Little Vietnam in Boston

Little Vietnam in Dorchester

When a customer asked her age in Vietnamese, An Thanh Nguyen replied immediately in English.

“I am three years old.”

Right away,  Tinh Tam Ho, her mother shook her head and asked her youngest daughter to reply again in their mother tongue, Vietnamese, while showing her three right fingers as a prompt.

“I’m… three… years… old,” Nguyen said in halting Vietnamese.

“What I and my husband worry is not our children cannot speak English but they will forget Vietnamese. We always ask them to speak Vietnamese at home,” said Ho, who owns a Fields Corner-based restaurant, which is frequented by Vietnamese people in Dorchester.

Dorchester, which is nicknamed Dot by its residents, houses the biggest Vietnamese community in New England. It is estimated that there are about 19,000 Vietnamese residing there, mostly in Fields Corner, one of the two main business districts there and the heart of the Vietnamese community in Boston.

Nam Pham, executive director of Fields Corners-based Vietnamese-American Initiative for Development (Viet-AID), said Vietnamese immigrants began to flock to Boston’s largest and most populous neighborhood in late 1980s.

Viet-AID was founded in 1994 by community leaders and residents who believed that a community development corporation would provide comprehensive economic development programs and services to alleviate poverty and advance civic participation in the Fields Corner Vietnamese community of Dorchester.  Viet-AID now is the only Vietnamese-American community organization in Boston after the Vietnamese-American Civic Association merged into it on May 1.

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“They [Vietnamese people] chose Dorchester because of two main reasons. The housing is cheaper than other Boston’s neighborhoods and the transportation is convenient. They can commute to downtown by train,” said Pham whose office is located right next to Fields Corner Station.

Ho said she arrived in Dorchester in 1987, one year after illegally immigrating alone to the United States.

With no job, no education, no English, no house, no family and no friends, Ho originally struggled. Life became a little easier when she attended a school for Asian immigrants and worked as a waitress downtown.

With hard work, within just two years, the immigrant from the south of Vietnam managed to open a small restaurant in Chinatown. Ho moved her restaurant to Dorchester in 1993 and one year later, she married a fellow immigrant.

Ho and her spouse aren’t the only Vietnamese family in Dorchester worrying about the gradual loss of their native language in their American-born children’s generation.

Mai Nguyen, who settled down in Dorchester nearly 20 years ago and has two children born there, said it was a common worry among Vietnamese families.

“Besides speaking Vietnamese with children at home, more Vietnamese families send their kids to Vietnamese classes held by Viet-AID,” said Nguyen, who sometimes volunteers to teach Vietnamese at Viet-AID.

Pham said Viet-AID has many supporting programs for Vietnamese American people. Apart from two learning programs for Vietnamese children, it has worked on teaching others on real estate, house counseling, first-time home buying, economic development, nail salon, energy saving. These programs are aimed to promote civic engagement and community building, develop affordable housing and commercial space, provide small business technical assistance and micro-enterprise development.

Larry Pham, who settled down in Dorchester in 1982 and saw himself as one of the Vietnamese pioneers there, said Viet-AID has done a good job for the Vietnamese community.

“Thanks to it, recent years Vietnamese American kids have received formal Vietnamese education. It also helps preserve Vietnamese cultural traditions. Besides, Viet-AID helps Vietnamese adults in many ways,” said Pham, who has four children born in Dorchester. He and his children always converse in Vietnamese.

Nguyen agreed. She said her family usually participated in programs held by Viet-AID to celebrate traditional holidays such as Tet, the Vietnamese New Year holiday, Ram Trung Thu, Mid-Autumn Festival and Gio To Hung Vuong, Hung Kings’ Death Anniversary.

Meanwhile, Ho said: “We celebrate Tet quite the same as in Vietnam. We go to cho tet [special markets selling Vietnamese New Year stuffs], offer red envelops [monetary gifts given during Tet or special occasions] and visit each other’s families.”

Vietnamese people in Dorchester, Ho said, tend to celebrate Tet on weekends because it often falls on weekdays.

Unlike Ho, Pham said he didn’t really enjoy Tet when it falls on the first day of the month because then the rent and other bills are due.

“I feel a little sad because I have to pay for bills on Tet, which is quite different from what I experienced on Tet in Vietnam.”

Pham, who has worked for a Vietnamese bridal shop in Fields Corner, said his family tended to have a saving Tet celebration.

When asked about safety in Dorchester, which the media often refers to as Boston’s most dangerous area, Pham said when he first came, the place was unsafe.

It was because of the safety, Ho said she moved her family to Quincy, some seven miles from Dorchester, more than ten years ago.

“About fifteen years ago, Fields Corner was full of violence. The security has much improved since more Vietnamese people opened businesses here.”

Nguyen said although her neighborhood along Dorchester Avenue is now more peaceful, she always stayed alert to strangers and tended not to open her front door when hearing knocks.

Pham, Viet-AID’s executive director, said Fields Corner currently was quite safe and his organization has worked toward changing people’s perception of it.

“Our mission is to build a strong Vietnamese American community and help transform Fields Corner into a vibrant, diverse neighborhood.”

He estimated about 300-400 Vietnamese people moved to Dorchester each year.

Linh Bui is among the newcomers.

“It is not just because of the cheap rent. I chose to live there mainly because I can easily go to Vietnamese markets, eat at Vietnamese restaurants and meet Vietnamese fellows. That cannot be found in other places in Boston,” Bui said.

When asked if she was ever afraid of the safety in Dorchester, Bui said she sometimes returned home after 11 p.m. but she felt nothing abnormal.

Bui works for an IT company in Davis Square, Somerville, more than 10 miles from Dorchester. It takes her about one and half hours to commute back and forth every day.

“It doesn’t matter as long as I can taste Vietnamese foods,” Bui said.

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