A visit to Orange County, California
Every U.S. ambassador to Vietnam must meet with Vietnamese Americans living in Orange County, California, where shopping centers fly the yellow flag that once flew over South Vietnam. In Little Saigon, it’s easier to find phở than tacos.
In July 2015, I first visited Little Saigon. Flanked by local political leaders and members of Congress from both parties—Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce, Loretta Sanchez, and Alan Lowenthal—I spoke in Vietnamese with five hundred community members, hoping to learn their concerns. I began by poking fun at my Hanoi accent, giving the southerners permission to laugh and to ask questions in their mother tongue.
Ambassador Ted Osius in Orange County, CA, July 2015
When Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, whispered, “good job, Ambassador,” I began to relax. Afterward, young and old people approached to shake hands or take a photo with me. One woman asked if she could drape her yellow flag around my shoulders. I smiled and declined, because a photo of me with that flag would not have played well back in Hanoi.
An older man stepped up, seized my lapels, and in clear Vietnamese said, “I spent eleven years in a reeducation camp.” His nose near my face, he dared me to respond. I mumbled words of sympathy and asked if I could do anything for him.
“I spent eleven years in a reeducation camp,” he repeated. Confused, I asked again, “How can I help?” A third time, he said, “I spent eleven years in a reeducation camp.” Suddenly, it was clear. He wanted those eleven years back.
This man may have been forty years old when Saigon fell. He spent half his life fighting for a country that no longer existed, followed by eleven years in a horrific place, where jailers beat into him their truth—that he had fought on behalf of a corrupt, spent regime. They told him that real Vietnamese patriots fought for the north, for independence. He had found his way to a new country, the United States, only to face the pain of watching Washington and Hanoi reconcile and seeing his young relatives visit Hồ Chí Minh City along with the other tourists, investors, and businesspeople flocking there.
I promised him that I would do all I could to ensure that his children, and his children’s children, would face a different future. Reconciliation was good for Vietnam and the United States, but I understood that this man had lost so much that reconciliation was not possible for him.
“Nothing Is Impossible reminds me of Vietnam Now by former Los Angeles Times bureau chief, the late David Lamb. Like David, Ted is a great storyteller connecting the people he’s met along the way to the pivotal moments in Vietnam’s modern history.
From lifting the U.S. trade embargo by President Clinton in 1994 to Vietnam’s crackdown on civil society leaders during President Obama’s visit in 2016, one can sense Ambassador Osius’s frustration as well as his jubilation in his dealing with Washington, DC, or Hanoi where he once called home. Someday he will return with his family to call it home again. For he is an American at birth, but a Vietnamese at heart.” —Trịnh Hội, lawyer and television host