"When we heard this, we were all screaming with joy,” Nguyen said. "Since then, I think of myself as an American.”
Today, Nguyen, of Oklahoma City, wears two flag pins on his lapel. One is the American flag and the other is commonly referred to as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom flag. It has a yellow field with three horizontal red stripes, symbolizing the unifying blood running through north, central and south Vietnam.
Vietnamese and Cubans have been quickest to assimilate. Vigdor said this is explained by the politics of their native countries.
"The set of individuals choosing to flee a communist nation likely include a high proportion of entrepreneurs or skilled workers,” Vigdor said. "These people were drawn from the economic elite of their home country, and they face very strong incentives to make their way here because they can't go back.”
Nguyen arrived at age 34. He went to college and ultimately received a master's degree. In 1999, he returned to Vietnam for the first time to attend his mother's funeral.
"I miss it, but I don't want to go back, not until there are no more communists,” Nguyen said.
Some regret the loss of their culture
Nguyen raised his children speaking only English in the home. They have virtually lost their understanding of Vietnamese.
"It's my fault that they cannot speak Vietnamese now. But I wanted them to be American. I wanted them to feel like they belonged here,” Nguyen said. "Now, sometimes, I regret making them lose that part of their culture.”
The mainstream perspective of assimilation, Vigdor argues, is often oversimplified.
"A lot of people are caught up on the cultural issues. What they appear to be advocating is that somehow using our language will make you a more active citizen,” Vigdor said.
Canadians and Europeans have little difficulty adapting to our language and culture, the study shows, but they usually come for economic reasons, rarely naturalize and eventually return to their home countries. Immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and even Mexico are often more committed.
"They are in it for the long haul,” Vigdor said.
Around the dinner table, the Chavez brothers often are called to interpret more than language. They also decipher culture, music, fashion and even humor. Their parents have been here more than 20 years. But those years have been insulated. Their beliefs in the simplicity of work and family were fully formed before they came. Their understanding of the world around them remains strained, perhaps stifled by translation.
"Sometimes, they just don't get it,” Luis Chavez said.
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