The Vietnamese community, for me, has expanded beyond the U.S. borders into other nations and my experiences abroad have given me a more global perspective of our Vietnamese people that transcends Little Saigon. I began to wonder about whether the Vietnamese experience in Little Saigon echoed the Vietnamese experience in other countries or if it was something particular to the United States.
These lingering questions inevitably led to my return to Little Saigon as a participant-researcher investigating a cross-national comparison of Vietnamese refugees in the United States and France. I recently stayed in Little Saigon from July to November and had arrived into town still very naïve about the Vietnamese American community.
All the books I had already read on the Vietnamese experience in the U.S. and abroad were nothing in comparison to being completely immersed into the community. Prior to arriving in Little Saigon, I was able to spout out random statistics and facts on the Vietnamese in the United States, but I never fully could explain what it was like to live in the unique ethnic environment of Little Saigon.
So I moved in, living with family friends and leaving my husband behind in Florida to pursue my doctoral research. In Little Saigon, I found out that it was much better and easier for me to speak in Vietnamese rather than English. I was more likely to be understood and more likely to get a good price on goods if I spoke in Vietnamese.
With my dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, I also looked like everyone else around me. This was most obvious when I attended a Vietnamese Catholic Church in the area for the first time. From the front of the church to the very back, I noticed a sea of black hair in the pews. The only non-black-haired person was a guest speaker from another Catholic church, who probably felt like a foreigner that day — much like I had my whole life.
There was so much for me to learn about Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon even though I am Vietnamese American. During my four-month immersion, I was wide-eyed and ready to hear from all the different voices in the community that I used to only encounter on the weekends.
I quickly discovered how surprisingly divided the Vietnamese American community could be: the first generation vs. the second generation; the educated vs. the non-educated; the Vietnamese vs. the Chinese Vietnamese; etc. There were so many different ways one could slice the community.
It was obvious after several months of living there that the Vietnamese American community was at a pivotal point in its history as the second generation was rising in influence and relations were improving between the United States and Viet Nam. Many from the second-generation were potentially lacking the anti-communist fervor imbued in their parents.
I began to question the growing generational divide among Vietnamese Americans and what it meant for the future of the community. The recent protests against Dam Vinh Hung — a famous singer from Viet Nam believed to have close ties with the communist regime — suggested that the staunchly anti-communist sentiment was still very much alive within the Vietnamese community in the United States.
However, the increasing ties offered through more recent mediums such as the OneVietnam Network — an online community connecting Vietnamese across the globe including those in Viet Nam — implied that some people were more open to links between the countries.
I was forced to think about how the Vietnamese Americans as a whole — both the first and second generation — can move toward the future while simultaneously respecting the past.
There have been increased economic ties to Viet Nam through remittances and investments from overseas Vietnamese over the years, especially after the U.S. embargo against Viet Nam was lifted in 1994. However, many are still very careful to keep it purely economic and not political in order to avoid criticism from fellow refugees.
I, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, have inherited the transnational tightrope that my parents and many other Vietnamese Americans continue to walk on a daily basis.
Currently as a participant-researcher and later as a professor, I can only hope to have enough wisdom to use the knowledge I garner over the years for the betterment and advancement of our Vietnamese community.