Locating the Contours of Vietnamese American History
By Vu H. Pham
Currently, there exist a few essays on the state of Vietnamese American studies, with some discussion of future directions. These works present vital syntheses and broader framings of research on this ethnic group and serve as useful starting points for thinking about Vietnamese America. The essays provide important "state of the field" contributions, as they focus and limit their scope toward the necessary first steps of establishing boundaries for existing Vietnamese American research.
The lacuna, however, lies in crossing these scholarly borders by engaging in critical inquiries of how scholarship in Asian American history has located Vietnamese America. Generally speaking, Vietnamese Americans receive attention as post-1975 refugees, when the numbers of this group dramatically increased due to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. This attention gives cursory mention about those here before 1975, as well as privileges a "history-by-numbers" approach that implicitly gives weight to large populations. By more closely scrutinizing these conceptual contours of Vietnamese Americans, one can begin to think about how to research and write this group's history. Moreover, identifying these contours allows scholars to question them, as well as devise strategies to reshape them.
This brief essay initiates a preliminary critical questioning of how Vietnamese American history currently fits into the terrain of Asian American history. It identifies the boundaries of how Vietnamese America interfaces with Asian America that have yet to be explored in detailed. Although many contours exist, I argue that two primary issues pervade in this relationship between Vietnamese American history and Asian American history that define, confine and enable the current interactions between these two fields.
The first major issue poses the question: can Vietnamese Americans have a history before 1975? This question reflects discussions of whether or not to frame those Vietnamese in America before 1975 as "Vietnamese Americans." The question may to some level seem facile, given that Asian American history labels other Asians in the U.S. part of Asian American history. Given the fledgling state of Vietnamese American history, some scholars continue to question this label based on the more transitory stay of those pre-1975, as they contrast them with those post-1975 migrants who continue to remain in the U.S. This question affects Vietnamese American studies post-1975 as well, since some view this Asian American ethnic subgroup as Vietnamese, Vietnamese nationals or Vietnamese exiles, rather than "Vietnamese Americans."
Second, I assert that the Asian American movements of the late-1960s, that are panethnic, anti-war and Marxist-dominated, have simultaneously opened spaces for thinking about Vietnamese American studies, while also discouraging the participation of many Vietnamese Americans. Since many Vietnamese Americans fled from persecution at the hands of a communist government, this ethnic group tends to express anywhere from wariness about, fear of, or even anger and hatred at this regime. More so, despite atrocities committed by U.S. troops, many supported American intervention and aid as a means of staying North Vietnamese invasion. Regardless of one's personal politics, these realities limit the participation of Vietnamese America in broader Asian America.
Can there be a Vietnamese American History?
To date, other than my research, there remains a dearth of scholarly work that engages in a detailed study of Vietnamese Americans from historical perspectives and before 1975. This study examines Vietnamese American scholars and their transnational interactions between 1945 to 1975. It investigates the ways in which they sought to construct and change Vietnam through their experiences in America, through their political writings, scholarly research, as well as daily engagements and activism.
As my work has engaged in carving a space for Vietnamese American history, one fundamental question continues to emerge. Someone in the audience poses this question in literally every single presentation of my work on pre-1975 Vietnamese American history. The question is: can one even call these subjects of study Vietnamese Americans, since many sought to return to Vietnam? This question has even been asked by Asian Americanists, who at the same time do not ask this of earlier groups of Asians who come to the U.S. with the initial intention of returning, yet who later settled in this country for a variety of reasons. This equating of permanent settlement or possessing U.S. citizenship requires further scrutiny as an ongoing situation. Why do scholars seem to accept the early Chinese arriving in America (many not intending to stay) as Chinese American history, yet question earlier Vietnamese scholars (many of whom settled in the U.S.) as part of Vietnamese American history?
In other words, almost instantly, two broader Asian American historical question usually come to mind: first, can we label early 19th-century Chinese and Japanese in the U.S. "Chinese Americans" and "Japanese Americans," given that many viewed their stay in the U.S. as temporary, as they desired to return to their Asian homelands? Second, is there a process by which one moves from becoming "Asian," as contrasted with "Asian American?" Historians and other scholars commonly accept these earlier migrants from Asia as "Asian Americans," despite the acknowledgement of temporary migrations, yet question the use of "Vietnamese Americans" to describe this group during the Cold War.
Should one view these scholars as "Vietnamese nationals" studying in the U.S., but not "Vietnamese Americans"? I pose a related question: Given that many Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. since the 1975 Fall of Saigon view themselves as exiles whose true home lies in Vietnam, not the U.S., can we even employ the term "Vietnamese Americans" at all? Likewise, what distinguishes an "Asian living in America" from an "Asian American?" There remains a persistence of linking being "Asian American" with decisions by Asians to permanently reside in America—and this seems more pervasive in thinking about Vietnamese American history.
This segues to my first argument that conceptualizing Vietnamese in the U.S. as only recent, post-1975 migrants limits conceptions of this group as "Vietnamese Americans," let alone "Asian Americans." Accordingly, thinking about Vietnamese Americans earlier than 1975 raises skepticism for possibilities of a "Vietnamese American" history in favor of thinking about them as part of "Vietnamese history." Thus, for Vietnamese Americans, thinking about the boundaries of our history includes the challenge of even establishing acceptance as "Vietnamese Americans," and not only "Vietnamese nationals."
This particular contour, or confine, of Vietnamese American history lies with the questionable conception of limiting an "Asian American" to one who permanently settles in the U.S. Turning this question outward to the broader range of Asian American history, one could ask: How does one determine this moment of permanent settlement? Is it tied to codified indications of permanent residency or naturalization? Does it rest at the level of consciousness of individual Asians residing in the U.S. who suddenly decide to remain here? Does that include those Asian migrants who still refuse to think of America as their home, but spend the rest of their lives here? How does one even measure consciousness? What if one changes her mind and wants to return to Asia? Are they suddenly revoked of their identity as an "Asian American?"
These questions destabilize nebulous and tenuous distinctions between an Asian residing in America versus an "Asian American." These lines of identity limit Vietnamese Americans (and Asian Americans in general) to residing within confines, such as codified national frames, fixed physical dwellings or purportedly quantifiable streams of consciousness related to permanent settlement.
Instead, the intermingling of experiences in Vietnam and America, as well as in other nations, contribute to the transnational identities that lie within the term "Vietnamese American." By claiming a "Vietnamese American" identity, Vietnamese Americans participate in the multiple experiences and identities that fall within the fluid and contested conceptions of Asian America. Some scholars may already accept this claim, yet the prevalence in questioning the use of "Vietnamese American" demonstrates that this term continues as a contested one.
Asian American Movements and Vietnamese America
Even if one accepts the term Vietnamese Americans to characterize this group's experiences, whether pre- or post-1975, the difficulty of interfacing Vietnamese Americans partly stems from the institutionalization of Asian American studies during its early phases. I now turn to the second part, which interrogates how Vietnamese America relates to panethnic Asian America.
Perhaps the most vocal and visible expressions of Asian American panethnicity occurred during the 1960s, particularly over issues such as race, the Vietnam War and international imperialism. Although certainly not the birth of Asian American studies, these organized voices facilitated the institutionalization of the field. Although it remains problematic to label these panethnic coalitions as a monolithic movement, the major dimensions of the Asian American activism during this period emphasized anti-war stances toward the Vietnam War, linking U.S. imperialism abroad to domestic issues of racism, as well as alignments to Marxist struggles. The Vietnam War was a central event for catalyzing these panethnic movements, yet even over 30 years later, cleavages remain between such issues as the privileging of race-centered positions within panethnic Asian America and the dominance of anti-communism in Vietnamese America.
The event concerning presidential candidate John McCain in Westminster, California's Little Saigon illustrates the difficulties in negotiating both anti-racism and anti-communism. On February 17, 2000, McCain uttered the statement, "I hate the gooks," as he referred to his former North Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War. About weeks later, on March 2, McCain spoke before an audience of thousands, mostly Vietnamese Americans, in Little Saigon's main plaza. Approximately 15 Asian American students from UC Irvine, led by Bao Nguyen (one of the students in my Vietnamese American course at the time), protested McCain's use of the word "gook." Nguyen wore a t-shirt with the words "American Gook" on it and the group of students panned McCain for applying a racist slur that applied to all Asians. Initially, Nguyen, using his bull horn, had encouraged the crowd to chant, "we're not gooks." Suddenly, one person shouted that Nguyen was a communist and the crowd turned on the students. They were pushed, pinched, spit on and driven all the way across the mini-mall's parking lot and into the street. One man was arrested for assault against Nguyen.
This incident poses both challenges and possibilities for thinking about Vietnamese Americans within an Asian American panethnic framework. On one hand, students formed a pan-Asian alliance of those opposing McCain's use of "gook," in order to express the historical and contemporary application of that term to many Asian groups. Led by a Vietnamese American, this panethnic group exhibited the common cause of confronting an orientalist racist slur that has been indiscrimately applied across Asian ethnic lines. On the other hand, the crowd privileged anti-communism over anti-racism, rather than seeing that the two sentiments may not have been mutually exclusive. However, anti-communism trumped anti-racism during this event, which reflects the state of many Vietnamese Americans who suffered the traumatic losses and who are increasingly expressing their voices in public spaces.
Given the genealogy of the anti-war and somewhat Marxist movements in the late-1960s, perhaps the McCain incident points toward the need to better understand the complex causes, thoughts, actions and reactions of what we label "anti-communism" in Vietnamese America. This seems to elude Asian Americanists, and even some Vietnamese Americanists, in academia. Asian American scholars should hopefully begin to appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of protests such as this, or the larger HiTek video protests a year earlier (the protests occurred over the hanging of Ho Chi Minh's portrait and the communist Vietnamese flag). By doing so, we can begin to explore the contours, common causes and fissures between Vietnamese America and Asian America.
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