NEW ORLEANS — On a steamy summer morning, Minh Chu would normally be far out in the Gulf, hauling in huge loads of shrimp in the blistering sun. Instead, he's standing in an alley, the air sticky as cotton candy, rain falling, clutching a paper ticket — a small measure of how a massive oil spill has shaken up his life.
Chu is a deck hand, or he was until two months ago when the spill put him out of work and rippled across his world. Before that, he had been saving to bring his wife, Nguyen, from Vietnam to America. He'd also been sending her money regularly since they wed three years ago. Now he needs help just to buy food.
And that's what brings Chu to a Vietnamese community center this day where he's among dozens of people lined up hours before the 9 a.m. opening when 25 coveted stubs will be exchanged for $100 grocery vouchers from Catholic Charities.
He's grateful to have made the cut, but anxious, too. Chu has always worked — he proudly notes he got his first job in a factory within two weeks of arriving in the United States 32 years ago. He can't bear being idle.
"I feel like I am lost," says Chu, a wiry 52-year-old whose hair is specked with gray and voice clouded with dejection. "Sometimes I worry and I cannot sleep. I'm thinking about how am I going to make money to sponsor my wife, thinking about how am I going to pay my bills."
Southeast Asians hit hard
The oil spill that has forced thousands of Gulf fisherman off their boats has been especially cruel to those in the tight-knit Vietnamese community here who find themselves wrestling with cultural and language barriers even as they face the threat of financial disaster — just five years after surviving Katrina.
By some accounts, about a third of those trawling the Gulf waters are Southeast Asian, mostly Vietnamese. Some 40,000 Southeast Asians live along the Gulf Coast, according to one nonprofit group that estimates 80 percent of them could be hurt by the oil spill. They include fishermen as well as deck hands, shrimp packers, oyster shuckers, restaurant and hotel workers.
Many of the Vietnamese speak little or no English, making it hard to navigate the bureaucratic maze of loans, claims and regulations. Their odds of finding new jobs are slim, considering the tough economy and their limited language and job skills. And for some, there's yet another hurdle: They're paid cash, so they don't have documents needed to apply for compensation from BP's $20 billion aid fund.
"It is more complicated for them," says Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation, which was formed to help the Vietnamese community after Hurricane Katrina. "But they're very resilient people, used to rebuilding. They've been put to the test several times in their lives. They have a little bit more experience at it."
Turbulence again and again
For some Vietnamese families who settled in eastern New Orleans, the oil spill marks the fourth turbulent chapter in their lives.
The first occurred when their country split in 1954, and they fled to escape the Communist north. Then decades later, they were uprooted again as the war ended and Saigon fell in 1975.
In the years after, they began settling in this city with a long Catholic heritage, transferring generations of fishing experience to jobs in their adopted homeland. They bought homes, opened restaurants and groceries and had established a successful community in New Orleans when Katrina blew in, wiping out years of hard work.
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Just as some Vietnamese families were getting back on their feet, they now find themselves scrambling again.
"There's a saying that what doesn't kill you will make you stronger," says U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Vietnamese-American representing part of the New Orleans area. "I guess from my perspective because many have encountered these situations before, I think they're better able to adapt, better able to find solutions."
The Rev. Vien Nguyen, who traveled the Gulf Coast after Katrina visiting displaced parishioners and urging their return, isn't totally convinced — not yet.
"Right now, they're numb," says the priest, who until recently headed the giant Mary Queen of Vietnam parish, the spiritual center of the community. "With Katrina, after 14 hours we could assess the damage. Here, it's still continuing. That's the uncertainty."
What these families did in the past, he says, isn't always a barometer of their future.
"They've experienced turmoil before and come through it, so there's a certain confidence they will prevail," he says. "On the other hand, some people are overwhelmed and I don't know if they have the time and strength to rebuild. I'm still waiting to see how it turns out."
One man refuses to quit
Trung Tran has already made up his mind.
The 56-year-old shrimp boat captain bounced back five years ago after his $200,000 boat was smashed to bits in Katrina. He had no insurance, but he didn't hesitate for a moment. He borrowed $100,000, he says, bought another vessel and within months was back in business.
Tran has never considered quitting. Then or now. His fishing roots go back to his father and grandfather, both of whom lived on the water in Vietnam. But now his 85-foot boat, the Midnight Prowler, is docked, his three deck hands are out of work, his wife is job hunting and he feels helpless — he's hoping to get hired by BP to help in the cleanup. (The oil company has been paying $5,000 a month to captains who file work claims.)
"I've got three kids in college. I have lots of bills. This is still my life's work. This is all I know. I am so sad," he says through an interpreter. "What else can I say? I love my job. I want to go back to work."
It's a sentiment voiced daily among men accustomed to spending long weeks sleeping under the moonlight, now cooped up at home, waiting for answers no one has — when will the mass of molasses-colored oil stop expanding and when, if ever, can they pick up where they left off.
"These men are very, very proud," says Tuan Nguyen, of the Mary Queen of Vietnam center. "They came here with nothing and worked their butts off. To not be able to work, to have their hands tied, it really gets to them."
But they rarely let it show. They don't talk with counselors — the Vietnamese have a stigma about seeking mental health help — and few psychiatrists speak the language. Some also are reluctant to reach out for basic assistance, so they send their wives.
Lives in contrast
It took Duc Pham seven weeks to get in line. He says he'll manage just fine on whatever compensation BP provides. "If other people can survive, then I can, too," he says through an interpreter. "I just don't like the idea of begging."
Pham, a deck hand on a shrimp boat, had trouble collecting compensation, he says, because he's paid in cash and his boss didn't want to acknowledge he was an employee even though Pham has worked for him 10 years. He eventually found someone to vouch for him.
Pham has long since abandoned the grand vision he had of America when he arrived as the youngest of 11 children, stepping on a boat to work at age 15.
"When I first came here, I have a dream that this would be THE place, an ideal place to work, to one day bring my family," he says, his words halting as he holds a folded $100 grocery voucher. It didn't turn out that way. He has spent 24 of his 39 years doing backbreaking work. He knows little English.
"Life here has been very difficult," adds Pham, whose wife and three kids have chosen to remain in Vietnam.
For other Vietnamese fishermen, though, America has turned out to be the proverbial land of opportunity.
Tom Huynh arrived as a war refugee. Eventually, he found his niche in tuna and escolar fishing, earning enough money to buy a house, help three brothers and sisters through college and become a mini-employment agency for the men of his hometown of Phan Thiet — his five deck hands are from there, and they cut a colorful swath on the water, decked out in matching purple Louisiana State University T-shirts.
Huynh has little to do these days so he drives two hours every few days to maintain his 75-foot vessel. "Some days I wake up and I think I'm still on the boat," he says through an interpreter. "I miss what I do. That's all."
Tha Hua does, too. He came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a child and now at 35, he's an oyster fisherman with a Southern drawl, a good-ole-boy charm, a 41-foot boat with a quintessential American name — "Team Cowboy" — a crew of four and a business that brings in about $200,000 in a good year.
The spill shut him down completely, though he (and his boat) were recently hired to help in the skimming. It's a lucky break, but he worries about the years ahead and what the chemical dispersants will do to the oyster beds.
"The hardest part about this is I don't know when this is going to end and what the outcome will be," he says, standing in a rain-drenched marina in Empire, La. "I've been doing this 18, 20 years. ... I try not to think about it. It's out of my hands now."
More uncertainty than Katrina's blow
After Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community joined together to rebuild. It was easy to measure progress, brick by brick.
"They could see their houses go up piece by piece," says Jennifer Linh Vu, an aide to Cao, the congressman. "In one block, people worked on one house at a time. This is different. It's not something physical they've lost this time. It's more. They can't go out and buy something and fix it. They're waiting on someone else to help them and that's what makes it so hard."
Vu has been part of the congressman's rapid response team that was dispatched after the spill, traveling to 15 cities in three Gulf states holding town hall meetings to assess the needs of the Vietnamese communities. They've helped people file claims, explained the law and made sure there are enough interpreters.
Language has occasionally been a stumbling block. In one early meeting with BP, she says, the company provided two Vietnamese interpreters who struggled to translate words and phrases such as dispersants and junk shot — BP's unsuccessful gambit to shoot golf balls, tire scraps and other debris to clog the well.
Some Vietnamese fishermen also have fallen prey to unscrupulous lawyers who persuaded them to sign legal agreements that will take as much as 50 percent of any settlements they might win.
Similar problems have surfaced in Mississippi, where a coalition has been formed to help nearly 5,000 Vietnamese-Americans, only about 10 percent are now believed to be working. One of the group's goals is to get financial institutions to defer bank notes and mortgages.
For now, many in the Vietnamese community are hoping they'll be hired for the cleanup.
Minh Chu tries to remain upbeat; he has overcome obstacles before. He worked in factories in Illinois and Arkansas, even though a childhood grenade accident left his left hand disfigured. When the jobs dried up there, he moved to New Orleans and started over.
He has received two $1,250 checks from BP, he says, and while that has helped enormously, he still wonders how he'll make up his annual income of $20,000 to $30,000. He hasn't seen his wife in two years. Now any reunion has been put off.
But he doesn't dwell on that. Every night he phones his wife with a $5 calling card and offers comforting words.
"I tell her I look for a job," he says with a slight smile, "and I tell her not to worry."
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