Imagine holding civilians at bay,
when every last fiber of your being
wants to bring them with you…
Peter W. Owens, Marine Poems on the Fall of Saigon
I joked recently that I was going to make a list of my favorite things in Oklahoma City’s Asian District with Taco Mayo and the Masquerade Costume Shop topping the list. Neither reflect the culture you’d expect to see in a Little Saigon or Chinatown, and that would be my point precisely.
Ancient Pagodas, Exotic Spices
I live close to this area of town, which is located roughly between NW 23rd and NW 36th Street on Classen Boulevard. I’m in and out of this cultural enclave on a daily basis, and it sometimes leaves me wanting. Where are the crowded streets buzzing with motorbikes? The mystical alleys with ancient pagodas? The old women wrapped in magenta silk selling wild spices?
My husband Robert grew in the Bay Area of California a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was born in Los Angeles and although we moved away when I was about seven, we returned frequently. In 1983, my mother took me to Chinatown for the first time. I bought colorful scarves from a street hawker who operated her business out of a gypsy-like wagon. The streets were buzzing with people speaking foreign languages. The women wore straw hats and the men pedaled three-speeds.
The nail salons and strip malls in Oklahoma City’s Asian District are not unique. They can be found in every corner of the city and they contribute little to the artistic or cultural milieu. Having said that, there are some visual amenities we cherish. We like the bank on Classen and the building T-Mobile leases on NW 23rd, and we totally dig Super Cao Nguyen, the big Asian market with all its colorful fish and exotic fruits and vegetables.
Streetscaping was completed in the District a couple years ago, and it was very exciting watching it all come together. Now, it’s up to individual property owners to take things to the next level.
Also, it seems worth mentioning that last summer when I was in Los Angeles visiting my brother we made a trip to Chinatown. (Click here to see photos of our trip on Flickr.) I was disappointed to discover that it no longer boasts the organic sense of place I remembered it having as a young teenager. The street vendors, food and shopping were not that memorable. The best thing about it remains the gateway with the big golden dragons and the roasted ducks in shop windows.
I have this conviction that your soul is superior to your body and mind it will always carry you to the places you need to go even if you don’t know you’re going until you’ve arrived.
And, that’s what happened to me last night. Robert and I were catching a break from the kids when we stumbled upon a ceremony in Military Park, which is located in the Asian District. We could hear someone with a Vietnamese accent singing the Star Spangled Banner. This doesn’t happen every day, so we stopped to check it out.
On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to North Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese who ardently supported the U.S. effort to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam were rescued in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. They came to America, specifically Camp Pendleton, California. Later, thanks to Oklahoma activists who sponsored their journey to the Sooner State, they made their way to Oklahoma City.
All this took place 37 years ago, and last night former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families and friends remembered that painful and chaotic day. Some are quite aged now. Many of the men in uniform were former prisoners of war, tortured and held captive by the Viet Cong for years. I got to see them salute the flag of their boyhood and pay tribute to the U.S. soldiers who saved them. I heard them sing the Star Spangled Banner.
Today, six generations of Vietnamese can be found in Oklahoma City’s Asian District. About 100 people attended the ceremony, and only a small handful were Vietnamese youth, members of Generations Y and Z.
Whatever ghosts of the past that first generation of immigrants brought with them to America, they seem to be fading now. There are no rice fields, coconut boats or GI buildings in Oklahoma City. Just a memory bank of turmoil that belongs to aging generations.
And, so now I fully realize, the nail salons and the strip malls that leave me wanting are a verse in the song of redemption for U.S. soldiers who in the spring of 1975 set thousands of South Vietnamese people free. They brought them to America and their culture and entrepreneurial spirit strengthen the fabric of Oklahoma City.
Vietnam Memorial in Oklahoma
I came across a 2008 backgrounder about a proposed Vietnam War Memorial to honor heroic sacrifices of Oklahoma soldiers who served in Vietnam. Here’s an excerpt:
“…Some people have argued the Vietnam War was an irrational war with no ideal purposes. However, Vietnamese immigrants…believe the Vietnam War was a just and honorable attempt to to stop the Red wave from overwhelming the whole country of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand American military members had given the ultimate sacrifice, together with two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. They did so for the ideal of freedom, not only for Vietnam, but for this nation and for the world.
The fallen and the tens of thousands wounded are examples of heroic sacrifices. The people of the former Republic of South Vietnam will forever be grateful to the United States of America for its efforts in trying to protect and maintain democracy in South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975.“
Update: The following is my KOSU commentary on this subject, which aired May 1, 2012.
In 1970, my cousin Raymond came home from the Vietnam War and we all went to K-Mart. I was three years-old and for the next 30 years my father repeated to me over and over again a story about that day. “Raymond wouldn’t let you out of his site,” he said. “He was so attentive, as if he was afraid something might happen.”
As a little girl, I loved to hear this story, and I carried Raymond’s love in my heart always, and I still do. Raymond, who told my father the only thing learned to do in Vietnam was stay awake in a tree.
On Saturday night, my husband and I were driving down Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City, catching a break from our kids. We had the windows down and as we neared Military Park we saw a sea of yellow flags with red stripes blowing in the wind and heard someone with a Vietnamese accent singing the Star Spangled Banner. This doesn’t happen every day and so we pulled over and got out.
As it turns out we’d stumbled upon a ceremony commemorating the 37th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. On April 30, 1975 thousands of Vietnamese who ardently supported the U.S. effort to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam were rescued in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. They were taken to Camp Pendleton, California, and later, thanks to Oklahoma activists some they made their way to Oklahoma City.
Five generations of Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese community were present to remember that painful and chaotic day. Little girls waved flags of the former Republic and women my age bowed their heads in prayer. But, most stunning of all were the former members of the Army Republic of South Vietnam clad in camouflage and flight suits, green and burgundy berets, their uniforms decorated with ribbons and patches. They are graying and their ghosts are fading. Their turmoil now moderated by the hope of new generations.
This hope is a verse in the song of redemption for U.S. soldiers who in the spring of 1975 set thousands of South Vietnamese people free. They brought them to America and their culture and entrepreneurial spirit strengthen the fabric of Oklahoma City.
I came across a 2008 document about a proposed Vietnam War Memorial in military park. Members of the Vietnamese community want to honor heroic sacrifices of Oklahoma soldiers who served in Vietnam. Here’s an excerpt:
“…Some people have argued the Vietnam War was an irrational war with no ideal purposes. However, Vietnamese immigrants…believe the Vietnam War was a just and honorable attempt to stop the Red wave from overwhelming the whole country of Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand American military members had given the ultimate sacrifice, together with two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. They did so for the ideal of freedom, not only for Vietnam, but for this nation and for the world.”
The first and last time I ever saw my cousin Raymond was that day in 1970. Our families lived several states apart and we were never close. But, every time I see or hear about a K-Mart I think of him and I say a prayer for boys the world over who must stay awake in trees in order to stay alive.