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Teaching Vietnamese in OC classrooms brings challenges, rewards

Two flags hang in Van Vu’s classroom at Murdy Elementary School in Garden Grove: one red, white and blue, the other yellow with red stripes – the flag of the former South Vietnam that’s still widely flown by Vietnamese refugees in Orange County and elsewhere. 

Vu teaches transitional kindergarten in the school’s first Vietnamese dual language immersion program, which started this fall. Dual immersion, in which students spend half the day learning in English and half in another language, is becoming increasingly popular in California and across the U.S.  

But only six programs nationwide offer Vietnamese; two of them are in Orange County.

But although OC’s Little Saigon is home to the largest population of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans outside of Vietnam, developing the dual immersion programs  has required navigating a complex web of interests that reflects the changing nature of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Most first-generation Vietnamese Americans fled the Communist regime back home after North Vietnam seized Saigon in 1975. Many are sensitive about the materials and lessons — even the language — used to teach their children and grandchildren about the home country and their native language. 

“Little Saigon is where the first refugees came to … so people here are not so removed from what happened,” said Renae Bryant, former director of the Westminster School District’s Office of Language Acquisition. 

In 2015, the district pulled a textbook used to teach Vietnamese in middle school after Westminster Mayor Tri Ta voiced concerns that some of the text promoted Vietnam’s Communist regime. Bryant later formed a textbook committee, which included the mayor and his wife, to vet classroom materials.

Bryant recalled the committee debating whether certain words used in textbooks were "pre-1975” words or words that may have sprung up under Communist influence. 

“People who remember being forced out of their country and having to flee, and really atrocious things happening to their relatives and to them – it's sensitive to them. They don't want any of that Communism reflected in their books."

When Bryan helped set up Westminster School District’s dual language Vietnamese program, which started in the fall of 2015, using teaching materials from Vietnam was ruled out.

Instead, the district turned to Cal State Fullerton’s National Resource Center for Asian Languages. Director Natalie Tran and colleagues have spent the last three years collecting and producing teaching materials in Vietnamese and other Asian languages.

Tran has worked with Vietnamese-American writers to produce close to 250 children's books in Vietnamese. All are in digital form and available for free on the center’s website. 

Tran, who left Vietnam on a fishing boat in 1988 at age 8, also facilitates ongoing outreach to the local Vietnamese-American community to make sure there's "alignment between what is valued and what is taught at home, and what is valued and what is taught at school.”

But younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans don’t necessarily share their parents’ and grandparents’ painful memories of Vietnam or their rejection of the country’s current political system. 

"We have to strike a balance between respecting, valuing the core values of the first generation while at the same time meeting the needs of the second generation and the third generation and helping them to make sense of their experience,” Tran said.

Tough questions about, for example, how to teach the Vietnam War — known as the “American War” to many Vietnamese — through Westminster and Garden Grove’s dual language programs are a few years off. Westminster’s program currently only goes up to second grade and Garden Grove’s is just starting this year with transitional kindergarten. 

But Tran is looking forward to helping develop those materials. 

"It's actually an opportunity for us to provide history or social study that reflects a different perspective,” she said.

Manh Vo feeds her granddaughter Madison, 4, an after-school snack. Vo, who speaks Vietnamese, said communication with her granddaughter has improved since Madison began the Vietnamese dual language immersion program at Murdy Elementary School, Sept. 19, 2017.
Jill Replogle
Manh Vo feeds her granddaughter Madison, 4, an after-school snack. Vo, who speaks Vietnamese, said communication with her granddaughter has improved since Madison began the Vietnamese dual language immersion program at Murdy Elementary School, Sept. 19, 2017.

Honoring elders through language

Kelly Nguyen picked up her 4-year-old daughter Madison outside Murdy Elementary School on a recent afternoon. Nguyen is thrilled that her daughter is learning Vietnamese at school. Not only is it great for her brain and her future resume, she said, but Madison is also picking up cultural norms that are important to Nguyen. 

“She’s speaking Vietnamese to her teacher every morning and she bows, and says, 'Good Morning, Teacher.' So I’m so happy. Good manners, too,” Nguyen said with a laugh.

She carried Madison across the street to her mom’s house, like she does most days after school. 

In the kitchen, Madison’s grandma, Manh Vo, dished her up a bowl of Caramelized Pork and Eggs.

Nguyen said she wants Madison to have a close relationship with her grandmother, the kind of relationship that Nguyen missed out on. While she came to the U.S. as a child, her mother stayed in Vietnam and just recently emigrated to Garden Grove. 

Nguyen and her husband speak only rudimentary Vietnamese. She sees Madison learning the language as a kind of gift to her mother and in-laws.

 “The connection with your grandkid, it makes them so happy,” Nguyen said. "And I want to make them happy because I know they sacrificed and they gave us a lot. Whatever little things that my kid can do for them, I want my kid to be able to do it.”

As Madison becomes more fluent, Nguyen said, she’ll rely on her to translate things she wishes she could convey to her own mom. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Tri Ta is the former mayor of Westminster. We regret the error.