By Nicole Shine/Garden Grove Journal
For most Vietnamese, April 30 is remembered as the day Saigon fell in 1975. For Tri Ta, Westminster’s and the nation’s first Vietnamese American mayor, it was also the date he met his future wife.
It was a sign, he says.
It was 1998, and the occasion wasn’t auspicious—a birthday party in Irvine.
But he and Ahn Dohn struck up a conversation and discovered they shared a passion for philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, Plato and Aristotle.
They talked for hours about eastern and western philosophers.
“I think I was just trying to show off,” Ta says now with a slight smile. “It was amazing she loved to listen to me.”
That auspicious meeting led to marriage and two girls, Trianh (her name a combination of her parents’ first names), 10, and Trimy, 5.
And the two wrote and self-published three books—two of poetry and one of short stories—all under the pen name Duc Tri Que Anh, a union of their names.
You might say that writing is in Ta’s blood.
Back in Saigon, where he was raised, his father was accused of writing a book against Communism.
Ta remembers a Communist agent searching their home and questioning his parents for hours. They took his father and imprisoned him for three years.
“I was young, I did not understand a lot,” he says of that time.
He was 19 when his family immigrated here in 1992, after his father was granted political asylum. They settled in L.A., where everything was so “big and clean,” and Ta earned a political science degree at Cal State, L.A.
He worked for a local Assemblyman and at a support services agency before he was recruited in 2006 to help launch a national, bilingual trade magazine for the nail salon industry.
The same year, he made a successful run for councilman, backed by supporters in Little Saigon, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans.
That same support, and the backing of Margie Rice, a fixture on the city council, helped him beat businesswomen Penny Loomer in his bid for mayor in November. The win focused national and international attention on him.
“My phone kept ringing like 24 hours,” he recalls. “As the first Vietnamese American elected mayor, people look at me and they put responsibility on me.”
Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine, says such attention is expected. “Anytime you’re the first there are high expectations.”
For his part, Ta plans to fulfill his duty with “honor and honesty,” he says, waxing philosophical.
“To understand where you come from is very important,” he explains. “But the most important thing when you come to this country is to give back to people who have been helping you.”
Contact the writer on Twitter at @nicolekshine.