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The Boat People's Dreams

Vietnamese remember not just pain, but US consumer goods as well

THE television news showed clouds of smoke billowing over Shek Kong detention camp, as Hong Kong police in full riot gear waded into the crowd of angry Vietnamese. Ambulances brought out the dead and wounded. Although the events took place on the far side of the world, they hit close to home; 12 years ago, my foster son was also a Vietnamese "boat person," living on hope and brown rice in a refugee camp. Now he is a medical student. His younger brother, who escaped to Hong Kong last year, will likely be sent back, with his wife and child.

Now that the American-led isolation of Vietnam is ending, officials from Secretary of State James Baker on down are saying that renewed economic and diplomatic relations with the West, combined with "involuntary repatriation," will stop the flow of boat people. But my years of associating with Vietnamese immigrants and their peculiar vision of the American dream have given me a different perspective.

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Mr. Baker and the experts are talking about rational economic behavior. They assume that a Vietnamese who is getting by in his own country will not uproot himself and risk his life at sea to head for an alien land 12,000 miles away. But a generation of Vietnamese see in America much more than a better job.

"The Yankees have colonized our minds," a postwar German intellectual complained. In Vietnam, we have colonized their souls. What our armed forces failed to do in war, our VCRs, sports cars, and black leather jackets are doing in peace. We have won their hearts and minds.

When we think of the United States impact on Vietnam, we see only suffering. They remember not only the pain of war, but also the unparalleled prosperity, the flood of consumer goods from "the rich country" that touched everyone, from high officials down to the poor who peddled American cigarettes.

A much briefer exposure to American goods during World War II generated the South Pacific "Cargo Cult," whose devotees prayed for the return of the ships and airplanes. The Vietnamese, more sophisticated, know the American supply ships will not come back, and that the Soviets have nothing to send. It was clear, early on, that Communist economic policies were a failure. So the desperate and the ambitious became the boat people.

VIETNAMESE who don't have the connections to qualify for the legal Orderly Departure Program still seek their fortunes in the rich country, no matter how dangerous the voyage may be. Those who succeed remit enough money to their families to create a "gift package economy," even though trade is prohibited. Refugees send cash and goods through Canada and France. Even families receiving public assistance are expected to send home $300 to $1,000 at Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

Agencies can ship to Vietnam anything from a sewing machine to a Japanese car. Cash goes by mail, disguised with carbon paper to foil currency-detection devices in Vietnam. Vietnamese physicians write prescriptions in English to fill here. Visitors smuggle in dollars, and I have heard of families sending home "ancestral remains" consisting of pig bones filled with gold.

In Ho Chi Minh City, you can buy the most popular American videos, jeans, soft drinks, perfumes, and magazines - all from gift packages. With the packages come photographs: of college graduation scenes, of young men driving black Camaros, of girls in Western bridal dresses. And with the photos come dreams.

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The dreams of the young fit, like key and lock, into the memories of the old days, when wealth flowed west across the Pacific.

The international politicians and economists are trying to bring Vietnam into the world community, but economic development, even in a non-communist state, is a slow process. The young want action now.

Why should they stay home and forget their dreams, when their history is filled with promises made and broken? The Americans promised freedom and prosperity - and then abandoned their own children, the Amerasians, to beg in the streets. The communists told them, in Ho Chi Minh's famous phrase, that "nothing is more important than freedom and independence," and gave them instead reeducation camps and subservience to Moscow.

But for those refugees who have succeeded in the rich country, the promise of freedom and abundance really has been fulfilled.

Vietnam should be recognized, serious internal economic reforms should be encouraged, and aid should come from the West. These are long overdue. But to expect that recognition, development aid, and forced repatriation will stop the boat people is unrealistic. The Vietnamese left in poor villages, urban slums, and refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia, won't easily let go of their dream. It's the only dream that has come true. y.

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