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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 15, 2010

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: November

In case you’re the nostalgic type, here are some posts in this blog from November of years past:

  • 2009: The U.S. and China: A Love-Hate Relationship
    President Obama’s trip to Asia highlights some of the contradictory, love-hate sentiments that many Americans and its institutions seem to have with Asians/Asian Americans.
  • 2008: Don Wakamatsu: First Asian American Big League Manager
    Discussing the significance of Don Wakamatsu as the first Asian American head coach and manager of a major sports team.
  • 2007: Big Plans for Little Saigons
    Debate around plans for the two largest Little Saigon communities in the U.S. highlight struggles to maintain ethnic solidarity among Vietnamese Americans.
  • 2006: New Internment Pictures Depict Harsher Life
    Recently-published photos reopen a sad and painful episode for Asian Americans and American society in general.
  • 2005: China Attracting U.S. Scholars
    China’s big push to recruit U.S. academics to help build up their universities to eventually rival the best from around the world.
  • 2004: Inter-Asian Sentiments
    Examples from popular culture in both Japan and South Korea illustrate the contradictory nature of inter-ethnic relations between Asians of different ethnic groups.

June 14, 2010

Written by C.N.

Looking Backward and Forward: The 35th Anniversary of the End of Viet Nam War

I’ve been a little remiss in mentioning that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the end of the Viet Nam War and the start of the eventual exodus of several million Vietnamese out of Viet Nam since South Viet Nam’s capital of Saigon fell to the communists on April 30, 1975. Around this time 35 years ago, my family and I were temporarily living in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of the four major housing centers set up by the U.S. government to process and eventually resettle the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arriving from Viet Nam.

After living in Ft. Chaffee for a couple of months, we moved to Camp Pendleton, CA to take custody of my cousin who had been separated from her parents in the chaos of trying to leave Viet Nam (her parents never made it out) and she was eventually “adopted” into our family. From there, we were resettled into the Los Angeles area and began our lives as Vietnamese Americans.

For me and many Vietnamese Americans in general, this annual reflection on the end of the Viet Nam War is a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, this occasion is a time of sadness as many of us mourn the devastation of the war, how many of our friends, relatives, and family members suffered and even died as a result, and how we had to make the difficult choice to leave our homeland behind, perhaps forever.

On the other hand, this occasion is also a time of thankfulness as many of us reflect on being able to escape to the U.S. where we had the chance to begin a new, and in many ways a better life for ourselves and our successive generations. We reflect on our gratitude of living in a country where our material lives are undoubtedly better but just as important, where we have individual freedoms that our counterparts back in Viet Nam can only dream of.

As a reflection of the two sides of this anniversary of the fall of Saigon and end of the Viet Nam War, two sets of stories capture both the anguish and the elation of this occasion. The first two links present a visual montage of the chaos, suffering, and sadness of the war’s end (some of the photos are rather graphic and may not be suitable for children). The first photo collection is from the Boston Globe.

Vietnamese woman stares at a mass grave © Associated Press/Horst Faas

The second photo collection comes from the Denver Post.

U.S. Marines taking cover in the entrance of a pagoda in a village near the Ben Hai river © Associated Press/Kim Ki Sam

Reflecting the other side of this occasion, two stories represent how Vietnamese Americans have built their lives in the U.S. in the decades since while at the same time while still keeping in touch with the legacy of the Viet Nam War. The first article is by Andrew Lam and he profiles “Viet Kieu” (overseas Vietnamese) who have returned to the land they left and how they’re helping rebuild the country:

Nguyen Qui Duc, a Vietnamese refugee who became an American radio host and the author of the memoir Where the Ashes Are, has found yet another incarnation in his mid-50s: Bar owner and art curator in Hanoi, Vietnam. Why would he come back to the country from which he once fled? “Home is where there’s a sense of connection, of family, of community,” he said after struggling to find a single answer. “And I found it here.”

Duc is one of nearly 500,000 Viet Kieu — Vietnamese living overseas — who return to Vietnam yearly, many only to visit relatives, but others increasingly to work, invest and retire. The majority of the people who return are from the United States, where the largest Vietnamese population overseas resides. Indeed, 35 years after the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnamese diaspora is now falling slowly, but surely, back into Vietnam’s orbit. . . .

Vietnamese overseas are playing an important role in Vietnam’s economic life. According to Vietnam’s Chamber of Commerce, in 2008, despite the slowdown in the world economy, Vietnam received overseas aid of more than $7.4 billion. The Vietnamese government said that the diaspora is reducing poverty and spurring economic development. Official development assistance pledged to Vietnam in 2008 by international donors was $5 billion; the overseas population contributed $2.4 billion more.

The second article from the Denton Record Chronicle (TX) highlights similar experiences of “coming home” from the perspective of Vietnamese orphans who fled their country decades ago and are now looking to reconnect in a very personal way:

Thirty-five years ago, Ho and Cope left South Vietnam with the entire Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage, a war-forced evacuation that would bring them all, improbably, to Buckner Children’s Home in Dallas.

Last week, Thomas Ho and Ty Cope each made their first trip back to Vietnam as part of a reunion of the Cam Ranh/Buckner orphans. Now, suddenly, they were in an identity drama, trying to determine whether a Vietnamese man who had been in touch via the Internet really might be Cope’s dad. Ho talked to the man in Vietnamese for a moment, then pulled away to translate. “He said, ‘I’m very happy. My son! My son!’ ” . . .

Life can take momentous turns, and no one knows that better than the Cam Ranh/Buckner orphans, who were together again last week in their homeland. There were 69 originally, and two dozen came to the reunion, nearly all traveling thousands of miles from Dallas or elsewhere in the United States.

They’re middle-aged now, and middle-class. Most have college degrees, and their professions include architect, banker, computer programmer, nurse, teacher and social worker. They represent a spectrum of assimilation. Many of the younger children were adopted out of Buckner and soon lost their language. The older kids would stick it out, attending Skyline High and speaking Vietnamese among themselves. But they all retained – and still do – a deep bond. . . .

They’ve been having reunions every five years in Dallas, but at the last one, they committed to going back to Vietnam. They raised money, created a website, established an archive of photographs from the Cam Ranh and Buckner days, and ordered reunion T-shirts and ball caps with the slogan “Get Love, Share Love.” After all the planning, the reunion got under way Wednesday, with a big contingent boarding a bus in Ho Chi Minh City (still popularly known as Saigon) heading north toward Nha Trang and Cam Ranh.

Thirty-five years ago, they were orphans on the run, headed the other way.

These two sets of stories and image illustrate not just the sadness and joy that many Vietnamese Americans experience as the reflect on their lives both in Viet Nam and the U.S., but they also represent the “duality” and transnational nature of our identities as Vietnamese Americans. That is, it does not have to be a contradiction to assert our identities as both Vietnamese and as American. As particularly exemplified in the two articles about Vietnamese Americans returning to their land of birth, our two sets of experiences actually complement each other.

In other words, Vietnamese Americans have benefited greatly from the generous opportunities available to us here in the U.S. to rebuild our lives and to enjoy freedoms that we otherwise would not have back in Viet Nam. Despite the past and ongoing struggles, our successes as Vietnamese Americans reinforces the best of what the U.S. can be — the “land of opportunity” for millions of people around the world. It is with these experiences as Americans that we can put our knowledge, skills, and resources to good use back in Viet Nam and around the world.

At the same time, our Vietnamese heritage has also enriched American society in many ways — culturally, as we share our food, traditions, and experiences with our neighbors and economically, as our “Little Saigon” and “Versailles” communities have revitalized urban areas to the benefit of residents from all backgrounds.

As Americans from all backgrounds reflect on this 35th anniversary of the end of the Viet Nam War, I think it’s important to acknowledge what has been lost, but also the many things that all of us have gained in the years since as well.


May 17, 2010

Written by C.N.

For a Change: Good News in Racial, Ethnic, & Immigration Relations

I know many of my recent posts have focused on the “bad news” — examples of tensions and hostilities when it comes to racial/ethnic and immigration news. However, there are certainly examples of the opposite — positive and improving relations between different groups in American society that illustrate how cultural differences can be bridged, or at least traditionally underrepresented groups achieving success. Here is a summary of some of the “good news.”

Michigan’s Rima Fakih Wins Miss USA Pageant

Lebanese American immigrant Rima Fakih is crowned Miss USA for 2010. Ms. Fakih resides in Dearborn MI, home of the largest Arab American community in the U.S. and a site of several controversies and tensions in recent years. Nonetheless, her victory is a positive symbol that such tensions can be overcome in this particular instance:

Fakih, a Lebanese immigrant, told pageant organizers her family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths. She moved to the United States as a baby and was raised in New York, where she attended a Catholic school. Her family moved to Michigan in 2003. Pageant officials said historical pageant records were not detailed enough to show whether Fakih was the first Arab American, Muslim or immigrant to win the Miss USA title.

Sacramento to Designate ‘Little Saigon’ District

Map of Little Saigon area of Sacramento, CA

The latest officially-named “Little Saigon” celebrates the Lunar New Year in Sacramento CA, home to about 50,000 Vietnamese Americans. As sociologists have documented, these newly-emerging suburban ethnic enclaves have revitalized stagnant areas by bringing in new businesses, customers, tourists, residents, and revenue for the city and state. However, as some of the comments in the Sacramento Bee story linked above show, many people still harbor hostile sentiments to anything that they perceive to be “un-American.”

Thirty-five years after the fall of South Vietnam, Sacramento’s growing Vietnamese community will ask the City Council on Tuesday to designate a two-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard as “Little Saigon.”

The business corridor south of Fruitridge Road – chock full of restaurants, nail and hair salons, jewelry stores and Asian markets – would become Sacramento’s first official ethnic neighborhood. Community leaders hope the branding will provide an economic shot in the arm that will defuse some of the crime along Stockton Boulevard.

Radio Show Bridges Cultural Gaps with Hmong Hunters

Also in Sacramento, Yia Yang, a Hmong American immigrant from Laos, serves as a valuable resource to educate recent Hmong immigrants about hunting regulations and practices, to avoid the kind of misunderstandings and tensions that led to the tragic hunting murders in Wisconsin several years ago.

Along the barren airwaves of AM radio in Northern California, somewhere between gospel music and traffic updates, Yia Yang can be heard telling his devoted listeners to always be aware of their gun muzzles.

A 50-year-old Hmong immigrant from northern Laos, Mr. Yang is the host of a regular all-things-hunting program on KJAY 1430-AM. The station serves one of the nation’s largest Hmong populations — one for whom the link between hunting and survival is still palpable. “In Laos a main source of food was wildlife,” said Mr. Yang, who owns a used-car lot in Sacramento, a city with more than 16,000 Hmong residents. . . .

State officials praise Mr. Yang for translating the nitty-gritty of fish and game law for people from an ethnic group that can be wary of authority figures. Capt. Roy Griffith, who runs the fish and game agency’s hunter education program and has been an on-air guest of Mr. Yang, said Mr. Yang provided “a huge service to the state.” . . . State agencies overseeing hunting and fishing in Minnesota and Wisconsin have hired Hmong speakers to educate, translate and work as cultural ambassadors to the Laotian immigrant population.

Cal State to Grant Degrees to WWII Internees

More than 70 Japanese Americans whose college careers at California State University campuses were derailed when they were sent to World War II internment camps are getting their diplomas. Six CSU campuses are awarding honorary degrees over the next three weeks to former students who were unable to complete their studies once they were forced into the camps established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942.

Some of the aging alumni plan to attend the special ceremonies and those who are deceased or unable to travel will be represented by their families. . . . Both the Cal State system and the University of California decided last year to belatedly honor the estimated 950 students of Japanese descent who were interned during the war. Students from four UC campuses – San Francisco, Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles – received honorary degrees during winter commencement.

Asian Judge Nominee Shows Community’s Progress

Goodwin Liu, Associate Dean and professor at the University of California at Berkeley law school, is poised to become only the second Asian American judge in the federal appeals courts after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass his nomination to the full Senate for a vote. More generally, his success represents the progress of Asian Americans entering the highest levels of the judicial system.

Asian-Americans are 5 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the doctors, but about 3 percent of the lawyers. When it comes to lawyers becoming federal judges, which requires strong networks and political connections, Asian-American representation is even smaller.

Ten of 875 active federal judges, just over 1 percent, are Asian-American, according to the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). On the appeals court level, which has outsized influence in shaping the nation’s laws, only one of 175 judges is Asian: Denny Chin, who was confirmed just last month.

If Liu is confirmed, he would join Chin and Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School and currently a State Department legal adviser, as potential candidates to be the first Asian judge on the Supreme Court. . . .

Asian-Americans constituted 8.1 percent of law school students in the fall of 2009, up from 7 percent in the fall of 2000, according to the Law School Admissions Council. And Obama has accelerated the pace of Asian nominations to the federal bench. George W. Bush placed four Asians on the bench and Bill Clinton five; Obama has nominated eight so far, including Liu.

Mayor Proclaims Houston-Nanjing Friendship Association Day

Annise Parker, mayor of the city of Houston, on Saturday proclaimed May 15, 2010 as “Houston-Nanjing Friendship Association Day”. In a proclamation to the newly-established association, Parker said Houston is a city of rich culture diversity and has been enriched by the presence and contributions of its citizens of Chinese ancestry.

“Houston recognizes their (Chinese ancestry) important role in the culture, civic, economic and spiritual life of our city,” Parker said, “A good relationship between Houston and Nanjing from economic, trade, tourism and culture exchange aspects would significantly benefit the citizens of these two cities, and also enhance the understandings and good relationships between the United States and China.”


August 28, 2009

Written by C.N.

New Books: Chinatowns & Little Saigons

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. This time around, two new books examine the history and contemporary dynamics of two sets of Asian American enclaves: Chinatowns and Little Saigons.

Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America, by Karin Aguilar-San Juan (University of Minnesota Press)

Little Saigons by Karin-Aguilar-San Juan

Karin Aguilar-San Juan examines the contradictions of Vietnamese American community and identity in two emblematic yet different locales: Little Saigon in suburban Orange County, California (widely described as the capital of Vietnamese America) and the urban “Vietnamese town” of Fields Corner in Boston, Massachusetts. Their distinctive qualities challenge assumptions about identity and space, growth amid globalization, and processes of Americanization.

With a comparative and race-cognizant approach, Aguilar-San Juan shows how places like Little Saigon and Fields Corner are sites for the simultaneous preservation and redefinition of Vietnamese identity. Intervening in debates about race, ethnicity, multiculturalism, and suburbanization as a form of assimilation, this work elaborates on the significance of place as an integral element of community building and its role in defining Vietnamese American-ness.

Staying Vietnamese, according to Aguilar-San Juan, is not about replicating life in Viet Nam. Rather, it involves moving toward a state of equilibrium that, though always in flux, allows refugees, immigrants, and their U.S.-born offspring to recalibrate their sense of self in order to become Vietnamese anew in places far from their presumed geographic home.

American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, by Bonnie Tsui (Free Press)

American Chinatown by Bonnie Tsui

In American Chinatown, acclaimed travel writer Bonnie Tsui takes an affectionate, attentive look at the neighborhood that has bewitched her since childhood, when she eagerly awaited her grandfather’s return from the fortune cookie factory.

Tsui visits the country’s four most famous Chinatowns — San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu — and makes her final, fascinating stop in Las Vegas; in her explorations, she focuses on the remarkable experiences of ordinary people. Tsui beautifully captures their vivid stories, giving readers a deeper look into what “Chinatown” means to its inhabitants, what each community takes on from its American home, and what their experience means to America at large. American Chinatown is an all-access pass.


July 22, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Future of Chinatowns

When most Americans think about how or why the first Chinatowns appeared in California in the mid-1800s, most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to live among each other and to seclude themselves from the rest of American society. In fact, the real reason why Chinatowns first appeared was just the opposite — Chinese immigrants were basically forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no other choice.

You see, as after the end of the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, White workers increasingly saw Chinese immigrants as economic threats who would someday take over their jobs. Based on these paranoid and racist sentiments, an anti-Chinese movement emerged that eventually culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S., and for those already here, forbidden from becoming U.S. citizens.

Other local and state laws restricted where the Chinese could live, what jobs they could have, denied them a public education, and prevented them from marrying Whites. In other words, it was not a matter of the Chinese not wanting to assimilate into mainstream American society — in fact, they weren’t even given the option of even attempting to do so.

Therefore, in the face of this overwhelming hostility, for their physical and economic survival, Chinese immigrants had no other choice but to form their own ethnic enclaves — the first Chinatowns. These Chinatowns at least allowed the Chinese to make a living among themselves, taught them small business ownership skills, and as some scholars argued, ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.

In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best, seen as curious outposts where visitors could experience a “taste of the exotic” and at its worst, as filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land. Based on these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone — until now.

Starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country began to flourish and expand (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. As more Chinese immigrants moved in and ethnic businesses opened up, these Chinatowns almost single-handedly revitalized many largely abandoned urban downtown areas.

However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, their recent success has started to lead to their undoing — as downtown areas become hip, fashionable, trendy, and desirable again, many Chinatowns are fighting for their existence in the face of overwhelming demands for their land and grand development plans:

Residents of [Boston’s] Chinatown next door see the 20 acres – called the “Chinatown Gateway” on zoning maps – as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch. But the city’s redevelopment authority has dubbed the area “South Bay” and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

This struggle in Boston is the latest in a land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America’s downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, usually with few skills and no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as magnets for new arrivals. San Diego’s Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as “Chinatown” in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots. . . .

Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?” asks Mr. [Peter] Kwong, the author.

Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history as the article implies? To be honest, the picture is not encouraging. As history shows, much like how the spread of capitalism around the world has fundamentally transformed many societies and economies, the march of gentrification and urban/suburban development has been almost overwhelming and has leveled historic neighborhood after historic neighborhood. Therefore, on that front, the prognosis is not encouraging.

At the same time, the other component of this trend lies with the Asian American population itself and the paradoxes of its successes. That is, as Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority White population — and in some instances, have surpassed them — many Asian Americans feel uninhibited and unrestricted in moving into mixed or predominantly White affluent neighborhoods and other social settings.

In other words, Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream. As a result, many may not longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns any longer. While they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they want to enjoy the products and luxuries of their hard work, many of which are likely to be located outside of traditional urban Chinatowns. In that sense, for many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.

However, in the midst of these developments, there seems to be an interesting middle ground emerging — the development of suburban Chinatowns and ethnic enclaves. Rather than being located inside crowded urban downtown areas, many of these new ethnic enclaves are located in the suburbs and therein lies their appeal — Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities associated with their affluence that only suburbs can provide while at the same time, also enjoy the company and social-psychological comfort of having large numbers of co-ethnic neighbors.

In fact, many suburban Chinatowns and other Asian-majority communities now exist around the country — Monterey Park and its surrounding cities in southern California; Sunnyvale and its neighboring cities in northern California; and Flushing, Bayside, and Palisades Park and others in the New York City metropolitan area. As they continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.

That is, as the world in general but American society in particular continue to become more globalized and transnational, the definition of what it means to be an American is changing and expanding. The new, emerging picture includes room for those who may not have been born in the U.S., who may not be White, and who might prefer to live in a co-ethnic enclave, but who nonetheless consistently make valuable contributions to American society, its culture, and its economy.

Ultimately, we may not know what will become of the traditional urban Chinatowns that are increasingly becoming gentrified. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that while the form and location of these ethnic enclaves may change, their vibrancy, attraction, and value to American culture remains as strong as ever.