Making the Drive to Brooklyn to Find 'Family'

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Thoa Kim Thang drives almost an hour every Sunday from Jersey City to Sunset Park, Brooklyn to attend a Vietnamese mass.

Thang could go to the Catholic church a few miles from her home, but she chooses Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located on 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, because she feels at home with the 20 other Vietnamese parishioners. Half of those commute long distances for the service, as well.

“It's a small group, but I like it that way. It's like we're a family,” Thang, 55, said in Vietnamese recently. “The Lord brought us together, and we love each other like family. Vietnamese people are like that.”

Metro area residents of Vietnamese descent are doing what they can, traveling far distances and connecting online, to try to transform their population into a community as other ethnic groups have. This church, as well as a new school, have emerged as new “pillars” of the nascent community. It takes effort to coalesce, because only about 11,000 Vietnamese live in New York City, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Of this population, 31 percent live in Brooklyn, 29 percent in Queens, 25 percent in the Bronx, 13 percent in Manhattan and the rest are in Staten Island, according to Hong Lee, chief operations officer of the Asian American Federation. That’s compared to other local Asian populations of almost 375,000 Chinese and more than 90,000 Koreans.

The relatively small numbers explain why there is no one Vietnamese enclave in New York, said Peter Cheng, executive director of the Indochina Sino-American Community Center on the Lower East Side. That's despite being the second-largest Southeast Asian American group in the country (second to Filipinos), 1.1 million strong nationwide as of the 2000 Census, with concentrations in California, Texas and the Washington, D.C. area.

The urge to congregate goes beyond religion, as the Vietnamese are uniting around the city for social gatherings. They use networking Web sites like, or attend the New York Vietnamese School in Chinatown for language classes.

Thuy Pham, assistant dean of the Vietnamese School, said students commute from all boroughs and even parts of New Jersey to study the language. Their motives are probably the same reason why she wanted to study the language – to not only preserve the culture, but a part of herself.

“It's really encouraging and satisfying that there are people who want to maintain the language and culture,” Pham said. “I grew up in New York City not speaking the language. I don't want people to struggle the way I did, waiting to understand the way I did.”

The school, which started in Jan. 2008, has consistently enrolled about 100 to 125 people, including both adults and children, for each quarter. All teachers are volunteers, Pham said. Alana Chuong, who is half Vietnamese and half Chinese, was a student but now helps with school administration. She grew up in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and said the school has helped her grapple with her ethnic and social identity.

“New York City is a lonely city when you're of Vietnamese descent. The school has helped me reconnect with my Vietnamese self. Without the spirit of community, I would not be able to read and write,” Chuong said. “Everyone is actively or inadvertently looking for community.”

The mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help is in many ways symbolic of the Vietnamese's pilgrimage to find community, said Father Peter Cao. Cao is Vietnamese, but because of his fluency in Chinese dialects, he was sponsored by the church to start a Chinese congregation. Cao said when he first came the demand for a Vietnamese mass was so high that more than 30 parishioners started a petition. Shortly after, in June 2005, Cao led the first Vietnamese mass.

“Vietnamese people are spread out, and religion brings them together,” he said in Vietnamese. “But Vietnamese people gather either way. We have to create a community.”

The church's openness has made itself a sanctuary for all Vietnamese people, whether Catholic or not, Cao said. While Buddhism is the most common religion in Vietnam, the Vietnamese in America tend to be more Christian, particularly Catholic.

Nam Nguyen is a Buddhist and teaches Vietnamese at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He initially came to the church because his sister attended mass, but stayed and became one of the most active volunteers. “When the father is here, it's like we're a family,” Nguyen said. “And when I teach Vietnamese here, it's about the culture.”

The mass always ends with the 20 parishioners slowly chanting a biblical verse. The chanting echoes in the enormous cathedral, and as their voices transform into one sweeping note, it is obvious that the parishioners have found a community that speaks and hears its language. Then, they abruptly stop, and quiet takes over the cathedral.

To some, the scattered population is beneficial to the Vietnamese community because it attracts other ethnic groups, parishioner Caroline Quan said. That's also the case at New York Vietnamese School, where more and more Americans are taking classes to connect with their spouses.

“When you congregate, there's more segregation,” Quan said. “Since it's so spread out, you can encourage non-Vietnamese people to participate in your own roots. It's inviting that way.”

– Kim Thai