Office of Inclusive Excellence

The History of the Vietnamese Communities in Monterey County since the early 1980s

May 17, 2022

By Tuyến Nguyễn

After the collapse of the South Vietnamese Government on 30 April 1975, Southern Vietnamese people began to escape Vietnam by boat or by crossing the neighboring countries’ borders to find freedom.  They lived in many different refugee camps in several Southeast Asian countries and applied to seek their political asylums in the United States. Eventually, the U.S. government opened the humanity policies and allowed Southern Vietnamese from the Refugee Camps to immigrate into the United States.  Hundreds of thousand Vietnamese arrived in the U.S. and lived in many states. However, a large number of Vietnamese immigrants chose to settle in California and resided in several big industrial cities in Silicon Valley, Orange County, Sacramento area, and other Southern Counties. A few of them arrived in Monterey County.

Vietnamese immigrants came to Monterey early 1985 and settled in four cities such as Marina, Monterey, Salinas, and Seaside.  Many of them were peasants, fishermen, or South Vietnamese Army veterans who came with minimal education and limited English and vocational skills.    Those Vietnamese were confident that they could work as fishermen or restaurant owners or helpers utilizing their skills.  However, they had to deal with a lot of challenges while seeking work in Monterey. When the U.S. Immigration Department accepted their political asylum’s application, it did not offer any cultural and English classes at the refugee camps to help them understand American multicultural society and systemic inequalities in order to integrate into it with awareness. Lacking proper orientation, the Vietnamese community members were not equipped to adjust their expectations of their new homes properly. For instance, the county failed to offer enough English classes to help them learn communicate with non-Vietnamese speakers. Besides, most Vietnamese Immigrants had neither owned any vehicles nor driven any vehicles in their lives. Many Vietnamese Immigrants came to the United States with large family members with young children.   

To help them survive, the Vietnamese immigrants took advantage of local and federal Financial Assistance Programs to attend the Monterey County Adult School Program to study English to help them get their driver licenses and job training certifications. For those who were fishermen in Vietnam, they could continue to work as fishermen in Monterey. Others became restaurant helpers. But they felt that they were mistreated because employers took advantage of their poor English and their lack of understanding of relevant US labor laws. They did not receive any help from local unions who could have represented them. Their jobs were jeopardized and sometimes paid below the minimum wage. Because of these reasons, Vietnamese immigrants started to leave Monterey County for other cities where there are large Vietnamese communities to seek job protections and better working and living conditions.

When I came to Monterey, I used the government’s financial assistance programs to attend the Monterey County Adult School classes before enrolling in Community College and applying in a higher educational institution later. The difference between their adversity and mine was that I came here by myself and was able to focus on my education. For most, they had to seek jobs to assist their family members and their children without having time to attend a higher education school.  With their cultural shock experiences, they did not want it happening to any new Vietnamese comers in Monterey. Most of Vietnamese immigrants in Monterey were Buddhists; they built the Vietnamese Ưu Đàm Buddhist Temple where they hoped all Vietnamese Buddhist immigrants could come together to show their support for one to another, to share their living experiences, and to maintain their language, traditional costumes, and cultural practices while living outside of Vietnam. They also established the Marina Ưu Đàm Vietnamese Buddhist Association in 1986 to support Vietnamese Buddhist members and other Vietnamese immigrants. Most leaders of the Marina Vietnamese Buddhist Association were the old generation and tried to avoid any participation in political forms in the United States. They were witnesses of war crime execution, political corruption, and government collapse during the Vietnamese War before 1975.   They really wanted to leave behind their nightmarish political experiences and to move forward in their current lives in the United States. Thus, the Marina Vietnamese Buddhist Association was quiet and did not get any local city government’s recognition.

Since I came to Monterey County at the end of 1986 from the refugee camp, I became involved in the Marina Ưu Đàm Vietnamese Buddhist Association and worked with the association closely.  I not only served as a liaison between the Vietnamese Buddhist Association and local government offices, but I also represented the Vietnamese Buddhist Association in their work with local organizations in recent years. The Marina Ưu Đàm Vietnamese Buddhist Association started anticipating in the local events and shows their support to against Asian Hate Crime in the United States in the last two years.  

As an immigrant educator, I got an opportunity to teach at California State University-Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and worked with many underrepresented faculty to make sure that the university carries out its missions by accepting local low-income and/or colored high school graduates and by hiring more faculty from the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.   Some Vietnamese high school graduates had their chance to enroll in CSUMB. Also, it was my great honor to work with Dr. Angie Ngọc Trần, who is a tenured faculty member, to have the Vietnamese voices in any local organization’s events and local governmental activities in Monterey County. After leaving CSUMB to teach at Monterey Peninsula College, I established the MPC Vietnamese Student Association to provide an opportunity for the Vietnamese students to work with local BIPOC organizations and to support them whenever they call for help. In order to welcome non-Vietnamese Asian students to join the association, I worked with the existing students to broaden it from the Vietnamese Student Association to the Asian Student Association.  Moreover, to reach out to and include other local BIPOC organizations’ political views, the MPC Asian Student Association has been organizing its Annual Cultural Show since 2000 to give the Vietnamese community and other BIPOC communities an opportunity to share their cultures with one another and to contribute their united voices to local government offices on issues of social and racial justice.  

Overcoming the original mistreatment and discrimination and the resulting outmigration to other cities as explained above, the Vietnamese Buddhist community has become stronger over time because our members have been participating in the democratic process and local government events as well as joining with other local organizations to raise their voices. They have learned a hard lesson from being silent during the Vietnamese War and when they first arrived in Monterey County. They have learned to speak up in unison against any mistreatment and discrimination against their community Buddhist members in Monterey.   

Having a strong support from Dr. Angie Ngọc Trần and her tireless advocating for the Vietnamese community in Monterey, the Vietnamese Buddhist members joined the Anti-Hate Crime Rally, which was held in front of Monterey City Hall in April 2021, to express their solidarity against hate crimes, exacerbated during the pandemic, that have been perpetrated on Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States.  After the rally, the Coalition for Asian Justice (CAJ) was established. The Monterey Vietnamese Buddhist Association was proud to become a member of the CAJ.  The Vietnamese Buddhist members also reached out to other Vietnamese people in Monterey to join the CAJ in signing the Petition to Stop the Pacific Grove Feast of Lanterns and showing their respect to the Chinese victims who were abused by white privileges in the early nineteenth century in Monterey.  The Vietnamese community in Monterey showed its solidarity to work with other Asian and Pacific Islanders’ organizations to let American people hear their voices and their concerns.  They believe that working together with other organizations they could improve the lives of Asian people in Monterey in general and could make a huge difference to the Vietnamese Buddhist Association members in particular in seeking social justice.  

Since the CAJ membership has grown in recent months, more educators, professionals, and organization leaders, including Vietnamese educators who have worked at CSU-Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula Community College, have joined this organization.  They could help the Vietnamese immigrants in Monterey to stand up for justice and to contribute their voices to any local political issues. The Vietnamese Buddhist Association members and other Vietnamese in Monterey have broken their silence and are participating in their local governments to help the Vietnamese immigrants understand the impacts of government policies that affect the Asian communities at large. They know that their voices matter in fighting for social and racial justice.  Being silenced, afraid, and mistreated no longer have a place in the Vietnamese community in Monterey. 

Tuyến Nguyễn is a Monterey Peninsula College math instructor, MPC Asian Student Association faculty adviser, and member of the Monterey Vietnamese Buddhist Association