What's so great about Phoenix? See it through Vietnamese immigrants' eyes

Opinion: Immigrants who moved to Arizona from Vietnam tell us about our city, our state and ourselves.

Megan U. Boyanton
The Republic |
People shop at Wing Lee Poultry for their Vietnamese groceries on Feb. 19, 2017 in Mesa.

In the United States, immigrant stories follow a certain narrative.

Determined to seize opportunities, newcomers bid their ancestral lands farewell, parting with beloved friends and relatives in the process. Even in the face of uncertainty, they believe diligence will lead to prosperity.

And it often does. Through sweat and tears, they build American lives from the ground up.

In the case of the Vietnamese, though, the plot slightly shifts: They were survivalists scrambling from a violent, dragging war.  

Through their experiences within this city, they reveal much about how we view ourselves and – perhaps more importantly – how others view us.

Xenophobic? No, Phoenix is a melting pot

Our country isn't a utopia. Discrimination still rears its ugly head. But progress chugs forward, however sluggishly.

As an amorphous cultural melting pot, Phoenix is a prime example. Immigrants swirl smoothly into the effervescent fusion of ethnicities surging through the city's lifeblood. 

Dr. David Vu is among them. His life is a stark contrast from those of his forebears in southern Vietnam.

Back in the rice fields of Cà Mau, his grandfather spent his days farming. Here in the Valley, 50-year-old Vu works as a solutions architect at World Wide Technology. 

And he serves as the president of the Arizona Vietnamese Community, a Chandler-based organization dedicated to the state's fifth-largest immigrant population.

Vu found freedom after oppression

Vu knows oppression well.

It perpetually loomed over his daily routine before his teenage self fled the country in 1981.

When his father, a medical officer for the U.S. forces, was imprisoned by the communist government, Vu found himself caught in the cross-hairs of conflict.

"I did not have freedom in Vietnam," he said. "My family was being watched every step."

After first landing in Memphis, Tenn., his anxiety over the language barrier did not hinder him from fulfilling his parents' hopes of reaching his potential in the "Land of Freedom." 

Three university degrees later, he eventually settled in Arizona – and has remained here for more than a decade.

To this day, relatives back in his motherland ask if he's found what he's looking for. He reassures them that he has.

"It's just everything that I ever wanted," Vu said. "It's perfect for me."

Vi's warm welcome after a hasty escape

Linh Vi agrees. The 39-year-old has claimed Arizona as home for seven years, appreciating its friendly residents and quiet living.

She used her platform as the CEO and founder of Vietnamese-American Arizona Television to broadcast a glowing tribute to the state: a song performance in her native tongue about its beauty. 

The daughter of a former government employee for South Vietnam, Vi characterizes her childhood as "pretty rough" in the metropolis of Saigon – renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war.

Time and again, her family attempted to escape. Then one fateful day, they penetrated the militia and crossed overseas to Massachusetts.

Vi has not forgotten the initial warm welcome by Americans. Moving into the new house, different neighbors offered their assistance, plates of food and invitations over for dinner. 

Why many still want to come here

Carlson Bui has a voice that resounds his California upbringing, missing any accent from his youth in Biên Hòa.

Through blurred memories, the 39-year-old recollects thinking the family was headed on vacation when they left everything behind for a refugee camp in the Philippines.

Bui says many in Vietnam still desire American citizenship. 

"We should be grateful of what we have," he said, "the air we breathe here in America." 

To him, the burgeoning city of Phoenix provides a better atmosphere for raising a family and more opportunities for self-exploration. 

And business is decidedly better. His company, Carlson Construction, encounters less competition here.

We've quickly embraced their culture

The Vietnamese population sprawls across the country's fifth-largest city, but the East Valley claims a concentrated segment.

Vu says the majority settle in Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa where more Vietnamese grocery stores and supermarkets flourish. 

The metropolitan area fosters an appreciation for pho, the popular noodle soup rooted deep into the hearts of the community. 

Years ago, Bui opened Pho 602, a Phoenix-based eatery. 

On the first day of every business trip out of state, Vu habitually finds a local Vietnamese restaurant to compare and contrast cooking styles.

But the McDonald's Big Mac was his first great American love, and he still describes the combination of meat, cheese, vegetables and condiments as "heaven."

Racism is still there, but so is curiosity 

Vu has dealt with racism – in school and otherwise. Acknowledging it as commonplace and unavoidable, he points towards human nature as the culprit.

And while tolerance of immigrants has grown since his parents' generation, Bui can also recall incidents of prejudice against him, including bigoted police officers. 

Although he's frequently mistaken for Chinese, he perceives the error as a chance to educate others.

Alternately, Vi says she has never encountered ethnic discrimination.

Her career in assisted living means regular interactions with the elderly and she finds an overwhelming majority express interest in her culture.

Such curiosity is the reason why the Arizona Vietnamese Community welcomes the public to events that promote and preserve its customs. 

The next major occasion is the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept. 14 – a celebration for children at the El Zaribah Shriners building in Phoenix.

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