From Balancing Act to Bridge Building: A Profile of Trần Việt Hương
by Pearl Sensenig
This piece appeared with the title "Vietnamese-American Turns Balancing Act into Bridge Building" in the The Gospel Herald on August 3, 1993. Used with permission.
Trần Việt Hương has straddled Vietnamese and U.S. culture for the past 16 years. Now she has turned that balancing act into bridge-building.
Việt Hương and her family left Việt Nam for the United States a week before revolutionary troops entered Sài Gòn (now Ho Chi Minh City), their home, in 1975.
Last year, Việt Hương returned to East Asia to work with Mennonite Central Committee at the Center for Educational Exchange Program with Việt Nam, based in Thailand. Việt Hương is a member of the Philadelphia Vietnamese Mennonite Church.
The center supplies services to North American universities that have exchange programs with Việt Nam. Many universities sponsor Vietnamese scholars, scientists, and professionals to attend conferences and study programs.
Việt Hương's duties include communications with Việt Nam, following up on visa applications, booking tickets, making transit arrangements in Bangkok, and accounting. These tasks must be done from Bangkok because the United States has not normalized relations with Việt Nam, making communications difficult.
But the center’s purpose goes beyond facilitating education exchanges; Việt Hương says exchanges give Vietnamese the opportunity to learn to know people in the United States.
“For many, especially northern Vietnamese, their only knowledge of Americans may be that Americans dropped bombs, killed their families, and destroyed their country.”
And she says exchanges give Americans a chance to learn more about Việt Nam, more than war, fear of communists, and pain. “Many misunderstanding exist between Vietnamese and American people. I hope I can be a bridge to help people from both sides update their images of each other.
Việt Hương sympathizes with the difficulty Vietnamese have adjusting to American culture, remembering her own early years in the United States. She grew up in Sài Gòn, where her father, Trần Quang, was pastor of a Mennonite church.
In 1975, Quang was attending a mission meeting in Lancaster, Pa., when Sài Gòn came under communist control at the end of April; he could not return to Việt Nam. Viet-Huong, her mother, and her siblings left Việt Nam in the belly of a military cargo plane.
“At the time I didn’t think I was leaving for good. I was only 15 and unaware of what was happening. I just followed my mother. I don’t remember saying goodbye to anyone. We each brought a change of clothing and nothing else,” she says.
In Philadelphia, Việt Hương worked as an office manager, had purchased a house, and was well on her way to making the American dream come true. Many people couldn’t understand why she wanted to give that up to return to Asia through MCC, but “I prayed about it and felt that God was leading me in this direction,” she says.
“I was so fortunate, I had many opportunities in America, but I always wanted to return to Việt Nam to live, work, and reconnect with my roots.”