Pho And Cherry Blossoms

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A woman shopping at the largest Asian supermarket in Oklahoma City: Super Cao Nguyen.
The "milk bottle building" is an Oklahoma City landmark and is located in the Asian District.
Super Cao Nguyen Supermarket--located in the Asian District--is known for having a hefty selection at the meat counter.
Lee's Sandwiches is an American fast food restaurant chain specializing in Vietnamese cuisine. It is located in the Asian District in Oklahoma City.

By Kanna Deutsch

“It changed my life forever,” Holly tells me. She is remembering the days of lugging heavy textbooks in and out of one of the old lockers in sixth grade at Harding Middle School in 1981. She is remembering the mandatory alphabetical seating in classes, which placed her desk next to Ngoc. It was the experience of figuring out the middle school years with Ngoc that Holly says eternally shaped her. “She became a true friend and was the first real friend I had from another country. She was one of the smartest, hardest working kids I ever met, and she went on to become the valedictorian of our senior class,” Holly says.

Ngoc is just one of many whose family came from the Far East and settled in central Oklahoma. A large portion of the Asian community in Oklahoma City came here after the fall of Saigon, which marked the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Both individual and church sponsors brought thousands of refugees to the city from the civilian and military camps. Their appearance here in ’75 triggered the birth of the Asian District, anchored on Classen Boulevard in between Oklahoma City University and the Paseo Arts District. Most are familiar with its famous landmarks: the “milk bottle building” and the Gold Dome.

Since the original influx in ’75, Asian families have continued moving to Oklahoma City, changing both the landscape and culture of the city. In cases similar to Holly’s, local schools have seen a shift in the ethnic landscape of their hallways. One student who has seen this shift first hand is Chris, a young Caucasian man who recently graduated from an area high school. He describes how his educational experience was made richer by meeting and making friends with kids from Asia. Chris attended a high school that was, at most, two percent Asian and a middle school where derogatory racial slurs were frequently murmured in the hallways. However, that two percent forever left their mark on not only Chris, but many other students in his high school.  He recalls one Asian friend in particular, Xu, who encouraged his classmates to apply to out-of-state universities, schools they never would have previously considered; Chris attributes his current enrollment at Rice University as proof of that influence.

Aside from the academic changes he witnessed at his high school, Chris has seen changes in Oklahoma City society as well. “I think the recent influx of Asians to Oklahoma City has opened up the well-established white culture here. The Asian district on Classen Boulevard has become a destination as more of my friends shop at Cao Nguyen supermarket and eat at sushi bars and Pho restaurants. I think Oklahomans like the hints of Asian culture that are growing in the city.”

Chris is not the only person to notice the changes taking place. Vivienne, who is an employee at Café Oasis, a restaurant in the Asian District, has noticed Asian products like Pocky and Sriracha Sauce at Walmart – items which were not carried a few years ago. Vivienne, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan, has grown up making frequent trips to the Asian District. “I used to come here every weekend when I was growing up with my parents and it’s definitely grown a lot. It used to be just a couple restaurants and now it’s huge . . . A few years ago I didn’t even know what pho was,” she says, referring to the Vietnamese noodle dish.

Jennifer Clowdis, a secretary for several Asian-run businesses, including the Vietnamese public radio station, says that her personal experience here has “opened me up to try different things, foods, try to understand their language, their religion.” However, she says that the most valuable thing she has learned about is the work attitude exhibited in the office. “I learned a lot about them and how they work for absolutely everything they have.” she says. Maily Do, one of Clowdis’ employers, and her siblings are examples of the work ethic Clowdis has observed. Like many other Saigon refugees, Do and her siblings were thrown into the public school system here as soon as they arrived, without ever having learned English. Since the English as a Second Language program did not exist at that time, they went to school during the day and learned English in the evenings while completing their homework. Do now oversees the Vietnamese public radio station. One of her sisters is an actuary, while another is a prosecutor. She also has three brothers, one of whom just retired from the air force, another worked as a naval commander, and the third is a petroleum engineer.

Besides the cultural influence, the Asian influx directly benefits the city’s economy. Scott Beuch, a local attorney who has lived here for over forty years, has witnessed the birth and growth of the Asian community. “I’m sure they’ve brought in a lot of capital to the Oklahoma City area. They work and . . . are reinvesting their money into businesses.” Beuch says that the immigrants have spread out from the Asian district and many take pride in assimilating to American culture. “There are some people here that are very into community and building relations between the Vietnamese and Oklahoma community. They’re a bunch of go-getters,” he says.

Donny Ho, owner of Blue Diamond Studio and President of the newly formed Asian Chamber of Commerce, agrees. He adds that the growth within the Asian district translates to, “more income . . . [and] more jobs for the community. Since they’re spending more money on remodeling [there is] more money for the community,” referring to the many recent remodeling projects in the district. The Asian Chamber of Commerce was recently started by Ho and other leaders of the Asian community to be a “resource to Asian businesses, their communities, and their leaders [as well as to] unify the Asian people and [we] will work together for the good of our community, cities, and state,” according to the official website.

However, not everyone in the Asian community in Oklahoma City perceives the journey across the Pacific as having entirely positive consequences. According to Beuch, discord has accompanied many of the migrants here. He describes old rivalries between Vietnamese who had supported the communist government and those who did not. Beuch also says there is concern over too much assimilation. He says twenty years ago, “kids were usually valedictorians when they got into the system. When the family units become more Americanized, the children do too, and they become less successful.”  He has witnessed a shift in the value education holds within the family.

The cultural change the new immigrants have brought is easy to see all around Oklahoma City. While I wait at Saigon Baguette, I spot a Caucasian woman waiting patiently in line while wrestling with her restless young son. Standing beside them is a Caucasian university student reading the labels on the many Asian tea drinks lined up in the fridge.  Both ask the owner about the sandwiches offered and admit it is their first time trying Vietnamese food. When I go to shop at Whole Foods, I notice the shirataki noodles next to the packages of mochi. At Cool Greens, a girl types on a laptop decorated with Japanese cherry blossom trees.

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