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Mother, Vietnamese community embrace


In the months after her daughter was attacked, a mother worried about what her daughter faced after recovering from her physical wounds.

For many Asian-Americans, rape can be viewed as shameful. The mother feared that her daughter, assaulted outside the Bloomingdale library, would be a target of averted eyes, pointed fingers, hurtful whispers.

Last week, she learned that tragedy can bring out the best in people.

Vietnamese-Americans from around the Tampa Bay area sat around teppanyaki tables at Carrollwood's Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, shaking their heads at the widely publicized tragedy that had brought them together.

Friday's event was a fundraising dinner for the 18-year-old girl, who was beaten and choked so severely, she lost her sight and her ability to move, talk and swallow.

Guests bid on autographed Tampa Bay Buccaneers memorabilia and made donations to pose for pictures with Bucs cheerleaders. They wrote personal messages of encouragement to the girl's mother.

Fundraisers have taken place all over the world for the girl, but this one was unusual for the group of locals it attracted.

The local Vietnamese community, estimated at 40,000, is close-knit but not very active. People get together for festivals and parties. But they did not, for example, assemble to protest the United States' normalization with their communist homeland or call a news conference to decry an injustice.

Just this past year, plans for the annual midautumn Moon Festival were scrapped because of a lack of money and support.

So imagine the mother's surprise when more than 120 people gathered in one place, for one girl, raising more than $14,000 to help with her crushing medical expenses.

Phuong Quynh Nguyen, who single-handedly collected $2,000 from friends across the country by running a telephone campaign, saw the outpouring as a sign of hope for the Vietnamese Mutual Association of Tampa Bay, which, until now, has been a largely social group.

Nguyen had urged the president of the association to step up and lead the fundraising dinner, which was attended by the victim's older sister. She hopes it opened their eyes and their hearts to the civic duties that surround them. She hopes others in need will not share the mother's fear of opening up to those around her.

Doing so was a gradual process for the mother, who thought her daughter would recover from her injuries in a matter of months.

By now, she thought her daughter would be sitting in a college classroom.

When she consented to an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, she asked that the information not be shared with the Vietnamese press.

She feared that the story would bring shame to her daughter, she said. She could remain anonymous within the Tampa Bay area but not within the Vietnamese community.

The mother's feelings are not unusual, experts say.

"Culturally, we all know it's a crime, the girl has done nothing wrong, does not deserve anything like that, but there is still a huge stigma," said Mo-Yee Lee, a professor in the college of social work at Ohio State University who has studied sexual assault and self-help behavior among Asian-Americans.

"From my perspective, Asian cultures are very family-centered. We are a family and we should be able to help each other within our family. Something like this forces the family to seek outside help."

Today, the woman who had tried to shield her daughter from the community now embraces it.

Vietnamese clergy pray by her daughter's bedside. Local Vietnamese doctors offer services to the mother, whose own health has declined because of the stress.

The family continues to struggle financially.

Medicaid has agreed to pay for the girl's physical therapy as long as she makes significant progress, as long she gets better.

The mother worries as she pushes her daughter to meet their demands.

She's still scared, but not of going forward alone.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or

Mother, Vietnamese community embrace 10/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 11:44am]
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