Bich Thinks Big
By Jackie Bong Wright
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, chairman of the Board of National Congress of the Vietnamese Americans, didn’t waste any time catching Dennis Hastert before his visit to Vietnam. As Vietnam strives to gather support for entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), Bich sent the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives a list of Vietnamese American concerns, and asked him to convey them to Hanoi.
Bich reminded Hastert that Vietnam is still considered a Country of Particular Concern for its poor record on religious freedom and that it is among the worst violators of human rights generally. He asked Hastert to bring up the Vietnam law (CP/31) that allows Vietnamese local authorities to put people under house arrest, noting that the law now affects two of the country’s most prominent Buddhist leaders — the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do — as well as Dr. Nguyen Dang Que and a dozen other dissidents. Bich also asserted that Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s agreement to legalize the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam and Protestant “home” churches, made last year when he visited Washington, should be honored.
Bich requested, too, that Hastert ask the government of Vietnam to put a stop to the trafficking of thousands of Vietnamese women and children to places like Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, and China. He asked Hastert to urge that independent trade unions be allowed so that worker’ rights could be truly defended. Finally, he said, freedom of expression and of the press, especially internet freedom, must be respected if Hanoi is to be given Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status before its entry into WTO.
Such letter-writing is old hat for Bich. As a former Director of Information for the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington (1967-1971), Nguyen Ngoc Bich became a familiar signature on letters to newspapers and government offices in the U.S. and around the world. His task was to clear up the misperceptions and misrepresentations then circulating about the Vietnam War.
Later, as a refugee and private citizen in the U.S., he addressed himself to the same wide audience. Since the 1980s, his op-ed pieces have appeared in such prestigious publications as The Washington Post and Washington Times, where he has commented on the forced repatriation of boat people, normalization of US-Vietnam relations, and Robert McNamara’s “nonsensical” memoirs.
Big Education, Big Goals
The product of French elementary and high schools in Vietnam, Bich went on to study at some of the world’s best-known institutions across a variety of disciplines. He attended Princeton on a Fulbright scholarship in Political Science, Columbia University in Chinese and Japanese languages, and the Universities of Vienna and Munich in German Language and Literature. He studied Spanish at Trinity College, and did Bi-lingual Education and Theoretical Linguistics at Georgetown. The result is that Bich today speaks seven languages, reads about twelve, and is well versed in world politics. Politically, he continues to be a Vietnamese nationalist.
As befits a man whose education has been broad and deep, Bich thinks big. In 1971, he returned to Vietnam with his wife, Dao Thi Hoi, a Ph. D. in Linguistics, to open a university that would specialize in management and mass communication – important disciplines then lacking in the Vietnamese university system. They wanted their Mekong University to train Vietnamese managers and produce what Bich called “ Vietnamese Ted Turners and Bill Gates –leaders able to communicate their ideas to the whole country so that everybody would follow.” Their dream was shattered when Vietnam was unified three years later and the Communists confiscated the 10,000 books Bich and his wife had brought to Vietnam from the U.S.
A Renaissance Man
Paradoxically, this man of action is best known as the editor and translator of the first anthology of Vietnamese poetry in the English language. A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry, published in 1975, was done in collaboration with W.S. Mervin and Burton Raffel. One reviewer, Dorothy Kelso, said in the Patriot Ledger, “After this, Vietnam’s voices are no longer alien… Vietnam’s voices are our own.”
Earlier, in 1969, Bich had translated into English a compilation called The Poetry of Vietnam and, the following year, the Summons of the Souls by Nguyen Du, known as Vietnam’s Shakespeare. His translation of former Vietnamese Communist dissident Nguyen Chi Thien’s poetry led to Thien’s being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Another translated poem, Plum Branch, was set to music by Carey Creed. A Bich-translated poem by the 15th century poet Ngo Chi Lan was anthologized in a Metropolitan Museum of Art gift book in 1992, and his translation of Du Tu Le’s poem What I leave to My Son appeared in the New York Times in 1994. Thus, Bich’s translations have given voice in America to Vietnam’s most celebrated literary treasures.
Bich has not stopped at translations. His essays on Vietnamese poetry have been published by the University of Illinois at Carbondale (1972) and the Asia Society (1985). His well-known article, Vietnamese Literature Under Communism, 1945-85, was published by the Association of Asian Studies in 1986. He has contributed articles on Southeast Asian Literature to the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia (1965 edition) and the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing (1994).
Bich has also read poetry on radio and television throughout the U.S. He has appeared on the NBC Today Show with Hugh Downs, the Tomorrow Show, and numerous local television programs. He has recorded folk songs at Columbia University and presented Vietnamese music at the Folk Life Festival organized by the Smithsonian Folk Life Program.
Zeroing In: Education and Community
Bich has long been involved in education, starting as a teacher of English to adult refugees in the 1970s. In 1991, President Bush Sr. appointed him Deputy Director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs at the Department of Education. He became Acting Director, overseeing a budget of $240 million, when Director Rita Esquivel left in 1992. At Education, Bich had the chance to participate in America 2000, an ambitious program launched by President Bush and the 50 state governors. The goal was to put the U.S. first among the advanced industrial nations by the year 2000 in English, history, geography, and, especially, mathematics and science.
As if all that were not enough, Bich has been active in community affairs. He helped form in late 1975 the Buddhist Congregational Church of America, which three years later built the first Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Washington, DC. He founded the Vietnamese Parent Association. He started the Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association. To facilitate the exchange of educational materials and teaching methods among Vietnamese American teachers, he established the National Association for Vietnamese American Education (NAVAE). He became active on the boards of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans (NCVA), Boat People SOS, and the Vietnamese Cultural Association in North America (VICANA).
A Leader for Younger Generations
In 1997, Bich entered the world of radio, becoming Director of the Vietnamese Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA). Funded by Congress, RFA is similar to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, recognized for helping bringing down Communism in Europe.
Bich brought his own, open approach to RFA, giving Vietnamese Communist officials and others the chance to express themselves in a democratic way so audiences could have access to a variety of ideas. Listeners heard about hot-button topics like women, youth, religion and education from commentators across the political spectrum. Although Bich retired from RFA a couple of years ago, he has not slowed down. He spends 12 to 14 hours a day editing and publishing books, and sitting on the boards of a number of non-profit organizations. He also writes, does research, and travels to deliver speeches around the U.S. and overseas.
Bich says he feels now is the time to start passing the torch to younger generations. One way is through the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans (NCVA), which he founded 20 years ago and chairs today. Second-generation member Hung Nguyen became the organization’s president in 2004. The primary focus is to train young students and professionals in leadership development, service to the community and participation in the public and policy sectors. Past participants come from the U.S., England and Australia to attend NCVA’s annual Vietnamese American Youth Leadership Conference. They have time to interact with legislators and government officials and enjoy a Gala Dinner featuring special speakers who inspire their young audiences.
To Nguyen Ngoc Bich, the last word. “ NCVA’s best accomplishment was the transfer of leadership from the older generations to the younger generation through a democratic process.”