WESTMINSTER — As students spilled into the quad for lunch, their English chatter was sprinkled with easy Vietnamese: Khoe không? (How are you?) and Sao mày? (What’s up dude?).
Food booths for La Quinta High’s Spring Fest offered everything from fettuccine Alfredo to Krispy Kremes. The longest line was for spring rolls with peanut sauce, but plenty of kids opted for McDonald’s fish filet and iced coffees instead.
It was, for most, a comfortable blend.
In the now 40-year story of Little Saigon, La Quinta High is a snapshot of the future, a place where cultures and demography blend to form a world that grandparents and even many parents might not recognize.
Three out of four students at La Quinta High are Vietnamese-American, the highest such concentration of any high school in America.
In a county where the public school student mix already is ethnically and racially diverse – 50 percent Latino, 30 percent white, 15 percent Asian – La Quinta, and to a lesser extent some other schools in Little Saigon, stand out.
But numbers only hint at the nature of the change that’s taking place. Schools in Irvine, Santa Ana and San Clemente are diverse, too.
But at La Quinta, the story is about culture. Most of the students are second-generation immigrants, American-born children of the waves of people who came to Orange County from Vietnam in the 1970s or 1980s.
They speak English. They surf. They devour movies like “The Fast and the Furious.” They are, in every sense, American teens.
But with a little nudge and encouragement from parents and teachers, they’re holding to their Vietnamese heritage, too.
They speak the language. They understand the traditions. They know about the history and the politics, even if they don’t necessarily see it the way their elders do.
The result is a culture that’s totally new.
‘REGULAR HIGH SCHOOL’
Every day, junior Shawna Le leaves her fourth-period AP English class, drops her books in her locker, and meets friends at their table in the quad for lunch.
Their table is just a few feet from the school’s Hall of Fame, which features dozens of photos that chronicle La Quinta High’s 52-year athletic history. The 1960s and early ’70s show a parade of white students.
But over time, there’s a gradual increase in Asian faces, and the most recent photos are almost all Vietnamese Americans.
The kids eating lunch barely notice.
“Most of us realize that our school is filled with Vietnamese students,” Le said. “But I don’t think we really consider this a ‘Vietnamese’ high school.’ We see it as just a regular high school with regular kids.”
The 17-year-old Le and her friends gossip about who’s going to prom with whom, they debate who has the toughest teachers, and they plan their after-school and weekend outings.
It’s all typical high school stuff.
Le’s family story also is typical at La Quinta.
Le’s father, Si Le, was 13 when he arrived in the United States. Her mother, Joanna Le, came at age 7. Le and her two siblings – older sister Lauren, a freshman at Cypress College, and younger brother Nathan, a freshman at La Quinta – have lived in Little Saigon all their lives.
Le’s bedroom is covered with photos of friends and posters of theLakers. Le and her siblings spend afternoons shooting hoops in their driveway, doing homework or watching television.
At school, the teens speak English, but at home their parents have them speak Vietnamese at least half the time.
“It’s really important to have them hold onto a part of their Vietnamese identity,” said Joanna Le. “The more time that passes, the harder it is.”
Si Le, who graduated from La Quinta in 1986, just a few years after he arrived in the United States, is a mechanic. The dad remembers a completely different high school.
“Back then, there was just a small group of Vietnamese students,” he said.
“Many of us didn’t speak a lot of English. We felt different than everyone else. We often got picked on and made fun of.
“My children today have it a lot better,” he added.
“Being Vietnamese at La Quinta means you are just like everyone else.”
Inside Room 209, Dzung Bach teaches five periods of Vietnamese language and culture.
The program was added recently to La Quinta after parents and community members asked for it. About 500 students take the elective class from Bach or another teacher.
Bach, 63, runs his lessons almost entirely in Vietnamese, focusing on grammar and pronunciation.
The walls of Bach’s classroom tell part of the story at La Quinta.
There are maps and pictures of Vietnam, a mix of Vietnamese vocabulary words, artwork from Southeast Asia and photos of La Quinta students wearing traditional clothing in Vietnamese cultural events held on campus.
Above the door, Bach has hung an American flag. On the opposite side of the room there’s a flag of South Vietnam.
“I wouldn’t say my goal is to teach Vietnamese as a foreign language,” Bach said.
“I teach Vietnamese heritage.”
Bach was born in Hai Phong in North Vietnam. His family moved to Saigon after the communists came to power. A former lieutenant for the South Vietnamese Army who served seven years as a prisoner of war, Bach arrived in America in 1994.
He earned a teaching degree from Cal State Fullerton and has taught for 11 years at La Quinta, where he is one of nine Vietnamese American teachers.
Bach weaves his war tales into his daily lessons. Like the one about how, in battle, his platoon was trapped by the enemy along a shoreline after they’d been abandoned by the naval vessels that were supposed to help them escape. Bach was captured and sent to a labor prison camp for five years.
He recounts the time he tried to escape the country in an old fishing boat, but the boat came under constant attack from pirates and eventually broke down and was towed back to a Vietnamese port. Bach spent another two years in prison for his failed escape attempt.
“I thought I was taking the class to learn the Vietnamese language,” said one of his students, Danny Nguyen, a junior, who joined the class to improve his conversational Vietnamese. “But it’s so much more than that.”
The teacher often compares growing up in Vietnam with life in America.
“In Vietnam, manners and respect come before ABCs,” he tells students. “Here, not so much.”
Students laugh when he explains how Vietnamese Americans have more trouble fitting into snug ao dais and ao gams – traditional festive garments – because they tend to be heavier than native Vietnamese, whose diets are a lot simpler.
“The more they learn about their culture,” Bach said, “the more they’ll learn about themselves.”
Bryan Hoang, 17, is one of the school’s most popular students, the charismatic president of the student body. He carries a 4.0 GPA and plans to attend UC Santa Barbara in the fall.
He’s undecided on his career goals, but math or engineering are in the running.
Nearly half of La Quinta’s seniors will attend four-year colleges or universities this fall. That rate is about double the average for California high schools.
“I really like being in a position where I can work to make the environment better for everyone,” Hoang said.
“It’s important for every student to feel like they belong.”
Last year, Hoang helped organize the prom, held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
This spring, he helped plan the Battle of the Sexes, where boys and girls faced off in a series of challenges such as the quiz bowl, a music lyric challenge and a watermelon-eating contest. The girls won, but it was close.
“We let them win,” a boy playfully trash-talked, when recounting the event.
“Whatever. You guys keep thinking that,” a girl shot back.
Hoang led cheers, high-fived teammates, and congratulated the winners.
Senior Khiet Le, 18, is popular too.
She is president is of the 200-member La Quinta Vietnamese Student Association, a school group that aims to preserve Vietnamese culture and heritage.
Every Friday, the group plans cultural activities and community-service projects. They pass out dinners to needy families at the Westminster Civic Center and spend some Saturdays picking up trash as part of the Little Saigon Clean-Up Day.
They often bring in guests from the Vietnamese community to talk with students about issues such as war, immigration and the importance of heritage.
During the recent Tet Festival, members of the Vietnamese Student Association performed traditional lion dances in front of classmates during lunch. Some students then gave presentations about the meaning of Tet.
“Commitment to community service and cultural awareness are important here at La Quinta,” said the student, who is planning to attend either UC Merced or Cal State San Bernardino.
“We’re able to show that this campus offers much more.”
ONE IN FOUR
Cecilia Arzaga, 17, is among the 1 in 4 students at La Quinta who isn’t Vietnamese American. Her father is Filipino American and her mother is Mexican American. Other students at La Quinta include people who identify as Korean, Pacific Islander and white, among others.
Arzaga, a senior, came to La Quinta in the fall. She used to go to Magnolia Science Academy, a small charter school in Costa Mesa, but transferred because it didn’t offer softball.
She had considered four high schools close to her Garden Grove home and chose La Quinta because the school had the highest test scores. She came here wondering whether everyone would speak in Vietnamese and if it would be hard to make friends.
“I felt accepted right away,”she said. “I have never felt like an outsider. This has been a tremendous experience for me.”
Arzaga, who is deciding between UC Merced and Cal State Fullerton, plays shortstop on the school softball team. She’s batting above .500 and is one of the league’s best players. Mostly, her La Quinta friends are teammates. Her boyfriend, Zakk Morgan, plays third base for the baseball team.
After practice, her friends hop into their cars and head to boba tea shops, or stop by Munchies, a nearby sushi bar that also sells French fries, crepes and some Vietnamese food.
“By now, I know all the best spots,” she said.
Arzaga tried to introduce her friends to favorite Mexican restaurants, but she realized they already knew about them. She and her friends, Arzaga said, are a lot more alike than they are different.
“Most students have friends who share the same interests,” she said.
“We don’t choose friends just because they are the same race as us.”
Contact the writer: 714-704-3773 or email@example.com