The Quiet Americans

Twenty-five years later, the war in Vietnam rears its head yet again in the politics of welfare reform.

By the time you read this, the hammer of welfare reform finally will have fallen on the first 1,500 mothers in Alameda County. In January 1998, county social workers gave thousands of welfare clients the bad news: Five years from now, you will have used up your right to public assistance, and the gravy train will grind to a halt. So find yourself a job that pays enough to support you and your kids, ’cause the lifetime dole is a thing of the past. Caseworkers tried to offer job training services, employment referrals, and child care to soften the blow, but everyone knew that some clients would just be kicked to the curb.

Now that time has finally arrived. But the casualties of welfare reform are not who you might think. Right or wrong, when most people think of welfare moms, they think of black women. But in Alameda County, of the 1,547 welfare recipients who lost their benefits two weeks ago, the largest racial group by far was not African American — but Vietnamese. In fact, Asian refugees top the list; 42 percent are Vietnamese, 11 percent are Afghan, 5 percent are Laotian, and 4 percent are Cambodian.

The reasons this particular group has failed to break out of the cycle of poverty and dependency alert us to a new generation of people who could be trapped in Oakland’s ghetto underclass forever. Take the case of That Hoang.

Hoang was on the wrong side of history. Throughout the conflict in Southeast Asia, he worked as a police official for the South Vietnamese government. After the fall of Saigon, the victorious North imprisoned him in a “reeducation camp” for more than five years. (Through a translator, Hoang politely deflects questions about his treatment there.) Even after his release, the stigma of having worked for South Vietnam was so great that no one there would hire him or his family. Finally, in 1996, the American government arranged for his emigration to the United States through a program that gave former South Vietnamese officials refugee status. Hoang and his family settled in the San Antonio district of East Oakland, and there his life entered a new kind of limbo, the paralysis of dependency so familiar to the county Social Service Agency.

Within the halls of the agency, there has long been an ideological feud. County bureaucrats are convinced that the most effective way out of chronic unemployment is a job — any job, no matter how low the wages or brutal the hours — because it kick-starts a work ethic and promotes a sense of self-respect. Meanwhile social workers at Laney College, who provide many of the county’s job-training services, maintain that the only true path out of poverty is for clients to acquire enough skills to pull down double-digit hourly wages. Education, in short, is the key.

In accordance with the new rules of welfare reform, caseworkers ordered Hoang and his wife to undergo “work-related activities.” This can mean anything from getting a job or taking computer classes to undergoing “soft-skills training” in which clients learn the value of such basics as getting up early or dressing appropriately for an interview. But in Hoang’s case, education was utterly useless. His wife took cooking classes at Laney for more than two years, and he studied English as a second language. Neither regimen worked. Hoang claims his wife has become too sick to work, but there’s no indication that she ever looked for a restaurant gig, nor did her caseworker push her to try. As for Hoang himself, after six years of living in Oakland and countless months of ESL classes, he speaks almost no English.

Hoang’s failure to adapt highlights a troubling aspect of this problem: Many Vietnamese welfare clients are simply too broken to function in American society. Refugees such as Hoang are still carrying the emotional baggage of life in the reeducation camps, says Binh Tran, a county caseworker who works at the East Bay Vietnamese Association: “That’s why he gets the migraine headache. He wants to learn English, that’s why he come here every day, to learn English. But because of the age, like he like fiftysomething. How can he learn English, like me or you?”

An entire generation of former South Vietnamese officials arrived here in the early ’90s, after spending at least fifteen years as unpersons in the netherworld of communist Vietnam. They have countless undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorders, compounded by years of unemployment and rural life. Now they find themselves in the most advanced region of the most advanced country in the world, a milieu they can neither fathom nor function within.

Hoang’s only realistic chance of employment lies with Vietnamese businesses, most of which won’t hire a man in his fifties for unskilled work. For years, Hoang and his wife did what they thought was required of them, until a caseworker told them in October that their aid would soon stop forever. Hoang scrambled to find work cleaning Vietnamese businesses, but work is slow, and now his welfare payments have come to an end. The East Bay Vietnamese Association, which has been trying to make life easier for Oakland’s Southeast Asian population since 1978, has been trying to find him work for weeks. But it hasn’t been easy — aside from a few custodial gigs in November, Hoang hasn’t held a job since 1975.

If the job-training strategy failed Hoang, the “work first” school of thought might not meet with much more success. According to figures from the county Social Services Agency, 74 percent of the 1,500 welfare recipients who are losing aid were working, and 55 percent worked enough to earn more than $800 a month. But that’s still not enough to raise children in the East Bay, which has perhaps the highest cost of living this side of Manhattan.

Take the case of “Trang,” a woman whom Bay Area Legal Aid is helping to appeal the county’s decision to cut her off. Trang, who doesn’t want her real name used, arrived in Oakland as a Vietnamese refugee in 1991 and moved to Georgia in search of decent work. All she got was a child from a man who left her. In 1993, Trang moved back to Oakland’s Fruitvale district, got on welfare, and took a job at a sweatshop. She sewed clothes together for $4.75 an hour, but soon developed health problems. Although her childhood asthma was manageable in the clean air of rural Vietnam, exposure to the grit of industrial Oakland squeezed her lungs, and she was unable to work more than six hours a day. Last week her two-week sweatshop paycheck totaled a little more than $300. But thanks to her utter lack of functional English, Trang has no choice but to toil in such establishments. The only English word she knows by heart, she says through an interpreter, is “work.”

Without English, social workers agree, Vietnamese welfare clients have no realistic chance of gainful employment. An unfortunate paradox lies at the heart of this problem. Because Vietnamese immigrants are dumbfounded and terrified at the strange, urban, fast-paced world they’ve arrived in, many take shelter within their own community, which offers a sense of continuity and stability. As a result, they don’t have to learn English to survive. They can shop at Vietnamese grocery stores, attend Vietnamese-speaking churches — they can perform almost every basic function of living entirely in their mother tongue. But when the welfare payments come to an end, they don’t have the employment options of English speakers and are at the mercy of the immigrant community’s tenuous economic health.

Before coming to the United States in 1991, Binh Vong was one of Vietnam’s unpersons. Her husband was a South Vietnamese cop during the war, after which they lived in poverty on the rural outskirts of Saigon. They had no electricity, employment, or social life. Every morning, communist police officers arrived at their door and demanded to know what they had done for work, what they had eaten, and whom they had spoken to the previous day. Vong dreamed of coming to America, finding work, and sending money back home to her family. But when she and her family arrived here, she was disoriented by the freeways, skyscrapers, and bustle of the East Bay.

As her father-in-law fell ill, Vong went into a state of shock; she was diagnosed with a nervous disorder and was prescribed medications that made work impossible. She was too terrified of the outside world to venture beyond the immigrant neighborhoods of San Antonio. In the twelve years she has lived in the East Bay, she has never visited the cities of Berkeley or San Leandro, nor even set foot in North Oakland. She made her first friend outside her own family last year, when a county social worker ordered her to begin job training at the East Bay Vietnamese Association.

Although her English is better than Hoang’s, Vong has no realistic chance of functioning in American life. She is 47 years old, with virtually no command of the English language and with a lifetime of trauma inside her. She sounds very much like our own Vietnam veterans, many of whom the federal government has acknowledged will never recover from their experiences in Southeast Asia and has agreed to support them with lifetime subsidies.

Perhaps that’s how we should view this generation of Vietnamese welfare clients. Hoang came to this country under a program to save former officials with the South Vietnamese government, and Trang arrived here because her family includes an Amerasian war baby. Within these programs is a tacit acknowledgment of a debt owed by the American government. Hoang and Vong worked alongside the military thirty years ago; they are, in a sense, every bit the veteran that I Corps soldiers were. And they suffer from the same psychological traumas occasioned by our foray into that madness — but speak no English and find themselves in an alien world.

Of course, such fine distinctions are lost on the ponderous institution that is the American welfare program. Vietnamese welfare clients don’t have congressmen to take up their case, they don’t have caseworkers with the mandate for such flexibility, and they don’t have the ear of a sympathetic public. And so it will fall to men like Lai Luu, director of the East Bay Vietnamese Association, to do what they can for them — to find employers or food banks or churches that will save the first members of the American underclass to fail the experiment of welfare reform.

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