Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: VACI connects Vietnamese Iowans with opportunity and each other

June 20, 2023

Vietnamese American Community in Iowa President Vinh Nguyen

You can learn more about Vietnamese culture during CultureALL's dinner event at Paris Banh Mi on June 26. Learn more and purchase tickets for the event here.

When Vinh Nguyen arrived in Des Moines in the early 1980s, he spoke almost no English and had very little money. The life of a refugee in America was intimidating and difficult. 

“Back in the early 80s, the refugee population was much smaller, and we didn't have lots of services,” Vinh said. “The resettlement agencies were not as well prepared as they are now. When I came in, I didn't have a caseworker. Somebody picked me up from the airport, and then I lived in an apartment with six people and two bathrooms.”

Vinh struggled to acclimate to his new life. Living through social and political turmoil in his home country was difficult, and he had to work to adapt to American culture. He worked several odd jobs to survive while taking English classes. As he grew more confident in his English language skills, he realized he had a great passion for education and wanted to help other immigrants and refugees find their way in this new country.

“To me, language is the gate to educational opportunities,” Vinh said.

Language is also the gate to social opportunities, and Vinh knows firsthand just how isolating it is to come to a new country with little to no connections. But through his work as one of the founders and president of the Vietnamese American Community in Iowa (VACI), Vinh has helped build a thriving Vietnamese community that provides connection and empowerment for all. 

Support for Each Other

Vinh was leading a Vietnamese youth group in 2000 when a tragedy struck thousands of miles away. A flood in Vietnam shifted his focus. 

“People asked me to lead the fundraising effort,” he said. “We raised the money in collaboration with the churches and the temples. After that, the community elders said that there's humongous support that they are not able to tap into.” 

Vinh’s fundraising efforts revealed that the local Vietnamese community had a desire to connect and support one another. The community leaders asked Vinh to pivot from focusing on Vietnamese children to facilitating a group for the whole community. 

In 2005, that group developed into VACI. 

The organization is run entirely by volunteers and costs nothing to join. Vinh has served on and off as both President and Vice President since the founding. He stepped aside to serve as the Director of Fundraising in 2010 so VACI could raise more than $47,000 to purchase a building in Des Moines. The building provides event space to hold meetings, host events, and connect with one another.

The Vietnamese American Community Center in Des Moines

Connecting community members with each other is foremost on Vinh’s mind. 

“The Vietnamese are very, very diverse. Even the people who came with refugee status, like myself, are very diverse in terms of economics, educational status, and everything else,” Vinh said. “VACI helps us find connection when we’re missing our homeland.”

VACI also helps to facilitate connections between different generations of Vietnamese Iowans. As the fifty year anniversary of the Fall of Saigon approaches in 2025, the generational divide widens. 

“The elder generation that came here after the Vietnam War feel differently than the younger generation who were brought here or were born and grew up here,” Vinh said. “To have a very cohesive group is difficult, so it takes someone to understand the wrap-around services needed to meet everyone’s needs.” 

From Generation to Generation

As the number of older Vietnamese Iowans grows, so does the necessity for culturally sensitive, quality elder care. 

VACI leaders noticed many local senior community centers don’t accommodate the needs and tastes of older Vietnamese adults. These programs typically don’t cook Vietnamese food, and they lack language and translation services that make it possible for non-English speakers to engage. That’s why the VACI community center established a routine time for Vietnamese older adults to gather.

“Once every two months, they come to the center. They have lunch, they sing karaoke, they talk and have fun,” Vinh said. “We also do field trips and bring them to different areas to sightsee and learn about their community. Our elders are often isolated, so we help them explore their surroundings and learn a little bit more about social norms and different things in American society.” 

As Vinh gets older as well, he looks forward to handing over responsibilities to younger Vietnamese leaders. He enjoys seeing how actively they engage VACI in community initiatives, such as Pride Fest. VACI representatives walked in the parade with a banner proclaiming, “Be Proud! Be You!” 

Members of VACI during the 2023 Capital City Pride Parade

“There’s a breakthrough in our community,” Vinh said. “The younger generations are taking the opportunity to do something good and infuse the DNA of Vietnamese culture into the main culture.” 

Community involvement has always been an important pillar in VACI’s mission to grow relationships between Vietnamese Iowans and the larger community. They work with other groups to clean local neighborhoods, host an annual Vietnamese New Year celebration, and take part in the annual World Refugee Day celebration. 

Vinh hopes that after he steps back from VACI leadership and continues to offer fundraising support, the group will focus on showing other Iowans the value of Vietnamese art and culture. 

“I hope VACI serves as a resource for people who would like to learn about Vietnamese culture,” he said. “Having places like Paris Banh Mi or the C Fresh Market shows we are growing and contributing more in terms of economics. I hope we continue to see people serving in different capacities like politics or within schools. We’re going to break that bamboo ceiling and see the next generation grow as leaders for the community.”

You can learn more about Vietnamese culture during CultureALL's dinner event at Paris Banh Mi on June 26. Learn more and purchase tickets for the event here.

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.