Written by Kim A. O’Connell
When I was a child, my mother, a Vietnamese immigrant, would often drive us from our home in suburban Maryland to the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va., to go shopping. There, in an enclave of markets, boutiques, and restaurants known informally as “Little Saigon,” she could speak in her native language to shopkeepers and fellow customers. We would gorge ourselves on spring rolls—called cha gio—and have sweet sesame balls filled with bean paste for dessert. To an American-born girl like me, the sights, smells, and sounds were fascinating. To my mother, it was like going home.
Today, hardly any trace of Virginia’s Little Saigon remains. Arlington County, as a close-in suburb of Washington, D.C., has become increasingly urbanized in the last three decades, especially along its busy transit corridors. Washington’s Metro subway system had played a direct role in the development of Little Saigon, but it eventually hastened its demise as well. Researching this history has become both a personal and a professional quest of mine.
When my graduate preservation program encouraged projects that promoted cultural diversity, I saw an opportunity to study Little Saigon and learn more about my own heritage at the same time. In addition to doing archival research, I interviewed several former refugees—people like Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who often served as a community representative in the 1970s, and Anhthu Lu, who arrived in Arlington as a teenager and helped her aunt run a gift shop in Clarendon. They and others revealed a common struggle to retain their traditions while assimilating into American life, a phenomenon that a Vietnamese priest once described as “catching two fish with two hands.” In their voices, I heard my mother’s voice too, and felt new empathy for her experience.
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