US Presidential Elections: Voices of Vietnamese voters in New York City

BBC Vietnamese has published a Vietnamese version of this article

Father Thomas Tran and members of Cecilia choir posing in front of the St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church

A candle-lit photo stood by the altar of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx. Father Thomas Tran, in an emerald robe, was presiding over a mass commemorating the assassination 53 years ago of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s former president.

Dozens of elderly men dressed in black suits and bright yellow ties with red stripes sat in the first rows of the pews. One of these men was Dao Minh Chau, 72. The tie he wore is symbolic of the South Vietnamese flag and epitomizes the bitter sentiment toward the current Vietnamese communist regime.

“Trump! Trump!” said Dao. “I’m voting for Trump,” he cheered as he walked out of the church. Dao is an ex-military officer of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and a former reeducation camp prisoner. Like thousands of other Vietnamese who served under the defeated South Vietnamese regime, his family migrated to the United States in 1992. He gained his American citizenship five years later and has voted Republican ever since.

One street south of the church, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple was organizing an afternoon meditation session. In a modest-sized room engulfed by the smoky sweet aroma of incense, roughly thirty people were chanting prayers for the souls of the dead.

Diep Kien, 48, said she voted for Hillary Clinton because Democrats care more for the people. Kien came to the United States in 1989 with her father, who was an interpreter for the South Vietnamese government. A devout Buddhist who values an individual’s’ freedom, Kien has always voted Democratic.

The 2016 presidential election revealed the division within the Vietnamese community. According to the 2014 American Community Survey, about 13,400 Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans are residing in New York City. Some are economic migrants, but a large majority came as political refugees after the fall of Saigon throughout the late 1970s and early 1990s. Even in this relatively small community, one can find stark differences in its political outlook. The lines can be loosely drawn along religious affiliations and generational differences. Roughly half of the American Vietnamese practice Buddhism and tend to vote Democrats while twenty percent is Roman Catholic and has traditionally voted Republicans.

Meditation session at Thap Phuong Temple led by sister Hoa Nghiem

The older generation of Vietnamese Catholics are generally staunchly pro-life and oppose same-sex marriages. Peter Hoang, 74, voted for Donald Trump partly on social and moral grounds. “If Clinton comes to power, she’ll support abortion,” Hoang said. “America would lose its integrity.”

Hoang also served in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. After the war, he spent eight years in a re-education camp. In 1992, the U.S. government allowed him, his wife and six children to migrate to the U.S. as refugees under the Humanitarian Operation (HO) program.

According to Tyler Tran, 26, a majority of former South Vietnamese officials and their families feel indebted to Reagan and Bush’s administrations. “They view the Republican Party as the one that brought them here,” he said.

Tran voted for Clinton during the presidential election and so did his mother. His father, on the other hand, has always voted Republican and 2016 was not an exception. “He does it out of principle,” said Tran. “I understand and don’t give him crap for that.” Tran’s father was an army major based in Hue. After the war, the North Vietnamese communist government kept him in a re-education camp for thirteen years and did not allow him to hold any official job after releasing him in 1988.

According to Tran, his father did not disagree with Trump’s talk on deporting over 11 million undocumented immigrants. “He sees it as we came over here legitimately and they didn’t,” said Tran.

Not all of Tran father’s peers were supportive of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker for them either. Hoang remembers being shocked when he first heard Trump talking about building a wall along the Mexican border and mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. “But talking is one thing and executing it is a completely different one,” he said. “Trump spoke in hyperboles during the campaign to please the public.”

The President-elect has since softened his radical anti-immigration rhetoric and indicated that he would deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records. Trump went on to suggest that the remaining undocumented immigrants might be permitted to stay in the country.

First, second and third generation of Buddhist Vietnamese Americans enjoying lunch in Thap Phuong temple’s dining room

Similar to their Catholic counterparts, not every Vietnamese Buddhist in New York City voted for Clinton. A source, 36, who has asked to remain anonymous, voted for Trump. “I want a change,” he said.

The man owns two pharmacy stores in Brooklyn. He said pharmacies have suffered for the past years as a result of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. “The reimbursement rate is very low,” he said. For some medications, such as HIV drug Truvada, he loses $25 dollars per unit to certain insurance companies under Obamacare. This is why he supports Trump’s call to repeal the Obamacare.

The source also agrees with Trump’s tax cuts. “People who make more money should not have to pay higher taxes,” he said. “We work hard for money.”

The night before the Election Day, the man told himself he would not go vote because he knew Clinton would win New York. But, his sisters called him the next morning and made him go vote.

“They don’t take their right to vote for granted,” said Tran about his parents and the older generation of Vietnamese Americans. “They didn’t have this right back in Vietnam,” he said. “Ever since I was old enough to vote, we went to vote as a family.”

The Vietnamese community is regarded as one of the most integrated and politically active minority groups in the United States. Recently, Stephanie Murphy (Democrat) became the first Vietnamese American female to be elected to Congress to represent Florida’s 7th Congressional District.

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