I’m sitting inside of the Vietnamese Community Center, as the front door swings open and clashing against the side of the building, making a loud crashing noise. I pay no attention to it, as I am captivated by the conversation I am having with member of the Vietnamese community, Victoria Bui. She is also a member of the Buddhist Cultural Center (Tu Hieu Temple) located at 647 Fillmore Avenue.
Bui points to a plaque on the wall – issued by the city of Buffalo – that is a resolution recognizing the preservation of the Vietnamese flag.
“We keep our former flag,” she says proudly. “The communist have their own, but we don’t accept it.”
After giving me a brief history of the old country, Bui tells me about her early years in Buffalo. She moved to Buffalo from Vietnam in December of 1995. At age 55, while working a full time job during the day, she attended Grover Cleveland High School at night in order to receive her GED. Years later, she earned her Office Assistant Certificate from Erie County Community College. For 19 years, she worked at the dry cleaners, until she retired in 2014.
Now, Bui volunteers to teach New Americans the English language. She also teaches Vietnamese to English speakers who have adopted orphans from Vietnam.
As we’re sitting down talking about Buddha’s Birthday and Vu Lan (Vietnamese Mother’s Day), the President of the Vietnamese Community in Buffalo, Manh Le, walks through the door with two other men. They politely introduce themselves. As Le sit downs, another gentleman grabs each of us a bottle of water.
Le is also the owner of Saigon Café and Papaya Restaurant. He talks to me about the importance of preserving Vietnamese culture.
“The Vietnamese came to Buffalo in 1975,” he says. “Like any refugee or immigrant group here, we think it is important for our kids to understand why they are here.”
“We have to maintain our roots,” Bui adds.
Le is one of the “boat people” – a term used to describe Vietnamese people who fled the country by boat or ship after the war.
“The Vietnamese people are human rights fighters. We come here, and some of us have sacrificed ourselves for freedom,” he says. “I came here by way of a tiny boat. One big wave in the ocean and we are doomed. A lot of people don’t make it.”
Le also tells me he was a minor when he arrived to Buffalo, which made it easier for him to assimilate. Bui, on the other hand, arrived when she was 55.
“It was harder for her to blend in with American culture,” Le says of Bui.
“I was too old. It was hard to get a job,” says Bui. “Nobody accepts the old people.”
“I came at a young age,” says Le. “It was easy to find work and blend in.”
“In Vietnam, I was an accountant. When I came here, I needed a certificate. So at 55, I worked for my GED and an Office Assistant certificate,” explains Bui. “When I applied for a job, they asked me what my experience was here, in this country. I didn’t have any, so I ended up working at the cleaners.”
I ask Le what shocked him the most about Buffalo when he first arrived, and he says there was nothing that shocked him, but that he was overwhelmed with joy to finally be free. Although he and Bui tell me they miss the food and the people back home, they miss more than just the culture.
“What we miss the most is freedom. It was taken away from us, but now we have it here,” he says.
We continue our conversation about Buddha’s Birthday and Vu Lan.
“Vu Lan is Mother’s Day. It is the holy ceremony not just for Buddhist here, but for all the people in Vietnam,” Le says. “You commemorate and honor your loved ones who have passed away. If your mother is still alive you have a ceremony to thank her. It is very important in our culture to pay respect to the mother, even if they have passed.”
Bui tells me that if your mother is alive, you get a red rose. If she is deceased, you get a white rose.
But this doesn’t come until after Buddha’s Birthday. To celebrate, people pray and monks eat vegetarian food in the temple.
Buddha’s Birthday is the birthday celebration of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. This historical event is observed on different days by various schools of Buddhism. In Buffalo, it will be celebrated on May 22nd at the Tu Hieu Temple at 11:00 a.m.