Sometimes I have some fun stumping my colleagues in Congress with Texas trivia.
Do you know the third most spoken language in Texas?
Most quickly count out English and Spanish on their fingers, but they always scratch their heads at number three.
The answer won’t come as a surprise to Houstonians who have stopped for pho on Bellaire Boulevard, or those who have visited the annual Children’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebrating this culture’s heritage at Cali Saigon Mall in Garland.
But for those newcomers who haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting this spirited community, I’ll fill you in: it’s Vietnamese.
Texas is home to more than 210,000 Vietnamese-Americans, and when the 2020 Census results are tabulated, I bet we’ll find that population has grown. A large portion have settled in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where you’ll find vibrant neighborhoods celebrating their culture.
However, it wasn’t always this way. The first big wave of Vietnamese immigrants came to Texas nearly a half a century ago after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Fleeing Vietnam’s new communist regime, they flocked to Texas for freedom and opportunity, values we Texans hold in high regard. Like so many still do today, they voted with their feet.
Texas coastal communities with ample fishing particularly attracted them because they reminded new settlers of home and provided jobs to match their skills. The warm and humid climate around Houston was also familiar. And once the seed of a few Vietnamese settlers had been planted, from there the community only grew.
Keith Robinson Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American lawyer, isn’t surprised Houston’s Vietnamese community is thriving. “You have Vietnamese doctors, Vietnamese teachers, Vietnamese lawyers, so we can help them from A to Z without having to use an interpreter,” he said.
Headlines continue to captivate us with Texas’ growth and diversification, and Asian-Americans account for a large part of that story. They now make up at least five percent of Texas’ 29 million residents – nearly 1.5 million in total.
I have had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know many Vietnamese-Americans in our state over the years. Their story epitomizes the American Dream of economic opportunity and upward mobility, and I can tell you firsthand the community they’ve built is as tight-knit and vibrant as they come.
We’ve seen time and time again that Vietnamese-Americans in Texas take care of their communities. I think of Father Tran at St. Peter Catholic Church in Rockport picking up the pieces of his neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey – both literally and figuratively. Or of Lisa Nguyen, owner of Cowboys Nail Salon in Plano, donating every one of her boxes of N95 masks to nurses and doctors at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center caring for COVID patients when PPE was in short supply last spring.
Navigating a new country can be tough in itself, and when your new home comes under siege from a Category 4 hurricane or a deadly pandemic, life can suddenly get a whole lot tougher. Vietnamese-Americans in Texas have kept a strong focus on their community, faith, and culture – and when they do, all of Texas is better for it.
Texans who have been to Little Saigon in Houston know the pho, banh mi, and Vietnamese coffee here are second-to-none. But we know the contributions of Vietnamese-Americans to Texas culture span far beyond the delicious food – though it is truly delicious. Their culture is woven into the very fabric of this country, and it serves as a helpful reminder of the obligations we have to one another as neighbors.
This month, our Vietnamese friends celebrate Tet Nguyen Dan, commemorating a new year and the opportunity for a fresh start. Millions of Vietnamese gather – perhaps virtually, this year – with close family to honor their ancestors and celebrate new life through traditions and games, homemade food and a clean home. I think it’s fair to say we could all use a fresh start, and there’s much more we can learn from this celebration and our Vietnamese neighbors who honor it.
To my Vietnamese-American friends: Best wishes for Tet Nguyen Dan. Thank you for your vast contributions to Texas and for your warm friendship over the years. And a very happy new year.