that the justice system was a more manageable topic to start with. Just as there is no word in Vietnamese for molestation, there isn’t one for subpoena, either.
Held inside the ICC office on the fourth floor of the Upper Cardozo Community Health Center, the workshop drew only 12 Vietnamese people for the workshop, but the organizers were happy enough with the turnout since they’ve had problems getting parents to come to the center in the evenings. Many of them were elderly, with gray hair poking out of their scarves and hats. Some of the men were without teeth. All of them were bundled up for the cold, keeping their coats on inside even though the radiators in the room were going full-tilt.
Dinh showed a video made to encourage the Asian community to cooperate with police and prosecutors in catching criminals. The video, dubbed into Vietnamese, is based on the real case of a robbery and shooting in a Vietnamese-owned jewelry store a few years ago. The crime was recorded on the store’s security camera, and the actual footage is included in the video, interspersed between instructive segments on calling 911, lineups, prosecutors, and sentencing.
Women in the room shuddered visibly when the crime footage came onto the screen, but otherwise everyone remained fairly stoic. When the video finished, Dinh introduced two homicide detectives who are investigating Hang’s murder. They had come to answer questions, but the discussion got off to a fitful start. No one had any questions. Just as the meeting looked about ready to disband, though, assistant U.S. Attorney Wainstein arrived, chasing away the silence with a trial lawyer’s finesse and a box full of materials in Vietnamese.
Prosecutors don’t usually go schlepping around upper 14th Street at night to talk to the community about cases they’re working on. But in this particular instance, Wainstein’s case depends on the cooperation of people who not only don’t speak his language but who have no idea what he does or why they should trust him. He is aware that the failure by the police to arrest Chau the night of the murder has not helped relations much.
Wainstein worked the room as if he were addressing a jury, gesticulating and locking eyes with audience members as he made reassuring noises about the efficacy of the criminal justice system. It was a tough sell, especially since Wainstein’s audience couldn’t understand a word he said. Most of his linguistic flourishes were lost in translation; what took him five minutes to say was translated by Dinh in 30 seconds. The audience still didn’t seem to understand the rights of accused criminals. For decades, even before the Communist takeover, the Vietnamese justice system followed the Napoleonic code, which does not feature the American bedrock notion of innocent-until-proven-guilty. The Vietnamese believe pretty firmly that where there’s smoke there’s fire.
Wainstein may not speak Vietnamese, but he sensed he was losing the crowd and abandoned the constitutional-rights lecture in favor of a review of the events surrounding Hang’s murder: Hang’s mother found her son in the half-full bathtub of his home. He was wearing only a T-shirt. The medical examiner found that his genitals were bruised. He had been strangled, and there were signs that Hang had fought with his attacker. The small crowd, which by then included a handful of kids from the ICC after-school program, squirmed uncomfortably.
Wainstein explained that even though police questioned Chau that night, they did not have enough evidence to charge him, so he was released. Wainstein tried to assure them that even though the police had let Chau go, they had kept tabs on him with the help of Long Tran and were able to apprehend him before he fled the country.
Just in case they didn’t get the message that he was looking out for them, he offered a little bit of shameless promotion for the U.S. Attorney’s office. He mentioned that when Chau was presented in court to face first-degree-murder charges, the judge was going to let him back out on the street to await trial. As he let that sink in, the people in the audience got jumpy. A white-haired woman piped up in broken English to tell Wainstein matter-of-factly that Chau “would go and hide” if they let him out again. With a big smile, Wainstein explained that despite the fact that his wife had given birth to their first child hours earlier, he was in court that very afternoon working on behalf of the Vietnamese community, and convinced the judge to keep Chau in jail. The audience members heaved sighs of relief.
Wainstein explained that his office would continue to gather information from the community about Chau for the trial and that he would need their cooperation to make sure Chau was punished to the full extent of the law. One of the detectives asked Wainstein to explain what a subpoena is so that people wouldn’t be alarmed if they got one. Finally, after two-and-a-half hours of explanations of the way the justice system works and of the facts in Hang’s case, Wainstein seemed content that he has helped raise the audience’s level of understanding.
When Wainstein asked if there were any more questions, a man holding his hat in his hands stood up and respectfully asked why the police bother with all these interviews when they have all the evidence they need in the dead boy’s eyes. Wainstein looked confused as the man went on to say that he had been trained in Vietnam as a police officer, and as part of his training had learned about a technique in which detectives take the last image out of the pupil of a victim’s eye and it shows them who the murderer is. All they needed to know, the man said, was right there in the eyes of the dead boy.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.