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Notice anything unusual about the above photo taken at Crossroads in Bellevue this summer?

Maybe most of you don’t, but for an estimated 3 million Vietnamese who fled communism throughout the latter 20th century — that red flag with the yellow star is a symbol of trauma. I explained why in a June 19 column, just before the Seattle City Council was set to vote on a resolution recognizing the “Heritage and Freedom” flag — defined by a yellow background and three horizontal red stripes — as the symbol of the city’s estimated 10,000 Vietnamese residents (out of more than 70,000 statewide).

This is an extremely touchy subject since the U.S. formally recognizes the current Vietnamese flag, but the Seattle City Council won the hearts and minds of many Vietnamese-Americans by voting 8-1 to pass Res. 31591 . It was a moment 40 years in the making; one in which thousands of former refugees in the state’s largest city felt their history, allegiance to and sacrifices for the American-backed South Vietnam were finally being recognized. Over time, that old flag has helped unify many Vietnamese expatriates, reminding them of their resilience and willingness to rebel against communism.

Though I never set out to be the flag police, I was surprised in late August to receive an email from Huy Duong, a Bellevue resident and Amazon product manager who’d read the June column and decided to act when he saw the communist flag on display at the local Crossroads Shopping Center. He posted a heartfelt message on his Facebook page that read, in part: “I don’t consider myself a militant Asian-American but this really struck a chord with me…. Our parents risked their lives to escape the communist regime and it is a travesty to have that flag be displayed here in their new home country.”

Duong, who was born in the U.S. and says he has never been engaged in civic matters before, is part of a younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans with a renewed interest in understanding why and how we ended up in the United States. Like me, he is the offspring of South Vietnamese refugees who uprooted their lives and escaped their homeland by air, land and sea. That generation did so to ensure they and their children would have a shot at living free of persecution and violence. After 40 years of suffering in relative silence, some refugees are just beginning to feel removed enough from their traumatic experiences to share their stories of surviving war and post-war atrocities under the communist regime. (I wrote about my own family’s struggles in a May column marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam to northern communist forces.)

During a long conversation recently with Duong and his parents, Dr. Duong M. Duong, 65,  and Thanh Cao, 62, at the family’s home, they explained to me why the old South Vietnam flag still elicits such strong feelings — rational or not. In April 1975, the elder Duong and Cao were hastily evacuated from Saigon as U.S. forces fled. Duong was in his final year of medical school and left with nothing. Once the engaged couple arrived in the United States, they spent the next four decades learning English, finishing their studies in internal medicine and nursing, got married and quietly raised a family of four children in Bellevue.

But time has not erased the pain of being forced to flee and start from scratch. When the family visited Vietnam a few years back, Duong Duong insisted on returning to Seattle before April 30. For him, that day is one of mourning. In Vietnam, it is celebrated as a day of liberation — with the red flag on prominent display throughout the nation.

To this day, the Duong home proudly hangs the flag of South Vietnam.

From left to right: Dr. Duong M. Duong, Huy Duong, Van Duong, and Thanh Cao in the family’s  Bellevue home. (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)
From left to right: Dr. Duong M. Duong, Huy Duong, Van Duong, and Thanh Cao in the family’s Bellevue home. (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)

So when Huy Duong spotted the communist symbol at Crossroads this summer, he wrote to mall officials to express his concerns. After a week, he said they replied and explained they were not “cultural experts” and the flags were meant “merely for decorative purposes.”  His Facebook post about the disappointing exchange was shared by more than 100 people. Friends and supporters also wrote to the mall and reminded them that former Bellevue Mayor Don Davidson once signed a proclamation recognizing the Heritage and Freedom Flag as the local Vietnamese community’s symbol. Within days, Crossroads wisely announced it would remove and replace the communist flag.

That’s the power of speaking up.

In emailed responses to The Seattle Times editorial board on Tuesday,  Crossroads Shopping Center’s Marketing Director Sue Popma said the mall would remove the communist flag by next week at the latest. After a second inquiry on Thursday, she replied that the change is complete — one mural is now replaced with the South Vietnam flag and a second mural was replaced with a different world flag. She even sent a photo:

A Sept. 17 photo of the mural at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue, which now displays the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag instead of the flag of communist Vietnam. Photo courtesy Sue Popma.
A Sept. 17 photo of the mural at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue, which now displays the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag instead of the flag of communist Vietnam. Photo courtesy Sue Popma.

Popma wrote that they had no idea local Vietnamese patrons would react so strongly to the communist flag’s display: “The flag is there because we intended to embrace the Vietnamese community and acknowledge them as an important part of Crossroads’ culture.  We used the flags recognized by the United Nations as our source, and we assumed that we were using the correct flag to represent the local Vietnamese community.  We had no idea that a discrepancy existed between which flag is recognized internationally versus locally.  We regret that our flag mural conveyed the wrong message to anyone.”

It’s too bad the unveiling has already happened, but Crossroads still has an opportunity to foster some goodwill with its local patrons. Mall officials should invite members of the Asian American and Vietnamese community to view the new mural with the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom flag. There needs to be a conversation about why that symbol matters all these years after the Vietnam War, and how it could be used to help refugees write their American story. After all, 2010 Census numbers indicate that Asians now represent more than 27 percent of Bellevue’s population — the highest percentage of any city in the state — and Vietnamese make up about 5 percent of that group. One of the state’s only two Vietnamese elected officials, My-Linh Thai, sits on the Bellevue School District Board.

This flag issue is an example of how citizens who feel strongly about something can be empowered to act. Thanks to individuals like Huy Duong, the Eastside’s Vietnamese American community now has a solid example of what it means to engage in public issues and inspire change. It’s one small step for a growing ethnic population trying to reconcile its painful past, that should lead to even more meaningful civic involvement in the future.