Narrating the Vietnamese American Experience*
* A version of this article will appear in the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore (Greenwood Publication)
The starting point of Vietnamese American experience is often linked to the mass refugee exodus following the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975. However, to be sure, there was a pre-1975 Vietnamese immigrant experience. This immigrant group consisted largely of Vietnamese who came to the United States as students, professionals, and war brides. According to the U.S. census, from 1951 to 1975, this group totaled a little more than twenty thousand.
A study by academic Pham Vu utilizing oral interviews and printed materials found that some of the pre-1975 immigrants, particularly those who were students, acted as agents of change. These students promoted a better understanding of Vietnam as a country rather than merely as a war, and expressed a range of views from criticizing American policy in Vietnam, which had uprooted a large numbers of Vietnamese villagers, to espousing American support for Republic of South Vietnam against communist rule in the north.
One of those students was Nguyen Dinh Hoa, who memorized his life experience into two time periods, pre-1948 and post-1948, signifying the year he came as a student through the U.S. consulate in Hanoi to obtain a Ph.D. in English education. After receiving his doctoral degree, Hoa returned to Vietnam in 1957 to serve as chairman of the English Department at the University of Saigon. In 1965, he came back to, and remained in, the U.S. to develop one of the first Vietnamese Studies programs, promoting the Vietnamese language and literature. He also published English textbooks for Vietnamese speakers, which were in high demand among the post-1975 Vietnamese refugees. According to Hoa’s memoir of his cultural odyssey, by the time it was possible to provisionally return home, his memories of Vietnam were so strong they compelled him to return in 1994, which was very meaningful because he found he had not outgrown his past.
Another student was Nguyen Long, who attended Berkeley from 1968 to 1973, completing his Ph.D. work in Political Science. Prior to 1968, Long, as a student activist championing progressive politics, led protests against the Ngo Dinh Diem government (1955-1963) and the Nguyen Van Thieu government (1967-1975). He continued his activism in the U.S., participating in anti-war demonstrations. Long returned to Vietnam in 1973 and saw no reason to become a refugee in 1975, believing that patriotism and nationalism, as espoused by the Communist Party, would allow for a coalition government to rebuild a better Vietnam. Instead, he discovered life under communist rule was a nightmare and the conditions were near-slavery. Thus, Long was now willing to risk death and escaped successful by boat in 1979. Initially, he believed that the U.S. should withdraw its forces to allow Vietnamese to negotiate for peace on their own. However, in his memoir of daily life under the Vietnamese Communists, Long came to realize that such an approach was too simplistic.
The above experiences, on the one hand, as shared by a number of the pre-1975 immigrants, clearly antedate the narratives of the Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War. However, on the other hand, such experiences were neither necessarily unique only to the pre-1975 Vietnamese Americans, nor were they disconnected to the refugee exodus after the fall of Saigon. Rather, the pre-1975 experiences open possibilities of memorializing and/or archiving them as anchors to the Vietnamese American cultural and intellectual history. That is, the “birth” of Vietnamese American experience is related to American involvement in Vietnam. Moreover, its cultural and intellectual history is about assertions and negotiations of the right to “place-making” and for “memory work” in order to bring about desired change and to revise distorted histories, both in the U. S. and in Vietnam.
In fact, there has been an imagination, where Vietnam should seek diplomatic relations with the U.S. so as to achieve independence, dating back to Bui Vien’s mission in 1873. According to a well-known biography which was first published in Saigon in 1945, Bui Vien, an official of the Tu Duc’s court (1848-1883), was believed to have been sent to the U.S. to request an intervention by the Grant Administration against French intrusion in Vietnam. However, due to political circumstances, the U.S. government was not in a position at the time to assist. Although there is no historical documentation to support that such visit actually took place, this fable has had the power to explain the events that came after it, according to academic Wynn Wilcox.
That is, in 1950 the United States had granted the recognition of the Associated State of Vietnam in which a year earlier, the non-communist government of Bao Dai was able to negotiate for independence for the whole Vietnam within the French Union. When the Geneva Accord of 1954 partitioned the country into two ideological halves, the U.S. singularly allied with non-communist Vietnamese leaders to secure the survival of the Republic of South Vietnam. Thus, the historical vision of a political relationship between the two countries was finally inaugurated. By 1967, when the alliance was at a crossroad, President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked Bui Vien’s mission to reiterate that: “[W]e know our destination. We established it years ago…together, with courage and unflagging devotion to the duty we share, we will make it.” With the communist takeover in 1975, the US and South Vietnam once again shared the same destiny, that is, as losers of the Vietnam War.
While the U.S. began to study the lessons of and going beyond the Vietnam War, the initial wave of refugees — about 130,000, of which many were members of the former South Vietnamese government and military armed forces — began to reconstruct their new home as “Little Saigon.”
The use of “Little Saigon” not only suggests an explicit cultural and ideological reference point but also a community-driven, bottom-up approach which expresses needs and desires that were quite different from U.S. resettlement policy. Initially, the objective of U.S. resettlement policy was to “assimilate” Vietnamese refugees to only take on an American identity and to discourage them from forming their own ethnic communities. As such, Vietnamese refugees were systematically dispersed across the states to avoid burdening local governments’ budgets and to prevent Vietnamese from clustering into large geographically ethnic enclaves.
However, many of the first wave refugees saw the dispersion as a major obstacle in adjusting because it prevented ethnic support and a sense of belonging. In fact, after a few years, government-created diasporas were reversing, as Vietnamese themselves sought for the presence of a Vietnamese community in order to cope with being physically, psychologically, culturally, economically, and intellectually displaced. In many respects, Vietnamese secondary migration, including those of the latter waves of refugees, were driven by “geographical mobility,” moving to places that had public assistance benefit levels, lenient public assistance eligibility requirements, low unemployment rates, or ethnic communities with dense cultural and social networks.
Gradually, Vietnamese refugees have been able to put back the “place” into displacement — although not always having a defined plan of action, never “silent” or merely “surviving.” Contrary to the initial prediction by some American scholars that Vietnamese refugees were psychologically unprepared to start life anew, the refugees’ experiences of traumas from war and escape have in many ways instilled a sense of invulnerability and the attitude of “nowhere to go but up,” which encourages Vietnamese refugees to take risks and become innovators in their respective occupations.
An empirical study by Paul Starr and Alden Roberts in 1982 found that many Vietnamese refugees saw past personal difficulties as having inoculated them against the negative, and instilled the attitude “that which does kill me, strengthens me.” Other studies found that many Vietnamese refugees possessed a great degree of optimism, expecting their lives to improve markedly within five years, including occupational advancement, income, and overall quality of life.
Also contrary to assimilationist perspective, the robust social mobility of the first generation of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants has been correlated to the cohort’s ability to retain aspects of Vietnamese culture. That is, in making places for themselves, many Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have retained Vietnamese cultural ideals of the family such as “hieu” (filial piety) and of the community such as “nghia” (the obligation to participate rather than withdraw from societal affairs).
For example, empirical studies by Minh Zhou and Carl Bankston have found that younger generations of Vietnamese Americans in marginal socio-economic environments who have strong adherence to traditional family values, strong commitment to work ethic, high level of Vietnamese literacy, and a high degree of personal involvement in the ethnic community tend to disproportionately have high grades, to have definite college plans, and to score high on academic orientation. Importantly, these Vietnamese cultural ideals co-existed with views that the American way of life was modern, scientific, and progressive.
Consequently, the bicultural patterns have caused observers to describe the first generation of Vietnamese Americans in various ways, including eclectic, adaptable, resourceful, practical, passive, indirect, and resilient.
The above characteristics have assisted, to a considerable degree, with the adjustment of the subsequent waves of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, who, relative to the first wave, possessed a lesser degree of “anticipatory socialization of American life.” Subsequent waves include “boat people,” who began their journey in the late 1970s as a result of the new government’s discriminative policy toward the “corrupted, westernized” culture of southern Vietnam, including abolition of “bourgeois trade,” creation of new economic zones, and military draft of young men. However, such journeys were subjected to violent acts by pirates, such as rapes, murders, and pillaging. Thus, the acronym “RMP” was stamped on many refugees’ files. It has been estimated that the death rate was about 15 percent of the total number of people arriving at the refugee camps in Southeast Asia, or rougly 220,000 deaths.
“Boat people” were more likely to be Viet Hoa (Chinese Vietnamese or Vietnamese Chinese), males, Buddhists, less affluent, less proficient in the English language, and less educated. Still, this group was relatively young and had been urban workers in Vietnam. They were able to maintain strong family ties and kinship networks, and, while they did not necessarily assimilate as quickly as many of their first-wave cohorts, they showed a rather gradual improvement on a number of socio-economic indicators. The adjustment of many was exacerbated because they were sponsored by the first wave refugees. Moreover, when confronted with language barriers and lack of employable skills in the mainstream, a great number turned to family-run businesses, marketing themselves to the growing Vietnamese communities across the states. As a result, Vietnamese Americans have had one of the highest growth rates in small businesses among Asian Americans, which helped to solidify the many “Little Saigons” across the U.S. as vibrant ethnic enclave economies.
Another wave consisted of individuals who came through government sponsored programs, namely the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), Humanitarian Operation Program (HO), and U.S. Homecoming program. Individuals who came via ODP, which began in 1984, were those permitted to enter via sponsorship of relatives in the U.S. Like “boat people,” earlier ODP immigrants over time have improved their socio-economic situations.
By contrast, later ODP immigrants and those under HO — who were former South Vietnamese political prisoners for whom the U.S. government negotiated with Vietnam for their emigration to the U.S. starting in 1989 — have been struggling to climb out of the poverty line. This group relative to other waves was older and had a different adjustment difficulty because they were survivors of torture. Unlike earlier groups and younger cohorts, this group did not perceive positive overall well being that could buffer against psychological distress.
Another group that faced serious adjustment difficulties has been that of Amerasians — individuals fathered by a U.S. citizen in Vietnam during the war — who came under the Homecoming Act implemented in 1989. These individuals differ drastically from other Vietnamese refugees and immigrants on measures of alcohol use, number of hospitalizations, years of education, childhood trauma, and perceived effects of trauma.
From 1975 to 2002, a totaled of 759,482 Vietnamese arrived as refugees, while 412,449 arrived as immigrants from 1951 to 2002, according to the U.S. census. Today, Vietnamese immigrants, particularly through the family unification program, make up the vast majority of foreign born Vietnamese entering the U.S. According to 2008 census numbers, there are 1.6 million Vietnamese Americans and — despite the different migration vintages — they are making considerable progress.
Studies using the data from census have shown that Vietnamese foreign born entering the U.S. in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000-2005 have seen an increase in terms English proficiency, proportion of college graduates, the number of owner occupied housing, family median income, naturalization, and voting; in addition, Vietnamese have seen a decrease in public assistance and poverty rate. However, relative to other non-refugee Asian foreign born who enter the U.S. in the same time period, Vietnamese Americans are more likely to be in poverty, to be uninsured, to be institutionalized, and to reside in the poorer inner-city neighborhoods.
Notwithstanding, given the expectation that Vietnamese refugees and immigrants were to experience downward assimilation or segmented assimilation because of the “hour-glass economy,” Vietnamese Americans have been able to achieve a considerable degree of “place-making” in the American mosaic.
No less important, Vietnamese Americans have been able to make cultural statements through “memory work,” signifying their identity to themselves and others. For example, Vietnamese Americans are attempting to be the first Asian American group to establish a million dollar endowment at the Smithsonian Institution. Thus far, an exhibit, “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon,” which was opened at the Smithsonian in January 2007, has plans to travel to fifteen cities. The overall mission of the Vietnamese Heritage Project at the Smithsonian is to tell “the story of challenge, sacrifice and change“ an ongoing journey that is changing the face of America. However, the project has created discussions and inroads of inquiry. That is, whether or not marketing the Vietnamese American Experience as a part of American Heritage would continue to marginalize the “missing” voices and narratives of the former South Republic Vietnam. This is evident in the teaching of the Vietnam War on college campuses, where there is still a dominant emphasis on the American perspectives about the lessons learned.
Within the community there has been an effort to rewrite the Vietnam War, extracting the lessons of the past in order to build a better future along with the need to maintain an impartial objectivity. Moreover, there has been an ongoing documentation of Vietnamese American achievement called Ve Vang Dan Viet (or The Pride of the Vietnamese), which currently has a five volume edition. The “Ve Vang Dan Viet” is now being utilized by Vietnamese American newspapers, organizations, and bloggers. In many respects, “Ve Vang Dan Viet” is an ideological statement, declaring the superiority of a democratic way of life which has allowed Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to fulfill their full potential. Meanwhile, life under communist tutelage has not released the full potential of the Vietnamese people in Vietnam.
Myers, Jessica. 2006. “ Pho and Apple Pie: Eden Center as a Representation of Vietnamese Ethnic Identity in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area, 1975-2005.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 1 (2): 279-311.Â
- Describe how the Vietnamese community in Washington DC constructs their ethnic identity. For example, what aspects of their Vietnamese heritage do they wish to claim?
- Describe the different waves of Vietnamese immigration and how they affect the development of the community.
- Describe the social, cultural, and political dynamics of Eden Center?
Collet, Christian. 2008. “ The Viability of ‘Going it Alone’: Vietnamese Americans and the Coalition Experience of a Transnational Community.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 1 (2): 279-311.Â
- Why are Vietnamese Americans in California more prone in selecting the â€œgoing it aloneâ€ strategy?
- Describe the â€œtogglingâ€ strategy in Vietnamese American campaigns.Â Â Â Â
- Should Vietnamese Americans â€œgo it aloneâ€ or should they more actively engage inpanethnic and cross-racial coalitions to address the mutually shared problems of structural discrimination and economic inequalities?
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- Nguyen, Bich Ngoc. â€œImmigration and Integration: The Vietnamese Experience.â€ This presentation was made at the University of Metropolitan London on March 22, 2006. http://www.ncvaonline.org/archive/analysis_ImmigrationIntegration_032206.shtml
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- Shapiro, Johanna, Karen Douglas, and Olivia de la Rocha. â€œGenerational Differences in Psychosocial Adaptation and Predictors of Psychological Distress in a Population of Recent Vietnamese Immigrants,â€ Journal of Community Health 24:2 (April 1999).
- Vo,Â Nghia. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 19775-1992 (North Carolina: McFarland, 2006).Â
- Wilcox, Wynn. â€œThe Myth of Bui Vien.â€ The paper was presented at the Association for Asian Studies Conference on March 31- April 3, 2005 in Chicago, IL.
- Zhou, Min and Carl Bankston. Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in United States (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998).