Vietnamese Katrina Experiences: Windows to the Past and Present*
* A version of this article was published by the BBC-Vietnamese. Click here for the link.
There has been a growing interest among social science scholars to study Vietnamese Katrina evacuees, who were initially and disproportionately among the first to return and to have rebuilt their ethnic community.
Today, 45 of the 53 Vietnamese American-owned businesses concentrated in a commercial area are back, and over 90 percent of Vietnamese residents have returned to Village de L’Est. In comparison, fewer than 50 percent of the Village de L’Est African Americans have returned.
Although Vietnamese account less than 1.5 percent of New Orleans’ population, it is one of the largest concentrated settlements of Vietnamese Americans in the U.S., about 25,000 in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area.
The Vietnamese Versailles community started to attract media coverage when, within months after Katrina, members and their families associated with the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic began returning. By the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, more than a majority of the residents and businesses had come back.
However, many of the media reports tended to view the recovery by the Vietnamese Versailles Community through the Asian American model-minority myth. That Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have come to rely on their culture of self-reliance (as associated with Asian Americans in general) to overcome Katrina.
According to a recent study by academic Karen J. Leong and her colleagues, the rate of return is associated with a number of factors, including socioeconomic class.That is, many of the Vietnamese in Village de L’Est were middle-class homeowners. Their median housing value was in the mid-$80,000 range. By contrast, African Americans in the same neighborhood constituted 78 percent of low-income tenants, renting from government-subsidized apartments. Moreover, most of these apartments were heavily damaged by Katrina and, thus, the incentive to return was very different from those who owned homes.
Beside class, the perception of environmental risk also affected the decision to return. For example, for African Americans, if the government were to fix the levee system and ensure that it would not forsake them to danger again, many would return, according to journalistic accounts.
Meanwhile, for many members of the Vietnamese Versailles Community, the reaction and response to Katrina drew parallels to their migration displacements associated with the Vietnam War.
“My parents fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam in 1954. I fled from Vietnam for America in 1975. Now in 2005, my children fled from the only home they knew, much like I did, except that they fled in a car and I fled on a boat,” Nguyen Ngoc Dung told a Houston Chronicle reporter days after she and her children evacuated from New Orleans to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Is this the fate of the Vietnamese people? To always flee?”
What have caught the attention of academics are the disaster behaviors of Vietnamese Katrina victims.
That is, Vietnamese Katrina victims both “put to use” and “drew on” the tales of overcoming “forced” migrations and catastrophic loss that their ethnic group experienced in 1954 when the country was split into “two countries,” and again in 1975, when the country was “reunified” under the communist regime.
This was the case of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, which has been central to and has spearheaded the rebuilding of the Vietnamese Versailles Community; by some accounts, more than 75 percent of the community is Catholic.
In the path to recovery, the Catholic Church’s leadership drew strength from its historical narrative and collective memory of previous migration displacements. According to its pastor, Nguyen The Vien, the church’s leadership was not a post-migration phenomenon. Rather, it had developed several hundred years ago when Catholicism, a foreign faith, was introduced to certain villages in Vietnam, and over a time it has developed into a form of local leadership.
By the early 1950s, Vietnamese Catholic leaders had publicly condemned the communist government of Ho Chi Minh. This is because the latter had begun to move away from a “united front” against foreign oppression to a socialist revolution which needed to destroy the “old order,” including Catholicism and its followers, who were thought to be associated with colonialism.
When the 1954 Geneva Accord divided the country into two halves, initially some million refugees fled to the “non-communist” south. More than 80 percent of the 1954 in-country refugees were Catholics, according to available statistics. In 1975, when Saigon fell to communist rule, the first wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees, of whom 40 percent were Catholics, fled overseas.
In both massive migrations, the local Catholic leadership had played a major role in mobilizing villagers to flee in fear of religious and political persecution.
In fact, many members of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church can trace their origins to the Catholic villages in the Ba Ria-Vung Tau province (southern Vietnam), while elder members trace their origins to the large Catholic dioceses in the northern provinces of Phat Diem and Bui Chu.
In drawing strength from the past, the parish community, which had been organized into “hamlets,” would assign each team a different task. For example, one would repair and decontaminate houses, another would arrange for tetanus shots to prevent illness, and still another would buy and cook food. Furthermore, church leaders deliberatively selected particular attitudes toward the rationalization in rebuilding after Katrina.
That is, church members were reminded that their families “have been displaced twice in their life prior to this” and during the 21 years of war “we were always having to evacuate and rebuild,” so that “we’re well experienced as a community,” preached Nguyen The Vien.
Notably, the church’s leadership has been transformed in post-Katrina. Before “what we needed to do we did ourselves” but now we’ve become more active “because we saw the city government as impeding our way of life,” stated Nguyen The Vien.
In the initial months after Katrina, a city’s rebuilding commission had recommended that a moratorium on construction in the heavily damaged neighborhoods be in place, such as the Village de L’Est. In response, the church’s leadership decided to challenge the commission. It began to re-knit the community without permission. This strategy is paying off, demonstrating to the city that Vietnamese have intent to return.
As a result, a city urban planning team is now working with community leaders, looking beyond the rebuilding phase, such as a future plan for a community center, a retirement home, and the area’s history and culture museum. Moreover, the Vietnamese community has shown the ability to build and lead community coalitions — including African Americans and environmental groups — in getting the city to close a landfill that had opened near Village de L’Est after Katrina.
While the church’s leadership still faces issues in rebuilding in a flood-prone area (i.e. the city’s flood-protection system has not shorn up the levees for another Katrina-like hurricane), it demonstrates not only to the larger American public, but also perhaps to Vietnamese today in Vietnam, that an autonomous faith-based community can be a positive force in society.
One of the more obvious shortcomings of media coverage and academic studies is that they either neglect or overlook the issue of class and other religious faiths within the Vietnamese Katrina victims.
That is, in and around the Vietnamese Versailles Community, there is a smaller but vibrant Buddhist community anchored by a number of temples and religious organizations. There are also many Vietnamese who either live below or are hovering just above the poverty line, and who are tenants in the government-subsidized apartments.
Moreover, about five percent of the first-wave of Vietnamese refugees were fishermen, and many of them continued their trade. Before Katrina, they, along with the more recent Vietnamese immigrants, made up a large portion of the shrimping industry in southeast Louisiana, running large steel-hulled shrimp boats along the Gulf Coast.
Yet, we don’t know much about their Katrina experiences.
In early March 2006, a number of my students and I did field research, surveying Vietnamese who had remained in or returned to New Orleans. We interviewed 48 individuals in two locations: Chua Bo De (a Buddhist temple) located in New Orleans West, which served as a shelter of displaced Vietnamese Katrina and a fishing dock in Empire in southeast Louisiana.
However, my research was not originally designed to study the experiences of non-Catholic or Buddhist Vietnamese Katrina evacuees. Rather, the survey was designed to measure how Vietnamese have adjusted psychologically and economically in post-Katrina. The survey was a non-random survey and, thus, caution is used in interpreting the results.
Mostly because of the location of the field study, 88 percent of the survey’s respondents were non-Catholic — 60 percent Buddhists, 28 percent Cao Dai. In regard to the respondents’ socioeconomic status, 29 percent had a high school diploma or less, 17 percent had some college, and 20 percent had a college degree or higher.
While further investigation is needed, the survey provides some new insights and findings.
First, 92 percent of the survey’s respondents reported that they thought Katrina brought out the worst in people, and 88 percent thought that things didn’t turn out well for them. However, at the same time, only 25 percent thought that it is safer to trust nobody. In fact, in our informal discussions with and observations of respondents at both locations, my students and I were privately in awe of the displaced Vietnamese Katrina victims. They were down on their luck, but they did not dwell too long on the negatives or became withdrawn from the outside world.
Instead, they kept busy in finding resources in order to move on. This was true among Vietnamese fishermen, who were initially and disproportionately among the first to return to Empire. Their focus was literally on the creative process of “patchworking,” drawing on kinship relations, resources from the larger Vietnamese American community, and government assistance to rebuild their boats, which for many were also their home.
An interesting finding is that all of the survey’s respondents reported that they had no insurance to cover their losses. But most had a banking savings/checking account, usable credit cards and a workable cell phone. And no one reported that they had a relative or a friend who was killed or injured as a result of Katrina.
Moreover, all agree that relatives and their connectedness to the Vietnamese community are important for mutual assistance. However, 48 percent of respondents disagreed that they would be more comfortable living in a neighborhood which has at least some Vietnamese than in one which has none.
Perhaps, the most interesting finding is that more than 80 percent reported “satisfactory” in response how American and Vietnamese religious and community groups, as well as families and friends, assisted the victims of Katrina. Meanwhile, 85 percent thought that the Red Cross was excellent and 92 percent thought that the government was good.
The above finding suggests that while support from Vietnamese religious and community groups as well as families and friends was substantial, the survey’s respondents needed government assistance in order to get a new start. For example, a cash federal grant program, Road Home, has provided many underinsured homeowners on average about $59,000.
On the ground, it appeared that the help of Boat People SOS — a Vietnamese American non-profit organization who coordinated with and worked along aside with federal government agencies — hurricane grants have started to reach Vietnamese victims of Katrina.
In the wake of Katrina, I wanted to research on whether Vietnamese Katrina victims were psychologically and culturally prepared to start all over again. This was the same question that American scholars had asked in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees first arrived to the US. In fact, some predicted that Vietnamese refugees would be unprepared to start a new life because of their experiences of traumas from war and escape, although in hindsight most evidence does not support this view.
My field survey does reveal that then as now Vietnamese Americans when faced with catastrophes seem to take the attitude of “nowhere to go but up.”
However, the actual road to recovery will no doubt be influenced by class and religion. For example, more than the majority of the survey’s respondents do not think they will fully recover from Katrina. And while they may not have a strong cohesive social network as those associated with the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, they are connected to variety of both community and government resources. These resources, particularly the latter, may be quite effective in making “nowhere to go but up” a reality.
Leong, Karen, et al. 2007. “ Resilient History and the Rebuilding of a Community: The Vietnamese American Community in New Orleans East, The Journal of American History 94 (3): 770-779.Â
- What is the myth of Asian Americans as “model minorities” and does Vietnamese Americans’ rebuilding of their community in New Orleans fit this model?
- How does history play a role in the rebuilding of the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans?
- How does memory play a role in the rebuilding of the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans?
- What elements of Vietnamese folklife will likely persist while other may not?Â
Tomingas-Hatch, Emma. 2009. “Preserving Vietnamese Culture and Language in Southern Louisiana: Altars as Symbols of Identity,” Louisiana’s Living Traditions at http://www.louisianafolklife.org.
- How do the Vietnamese religious communities in Louisiana contribute in maintaining language and culture?
- Explain the role of altars in public, private, and business life of Vietnamese Americans in Louisiana.