Why Romney Lost the ‘Asian Vote’
Drill down into the numbers, and it’s not a surprise.
Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By MICHAEL WARREN
One of those “old people” is Bich Nguyen. At 75, Bich is a popular leader in the D.C.-area Vietnamese community. He helped develop Radio Free Asia, which combats propaganda in Asian countries with grants from the federal government, and was its first director. A Fulbright scholar who attended Princeton and Columbia, Bich began working for the South Vietnamese government’s news service. As the North Vietnamese crept toward Saigon in April 1975, he was sent to the United States in a last-ditch effort to convince the American government to continue providing support to the South Vietnamese. Bich says he knew the mission was futile when he spoke with South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who for some reason started talking about Korea. “Uh, no, Vietnam,” Bich recalls himself thinking as he spoke to Thurmond, then already in his seventies.
So he returned home, taking the last commercial flight into Saigon on April 26, to collect his wife and escape—he was one of the “vulnerables” whose life was about to get much worse once the Communists were in charge. Bich and his wife fled to the small island of Phu Quy and on April 30, the day Saigon fell, they were picked up by an American barge, the American Challenger. He remembers American helicopters dropping food onto the crowded ship as it made its way across the Pacific.
Almost all Vietnamese Americans have some connection to 1975. Some fled as Bich did or soon after, often on crudely constructed boats. Others came over the years as families reunited in the United States. The younger generations, those born in America, have parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who remember the persecution in Communist Vietnam. Bich is a Republican, like many of his generation, because of his experiences opposing communism in his home country.
“Issues of national security and defense tend to be quite important to us,” he says. “Eventually, over two million Vietnamese fled the Communists and those, you know, were unhappy because they had their property confiscated, they were sent to very inhospitable land to remake their lives. Several hundred thousand were put in concentration camps and all this kind of thing. So that was the kind of background that makes us open to the Republican ideology.”
The downturn in the economy and its effect on a relatively recent immigrant group, Bich says, has also affected the Vietnamese way of life and, in turn, their politics.
“People lost jobs, and therefore instead of going to work for the big American companies, that’s no longer available. So you turn back from being an engineer, Ph.D. and all of that, you go and open a restaurant. So in a way, the Vietnamese economically tend to think very independently. You don’t try to rely on welfare or something like that,” Bich says.
All these characteristics of Vietnamese-American culture are on display at Eden Center. The community doesn’t just work and shop at the nearly 120 Vietnamese-owned businesses here. There are restaurants and delis, karaoke bars and billiard rooms, tax preparation centers and a gym. Business owners sponsor local school sports teams. Children work at their parents’ stores, and business is a family affair. Throughout the year, the community holds traditional festivals and cultural events at the center, such as the annual Miss Vietnam D.C. pageant and the mid-autumn Moon Festival. The center’s parking lot has street signs honoring fallen heroes of South Vietnam like Tran Van Hai and Le Nguyen Vy.
In this little pocket of Northern Virginia, small-town, middle-class values—with a Vietnamese flair—thrive. And not unrelatedly, so does the Republican party.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard and a 2012 Robert Novak Journalism fellow with the Phillips Foundation.