What does it meant to be an American? That question in and of itself is already a difficult one to answer. Then, what does it mean to be a Vietnamese American? Vietnamese American is a term to describe a person with Vietnamese ancestral roots residing in the United States. The influx of Vietnamese Americans can be attested to the “Fall of Saigon” on April 30, 1975, which initiated hundreds of thousands of Southern Vietnamese to emigrate out of Communist Vietnam either by boat or by trekking through Cambodia or Laos to reach Thailand (Povell).
As a result of this refugee movement during and after the Vietnam War, the definition of a Vietnamese American is still incredibly vague. In order to move forward, America, as a whole, needs to realize that many of the Vietnamese Americans, especially of the second generation, are still haunted by the stories of the experiences from Vietnam and the boat people. Throughout my paper, I frequently utilize certain terms in order to prove my argument.
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Primarily, the term, “Vietnamese American”, in the context of my work refers to not only those Vietnamese who immigrate to the United States during the refugee movement, but their future generations as well. My essay defines the Vietnamese American community and analyzes their performance in the United States while connecting it to their refuge to America. The term, “boat people” refers to the countless South Vietnamese people who escaped the Northern Vietnamese Communist invasion of April 30, 1975 regime by boat (Povell).
Their journey out of Vietnam was brutal as they faced cramped living areas, rough waters, and pirates that raped, pillaged, and killed many. After their nautical endeavors, the Vietnamese were subject to refugee camps scattered across the Pacific Ocean mainly in Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand, and Hong Kong. There they were also treated as foreigners, suffering through malnutrition and poverty. In these locations, many Vietnamese refugees, especially children, could not support themselves emotionally and frequently let fear conquer them (Freeman).
Fortunately, however, upon arriving in the United States and becoming Vietnamese Americans, the situations of these displaced souls began improving. Therefore, over the years, many have tried to define the term, Vietnamese American, by placing stereotypes, such as the model minority. Yet, these people cannot be subjected to a stereotype. Instead, they carry this burden that they have never fully understood or experienced, yet it defines who they are as a people: aliens in a foreign land, displaced souls undergoing trauma.
Through my essay, I will expose the existential condition of exile behind the definition of all generations of the Vietnamese American community and prove that there is a historical phenomenon that can explain their nostalgic emotions surrounding the Vietnamese refugee movement. Upon arriving in the United States, the Vietnamese refugees as well as their future generations have definitely qualified the stereotype of model minority. A model minority is defined as a group of Asian immigrants that upon arriving to the United States have proven to be “intelligent, hardworking, and docile” (“Model”).
While stereotypes are usually a negative distillation of a people, the model minority stereotype, in the case of the Vietnamese American community, may be correct to an extent. Notably, Vietnamese Americans have actually proved to achieve academic excellence. According to Children of the Boat People: A Study of Educational Success, the overall mean GPA for Vietnamese Americans is 3. 17 (Caplan). This number is relatively high considering that these non-English speaking students had just recently experienced a traumatic Communist takeover, as well as having to adapt to life in a completely foreign country.
Nonetheless, the Vietnamese American students seemed to excel under these harsh conditions. Under the Communist reign, education was focused, for the most part, on instilling the Communist ideals and the history of Communism. Many Vietnamese refugees were disadvantaged academically while also being affected by the time and effort of constantly attempting to escape which caused them to miss long periods of school, and also put a damper on their education. As a result, Vietnamese refugees have found their education and the education of their children to be vital.
Thus, we have seen great increases in the work and determination from Vietnamese scholars. However, the Vietnamese American people have broken the stereotype in that they have chosen not to be submissive to the supposed cultural hierarchy of their adopted nation. The hegemonic American society has designated the Vietnamese Americans, as well as other immigrants, as scapegoats for national issues. Yet, a large majority of the Vietnamese Americans have chosen to be proactive in fighting for their rights and their voice which have both been promised in their new homeland.
These individuals have “strong and active ties with the Vietnamese community in Orange County, and this activism helped to preserve and expand their knowledge of the Vietnamese culture” (Pham, Vu H. ). More recently, the Vietnamese American communities have been gaining momentum and (are) ? becoming more politically active. This activism directly opposes the model minority stereotype, which is to be essentially mute when it comes to political endeavors. Furthermore, the success of the model minority stereotype is the triumph of ethnic assimilation, which is essentially antithetical to democracy.
Nevertheless, the Vietnamese American community has proven to be non-assimilationist in expressing and staying true to their Vietnamese culture while applying democracy to their local activism; instead, Vietnamese Americans have proven that they will stay true to their culture and roots. As a result of their non-assimilation attitude, many in Vietnamese American community have allowed themselves to slip into a position of aliens in a foreign land. They have demonstrated their desire to retain their own culture and adapt only when necessary to American ideals, keeping them culturally apart from those in their adopted nation.
Chiefly, a form of non-assimilation is the Vietnamese American faith in the religion Confucian. The “Confucian component of the Vietnamese culture is highly embedded” within the Vietnamese American family and social structure (Pham). For previous Asian immigrants, it was difficult to retain cultural ties such as religion since it was usually only the patriarch of the family that moved to America; however, in the case of the Vietnamese Americans, their refuge involved large families immigrating to the United States together.
In many cases, once they arrived to America, these immigrants exercised their freedom living where they chose and preferred to live close to their own community to gain support, mentally as well as financially. This, in turn, allows families to retain their cultural ties, language, and faith without assimilation to the American ways. Moreover, the Confucian ideals differ greatly from those of Protestant and Christian faiths in terms of a firm family cohesiveness. Resultantly, Vietnamese Americans tend to build strong upport groups with familial values and traditions at the center. This creates a strong non-assimilationist culture among members of the community, since they find strength and connection with other Vietnamese Americans to whom they can relate better than the popular culture of their adopted nation. Nevertheless, despite this non-assimilationist culture, Vietnamese Americans can sometimes face the issue of detachment and cultural displacement of their second generation like other immigrant groups. Yet, this “1. generation,” of Vietnamese Americans continually demonstrates an overwhelming attachment to their homeland.
Since the 1. 5 generation of Vietnamese Americans face a language barrier as they were not able to grow up speaking Vietnamese, they have portrayed that they are, in fact, estranged and cannot fully connect with their heritage. Lack of communication “has led and continues to lead to the problem of alienating some of the 1. 5 generation from engaging in activities within the Vietnamese community in America. Therefore, Vietnamese Americans feel a perpetual sense of diaspora in the United States, as they are unconnected to original Vietnamese as well as their newfound American communities. Simply the name, “1. 5 generation” causes this group to undergo feelings of displacement that will never truly be fulfilled. Caught between two worlds, the 1. 5 generation can never completely assimilate into either culture; hence, they experience strong feelings of alienation. Another reason for the non-assimilationist culture of Vietnamese Americans is their strong cultural identity formed by a common tragedy.
Black April marks the day of the Communist North Vietnamese invasion of the South; the date, April 30th, 1975 is a date seared of the popular consciousness of virtually every Vietnamese immigrant to the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans refer to this day as “the day we lost our country”; it represents a date when their homeland ceased to be home. It is a gap, that despite living many years in the United States, still remains poignant. Consequently, this shared tragedy unites many Vietnamese Americans in a way similar to how 9/11 unites America. Never forget,” is a hardly an understatement in regard to Black April, and it provides a common ground for relating among Vietnamese immigrants from among varied classes and backgrounds in their homeland. This cultural loss prevents them from ever completely assimilating to the American ideas. In their face of lack of a country, the Vietnamese Americans’ only sense of patriotism available is their community with fellow aliens in a foreign land, together forever exiled from a nation that only exists in their mind now (awks).
Vietnamese immigrants endure trauma due to the fact that they feel alienated from their homeland and the land they now call home. Furthermore, Vietnamese Americans also experience identity crisis, as they are displaced souls constantly undergoing trauma. Trauma, in and of itself, is a term used to describe an ongoing, mental state resulting from severe emotional stress. Vietnamese Americans experience nostalgia due to the trauma of the Communist invasion, as they can never return their homeland and experience it for what it truly was.
Accordingly, many Vietnamese Americans have channeled their trauma into forms of art to essentially express their emotions. For instance, “Journey from the Fall (Vu?t Song),” a film created and directed by refugee survivor, Ham Tran, traces the journey of a Vietnamese family and their struggles to escape Vietnam during the Communist invasion. Not only does it allow its audience to witness the harsh refugee life, but it also depicts their experiences in the cruel Communist re-education camps.
In the film, Lai, a young boy who was of the fortunate few who successfully journeyed to America with his family, still faced growing up without a father, as his was being tortured and later killed in a Communist concentration camp back in Vietnam. Viewers can also perceive Lai’s distraught mother who was traumatized from being victim of Thai pirates at sea as well as the loss of her husband (Journey). This, in turn, proves that the Vietnamese refugee movement will always be remembered and its effects will be permanently traumatizing to all who experienced it.
Therefore, the Vietnamese Americans are a displaced group of people that will forever retain memories of an incredibly traumatic incident. In response to why he decided to write and direct this film, Ham Tran stated, “If history is written by the victors, than folklore is the testimony of the vanquished” (Von Busack). These Vietnamese people are truly “vanquished”, in the sense that they had their homeland ripped away from them and were forced to endure harsh journeys to find refuge from Communism. Tran felt that these affected souls deserved a voice to illustrate their journeys, and thus, created this film.
It was made not only to inform the rest of the world of the trauma that the South Vietnamese refugees suffered through, but also as a remembrance for those who experienced the journey itself. However, there are many Vietnamese Americans, especially of the later generations that do not or cannot remember the Vietnamese refugee movement as they were too young or were not alive to experience it. Nonetheless, they cannot escape the memories and stories of the experiences and are thus, forced to also undergo the same unresolved trauma as their parents and families.
Likewise, these later generational Vietnamese Americans face strong nostalgic emotions that are essentially a wistful, yearning for something past or forgotten that they have not been a part of. According to Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States by Min Zhou and Carl Leon Bankston, the “young Vietnamese, most of whom are in the group described as the 1. 5 generation, must deal with their personal experience or their family history of traumatic exile” (Zhou). This, in turn, indicates that the 1. 5 generation is “haunted” by ghosts, not of their pasts but of their family and culture.
These individuals are regrettably emotionally scarred by the Vietnamese refugee event as they are constantly reminded of losing their “homeland”. Yet, they have never experience the “homeland”, nor would they ever be able to. Thus, this generation is caught in between two worlds: America, the new adopted home of which they will never truly belong, and Vietnam, the home that should have been rightfully theirs but will never be. Furthermore, these haunted Vietnamese Americans then develop identity crises, as they do not know where they truly belong.
The song “Bonjour Vietnam” conveys the emotion behind specifically the second generation Vietnamese Americans, those who did not experience the refuge, but are constantly reminded of it. An English translation of a song lyric is, “All I know of you is all the sights of war, a film by Coppola, the helicopter’s roar. One day, I’ll touch your soil. One day, I’ll finally know your soul. ” The song’s narrator explains the lack of knowledge she has toward Vietnam and portrays her desire to one day understand the entirety of being from Vietnam, of being Vietnamese.
She, along with many of the later generations of Vietnamese Americans are extremely, emotionally-invested in a place that they have never physically been to. From this song, an audience can perceive that those afflicted in a similar way to the song’s narrator is, suffer from not only nostalgia, but a crisis of identity. Displaced from the refugee movement, these individuals submit to the trauma of not knowing where one belongs; they are only left with stories and memories, but nothing will ever replace the actual experience of Vietnam.
These later generational Vietnamese Americans have also illustrated their emotional turmoil through other forms of artwork. In the case of Jerry Truong, he created an art piece called L?p/V? (Layer/Shell or Crust). This expression of art depicts a dirt block with a man’s body protruding from the surface. This represents the many bodies and souls that were lost during the refuge-seeking and resurfaced. The man is Truong’s effort to convey the idea that the “past refuses to remain buried” (Truong). This piece of artwork serves as a remembrance for those who died during the Vietnamese refugee movement.
Truong also reveals to his contemporary audience that Vietnamese plight is still entirely present in America and to remind future generations to never forget this important piece of history. Being a young Vietnamese American, Truong strongly feels that he must carry the burden of his refugee parents and therefore, channels these emotions into his artwork. Truong and many other later generational Vietnamese Americans are haunted by these “ghosts” of their culture and of its past, which is essentially the trauma that they endure.
Ultimately, the definition of Vietnamese Americans are people who were exiled from their homeland, never to return, and as a result, their diaspora leads them to feel alienated in their adopted country as well as constantly undergoing the trauma radiating from the Vietnamese refugee movement. This historical phenomenon has shaped the Vietnamese American community, as their vague idea of homeland leads them to question their very identity. However, the definition of any culture is dynamic and forever-changing. Thus, the explanation given in this paper is significant, yet temporary.
In order to achieve societal peace and understanding, the United States as whole, must realize issues and emotions surrounding the Vietnamese American community. Their common trauma will permeate and essentially, haunt many Vietnamese Americans for many generations. My paper should leave all Americans with a working definition of Vietnamese Americans as an affected people yearning for the land that they were exiled from, the land that will never be theirs again. Love it! I think if you want to add more to this, you can talk about literatures. I saw songs, movies, art but not literatures.
Caplan, Nathan S., Marcella H. Choy, and John K. Whitmore. “Children of the Boat People: A Study of Educational Success.” Nathan Caplan, Marcella H. Choy, John K. Whitmore: 9780472102853: Amazon.com: Books. University of Michigan, 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2013. Freeman, James M., and Đình Hữu. Nguyẽ̂n. Voices from the Camps: Vietnamese Children Seeking Asylum. Seattle: University of Washington, 2003. Print. Journey from the Fall. Dir. Ham Tran. Prod. Lam Nguyen. Perf. Kieu Chinh, Long Nguyen. ImaginAsian Pictures, 2007. Film. “Model Minority Stereotype for Asian Americans.” Model Minority Stereotype. University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center, 2013. Web. 07 Mar. 2013. Pham, Anh Q. Bonjour Vietnam. By Marc Lavoine. 2005. MP3.
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