2006: Phuong Ly, The Washington Post
Award for Diversity Writing

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A Wrenching Choice They are called 'kirogi,' or wild geese

January 9, 2005

South Korean families separated by an ocean. The parents want their children to be taught in the United States, but the cost of an American education can be the fracturing of the family, often for years. This is the story of one kirogi family.

The flag of South Korea hung high above Hannah Kim's head as she sat in her Howard County classroom, listening to the day's lesson on immigration.

Her social studies teacher described how 14 million people have immigrated to this country since 1990, the year before many of these seventh-graders were born.

"Fourteen million," repeated Cliff Bernstein, looking around. "Why do people want to come to the United States so badly?"

Jobs and homes and democracy, one girl offered hesitantly. A couple of students doodled in their notebooks; others stared into space.

Hannah's hand shot up. "They want to learn English and get a better education," she said.

Education has brought Hannah to this classroom and to a white frame townhouse in Ellicott City. But the price of her American education -- and her escape from the relentlessly competitive Korean school system -- is a fractured family. Hannah's mother, Jungwon Kim, and two younger siblings are here with her. Her father, Keeyeop Kim, an executive in South Korea, stayed behind to finance his family's life abroad.

They have lived this way -- children without a father, wife without a husband -- for a year. Their plan is to live this way for nine more years.

The Koreans call them kirogi, or wild geese. The birds, a traditional symbol at weddings, mate for life. And they travel great distances to bring back food for their young.

Korean officials can't say how many families are kirogi, but they know how many children are leaving the country: 10,000 school-age children left to study overseas in 2002, up from 4,400 in 2000.

Hannah's mother knows at least two other families like hers in their tree-lined subdivision. Several more attend her church. Their numbers swell the ranks of Korean children in Howard County schools: Each year, nearly 400 Korean-speaking students are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Language classes, making them the largest ethnic group in the program.

The families also are turning up in other suburbs with well-regarded public schools. The Korean Embassy Web site links to the home pages of the Fairfax and Montgomery counties' school districts.

In South Korea, a First World country of broadband Internet and skyscraper shopping malls, society still runs on an education system that dates to the age of kings. Jobs, social status, even marriage prospects often are determined by how well someone performs on national school exams. There is little room for creativity or enterprise.

To live successfully in the family's homeland, Hannah, 13, would have to give up her drums and piano unless she expected to make music a career, the Kims said. Eugene, 11, would have to put away his inline skates to attend after-school tutoring sessions. Even Terry, 4, would be doing something practical, such as studying the IQ tests that the bookstores sell packaged in bright cartoon covers.

"I see the big picture in the U.S.," Jungwon Kim, 38, said. "They can go to a nice college and have time to have a good time with their friends."

The Kims are part of a middle-class subset of U.S. immigrants who arrive here not out of financial need but out of a desire to give their children other advantages. For the suburban school districts, the influx of Korean students requires additional resources to teach them English. But many move quickly into regular classes and help raise the school's performance.

Korean society always has placed a premium on an American education, with the English skills and global experience it brings. Keeyeop Kim, Hannah's father, remade his future at age 20 when he went to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, after failing to score high enough on a foreign service exam and being shut out of South Korea's marquee universities.

With the slots at those universities becoming more precious, many students are leaving well before college. Agencies in Seoul offer to help settle mothers and children in English-speaking countries, and Web sites provide tips on real estate, banking and handling stress. Typically, the mothers enroll in community colleges and apply for student visas, which allow them and their children to immigrate easily.

For the Kims, the details of immigrating were simple: Jungwon Kim, who lived in this country with her parents as a teenager, is a U.S. citizen. So are the three children.

But the details of dividing the family have been far more complex. Eugene struggles with English. Hannah feels guilty about her parents' separation. Jungwon Kim finds herself questioning the choices they made. And Keeyeop Kim senses an odd distance from his children: With just three visits in the past year, his chief connection is a nightly phone call.

When the phone rings in Ellicott City and the caller ID flashes "Out of Area," they become a family again.

"Appa," Eugene will say, grabbing the phone. Daddy.

Best Year Ever

When Hannah thinks about school in Korea, she remembers the afternoon her classmate approached her in tears.

The scores for the year-end exams in their school were announced days earlier, and Hannah had finished first in the class. A perfect 100. Her friend received the second-best score. His parents grounded him. Now he was terrified of the next round of testing.

This was fourth grade.

"I didn't want to live in a place where you get so much pressure," Hannah said, recalling that day.

By Korean standards, the Kims' home town of Taebaek is considered slow-paced. A town of 50,000 tucked in the mountains, it is four hours southeast of Seoul.

Still, Hannah soon would be facing the maxim of "four in, five out," a Korean proverb that means those who settle for four hours of sleep a night will get into the most prestigious universities and those who sleep five hours will not.

Her classmates already were filing out of school every afternoon onto buses taking them to "cram schools" for hours of tutoring. Her parents did not want that type of future for their children.

So in August 2002, before the start of sixth grade, Hannah was sent to live with her grandparents in Howard County. The next summer, her mother and siblings followed, and the Kims bought a townhouse, a Toyota minivan and new furniture.

Here, Hannah's afternoons are filled with band practice, private drum lessons and church youth group. Academically, she has thrived, cycling quickly out of ESOL classes and making the honor roll at Patapsco Middle School.

In many ways, she is a typical teenage girl -- she hates wearing her glasses, frets over her baby-fat cheeks and cuts out photos of Korean pop stars and Orlando Bloom. But she exudes a self-confidence uncommon for her age; along with the hearts doodled across her notebooks are her mantras: "I won't be marked as average" and "I will be remembered."

"Patapsco is so much fun. This is the best year of my life. Ever," Hannah declared one evening.

She and her mother -- matching images in their jeans, untucked T-shirt and auburn-tinted hair -- were lingering over their dinner of Korean barbecue beef.

"What about next year?" Jungwon Kim asked.

"Mom, are you going to kill me if my grades are underwater? You know, 'under C.' Get it?"

Her mother shot her a look of mock threat: "I'll have to think about going back to Korea."

"Then I'll get all F's," Hannah retorted. "I've forgotten most of my Korean."

Kim touched her daughter's hand lightly. "No, I don't care if you don't get straight A's. But I know you probably will. You work hard. You're special and you're smart," she said, and then smirked. "Because your mom's smart."

"I'll say my dad's smart, but you, I don't know," Hannah replied.

Her mother doesn't look offended. She began reminiscing about her husband, whom she met in college.

Hannah said nothing. That night, she was scouring the living room for her drumsticks when she stopped suddenly. The sticks were lying on the end table. So were the framed family snapshots, two pictures taken at Tokyo Disneyland, the family's last big vacation before Hannah left.

"I kind of feel sorry, mostly for my mom," Hannah said, looking at the photo of herself, Eugene and their father sitting on a park bench. "She can't have a husband because of us. If we weren't here, why would she leave her husband?"

She picked up her drumsticks and pounded the couch.

'Don't Need a Husband'

The light in the freezer refused to blink on. Jungwon Kim could still see the ice pops that the children wanted that summer evening, but the burned-out bulb bothered her. She screwed in a 60-watt and watched the freezer light up. "See," she said smiling. "I'm good at these things. Don't need a husband."

She has trouble believing it. In the mornings, she cannot attend the sunrise service at her church -- a ritual she observed faithfully in Korea -- because she doesn't want to leave the children alone in the house. The maintenance of the minivan, which she calls a "man's job," is her responsibility. When three of her sisters and their husbands took a vacation to Europe this summer, she didn't join them. "Couples only," she said.

She misses the companionship of the man she calls her lifetime friend. "When I get moody, I think about my husband and think, why am I doing this alone?" she said. "I'm sure God has a special purpose for my family. I don't know what it is."

The decision to split the family did not come easily, Kim recalled. She and her husband considered coming here together, as her parents did years ago. But her father had retired from his job as a police officer when he moved. Keeyeop Kim is at the height of his career, director of slot machine operations at South Korea's largest casino.

They talked about opening a business, as many Korean families do. But Jungwon Kim said the pressures of running a seven-day-a-week grocery or dry cleaners would mean the children might be, in a sense, losing both parents.

Ultimately, Keeyeop Kim decided the family should go on without him. Jungwon Kim said she hesitated but finally resolved that she could not ask him to give up his career and the status of his executive position. She experienced something like that herself when they moved back to Korea years ago and she was expected to stay home with the children, despite having a college degree.

She said she now believes her role as a full-time mother is a blessing. But she recognizes that the burden of cultural expectation falls squarely on Korean men. "Being Korean, in that way, I know I can't push my husband too much."

Her pastor in Columbia said he understands the dilemma.

"Biblically, the husband and wife should stay together, rain or shine. But this is not a black-and-white matter," said the Rev. Jonathan Song of the Korean American Church of the Philippi. "In Korea, only one in 10 children can bear the education system. What about the remaining nine?"

He said he knows several kirogi families in his congregation. One man missed his wife and children so much that he joined them, coming on a tourist visa and staying illegally. Now he works at a restaurant, busing tables. In Korea, he had an office. He asked his pastor whether he made the right choice.

Song closed his eyes. "It's almost unthinkable for a man of his stature to do this," he said.

In many ways, Kim said, her husband is making a bigger sacrifice than she is. Here, at least she has the children and her extended family. And increasingly, she has a circle of friends, including other kirogi mothers.

The separation is bearable, Kim said, when she thinks about the advantages they are giving their children. Still she worries about the children, especially Terry, who was just 3, and her father's pet, when the family moved here.

Sometimes, she gives the little girl a test.

"Where's Daddy?" she asks her. Terry always answers that he's in Korea -- working to buy her things, such as Barbies and Hello Kitty toys.

Kim said she worries that one day, her youngest child will ask why.

Missing Korea

It was time for dinner, but all Eugene could think about was math homework. He loves math, except for word problems. Numbers are a snap; they look the same in Korean. Words don't. Does "minus" mean the same as "subtract"?

Eugene handed his worksheet to his mother. Hannah jumped in: "When are we going to stop helping Eugene with his homework? We've helped him for nine months already."

Eugene glared at her. Try your best in school, Kim told her son in Korean. No more video games.

Eugene stomped downstairs to the playroom and slammed the door. Unlike Hannah, Eugene was not having the best year of his life.

Twice, Kim had been called up to Hollifield Station Elementary School by Eugene's fourth-grade teacher. Eugene had been involved in shoving arguments after he had trouble expressing himself in English. He would stand up in class and walk to the window, staring outside.

Eugene wasn't the perfect student back home, Kim acknowledged, but this year has been unusually tough. Of the three children, Eugene is most like his father, often shy about speaking to people he doesn't know well. And of the three, Eugene seems to feel his father's absence most acutely.

Eugene has told his mother that he would like to go back to Korea. Because that has not happened, he has made his life here as Korean as possible. All his friends are Korean. When it is "Drop Everything and Read" time in school, he pulls out a Korean book. He uses less English than Terry, who is in preschool but already knows the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme song.

His teachers said Eugene is bright and are puzzled by his struggle with English. A Korean-speaking outreach liaison works at the school. In the afternoons, Eugene spends an hour with an ESOL teacher. On Tuesdays, he attends an after-school "homework club" for immigrant children.

One in eight students at Hollifield Station has limited English skills. Still, the school's standardized test scores top the state average. Even the scores for ESOL students are at the state average. Many teachers have noticed the influx of Koreans and are flattered that these families have traveled so far to reach their classrooms.

Eugene comes from a middle-class background and, in that sense, is like most of Hollifield Station's students. He also has a stay-at home mother who speaks English, an unusual asset for an immigrant child.

Kim, however, knows she is not enough. "Of course Eugene is missing something. . . ," she said. "He doesn't have his father."

Boys often have the hardest time adjusting to the separations, said Sue Song, a mental health consultant in Howard County who has worked with about 20 kirogi mothers and their teenage sons in the past two years. The boys have failed classes, flown into violent rages and experimented with drugs. One family gave up and went back to Korea.

"They make a decision based on an idealistic situation, not so much based on reality," Song said. "When the years go by, a lot of things can happen."

Kim recognizes that and said she wants to shield her children from additional pressure. "I'll never tell Hannah and Eugene, 'You have to make good grades because Mom and Dad are suffering,' " she said. "I'll never say that. They didn't ask us to do it this way."

By the end of the school year, Eugene began to make some progress. He raised his hand in class, especially during math, in which he excels. He shared with some non-Korean classmates the games on his handheld computer. Still, he didn't like to speak much English. "It not fun," he said.

Fourth grade ended with a project on poetry. Eugene managed to fill a blank book with short rhymes, and his teacher, Jennifer Wilkins, praised him for his cover artwork: an aqua-blue house, red flowers and a big tree with a little cicada on the trunk.

Wilkins told the class to give their books one final touch: a dedication. As usual, most of the students started working right away. As usual, Eugene looked around the room.

Wilkins bent down beside Eugene and tried to explain what a dedication is.

Eugene raised his eyebrows: "Mwoh?"

It is a Korean word that Wilkins understood because Eugene said it so often. "Mwoh?" What?

She called over Justin, a Korean American boy. "It's like who inspired these poems," she said. "If he was going to give this book to someone, who would he give it to?"

Justin translated. Eugene finally understood.

He took a pencil and, in unsure print, wrote: "This book is for my dad because my dad in Korea."

Hedging His Bets

Halfway around the world in Taebaek, Dad was walking outside his high-rise apartment building. Dozens of dragonflies were darting around the deserted parking lot.

It was a gray, drizzly Sunday, the only free time in the six-day Korean workweek. Keeyeop Kim spent the morning in church. Except he missed half the service when someone from the casino called his cell phone. He would spend the rest of the day home alone, with file folders of paperwork. He shrugged. He had nothing else to do.

Across the parking lot, a little girl giggled. She was running, her arms propelling her like wings, and she breezed past Kim. Her mother followed, a bright blue net in hand. They were chasing dragonflies.

"A couple of years ago," Kim said quietly, "Eugene caught hundreds of dragonflies."

In the family's three-bedroom flat, all the children's furniture is gone. Eugene's room, with its sailboat wallpaper, has been turned into his father's office. On the computer, the weather is set to Ellicott City. Hannah's room houses an exercise bike and a weight machine. Snapshots of the children hang on the refrigerator.

Out on the balcony sat two blue American Tourister suitcases. Nearby, there was a new purchase: a set of Ping golf clubs. "There was nothing to do after I sent my family to the States," Kim said of playing the sport.

Of course, the golf -- like everything else in his life -- is intertwined with work. He was recently elected chairman of the employees' golf club, and his casino is building a world-class golf course. Kangwon Land rises, all glittering glass and marble, amid the low-slung buildings of this coal-mining region.

When Kim strides through the resort's chandelier-lighted halls, employees bow. He is a slight man who commands attention in his Italian suit and Cartier watch.

Inside the cavernous casino, Kim outlined his challenges with the precision of a math professor: where to position the machines to draw the most customers; how to increase slots revenue compared with the table games; which coins people are more likely to use in their wager. Kangwon Land's $300 million annual profit puts it in the ranks of such casinos as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, he said.

Not that it would be possible, he said, to become a top executive at the Bellagio or any other U.S. casino. Every Asian person he knows in U.S. casinos has a job on the marketing side, which he said is not in line with his shy, by-the-numbers personality. He worried about his lack of any network in the United States. And he is 39. It is not an age for starting over, he said.

"I want to be at the top," said Kim, who supervises 101 people. He will retire at 49, he has decided, 10 years without his family.

"It's a sacrifice," he acknowledged. "I don't live with the family. That's what parents do for the kids."

It is also a gamble.

A steady stream of stories in Korean newspapers depicts a shadow society of lonely fathers spiraling into depression. Many move from their empty homes into "officetels," or single rooms with maid service. Some are gaining weight on fast food and frozen dinners. Others are succumbing to what one newspaper delicately called "temptations," or sexual affairs. Several have committed suicide.

Han Jun Sang, a professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the kirogi phenomenon undermines the strong Korean belief that fathers are the head of the household. Without regular contact, the children will rebel against the father's authority, Han said, and his wife will become more independent. The fathers, Han said, "shrink psychologically."

Keeyeop Kim knows something about gambling. The only card game he plays is blackjack. And only for a half-hour at a time. Because if you play too long, he said, you can lose everything.

A Whirlwind Reunion

Jungwon Kim had a deadline and could not believe what the sales clerk at Sears was telling her: All the store's photographers were booked for the week. Kim insisted; she begged. Her husband was here in Ellicott City, for only a week.

She didn't know when he might be back. Finally, the Kims were squeezed into a Friday slot.

Their family life in Howard County, compressed into a visit of eight days, seven nights, was a whirlwind. They saw friends and relatives in Howard; they watched sports on television; they ate out every night.

There was a day trip to Hagerstown to shop for school clothes at the outlet mall and an open house at Hollifield Station to meet Eugene's teachers. For a wedding anniversary that was months away, Kim ordered his wife a Gucci purse and had it shipped express mail so he could give it to her in person.

One evening, Keeyeop Kim measured the children, as he did during his visit last January, and marked their heights on a piece of tape against the refrigerator. Hannah and Terry had grown about an inch; Eugene had shot up more than two inches.

But Keeyeop Kim's work intruded every day. Phone calls from his colleagues in Korea interrupted dinner. What bothered his wife, though, was that some of his time online -- and away from the family -- wasn't about work. Once, he was simply checking the CNN Web site.

By the final day of his visit, Jungwon Kim expressed some of the frustration she had been feeling for months. "He doesn't need a wife," she scoffed.

Keeyeop Kim was anxious, too. He felt like a visitor, more like an uncle than a father or husband. Terry has called the Ellicott City townhouse "our house" and told her father the apartment back in South Korea is "your house."

Kim, suddenly unsure of his decision to live this way for a full 10 years, began considering other options: retiring earlier or finding another job.

As he waited for a relative to pick him up, the children were scattered about the house. Eugene was in the living room, watching television with a neighborhood friend. Hannah was updating her Web diary to note that her dad was leaving: "sniff* i'll miss him . . . church was awesome today . . . the message was really . . . meaningful . . . what i just needed." Terry played games on the Barbie Web site.

At 3 p.m., it was time for Daddy to go, and Terry erupted into tears.

But not for her father. Her mother had shut off the computer. Terry wailed for Barbie. Finally, Keeyeop Kim scooped the little girl into his arms and walked to the front door. He gave her a kiss.

He hugged Eugene and Hannah and told them to be good. Listen to your mother, he said in Korean. Study hard.

He patted his wife on the cheek. Her eyes were red; so were his.

Hannah leaned against the door, weeping. Eugene immersed himself in his GameBoy. Terry forgot about Barbie and began crying for her father.

Outside, a car door slammed.

Two weeks later, Jungwon Kim picked up the family portrait. The large, silver-framed picture of her husband -- hand on her shoulder, surrounded by their three beaming children -- hangs in the living room.

In Korea, Keeyeop Kim has a smaller copy, tucked in his wallet.

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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

April 24, 2005

On humid Washington days, after thunderstorms churn up the smell of fresh earth, Sandy Hoa Dang remembers the war. When the bombs fell on Hanoi, she was a little girl, cowering with her family in a hole in the ground.

Hundreds of miles away, as victorious North Vietnamese soldiers stormed a beach town near Saigon, 5-year-old Phuong Nguyen's mother stashed her in a concrete cistern. Her fair, freckled face and uplifted nose were evidence: Her father was an American.

Kara Mai Delahunt, an infant then, was buckled into a seat of a 747 on one of the rushed flights that brought more than 2,000 orphans to the United States. Her new parents discovered that their child reacted strangely in their arms. She stiffened. She was not used to being held.

Thirty years have passed since Saigon fell April 30, 1975, time enough for these three women and a generation of Vietnamese Americans to come of age. Thirty is now the median age of the 1.2 million people of Vietnamese heritage living in the United States. Thirty is young enough to be haunted by Vietnam, old enough to have created new lives.

The war brought the three women to the United States under starkly different circumstances: one as a baby adopted into a Massachusetts home; another as a teenager escaping with her family on a fishing boat; the third as a mother granted a chance to immigrate because of her American blood.

They are connected by the past they left and the lives they lead here: Dang is the founder of a social services organization in Washington for immigrant families, Nguyen is a client there and Delahunt is a volunteer mentor for Nguyen's teenage son.

Yet in their own way, they are defying the war's hold on their identity.

A Sought-Out Heritage

"Lovely with rosy and chubby cheeks," was how the adoption papers described Nguyen Mai Tai Trang, abandoned by her mother two days after her birth in a Saigon hospital.

She is now Kara Mai Delahunt, and the description is still apt. Even after a long day of work at a downtown Washington public relations company, she is poised and polished -- hair in a neat bun, makeup fresh and clothes professional. She has recently returned from a seven-month business trip to Madrid. Tucked in her black purse is a travel book on Peru, her next destination.

She sometimes wonders, though, what price was paid for this life.

"My mom would always say, 'Say a prayer for your birth mother,' " said Delahunt, 30. "I was always told that she loved me so much and cared for me so much that she was willing to give me up."

Delahunt arrived as part of Operation Babylift, conducted in the frantic weeks before North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The U.S. government commissioned jetliners to ferry hundreds of orphans to new homes here. Some Vietnamese parents, learning of the flights, left children at hospitals and orphanages. Advocates called it a humanitarian effort, and critics decried it as ripping children from their homeland.

Delahunt was adopted by Kati and William D. Delahunt, now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. The couple tried to make their new daughter comfortable with her heritage, taking her to Lunar New Year events, buying her Asian dolls, introducing to her to another adopted Vietnamese girl, hopeful that the two would become friends.

She resisted. "The Vietnam War to me is exactly that -- it's history," she said. "I just wanted to be American."

She learned German -- her adoptive mother's native language -- and took summer trips to Germany. Her master's degree is in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont, her father's alma mater. After school, she moved to Washington and landed a public relations job specializing in Latin American issues.

Only then did she begin thinking about Vietnam.

"As you get older," she explained, "your history becomes more important."

Five years ago, Delahunt accepted an invitation to travel to Vietnam with a group of adoptees and officials from Holt International Children's Services, an Oregon adoption agency that placed many of the children from Operation Babylift.

This trip was dubbed a homecoming. It didn't feel that way.

After mastering two foreign languages, Delahunt thought she could learn a few Vietnamese phrases, but the unfamiliar tones overwhelmed her.

Everywhere, she saw young children. Some sold chewing gum; others held out empty plastic bowls.

Delahunt had seen poverty on trips to India and Chile, but this was different. "That could have been me," she said, shaking her head. "I could be in Vietnam on the streets right now."

What Delahunt found on her trip, she said, was a comfort with other Vietnamese Americans. After the trip, she attended a conference with other adoptees, and some became her close friends.

"For the first time in my life," she said, "I was with people who were like me."

A friend introduced her to Asian American LEAD, a nonprofit group in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood serving disadvantaged immigrant families. Delahunt became a mentor and eventually, a member of its board of directors.

Almost every week, she meets with 15-year-old Man Pham, who immigrated with his family in 1997. He gives her advice on computers, and she helps him with his Spanish homework.

During the visits, Delahunt sometimes sees his parents, Minh Pham and Phuong Nguyen. Their exchanges are short and awkward because of the language barrier.

She is more comfortable with Man, who like her, thinks of Vietnam as only a part of himself. Once, when Man asked, Delahunt told him that she left as a baby and was adopted. His response: "Cool."

Different but Determined

In this city, Phuong Nguyen is nearly invisible.

At a hotel in downtown Washington, she cleans empty rooms. Customers at the U Street nail salon where she works part time barely acknowledge her, except to pick their polish. In the international melange of her Columbia Heights neighborhood, Nguyen's looks attract little attention. She doesn't mind.

In Vietnam, she was singled out for her pale skin and faced discrimination for it. Here, she believes her opportunities are limited only by how hard she can work.

"This is nothing," she said, doing laundry in the bathtub after a 12-hour workday. "In Vietnam, life is much harder."

Her ticket out was her face.

The Amerasian Homecoming Act, passed by Congress in 1987 after much debate, allowed children born in Vietnam to American service members to come to the United States with their families. Few people had documents to prove their heritage, so U.S. Embassy officials based their decisions, in part, on whether they looked "American." About 26,000 eventually immigrated.

Nguyen, 35, said she knows little about her father. He left in 1969, before she was born. Her older half-sisters told her that he was a doctor for the military. Her mother never spoke of him.

Early on, Nguyen realized she was different. In a culture that values family background, Amerasians were considered the products of shameful liaisons. Nguyen recalls the taunt from her classmates, con lai -- half-breed.

"I would beat them," she said, her voice rising at the memory. "Boys, I would beat, too. They called me names. How dare they?"

Still, even a determined girl who towered over her classmates -- thanks to her "American" size -- could do only so much in Vietnam.

Shortly after the war, the communist government ordered her family from the seaside city of Vung Tau to the remote highland. Accustomed to city life, the family had to pick coffee beans and pepper on collective farms. Nguyen dropped out of school after the fourth grade and settled for what was expected of her: marriage, children and work.

When news of Amerasians being able to emigrate reached the countryside, Nguyen said she didn't hesitate.

"Older people always said, in America, everything is possible," she remembered. "They said people even had fish in cans."

She lives with her husband and three children in a studio apartment that is cramped but spotless. Canned fish is no longer a novelty -- they've moved onto bigger things: two televisions, a desktop computer and a sport utility vehicle.

Nguyen has changed, too. When Man, her eldest child, was having trouble in school, she sought help from Asian American LEAD. She has worked with caseworkers to learn more about American schools and how she can help her son and daughters.

A couple of years ago, she accompanied a social worker to a conference in San Diego, leaving her husband to care for the children for the first time.

Nguyen said she has no desire to find or meet her American father -- "I don't need him. He left." She only wants his citizenship.

She has struggled to learn English and fears that she cannot pass the citizenship test.

U.S. law usually allows citizenship for children born overseas to Americans, but Amerasians don't qualify. A bill in Congress that would have granted that right to Amerasians living here died last year in committee.

"I want to be an American," Nguyen said. "I don't want to go back to Vietnam to live."

In 2002, Nguyen returned to her homeland for a visit and, as usual, she stood out.

Friends envied her smooth skin and confident walk. They were tanned and worn from farm work.

In the cities, when shopkeepers noted she was a bit taller, paler and plumper than typical Vietnamese, they quickly fingered her as a Vietnamese who lived in the United States, a Vietnamese American.

The strangers, she recalled with a shy grin, never called her con lai.

In Community, a Mission Emerges

Sandy Dang keeps the letters of complaint in a white notebook.

They are dated from 1998, after she founded Asian American LEAD, and were written by Vietnamese Americans to officials in the District government.

"Sandy Dang cannot speak Vietnamese correctly," wrote an older woman questioning whether Dang could properly represent the community. Several others accused her of seeking publicity. A few called her a communist, probably the worst epithet among Vietnamese Americans.

"Can you believe this?" said Dang, 37, a petite woman with a loud voice. "I was really disappointed. But I am stubborn."

She persisted, determined to challenge what she said is the patriarchal tradition that dominated Vietnam and immigrant circles here. "We have to rebuild," Dang said. "You can't call yourself a community and just have a group of old men sitting around the table."

Dang was 7 years old when the war ended. She only knew that the bombs had stopped falling and she would never have to hide again.

The conflicts within a community, Dang soon learned, never end.

In Hanoi, her ethnic Chinese family members were never considered "real" Vietnamese. They didn't fight in the war. When fighting later flared between Vietnam and China, they fled north. In China, though, they weren't considered "real" Chinese. The Chinese government sent them to labor on sugar cane plantations.

In 1979, Dang's family bought passage on a fishing boat crammed with more than 300 refugees from Vietnam. The family spent three years in a Hong Kong refugee camp before immigrating, eventually landing in New York.

Her father worked as a janitor, her mother as a seamstress. Dang was the eldest of four children and served as her parents' translator. For 10 years, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment.

Dang escaped through her studies, excelling in school and winning scholarships to Duke University. She arrived on a Greyhound bus. Her classmates drove luxury cars.

When she came to Washington to earn a master's degree in social work from Catholic University, she found a Vietnamese American community of 50,000 still governed by rules and hierarchy from the old country. Elders have priority, and men are the leaders.

Many families from the elite social circles in South Vietnam -- who escaped the country as soon as Saigon fell -- had little interaction with the poorer, less educated families who came later. Such as those in the enclave of about 5,000 Vietnamese living in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

These immigrants, who arrived in the 1990s, were the last significant wave of refugees. Many were Amerasians. Others had been imprisoned for years in communist "re-education" camps and immigrated under political asylum. Social service agencies in the District were ill-equipped to help.

Dang found her mission. "I know this as an extension of my family. I know how difficult it is to be in this country and come here with nothing."

She started Asian American LEAD as an after-school program, and it has grown into a nationally recognized group with a $1.2 million budget. President Bill Clinton invited her to the White House.

The number of Vietnamese immigrants in the District has dwindled to about 2,000, Dang estimates. Many families have moved to the suburbs; Dang jokes that some of them now drive cars fancier than her Honda Civic. Those left, including Phuong Nguyen's family, are planning to follow soon.

Dang, too, is moving her life beyond the organization. For years, she has been so consumed with work that friends worried about her. Last year, she married, and her husband, Sanal Mazvancheryl, has no connection to Vietnam. He was born in India to an upper-class family and is a business professor at Georgetown University

Dang returns to Vietnam every few years. Her Vietnam no longer is bombs falling from the sky. It is fresh, ripe mangoes, she said, firecrackers exploding at Lunar New Year and quiet, green vistas.

Article list

Setting the Stage Putting on an opera at a Silver Spring elementary school teaches immigrant second-graders much more than arias

August 7, 2005

His classmates are pointing and giggling, but Charlie Benitez sits still. A white sheet swaddles his shoulders, and his clean, buzz-cut head sticks through like a mannequin's.

Charlie B., as he's called by his teachers and classmates to distinguish him from another boy named Charlie F., usually wells up with tears when it is time for reading or writing. Today, he is beaming.

This October morning, the 25 kids of Mary Ruth McGinn and Ellen Levine's second-grade class at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring are learning about stage makeup. They are about to start on a year-long project that their teachers believe has the power to change the way they see themselves and the world around them. They will write, produce and perform an opera.

Eyes closed, Charlie B. hears a girl wishing she had been chosen to demonstrate why actors need makeup. Cool cream is smeared onto his face. The flat edge of a pencil presses his brows. A brush tickles his cheeks. Soon, another Charlie B. emerges. This 7-year-old boy is ruddier and more defined. The makeup itches, but he keeps his hands folded on his lap.

"He doesn't look all that different," explains music teacher Emily Hines, as she brushes off runaway smudges, "but now everybody will be able to see him under the lights."

McGinn flips on a spotlight. Charlie B. turns his head from side to side, admiring himself in an imaginary mirror. He says nothing -- he just grins. He is still smiling when it is time to leave the music room and go to reading.

Charlie B. and his fellow students do not call themselves a class. Regular second-graders do not learn about makeup and costumes and Mozart, and visit the Kennedy Center. These second-graders call themselves a company. That, they will inform you, is the proper name for a group of people who are making an opera.

In this company, nearly everyone is an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, from Latin America, Africa or Asia. There's Charlie B., whose parents came from El Salvador and are struggling to get by on one income. There's Tigist Tadesse, who cries when another student moves away because she remembers having to leave her grandmother and other relatives behind in Ethiopia. And there's Kathleen Pham, whose Vietnamese father and Salvadoran mother recently divorced and have married new spouses.

Most of the kids at New Hampshire Estates come from poor families, with nearly 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price government lunches. About a third, including Charlie B., who speaks Spanish at home, have to be pulled aside every day for extra help with English. But everyone knows how to say "opera" correctly. It was the first word on their spelling list.

This is the fourth year that New Hampshire Estates has had an opera company. The program was the brainchild of Levine, 50, who has taught at New Hampshire Estates for 14 years, except for one year when she was transferred temporarily to Farmland Elementary in Rockville, a school with middle-class kids, high test scores -- and an opera program.

Levine didn't teach opera there, but she watched the performances by the fourth-graders and saw how excited the kids got when they learned about acting and music. When she returned to New Hampshire Estates as a reading teacher, she couldn't get the opera out of her mind. She took McGinn, her longtime friend and colleague, to see the year-end performances at Farmland. Both women became convinced that opera could be a way of engaging children who struggle not only with reading and math, but with low self-esteem and limited horizons.

"We're giving them a purpose for learning," says McGinn, 40. "We're helping them see beyond the classroom, that they can do anything."

But the principal then at New Hampshire Estates hesitated to approve the opera program. Usually she advocated creative learning, but she wasn't sure there was time for it anymore, Levine recalls. Test scores at New Hampshire Estates were -- and still are -- among the worst in Montgomery County, and there was increasing pressure to raise them.

Later that year, in 2001, the principal retired and an interim administrator from New York approved the opera program, with the stipulation that Levine join McGinn in co-teaching a larger class, to take some of the load off the other second-grade teachers. Their class is the only one at New Hampshire Estates involved in the opera program, which is subsidized by private donations. Although just two to three hours a week are set aside for opera, the teachers thread the lessons through the entire second-grade curriculum. Both women have attended summer workshops in New York sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, where they've learned how to integrate reading and writing into lessons about opera jobs.

McGinn had been staging plays for several years at New Hampshire Estates, but neither teacher knew much about opera. Levine, who minored in music in college and plays the flute, says she's not crazy about some of the music. It doesn't matter. Stripped down, operas are simply stories with interesting characters and exciting plots. Producing one requires teamwork and responsibility -- the kind of skills that schools want kids to learn.

Still, the teachers say they have heard doubts from some of their colleagues. Levine knows some teachers at New Hampshire Estates, which teaches children from pre-kindergarten to second grade, initially considered opera "elitist." Others have asked her how a group of kids used to learning through opera will be able to function in an ordinary classroom the next year.

In many ways, it would be easier not to focus on opera at New Hampshire Estates, where the staff was being pushed to "teach to the test" even before President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, which tied test scores to federal dollars. Seven other county schools with opera programs are in more affluent suburbs such as Potomac and Bethesda, where test scores are high and there's less need to defend unconventional teaching. The program at New Hampshire Estates started at the same time as one at another low-performing school, Greencastle Elementary in Silver Spring.

At New Hampshire Estates, the opera program has proved to be a transforming experience for many second-graders. Levine and McGinn see it happen every year: Bullies learn about working cooperatively. Kids who hate school will stay in during recess to practice their lines. Newly arrived immigrants learn English by writing dialogue and songs.

During the first year of the opera program, McGinn says, a second-grader's father committed suicide. His daughter kept coming to school. She was the opera company's production manager. She told her mother she needed to do her job.

"This is an exciting day," McGinn announces in her chirpy voice. She is wearing dangly theater-mask earrings, and she and Levine are holding plastic bags filled with different tools. Today, the kids are getting their opera jobs.

Over the past couple of weeks, the children have tried all kinds of theater work. They got a chance to sing and act out emotions. They measured pieces of wood and hammered nails like carpenters and electricians -- work that felt familiar to many of them because that's what their dads do. Nobody knew much about public relations officers, so McGinn brought in an old telephone and had the kids pretend to make calls and invite people to the opera.

Each student had to choose three jobs and explain why he or she wanted to do them. Now the children are sitting on the floor of the music room, waiting for Levine to announce who will do what.

"And," she says with a pause to tease them, "Your performers are . . . Milan. Kevin. Emmanuella. Jacob. Nashaia."

Everybody yells and claps. The performers jump up and run to the front of the room. Levine hands them each a different kind of hat, from baseball cap to safari-style topper. They put them on right away and strike poses.

The scriptwriters get packets of multicolored pens. The public relations officers get markers, and the composers get recorders. Costume and makeup artists receive small mirrors, which they promptly make faces into.

The production manager and recipient of a striped notebook is long-haired Deborah Moreira, who is used to responsibilities because she helps take care of her 4-year-old brother.

Danilo Mejia, a tall, sometimes pushy boy who wears oversize T-shirts printed with dragons and monsters, is the stage manager. He will now wield a bright green clipboard, which the teachers hope he will use to write suggestions for the actors.

Charlie B. is an electrician, exactly what he wanted. When he gets his screwdriver -- which he has been told firmly is not a toy -- he examines it and compares it to those of the other electricians.

They are no longer students, McGinn tells them, because they have jobs. It is time for them to go off to different rooms with their teachers and volunteers, and start making an opera.

When the children write about their first day on the job, Charlie B. has a lot to say. He writes that he learned how to use a screwdriver, met a man named Mr. Fox who is helping them with their work, and can't wait to go to opera class again. He misspells a lot of the words but among the ones he does spell correctly are "happy" and "excited."

Charlie B. has been fired.

He faces the music room wall. The other boys are stripping electrical wire. Phil Fox, a school volunteer who has professional stage-crew experience and a big belly laugh, jokes with them.

Charlie sneaks peeks.

"Turn around," Fox says.

Charlie B. has to spend opera class in the corner while all the other students do their jobs. When he refuses to do his class work or displays a bad attitude, his teachers tell him he can't take part in opera class. They tell him he's been fired, which basically amounts to a timeout.

Nearly all the kids get fired at least once. Danilo gets fired on the second day for scaring Tigist with a fake spider. Even Deborah, the serious-looking production manager, gets fired once for forgetting the books she borrowed from the classroom book corner. She makes sure she brings her books from then on.

Charlie B. doesn't learn so quickly. Sometimes, he gets fired in the middle of opera class for grabbing tools from the other kids. When Fox tries to give directions, Charlie jumps up and says he already knows how to do it. He wants to cut wood before he takes time to measure it properly.

At the end of each opera class, the kids gather together and report on what they did. Usually, Charlie likes to chime in and speak for the electricians, but not today.

"Today, we stripped wire," Luis Valdez says.

Gilbert Vargas has something to add. "Charlie got fired."

Charlie says later he was embarrassed. When Luis and Gilbert get fired, Charlie makes sure to report it to the company.

Getting fired is not a good legacy, and legacy is the theme of this year's opera.

"It's not about you, it's about all of us working together and leaving a good legacy," McGinn often tells the class.

Ever since Levine and McGinn taught them about legacies, the kids have been looking for examples. Danilo brings in a picture of his grandfather, who took care of him in Honduras and has passed away. Robel Sentayehu's drum helps him remember his grandfather, who lives in Ethiopia.

Each day, the company adds to its word list. "Script" is what the writers are writing. The performers are going to be "characters" and speak in "dialogue." (They are using the term opera loosely; the story will be told through both dialogue and song.) Making an opera is a long "process."

The teachers often have the different job groups stand up and talk about their work. Tigist and Robel, who receive extra tutoring in English for Speakers of Other Languages, sometimes open their mouths wordlessly, searching for how to say something. Luis and other kids will say that they "do a nail" or are "learning a lot of stuff," but McGinn urges them to use their new words and speak clearly.

Charlie B. is not shy, but words trip him up. He tries to say that a character is tricky but says "turkey." When he wants to explain to the kids who aren't electricians that wire has to be stripped, he says "wire has to be scripted."

McGinn tells him the difference between strip, which is what electricians do with wire, and script, which is what the writers are producing. He practices over and over, so when the electricians report on the progress of their work to the rest of the company, he can say it correctly.

One day, Charlie B. is again facing the wall. This time, however, he doesn't try to play with the drums or talk to the other students as he has during previous firings. He sits quietly, hands on his chin. With about 10 minutes left before the end of opera class, Fox comes over to him.

"Okay, you've learned your lesson," Fox says and motions him back.

Charlie strips a piece of wire -- carefully -- and then shows it to Fox.

"Is this right?" he asks.

Fox nods. "Good."

Charlie B. is back on the job.

"Estos son wire nuts." These are wire nuts.

"Estos son plugs."These are plugs.

Charlie B. is teaching his mother about the tools that he and the other electricians are using to make lights for the stage. Maria Benitez has made special arrangements for a neighbor to baby-sit her toddler daughter this February morning so she can see what her son is learning in opera class. She is suspicious.

Late last fall, Benitez had approached Levine in the parking lot after school. She brought along her daughter Jacqueline, 11, to help translate.

Levine recalls Benitez crossing her arms over her chest.

"I don't agree," Benitez said, in a halting but firm English, "with the way you teach."

Jacqueline explained: Charlie told his family he hates opera. He hates his job, he hates his teachers and he hates school. He does not want to do his homework.

Jacqueline, at her mother's direction, has tried to help Charlie with his work, but when he writes, he circles words that he knows are misspelled rather than try to spell them correctly. He says that this is what his teachers told him to do. His mother wants him to write the words over. Evenings end in screams and tears.

Levine remembers being surprised by what she was hearing. She thought Charlie B. loved opera class.

"I asked [his mother] to please think of it as an experiment," Levine recalls. "We will teach the kids how to spell, but this is not the focus of the assignment. It's to try to get their ideas on paper." She asked Benitez to refrain from asking Charlie to correct his spelling and let him write. She invited her to come to a class and see Charlie do his job. Give us a chance, she said.

The Benitezes live in a squat brick house a few blocks from New Hampshire Estates, but Charlie is not allowed to walk home from school without an adult. Not even his older sister can venture out by herself. Too many men, some reeking of alcohol, loiter around the neighborhood. Benitez says she feels like she has already lost one child. She fears losing another.

In 1987, she left El Salvador to escape the country's civil war and grinding poverty. She also left behind a baby girl. To support her daughter, mother and other relatives, Benitez worked as a live-in nanny for a Navy couple and their two little boys. It would be 13 years before she could return to El Salvador for a visit.

Her daughter, now 19, immigrated two years ago and lives in Northern Virginia. Benitez purses her lips when she discusses her oldest child. They talk, she says, but "not like mother and daughter."

These days, Benitez, 38, is a full-time mother. Jose Benitez, the "good, good man" she married in 1991, works 14-hour days as a self-employed contractor, building decks and painting houses. Money is tight on one income, and the children barely see their father during the week, but Jose Benitez prefers that his wife be home. He, too, left behind his first child -- a son -- when he immigrated here.

In their house, Christian books and videotapes of Bible stories line the shelves of the entertainment center. The children are not allowed to watch much else. Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons are spent at the Spring of Life Apostolic Church in Hyattsville.

Maria Benitez, a sober-looking woman, wears long skirts and a lace head scarf required by her church. Daughter Jacqueline is an image of her mother, sans scarf.

Jacqueline "never has trouble," Benitez says. This coming year, Jacqueline will be in sixth grade, the point at which her mother had to quit school and help take care of her younger siblings after her father abandoned the family. Jacqueline's school certificates, for honor roll and perfect attendance, hang on a living room wall.

"But Charlie," Benitez says, taking a deep breath. Last year, Charlie learned bad words from a classmate and insisted on wearing baggy jeans. His best friend was a boy whose parents worked all the time and "was like a grown-up already," says Benitez, who went to the principal to get the two separated in class. Sometimes, Charlie gets so angry, she says. "It was terrible. He break things in the room."

"Liar!" Charlie says as he walks by, holding a pair of binoculars to watch birds from the living room window.

"Charlie, that's not true," she scolds, ordering him with her eyes to be quiet. He goes to the window. She sighs.

At a parents meeting in December, Levine and McGinn had explained the concept of legacy -- the theme of the opera -- by asking everyone to write about what gift they wanted to leave their children.

Benitez sat, watching the other parents write. A Spanish interpreter at the meeting came over and prodded her. Finally, with the help of the interpreter, she composed a few sentences in Spanish: Her legacy to Charlie is that he will study. She doesn't have a specific career in mind for Charlie, who wavers between being a carpenter and a police officer. She just wants him to grow up to be a good, honest man.

For the rest of the meeting, Benitez crossed her arms over her chest. She thought the teachers were wasting her time. She already knew what she wants for her children. She needed to see the teachers helping.

When Benitez visits opera class, the teachers are scattered with other children. It is Charlie B. who leads her by the hand to the electricians' corner and tells her about their project. He points to the cans that they are cutting in half with clippers so they can be used to hold light bulbs.

"They're reflectors," he says. "We have to make lots of them."

Benitez doesn't understand everything that he is talking about, but his enthusiasm makes her smile. He doesn't act like a boy who hates school.

Charlie B. puts on fuchsia gloves, an old pair found in the storage room, so his hands will be protected from any jagged pieces of metal. Luis giggles, "Pink, like a girl!"

Charlie B. doesn't pay attention to him. "This is hard work," he says, struggling to clip the heavy metal. His mother holds the can.

"You can do it, but it's a process," Fox says. "You have to keep your fingers away from the metal."

"I'm getting there," Charlie B. says, several clips later.

He grunts. Finally, the can snaps into two halves. "I can't believe I actually did this."

"Fuerte," Fox tells Charlie B.'s mother, using the little Spanish he knows. Strong.

She laughs and whispers in Spanish to Charlie. He looks up and shouts to Fox: "My mama says she's going to buy me gloves!"

Charlie B. keeps raising his hand.

It is early March, almost time for the state standardized tests. This morning, the kids are hovered over their math worksheets. They are getting ready for the assessment tests that all second-graders must take.

"Can I go to the bathroom?" Charlie B. asks. A teacher's aide shakes her head and tells him to finish his work first.

Charlie has completed the addition and subtraction, but he can't understand the word problems. "Can you read me this?" he pleads. But the teachers and the aide are busy with other students.

Charlie puts his head down: "I'm going to take a nap."

Levine and McGinn have been worried about Charlie B. They know he is a bright boy and has improved so much from the fall, but he still reads below grade level. Sometimes, he won't try to sound out words. He simply shuts down.

At the teachers' request, Charlie's mother and father come in for a conference. Levine and McGinn later recall telling them that Charlie doesn't recognize words that an average second-grader should. The teachers want him examined to find out whether he is learning disabled. The principal and a counselor give the Benitezes forms to sign, with the help of a Spanish interpreter.

The Benitezes do not say much. It is the first time Charlie's father, 35, has come to the school this year, and he took off work so he could be here. He wears his button-down shirt tucked in, and his dark brown hair and moustache are neatly trimmed.

When they finish with the forms, Jose Benitez starts to thank the teachers, but he is unable to finish the sentence. He breaks into sobs. He is afraid for Charlie, the teachers remember him saying.

"This was me," he says. He had problems in school, too. In fragmented English, he tells them that he was placed in a special program in El Salvador. He never finished his education. Here, in the United States, his clients appreciate his work and urge him to go to community college and get a degree.

"I know I can't," he tells the teachers.

Levine and McGinn jump in to reassure him. Charlie is no longer crying when he has to read, they say, and they can tell that he's trying. The tests will show the teachers if he needs special help. He will not be labeled "stupid" and sent away.

Jose Benitez looks embarrassed about his outburst; his wife sits quietly, expressionless. The meeting ends. There is no more time for the teachers and principal to talk with the Benitezes. Parent conferences are scheduled back-to-back, and so many other students at New Hampshire Estates need extra help.

The upcoming state tests put every school under scrutiny, and the pressure is especially intense in the so-called red zone, the cluster of Montgomery County schools that includes New Hampshire Estates and others with low-income students.

At the beginning of March, county schools Superintendent Jerry Weast uses New Hampshire Estates as the backdrop for a news conference touting gains in reading scores during the previous year, but says more needs to be done. Weast and the school system are spending $60 million on the red zone to cut class size, offer full-day kindergarten and boost teacher training. They want to do everything they can to make sure these schools perform well, but schools outside the red zone are clamoring for funds, too. The test scores need to prove that the money is justified, and No Child Left Behind has put the jobs of school officials on the line.

Levine and McGinn say that so much is riding on test scores that they wonder if they will be able to do the opera program in coming years. Not even kindergartners have been spared from testing pressures: Art, music and playtime have been reduced to make room for more reading and writing, and the 5-year-olds get summer homework packets or attend summer classes before they start school.

Jane Litchko, the current principal at New Hampshire Estates, says she appreciates the way the opera program helps children with skills the tests can't measure, like self-esteem, and introduces them to sophisticated vocabulary words. At the same time, she says, the kids in the opera program do not score significantly higher on the standardized tests than the other second-graders. She says she supports the opera lessons, but "who knows what the future may hold for the testing."

In March, afternoons that were previously devoted to "buddy reading" -- when the students are allowed to pick a storybook and read with a friend -- have been dedicated to drills from a test prep manual called "Scoring High." The picture on the book shows smiling kids giving a thumbs up. Charlie B. likes to toss his manual on the floor. Several kids keep asking for buddy reading.

One afternoon, McGinn says she wants to share something special with the class. It is a Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken." She discovered the poem when she was in middle school and has loved Frost's work ever since. Each year, she reads the poem to her second-graders before test time.

"He left a legacy for the world with his poetry," McGinn says. "See, everything comes back to legacy."

She reads the poem once, twice, and again. The kids hear about a traveler standing where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." He took the one less traveled and "that has made all the difference."

Several kids are whispering to one another. A couple are more interested in the imaginary spots on the carpet. Charlie B., who is usually one of those, is looking straight at McGinn.

"I love the way Charlie B. is sitting, thinking about this," she says. "Why can't other people be like that?"

When the class is asked to draw a picture of Robert Frost's two roads, Charlie B. draws a boy in the middle of two two-lane roads with his finger to his head, and explains: "He's thinking."

As the teachers walk around the room to look at the children's work, Charlie B. makes a request. "Miss McGinn, Miss McGinn," he says waving her over, "can we write about it?"

Charlie writes that a boy is deciding between two roads, and the sun is shining on the woods to make them look yellow. On the margins of his paper, he prints, "I can do it. I can do it."

If only, McGinn thinks to herself, the county could give Charlie a score for this.

The lights work. They flash all around the stage, in the tin-can reflectors that Charlie B. and his fellow electricians have spent weeks cutting.

Onstage, the carpenters have erected a wooden eagle cage. The story is about four kids who see an eagle at the National Zoo, which the opera company visited in February. One boy, a bully, secretly lets the eagle out of its cage and the eaglets are left without a mother.

Kathleen and the other carpenters are responsible for moving the silhouettes of the animals between the acts. In the fall, Kathleen had been distracted, and withdrew into her own world with worries about her parents' divorce and remarriages. She hid her face behind her long brown hair. Today, she is listening to the actors rehearse, ready for her cues.

"I hardly recognize her," says Levine.

It is early May, a week before the performances, and the teachers wish they had more time. Not because they are behind schedule on the script, sets or costumes. But because each week, more second-graders redefine themselves.

In late March, Tigist, who spoke no English last year, began raising her hand. She wanted to share news about the script, which she had been working through recess to complete. One day, Tigist and her fellow writer, Judy Kindo, sing to the class the song that they wrote for Ozzie the bully, who realizes that he acts out of anger and sadness for his own dead mother. Tigist raises her voice with each verse. "I'm tired of being shy," Tigist says later, flashing a dimpled grin.

By now, the performers are learning to project their voices and stay quiet if it isn't their turn to speak. The public relations officers have made invitations and sent out press releases explaining the opera. The composers will play their glockenspiels with a pianist accompanying their music. Deborah the production manager wrote a speech to introduce the opera, "Endangered Legacy."

Danilo, the stage manager, spent several nights drawing diagrams of where the performers should stand. Being in charge is hard work, he says. "Poor Miss McGinn," says Danilo, who now relies on persuasion rather than pushing to get his classmates to do what he wants. "How can she take care of all of us?"

Standing tall on a chair, Danilo motions across the room to Charlie B., cuing him to switch off the lights. A few seconds pass. Charlie B. doesn't see his cue. He is looking toward the back of the auditorium, where his mother and two sisters are sitting. His father, who arrived late because of work, stands near a doorway.

When Charlie B. looks back to see Danilo, he ducks his head in embarrassment. He pulls the plug on the house lights and the auditorium goes dark. The show has begun.

It's a humid May evening, made even hotter inside the auditorium by the presence of about 150 parents, relatives, teachers, former school staff members, and performers and artists who have visited the opera class during the year.

The kids are clearly nervous performing in front of this crowd. Deborah, who wears a frothy pink dress her mother bought for the occasion, freezes and forgets to recite the Spanish translation of her opening speech. Between scenes, there is a drawn-out lull and loud thumps behind the stage as the carpenters change the set. The actors forget some of their lines as they speak and sing.

But, unlike in some of the rehearsals, actors Kevin Ventura and Jacob Dweh remember to stay away from each other and not laugh inappropriately. Danilo follows the script and reminds Luis when to turn on the back and front stage lights. Without their teachers to prompt them, Kathleen and the carpenters remember their cues.

Levine, wearing an ivory pantsuit, and McGinn, in a black dress, couldn't be prouder. They stand to one side, watching their students go through the entire half-hour performance on their own.

The opera concludes with Ozzie the bully, played by blond-haired Milan Moreau, regretting that he let the eagle out of her cage and hurt the eaglets. He tells the other kids that he doesn't want to leave a bad legacy.

The actors break into song, and this time Charlie B. is ready. He dashes up to the stage. This is his favorite part of the performance. Deborah introduces all the job groups and the entire company joins in the chorus:

Listen to the stories,

learn the lessons,

keep them in your heart

or in your mind,

and pass it on, pass it on.

The audience is on its feet, applauding. The principal presents bouquets of flowers to Levine, McGinn and the volunteers.

In the days to come, reading assessments will show that nearly every child involved in the opera is reading at or above grade level. Charlie B. is just a few points shy of grade level, and the teachers call the improvement remarkable. On a critical-thinking test with puzzles to identify gifted and talented children, Charlie B. gets two-thirds of the problems right. The tests to detect learning disabilities uncover weaknesses but no serious problems. Charlie B. just needed more confidence in himself, his teachers conclude. And now he's got it.

After the show, Jose Benitez wraps his son into a hug. "He did a good job," Charlie's father says.

Later, he quietly drops a $5 bill into a jar for donations to the opera program. Charlie and his family walk home, hand in hand. Charlie hums the opera's theme song. It's a legacy. Pass it on

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Vietnam Buffs Bring Jungle to Va. Reenactors Evoke a War Many Would Rather Forget

August 8, 2005

Leaves rustled, and Robby Gouge, sweating in his jungle boots and Army fatigues, clutched his semiautomatic rifle tighter. He walked slightly crouched and listened intently, just as he thought his father might have done.

The 30-year-old son had come to the oak forests of central Virginia to relive his old man's war in Vietnam.

Walking behind Gouge on this hazy summer morning were a dozen men, toting gear culled from military surplus stores. Another team had fanned across the other side of the woods. A few men and women, dressed in the black pajamas of enemy fighters, waited in ambush.

Most war reenactments are staged to make history come alive for generations who know it only dimly from books. Vietnam, though, isn't quite history. To many people, it's a painfully current event.

Presidential candidates still have to explain what they did during the war, and every military action since 1975, including the conflict in Iraq, risks being compared to the failures there. Even those who stage battles from other wars question whether it is too soon to reenact Vietnam.

Most of the men and women at the Virginia event were in their thirties and forties -- too young to have experienced the action firsthand but too old to escape the war's grip. Their fathers served in Vietnam, like Gouge's, or they grew up watching it on the news.

As the 90-degree heat and his 50-pound rucksack weighed on him, Gouge conceded that spending a few weekends a summer pretending to be a U.S. soldier in the jungles was crazy. He missed his wife and two kids and wondered why he wasn't at home enjoying the air conditioning.

But this feeling of misery was what he was after. Too much war talk is wrapped up in theory and politics.

"It gives a mental picture of what our dads did," said Gouge, who teaches history at a middle school in Asheville, N.C. "I was blessed. I never had to really do this."

Road to the Past

To get to Vietnam, follow Interstate 64 to Louisa, Va., where signs point out Civil War sites. In 1864, field hospitals were set up around town as more than 1,600 men were killed or wounded when Union forces tried to shut down the Virginia Central Railroad.

Past the fast-food joints that make up the business district, the paved roads turn into gravel lanes and, finally, into dirt. Signs show the way: "To the Nam," "Phou Bai -- 2 km."

By midafternoon Friday of a reenactment weekend, a clearing on 50 acres of private property was filled with tents and cots. Water in plastic jugs was transferred to green military containers. Participants carried their ammunition in plastic bags, making it easier for others to check that they were blanks.

The communists hung their hammocks a half-mile away, past several scorched acres of forestland leveled after a neighbor sold the timber. The burned stumps added a nice touch. "Looks like it's been napalmed," one guy said.

Gouge began unpacking his gear, including replicas of his father's dog tags and patches from other veterans. His reenactment unit is named in honor of the Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the one his father served in, the one Gouge has written two books about.

"A lot of the [veterans] that I know, their own kids don't really care or don't take the time to talk to them about this," said Gouge, who sported a military buzz cut for the weekend. "I guess I'm the person for that."

On this weekend, about 20 people from North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia were doing "impressions" of Americans who fought in Vietnam. Several have military experience, including one Gulf War veteran. There are police officers, firefighters, a sheriff's deputy and a district attorney. A pediatric therapist came to play medic along with his wife. One man, a chemist, cooked meals in an antique field kitchen.

This is a fledgling endeavor, with the first units starting about five years ago. Several hundred people reenact the Vietnam War, with about a dozen units listed on the Internet. Their events generally are private affairs, and some participants say they're reluctant to tell too many outsiders for fear of stirring up the war's raw emotions.

In contrast, many Civil War reenactments are public; Gettysburg draws as many as 20,000 participants and spectators.

Most at the Virginia event know one another from other historical gatherings, chiefly for the Civil War and World War II. About four years ago, they started doing Vietnam.

They don't concern themselves with the politics of the war that still divides the United States 30 years after Saigon fell. They come as history buffs.

To them, this is a hobby, like golf or collecting model trains, but more educational. What some of them don't understand are "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fans. If they're going to dress up, one reenactor asked, why not pick a real time period?

"People, they're so weird," Patrick Hubble said. "Unlike us."

Hubble, an affable mortician and former Navy sailor from Lynchburg, Va., plays a North Vietnamese soldier because he figures somebody has to do it. This time, he was leading a band of six enemy fighters. It's always hard to find people to be the bad guys, so the U.S. soldiers say that the enemy is so elusive that most are hidden in the forest.

Hubble, who gave his age as "born in 1968, year of the Tet Offensive," is always on the lookout for new recruits. Several times, he visited a Vietnamese-owned grocery store to ask if he could borrow the family's elder sons for a weekend. He showed them photos of himself dressed up as a communist.

Hubble said the family always told him their sons were busy. This remark would be followed by laughter and chatter in Vietnamese. "They were probably thinking, 'What a weirdo,' " Hubble said. "But I just wanted things to be more authentic."

The enemy ranks included his only child, Meagan, a quiet 15-year-old who said she considered this quality time with her dad, and a University of Delaware history major who was as interested in Vietnamese culture as in the war.

The newest recruit was Caitlin Parker, a soft-spoken New Yorker.

Parker started looking into reenacting after she heard someone making fun of the participants. She was offended. Her father, whom she described as a sensitive intellectual, served in Vietnam as a Marine. He mentions the war occasionally, but she has never probed further, assuming the subject was taboo.

"This is kind of a way to understand him better," said Parker, 29, a producer for an audiobook company. "Maybe this will open up a conversation."

Hubble, the first person to e-mail her back, was so encouraging and empathetic that Parker decided to come for a weekend with her boyfriend, David Markowitz. They would be Viet Cong recruits to beef up the enemy forces.

The pair were among the last to arrive, driving up in a cranberry Subaru wagon, their hammocks stuffed in a Whole Foods Market grocery bag. On the way down, they worried about whether they would fit in. Neither had ever fired a gun.

In the Heat of Battle

Loud booms echoed out of the trees. Vietnamese fighters took aim at two men from Gouge's squad; the Americans fell to the ground. Gouge flopped onto his belly, firing back.

It was the second day of reenactment weekend, and Parker, crouching behind a pile of sandbags, was still rattled from the previous night's fiery battle. She knew everyone was firing blanks, but she couldn't get over how real the scenario seemed. She wondered whether her father felt this way.

After a burst of gunfire, one of her comrades collapsed. Another popped up from behind the sandbags.

"You, you in the bunker!" Gouge shouted. "You're down."

Seconds later, the man resurfaced.

"You in the bunker, with your back to me," Gouge said, raising his voice. "You're out."

It was Hubble, and he yelled back that he knew he was dead: "I've been out for the last 10 minutes!"

The reenactors try to recapture the war's fear and danger, but the biggest risk is turning the war into a game or parody. Because they rely on the honor code to determine "kills," sometimes there's a dispute over whether someone is dead. Battles often come to an abrupt end when people get tired or when weapons jam. The commanders carry walkie-talkies to tell one another where their teams are -- there's nothing worse than walking around and not finding an ambush.

Gouge admitted that it sometimes feels fun -- and he hates that. He wants to feel scared and somber. "You're remembering what they did," he said.

At his middle school, Gouge has only a few days to teach the Vietnam War at the end of the required state curriculum. At first, his students can't locate Vietnam on a map. It is as unknown to them as it was to Americans before the 1960s.

At home, Gouge keeps a "war room." Once crowded with Civil War memorabilia, the basement shelves are now filled with items that Vietnam veterans have given him: leftover C-rations, field manuals, pictures, radios and letters from home. A full dress uniform hangs in one corner.

His father lives next door, but when he visits, he avoids this room.

Jack Gouge was drafted in 1968 soon after getting married. For nine months, he drove a jeep, ferrying supplies to satellite support bases in the jungles. When he left Vietnam, he was so jumpy from memories of sniper fire, he avoided turning his back on anybody.

"When I came back, I tried to forget," said Gouge, 58, a retired phone company manager. "Can't recall it. Don't want to."

When his son wanted to join friends enlisting in the Army after high school, Gouge and his wife said no. They told him to go to college first.

They remain puzzled over his interest in the Vietnam War. Eloise Gouge wishes he had stuck with the Civil War. "Vietnam," she said, "we lived through that."

"I think he's gone too far," Jack Gouge said. Although he said he was proud to serve his country, he didn't attend reunions of his unit. He finally went to one only because his son, well known among the veterans because of his books, was asked to give a speech.

Maybe, he conceded, all this was good for his son: "It's history."

Looking the Part

The midmorning battle ended quickly. After 10 minutes, the popcorn gunfire from the Americans' semiautomatics didn't get an answer from the communist rifles.

"Well, I think it's time to resurrect," someone called out to a downed U.S. fighter.

Markowitz grumbled that he could have done more damage if his gun hadn't jammed. Parker turned out to be tougher than her delicate features suggested. She became an expert at loading her rifle. Sprawled on the ground as "dead," she looked relaxed and managed a laugh at her boyfriend's boasts.

Gouge also allowed himself a smile. He went to an enemy bunker to check on Hubble and his daughter.

"You guys all right?" Gouge asked. "You need water?"

The battles here end nice and neat. No hard feelings.

Besides, reenacting is about more than fighting. It's about the clothes.

From the moment they arrived, they were exchanging tips on their "impressions." Several talked about losing weight so they could fit into real Army fatigues rather than reproductions. They swapped and sold gear like boys trading baseball cards.

At communist headquarters, one guy gave Parker's feet a long stare.

"Are they actually PAVN boots?" asked Rob Williams, the Delaware student, using the abbreviation for the North Vietnamese army.

Williams motioned Hubble over: "They have the actual PAVN boots in her size."

Most reenactors, Williams explained, can't fit into the smaller Vietnamese sizes. They have to settle for the model worn by French soldiers during their war in Vietnam and later adapted by the North Vietnamese. "This is the French Indochina boot," Williams said, showing Parker his footwear.

Parker didn't know what to say. But her worries about feeling out of place were fading. The group's shock that she and her boyfriend had never handled guns quickly turned into gentle ribbing.

Being one of three women wasn't a big deal, either, as Parker had feared. It was authentic: Women fought with the Viet Cong.

The guys cursed and used racial slurs about the enemy, but a couple of them apologized later. Again, it's a "period" thing.

"They're just geeks," Parker said. "They're a lot less macho than I thought. It's kind of sweet."

For her, Vietnam often had been defined by stereotypes rather than reality. She knew the war traumatized her father. He once told her he couldn't bear to attend a welcome-home party thrown by his mother. Parker said she figured it was best not to bring it up.

Gerard Parker, a retired trade show coordinator in San Francisco, said he never consciously avoided discussing Vietnam. He just thought it was something his daughter didn't care about.

When she first told him about reenacting, he worried that the war would be trivialized. But he said he's glad Vietnam is finally being treated like other wars -- and that his daughter has taken an interest.

"In the 1970s, if you said you had been in Vietnam, people would stay away from you," the 65-year-old said. "Things have gotten a bit more realistic and balanced. With the passage of time, that divisiveness is fading into history."

At the reenactment site, there was a range of opinions about the politics of war, in both Vietnam and Iraq. But most conversation steered clear. "That's not what we're here for," Robby Gouge said.

Like real soldiers, they sat around and talked about life "back home," about job promotions and families. One guy showed off photos of his two little girls. Others took turns cradling a grenade launcher. "Great toy," someone said.

The cook fretted over dinner plans. The vintage oven wasn't working, so he had to use a modern gas grill. Reality often spoils a good reenactment.

By Saturday night, 24 hours of Vietnam had become enough. Period music, the Rolling Stones, blared through the woods. But it came from the CD player in a sports car.

Parker and Markowitz left early for the long drive back to New York. Parker said she got what she came for.

"I know these people aren't actually going to kill me, but I had this very strong fear out there," she said. "My father had to deal with it for real, and I just got a vague, vague, removed idea of it."

She intends to visit her father at the end of the summer and talk with him about the war.

Gouge skipped the evening battle because he wanted to go to bed early. He had called his wife earlier; the family was at the beach, and his 4-year-old son, Jackson, saw his first crab. Gouge couldn't wait to join them.

But his sacrifice had been worth it. "You've got to think, if you've got 365 days of this and it gets worse," he said. A taste of grunt life every summer "humbles your thinking."

On Sunday, the reenactors dismantled their tents and packed up Vietnam. Just the shell casings were left, glittering on the ground.

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Washing Their Hands Of the Last Frontier In the Kitchens of Many Immigrants, Dishwasher Is a Permanent Turnoff

October 8, 2005

A couple of months ago, in the privacy of his Reston townhouse, Alan Chien made a final break from cultural tradition, a guilt-filled decision he has yet to share with his parents.

He used his dishwasher. He knows his parents will not understand.

"They don't believe in it," said Chien, 35, an engineer who emigrated with his family from Taiwan when he was a toddler. "Just because they never used it, I never used it, so it was just a mysterious thing to me."

In many immigrant homes, the automatic dishwasher is the last frontier. Long after new arrivals pick up football, learn the intricacies of the multiplex and the DMV and develop a taste for pizza, they resist the dishwasher. Some joke that not using the appliance is one of the truest signs of immigrant heritage, whether they hail from Africa, Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe.

If they have a dishwasher -- and many do, because it is standard equipment in most homes -- it becomes a glorified dish rack, a Tupperware storage cabinet or a snack-food bin. It's never turned on.

Officials at appliance companies have noticed: Sears doesn't even highlight the appliances in its ads in Spanish-language media.

It's a quirk in the assimilation process that baffles social scientists. "It's really striking," said Donna Gabaccia, who studies immigration and culinary history at the University of Minnesota. In the home, "technology is generally embraced by women. Certainly in terms of technology, their homes don't look that much different from Middle American homes."

Gabaccia said one explanation could be that immigrants can absorb only so much change. The dishwasher is a U.S. invention that is rare in most countries, even among the upper-middle class.

Chien, too, has a hard time explaining dishwasher guilt. Chien, whose younger sister goaded him into breaking his "mental block" on the matter, marvels over how the appliance scrubs off caked-on food. But he isn't sure whether he will keep using it.

"I still have the sense that it's kind of a waste of electricity," he said. "It's odd. We buy American clothes; we use the oven; we use the stove; but, somehow, that appliance. . . ."

Graciela Andres laments that her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren have abandoned washing by hand. "They do it the American way -- they put everything in the wash machine, no matter if it's a little spoon," said Andres, who emigrated from Bolivia in 1981.

She does not disdain her family's washer and dryer, microwave, heavy-duty mixer, DVD player or computers. But the dishwasher?

"I think if I wash by my hands, I do a better job," said Andres, 65, of Germantown. "We have to fill up the dishwasher. If you do it by hand, it gets clean right away."

Her daughter, Grace Rivera-Oven, says she cannot afford not to use it. Her five-cycle, stainless-steel Kenmore allows her to spend more time shuttling her children to baseball and soccer, serving on community boards and freelance writing.

As a teenager, she got a friend to teach her how to operate the dishwasher -- "She was white; I figured she knew how." Before her mother got home from work, she would run a load.

These days, she can use the dishwasher anytime she wants. Even so, she feels as if she's missing something. That's why every Saturday morning, she does the breakfast dishes by hand with her 10-year-old daughter, Amalia.

"We just gossip, gossip," said Rivera-Oven, 35. "I just wash them, and she dries. It just reminds me of when I was her age. I did them with my mother. Oh, I loved the drying."

Her mother chimes in, stirred by the memory. "Oh, yes, I remember when she would dry and I would check," Andres said, pretending to rub a glass between her fingers. "Squeak, squeak, squeak."

Kitchen historians speculate that the dishwasher lies at the heart of what it means to be a family. Dishwashers began appearing in many middle-class American households in the late 1960s and 1970s, about the time that many women began entering the workforce. A decade later, the microwave came along. The family dinner hour disappeared. It's been downhill from there.

"When people ate dinner together, they also cleaned up together," said Vicki Matranga, a kitchen historian and designer for the Illinois-based International Housewares Association. "Americans now want convenience. The kitchen is a showplace where you heat up your food in the microwave."

Outside the United States, Canada and Western Europe, dishwashers are uncommon. In most countries, people cannot afford them; if they could, then they already have maids, who can do the dishes by hand.

A 2004 economics report from the government of India noted that a growing middle class had pushed up sales of clothes washers, refrigerators and small appliances by 20 percent a year. Dishwashers, however, were a "negligible market."

In tech-crazed South Korea, many families boast refrigerators with built-in TV screens and a cooler that regulates the temperature especially for jars of kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage -- but no dishwasher.

At Sears, officials do not make much of an effort to market dishwashers to immigrants. The company's Kenmore Elite TurboZone was touted in mainstream media, but Spanish-language newspapers and magazines ran only general ads about appliances.

Anecdotal evidence from Sears associates and customers suggests that Latinos care far more about cooktops than dishwashers, said Tina Settecase, vice president of home appliances.

"We're very careful about not changing our Hispanic customers," she said. "We're just trying to identify what the Hispanic customer wants and supply it."

But Mike McDermott, general manager of merchandising at General Electric, wonders whether more information about dishwashers might make a difference.

Like other appliance-makers, GE extols the dishwashers' energy efficiency. The U.S. Department of Energy agrees, citing findings that dishwashers, with a full load, use half as much water as washing by hand. Statistics from the D.C.-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers show that using the dishwasher six times a week costs $49 a year, a little more than the refrigerator.

"Where there isn't a dishwasher in a home, we need to understand why it's not there," McDermott said, "and what are some of the tools we can use to educate the consumer."

He will not have any luck with Douglas Lee's family. His American roots stretch back to 1963, when his grandparents emigrated from China. In three generations, nobody has used as dishwasher.

Lee, 22, of Springfield said he does not understand the appeal.

"Do you have to wash it beforehand to rinse it off? And if you wash it beforehand, why do you even need to use it?" asked Lee, a program manager for the Washington-based Organization of Chinese Americans. "I see a lot of my white friends doing it. I'm like: Oh, well, whatever. I guess I can't judge them on how they clean their dishes."

Bernie Fischer, a self-described "typical white guy" who grew up in Baltimore, knows all the benefits of the dishwasher. His parents had been so attached to theirs that they used it even though the wash cycle caused the lights to dim in their aging house.

But these days, his dishwasher is simply a drying rack. It was his wife's idea. Mary Ngo is a Vietnamese American.

"Mary's kind of set in her ways," said Fischer, 29, a soft-spoken Columbia psychiatrist.

"I just don't see the practicality of using the dishwasher," explained Ngo, 28, a job trainer born and raised in Montgomery County.

But she does let her husband turn on the appliance every two weeks -- to clean it, not the dishes.

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