Vietnamese Americans: Neither American nor Vietnamese. How Do They Adapt to Belonging to Dual Cultures?

When Vietnamese people first entered the United States in the post-war years, they faced an enormous set of challenges as well as pronounced cultural differences. Thereafter, their children faced a different set of challenges. These second-generation citizens have to be both Vietnamese and American at once -- and this is no easy task. Furthermore, while the Vietnamese American population represents an important Asian group in the U.S. today, there remains a paucity of current research concerning its unique history or culture (Doan, Huer, & Saenz, 2001). Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to describe what it means to be both Vietnamese and American in the United States today. A review of the relevant and scholarly literature is followed by a summation of a series of three one-hour interviews with a Vietnamese-American immigrant; a personal reaction section examining this writer's reactions and experiences with the interviewee is followed by a summary of the research and salient findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion.

I. The history of Vietnamese coming to America.

a. Timeline for the first Vietnamese immigrants coming to America. The history of relations between the people of Vietnam and the United States is certainly not new. The timeline provided in Table 1 below illustrates the key historic events concerning this relationship:

Table 1. Timeline for first Vietnamese immigrants coming to America.

1940 Japanese troops occupy Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) during World War II.

1945 World War II ends. France attempts to return to and occupy its former colonies in Indochina.

1954 The French are defeated by the Viet Minh, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu.

1954 Geneva Conference. Vietnam is temporarily partitioned under the Geneva Accord. There is to be a national election in 1956 but it never takes place. The United States helps evacuate one million northern Vietnamese Catholic refugees to the south.

1954 Ngo Dinh Diem becomes premier of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Ho Chi Minh becomes the leader of North Vietnam.

1963 In a coup d'etat South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu are assassinated.

1964 The Gulf of Tonkin incident. President Johnson asks Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution passes and thus begins the "formal" involvement of the United States in Vietnam.

1965 U.S. combat troops arrive in South Vietnam.

1967 After a series of military coup d'etat, Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky become respectively, the president and vice president of South Vietnam.

1968 Tet Offensive. Vietnamese communists temporarily occupy South Vietnam, including the United States Embassy, for a few hours. The number of U.S. soldiers stationed reaches its peak.

1973 Paris Peace Agreement signed between North and South Vietnam. This ends the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

1975 Vietnamese Prime Minister Thieu resigns on April 21. On April 30, North Vietnam defeats South Vietnam and captures the country. More than 100,000 Vietnamese flee their country as refugees.

1980 Passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which defines the refugee status and requires the federal government to provide assistance to the refugees. Ethnic Chinese are forced to leave Vietnam.

1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act allows Vietnamese born of American fathers to immigrate to the United States.

1994 United States lifts trade embargo against Vietnam.

Source: Do, 1999, pp. xiii-xiv.

As can be seen from the timeline above, after 1975, South Vietnam experienced a virtual flood of emigrants as people sought sanctuary from the international community; naturally, the United States was a destination of choice for many of these refugees since they already had ties with Americans, knew some of the language and were familiar - at least they thought - with the customs, values, traditions and lifestyles of the people of the United States by virtue of their experiences in their own country. Clearly, the Ugly American image that was presented in the mainstream media did not accurately reflect all of the relationships between Americans and the Vietnamese people; however, this image, like the experiences of the Vietnamese people themselves with American military forces abroad, did not accurately capture the heart and soul of the United States and profound culture shock occurred among many of these new arrivals. These issues are discussed further below.

b. The Vietnamese boat people. According to Do (1999), Acculturation, or the assimilating to the dominant culture of a new country, has been an enormously stressful process for many Vietnamese people in general, and men in particular tend to experience unique stressors during the process (Lowe, Mahalik, and Nghe, 2003). As noted above, the immigration rates from Vietnam have been in a series of "waves." In one of these waves, many of the Vietnamese emigrants left the country after 1975; these individuals have come to be called the "Vietnamese boat people" because "most of them escaped in homemade, poorly constructed boats and wooden vessels" (Do, p. 27). Because of the poor construction of these vessels, they were unable to withstand the forces of nature; this fact, combined with the "boat people's" paucity of navigational skills, the limited amount of provisions they were able to carry with them, and unrelenting, frequent attacks by Thai sea pirates, the death rate among the "Vietnamese boat people" was reportedly very high. According to Do, "Some verbal testimony from surviving refugees in many refugee camps estimates the number to be as high as 50%, while others have placed it at 10% to 15%; however, the percentage will never be accurately known since there is no systematic way of knowing how many refugees actually left Vietnam, and only survivors are accounted for" (p. 27).

c. Reasons for Immigration. While the reasons for people wanting to pull up stakes in their home country to relocate to another are as varied as the individuals themselves, there are a number of commonalities that are routinely cited among such emigrants that have provided sociologists with some theories that are relevant to the Vietnamese in particular, such as the "push pull" theory of immigration. According to Segal (2002):

While the configuration of events leading to migration may differ among individuals, immigration scholars have identified two phenomena that interact to provide the catalyst for migration: a 'push' from the country of origin and a 'pull' to the country of immigration. The push out of the country of origin often emerges from the internal conditions there and increases with the personal circumstances of individuals. Most notable among these are the lack of economic opportunity, persecution by the majority or a powerful minority, and the difficulties caused by natural disasters. (p. 12).

Although it can reasonably be asserted that one of the driving forces behind any attempt to emigrate from one country to another would contain an economic element (why bother to move from one desperately poor country to another?), the recent events in New Orleans clearly demonstrate the need to obtain safety before other higher needs can be addressed. In fact, many Vietnamese entered the United States primarily for economic reasons and hopes of a better life for themselves and their families, including improved job availability and opportunities as well as improved wages and benefits; however, particularly during the later waves of immigration, Vietnamese were seeking sanctuary in the U.S. For safety reasons first and foremost (Do, 1999). Some factors that have been shown to constrain successful acculturation in terms of gainful employment have included cultural differences and language barriers; however, most immigrants succeed in overcoming these constraints over time, but other problems remain which are discussed further below.

II. Reasons for high incidence of domestic violence among the Vietnamese-American communities.

Understanding the problems typically experienced by Vietnamese-Americans requires an analysis of how their traditional culture comes into play in their new home country. Current views of culture generally focus more attention on people's social world than past views of culture that emphasized the individual; of particular interest to researchers today are people's daily routines and how such activities are tied to families, neighborhoods, villages, and social networks. In this regard, Guarnaccia and Lopez point out that, "By examining people's daily routines one can identify what matters most" (p. 571). According to Kibria (1993), the immigrants' daily experience almost invariably involves substantive issues with family life, an area in which central and contradictory elements of the immigrant experience tend to converge in powerful ways. "Traditional family arrangements may be threatened by migration," she advises, "but also reinforced as immigrants turn to their families for help and support in their efforts to build a new life" (Kibria, p. 14). While these threats to the traditional family unit may continue to influence how these values are regarded by younger members of the family, the fact remains that these are powerful forces within the Vietnamese community that have contributed to an inordinately high incidence of mental illness and domestic abuse among this segment of the American population today. For example, Anderson (1993) reports that, "Theā€¦