I am a Vietnamese-American, though at various points in my life, it has been more convenient to leave behind my country and my family’s history and embrace being American. It is only now, as I learn about my culture as a college student, that I realize the extent to which I have sought to avoid examining it in any meaningful way. What follows is my attempt to make sense of my own experience as a Vietnamese-American, and how that experience fits into the broader cultural fabric of Vietnamese-American life. As a starting point, I would describe my life as a Vietnamese-American as an overwhelmingly happy one, remarkable only in just how little a role my “Vietnamese-ness” has played in my everyday life. Some of this was by subconscious choice, some was the result of my family and broader community, All of it served to make my assimilation into America after immigrating as a seven-year-old a easy, relatively painless one. I would describe my relationship with my Vietnamese-ness as one of avoidance and mild resentment
As it turns out, I am hardly the only Vietnamese-American young person who defines themselves primarily by their American-ness. In my research, I’ve come across a range of concerns voiced by fellow Vietnamese-Americans and sociologists alike about the “Americanization” of young Vietnamese-Americans like me. According to one Vietnamese immigrant, who offers the following concern to author Paul Rutledge in the book, The Vietnamese Experience in America, “The young people today are not growing up Vietnamese. They are too American. They cannot speak Vietnamese, they do not like our family way of doings things. They like fast cars and fast food” (61). Upon first reading, this quote made me chuckle; it’s just so cliche in its paranoia. But upon reflection, I definitely see his point: I do define myself by my Americanness, from going to sleepaway camp to playing basketball with my friends. In my heart of hearts, I know that at various points in my life, I have been among the “many teenagers” who “believe that Vietnam is the country of their parents but not their country at all” (61).
While Asian-Americans are often referenced as one big group of people, people from each specific country engage differently with America as they build communities, adjust to a new life, and become their version of “American.” While Japanese immigrants “tended to adopt Western ways,” Chinese immigrants “were more apt to congregate in segregated communities” (61) As for Vietnamese-Americans, we fall somewhere in between, living in “evolving community patterns which contains elements of both the Japanese-American and Chinese-American acculturation processes” (61). At the same time, Vietnamese-Americans as a whole have actually worked hard to “maintain a strong element of cultural continuity from Southeast Asia” (61).
I was struck by guilt at my readiness to adapt to American culture. Until I read further, and learned that Vietnamese immigrants are also marked by their “adaptability” and their “shrewd” ability to use cultural elements to succeed. “Understanding, employing and appreciating American ways is a must from the Vietnamese perspective,” simply as a means of survival. Some of this certainly comes from the way we entered the country – as refugees looking for a new home.
Viewed in this light, my innate tendency to immerse myself in my “Americanness” could just as easily be seen as a “strategy” to help myself succeed, make friends and live a happy life in America. In analyzing what I was actually doing when I embraced American culture, I came to appreciate the way my behavior falls within the bounds of the Vietnamese-American community at large, and our decisive ability to integrate ourselves fully into American culture. Of course, that adopting of American culture is not one-note. The Vietnamese community is marked by the decisive effort to “retain Southeast Asian values and cultural norms” (61) This is an aspect of Vietnamese-Americanness that I relate to less.
Vietnamese-American life has been marked by struggle. We do not conform to the stereotype of the “model minority.” Indeed, the “Vietnamese have the highest unemployment, lowest income, and least education among” all Asian-American groups (Logan and Zhang, 5). In terms of living conditions, our people are as segregated as African-Americans are. They’re also more likely to be on public assistance, and less likely to have achieved their pre-immigration economic status than other groups.
There’s no doubt that Vietnamese-Americans struggle as the legacy of the Vietnam War continues to linger, leaving our collective memory scarred with violence of the most brutal sort. Indeed, the largest influx of Vietnamese-American people came after the Vietnam War, “as refugees without much money.” They took perilous journeys on boat from Vietnam, escaping a country that had been bombed beyond recognition. Indeed, “most of these refugees left their country of origin with no possessions, and in many cases, with absolutely no food or water. They often journeyed for days, even weeks, without provisions or any idea of their potential destinations” (Hong, 2). They not only had to leave their homeland and everything they knew behind, but they also had to make sense of American culture in a time in which America was “the enemy.” It resulted in a lot of struggle, both “financially and spiritually, before they settled down in a new country” (Nguyen).
As I read about the experiences and learned about the prejudices faced by my people as they came to America, the more I see that my ability to “fit in” was based on privileges that many people in my ethnic group do not share. I was able to grow up in one of the so-called “ethnoburbs,” or the clustered Asian neighborhoods that form outside of big metropolitan areas but are not as ethnically-segregated as your typical Chinatown. Though I was surrounded by many Vietnamese-Americans, I attended high-school with mostly white students, and, by the time I was a teenager, most of my friends were white. In some ways, my socioeconomic status allowed me to bypass some of the more negative aspects of the Vietnamese-American experience, a fact I had not really examined before embarking on this research project. Now, I see the way this privilege has had a lingering effect on my experience of the world as a Vietnamese-American person.
Of course, my life was not entirely free of my Vietnamese heritage. Much of the culture I absorbed as a young person, I did so with a fair amount of resentment. Looking back, I see the way I associated Vietnamese heritage with being the “other,” and wanted to avoid embracing it and instead do my best to veer in the other direction. My parents made me attend Vietnamese language class on Saturdays. Like any kid, I was not exactly enthusiastic at the opportunity to get a sixth day of school each week, and complained about it constantly. I wanted to be able to watch Saturday morning cartoons, not spend my Saturday mornings learning how to say “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor” in Vietnamese.
This is just one example of the many ways my parents and I engaged in the typical immigrant family navigation of how much to assimilate and how much to hang onto the values and lifestyle we had once known. I would push us a little more towards Americanness, asking to put up a Christmas tree and try ravioli for dinner. My parents would relent a little bit each time. Today, I think my parents have actually done a really great job of preserving their heritage while also integrating themselves into the fabric of American life. This is part of the larger way that Vietnamese families were not simply transferred from Southeast Asia to the United States,” they “were reconstructed on American soil, with numerous changes” (Zhou, 5). In my family, one of those changes turned out to be putting up a Christmas tree.
It’s not surprising that there is still a lot of navigating to be done as families figure out what exactly it means to be Vietnamese-American. Because we did not arrive in America until after 1975 and on, we did “not have the opportunity to examine the existence of any Asian-American consciousness relating to their own Asian culture.” Simply put, before there was Vietnamese-Americanness, nobody knew exactly what it meant to be a Vietnamese-American person. It was helpful to learn that some of the confusion or tension I experienced as a young person simply came from the fact that my community is still figuring itself out and establishing roots.
In conclusion, my research has shown that Vietnamese-Americans have forged a unique middle ground when it comes to branching out and assimilating into America, forming various suburban neighborhoods while also integrating themselves into the American culture and lifestyle. Some of this has been strategic, as a means of helping us to succeed in a new country which we fled to as refugees. I fall somewhere on the extreme end of this “American-ness,” with my Vietnamese heritage playing a minimal role in my life as a young adult. Though I was raised in a somewhat close-knit Vietnamese community of friends and family, I always was eager to spend more time playing sports with my American friends. As it turns out, this is a very reasonable part of negotiating Asian-American identity, which remains a relatively-young culture that is continuing to grow and change.