THE VIETNAMESE AMERICAN IDENTITY
By Kelly Le -
Program in English (Columbia Fall 2006)
Currently working a research project entitled "Contemporary
Vietnam: A Visual Vietnam" whose goal is to create an alternative
perspective to battle the degrading images and to analyze the Vietnamese
status quo by demystifying Vietnamese American's visual and cultural presumptions
of the Vietnamese through a series of artwork, creative writing and critical
analysis. The goal is to create a tool targeting the victimized stereotypes
within the Vietnamese American community, and to introduce the general
public to an alternative view of Vietnam.
public will continue to refer to them (Vietnamese Americans)
as “refugees”, or temporary citizens
instead of the American public.
Vietnamese American identity is a facade.
immigrant generation that grew up in the States cannot escape the face,
which is given to them by Western cultural stereotypes and media. They
have yet to develop an authentic identity due to the difficulties in negotiating
traditional ideology and the discourse of Western history. Blamed for
the fall of Saigon and for the death of blue-eye American soldiers, Vietnamese
Americans have become the scapegoats for Communist failures. Stuck in
between the nightmare of oppression and the dream of liberation, they
struggle to survive in a land that would not let them call their own.
Slowly but comfortably, they begin to buy into the victimized motif, surrendering
their political and sexual agencies.
without the stench of mud” (Vietnamese Proverb)
This proverb resonates a sense of cultural dignity,
which is now lost in the Vietnamese American discourse.
addressing the Vietnamese American identity or the lack there of, attention
must be drawn to the limited representations of the Asian Americans as
a whole. For every “token black man”, there is at least one
unnoticed Asian man. Until recently, Asian culture is almost none-existent
in mainstream film. It is not until the commercial success of Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tarantino’s latest homage to
martial arts film, Kill Bill Volume I and II, that the Asian trend is,
once again, popularized.
“Asian Wave”, as Audrey, an Asian Women’s Magazine,
referred to, is calling out for anything “yellow skinned”.
However, it does little to elevate Asian American status. Instead, it
reinforces existing social stereotypes, and is the testimony of Americas’
desire to reconstruct and consume these minority’s identities. Asian
men are relegated to stock roles: the computer nerd, the asexual goofball,
the taxi driver, and the martial arts star, while Asian women fall into
the category of subservience: the loyal wife, the sacrificial daughter,
the angry shop owner, and the prostitute (Takaki 400). These roles of
victimization and self-deprecation make it easier for popular culture
to objectify Asian Americans, viewing them through the lens of the spectator
instead of establishing a genuine emotional connection, or suture.
(Asian Americans) are suspended
between departure and arrival, origin and destination, nationalism’s
desire and cultural excision
(Welly Yang) says he didn't know a lot of the historical context
in the show ("Making Tracks" - The plot is about a
young Asian American rock musician uncovers the stories behind his
family’s six-generation struggle to find a voice in America.)
until fairly recently.
the ethnic studies types who know it all," he says, "but
I had a fairly elite education and it wasn't until that education
was over that I discovered a lot of this on my own. I didn't know
the history of Asian immigration, that they weren't even allowed
to immigrate for a quarter of the nation's history or something
ridiculous like that. I had never even heard of that."
Discover APA history by clicking HERE
for more info>>>>
"No one will know who we are
until we know who we are" (Malcolm X )
Yang is a 2nd generation Taiwanese American graduate with honors
in Political Science/International Relations from Columbia University.
for More Background
realization of the desire to oppress can be seen in Kung Pow: Enter the
Fist (2002), which features a cookie-cutter male character named The Chosen
One, who sets out on the quest to avenge his parents’ death. Aside
from the raw humor, the film falls into the genre of Whiteness dominating
Orientalism, a theme that resonates in NBC 1970s television series Kung
Fu, which featured Kwai Chang Caine, a Chinese American Shaolin priest.
This part was written for Bruce Lee but later went to David Carradine.
Perhaps, the producers felt Carradine’s Western facial features
were more appealing and marketable. Using the same formula as Kung Fu,
The Karate Kid franchise meets with great success with over 6 different
box office hits and a chain of workout video. As the result, martial arts
become the signifier for Orientalism. All across America, little white
boys and girls were learning the jump kick and singing the 1974 Billboard
hit, Kung Fu Fighting, by Carl Douglas. They implicitly bought into the
myth that Americans can not only mimic but also prevail and conquer the
the spirit of breaking away from these popular stereotypes brought forth
by media hype,
the Asian American community began to formulate their own authentic identity,
one that is free from the ethnic constraints of Hollywood but adaptable
enough to merge with the American nationalism. However, people are skeptical
whether this task is achievable. Many believe that the diaspora factor
makes such a unified identity impossible. This approach differentiates
state citizenship from social citizenship. The sense of belonging within
the larger U.S. national collective, which is the only method of cultural
incorporation, exists in relation to the idea of “home,” the
physical boundaries that support the development of its citizens.
Asian Americans are bounded by the discourse of exile, they remain as
the Others or visitors - the wave of immigration frozen in time. They
are suspended between departure and arrival, origin and destination, nationalism’s
desire and cultural excision (Eng 31-36). The problem with this position
is that it claims with “a site of validation” or physical
nation-state Asian American identity will filter out the popular stereotypes,
and create an authorship that is uniquely their own. Firstly, this assumption
does not distinguish emotional from physical isolation. While physical
isolation is possible, Asian Americans, specifically Vietnamese Americans,
cannot escape western history, which continues to see them as the by-products
of socialism. Moreover, the diaspora argument flattens the social diversity
within a racial group. It speaks to Asians- the collectivity, overlooking
the alternative identities within the community.
OF OUR PAST AND FUTURE
News' Marian Liu reports that "For Asian-Americans, the
move toward entertainment careers has been a recent one, stretching
the past 40 years, starting with such stereotypical films as the
Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song." (Editor's
Note: This "stereotypical film" was based on the first
American novel to be published by an established publishing
house, the first
Chinese American novel to be on the best-seller list, the first
Broadway/major movie studio production to feature, star and
about Asian Americans, the female stars of the Broadway show --
Pat Suzuki and Miyoshi Umeki -- became the first Asian Americans
to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek and the film that launched
the careers of Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, James
Shigeta, and Nancy Kwan.)
to read an interview with David Henry Hwang - who has long addressed
the issues of diversity and identity throughout his long personal/creative
history. His career has seen great success through Aida, Broadway's
Tarzan, updated version of Flower Drum Song, M.Butterfly, FOB and
many others. His well articulated and researched answers to important
issues of diversity are greatly welcomed and needed responses, as
opposed to others who don't become aware of their own community's
history till late in life and/or unable to accurately expressed
their respective viewpoints.
NOTE: Sadly, many people (along with many within
the Asian/Asian Pacific American communities) have forgotten
the achievements and victories of past entertainment pioneers
in the 1920's (some of the pioneers are listed on the "left")
and the various non-stereotypical milestones seen in the
movie "Flower Drum Song." Click on the pictures listed on the left for more information on the respective pioneers.
close their eyes, and
pretend the 19th century
does not exist.
short, the heart of the problem is not so much location but perception.
Aside from the exterior pressure such as Hollywood, Asian Americans struggle
internally to distinguish themselves from the cultures of their birth
countries. As hybrids of the Eastern and Western traditions, they ask
themselves- what parts of the heritage are worth preserving? Eric Liu,
author of The Accidental Asian, explains, “The Asian American resolution
[is somewhere between] the ascriptive - the biological and social givens
that one inherits- and the acquisional- the individual acts of both overcoming
the conditions of one’s birth and marshaling the resources for self-invention”
(Li 107). However, the process is not as simple as it sounds.
the Vietnamese Americans, tradition encompasses not only cultural practices
but connotes the doctrine of Communism. These discourses must be separated.
Tired of fleeing from the political and social restrain of the Ho Chi
Minh regime and of Western colonial rule, Vietnamese Americans close their
eyes, and pretend the 19th century does not exist. Instead, they emphasize
the neutral ground of Vietnamese Imperial rule, tracing their cultural
roots from the Hung Dynasty (207 BC) to Dai Bao reign (1800 AD). In an
attempt to empower the rich Vietnamese culture, the immigrant community
highlights the royal history and Buddhist celebration, purposely ignoring
the social inequalities that existed in both the past and the present,
especially with respect to the treatment of woman.
can never be free of the ‘deathly embrace’ of Orientalism”
think any time an Asian is on TV, it's a good thing," agrees
Huang. "Even if it's on the most horrible reality show, it's
still better than it was when we were growing up. I'd rather see
an Asian eating a rat on an island than guest-starring as a dry
cleaner or something. If we can do that, people will start to accept
that we can do anything. Maybe after seeing that, execs might start
saying, 'Oh, right, Mrs. Parker on my new sitcom could be Asian.'"(Comment by Shii Ann Huang - She was the first Asian American
contestant on the reality TV shows, "Survivor")
the documentary Surname “Viet” Given Name “Nam”,
Trinh Minh Ha exposes attempt to suppress 18th century feminist ideology
by highlighting the life of Ho Xuan Huong, an 18th century poet. She was
believed to be a concubine of a Hanoi’s city official, who wrote
revolutionary poetry about free love, the evils of polygamy and patriarchy.
Ho’s most famous poem is called the Jackfruit or Trai Mich, in which
she compared her sexual appetite to the thick jackfruit pulp, it must
be pluck quickly to taste but will stain the hands if touched. This exhibit
of sexual innuendoes was condemned under Confucianism, which forbid woman
from receiving a classical education. Moreover, Ha critiques the four
traditional virtues of the Vietnamese woman- Cong, Dun, Ngon, Hanh: mastering
domestic skills, maintaining graceful appearance, speak softly and know
your place. The film explains that when glorifying these qualities, the
culture is denying women of their dignity, turning them into ghosts. By
not acknowledging the flaws such as this, Vietnamese Americans are allowing
“tradition” to devour their own social diversities.
only do Vietnamese Americans have to negotiate Socialism when tracing
their oriental origin, they also have to address it when defining their
American-ness. “Vietnam” is synonymous with the Vietnam War.
In the ten years span, from 1961-75, the American public had come to hate
everything about this Southeastern country- from Viet Cong rebels, the
Saigon’s prostitutes who bared the illegitimate children of American
soldiers to the death of thousands of Vietnamese civilians by the American
troops. In fact, this war is the most protested of all in U.S. history.
Thus, when the number of immigrants jumped from 130,000 before 1977 to
400,000 in 1979, Americans begins to formulate the theory of exotic evil
specifically targeting these foreigners. Vietnamese and Vietnamese American
were nationally branded as the rejects of the Socialist regime. With the
exception of a small elite group, most were uneducated, with minimal job
skills and economic resources. They relied on governmental and institutional
sponsorships such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplementary
Security Income (SSI), and Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA). This fact fueled
the image of the ignorant F.O.B.s, Fresh off the Boat- referring to the
second wave of flight from Vietnam by boats to refugee camps in Thailand,
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. In an effort to battle these negative
representations, the Vietnamese Community tries to acquire American-ness
by wearing the Capitalist brand, denying everything that might reference
a socialist past. They have become the new kid, going out of the way to
impress the “cool crowd.”
James Reckner, the director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University
eloquently stated in his interview with CNN, “… it’s
been a quarter of a century, but the experience, the social traumas
and the antagonism won’t evaporate. There’s a lot of scar
tissue… [and] it’s still tender.” The quote
reiterates popular media’s unwillingness to forgive and forget.
The stereotypes as I have outlined them in my book were created
due to our history, including the interaction of European
missionaries and traders with the people's of Asia, as well
as the experiences of the first immigrants to America, and
then perpetuated by Hollywood and the American experiences
in the Pacific in the last century, as well as by the superficial
nature of our continuing interactions. I have a whole chapter
dealing with the origin of stereotypes and why they persist,
so I encourage further reading of my chapter in order to seek
out the important details of this history. They affect all
people of Asian origin, whether they are actors or not.
- Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic,
The New York Times, Fortune, BusinessWeek, TIME, The Far Eastern
Economic Review, The International Herald Tribune, The Los
Angeles Times, and The World Policy Journal, among other publications.
Her book, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls
and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, is published by PublicAffairs
for more information
resistant movement can be seen throughout schools scattered all
over the countries where there are sizable Vietnamese populations,
the local activists would make sure the national flag, red with
yellow star, is replaced with that of the Republic of Vietnam, three
red bars on golden background. In January of 2003, the State of
Virginia Lower House approved Bill HB-2829, which requires that
the former Republic flag be displayed at all public function. The
bills states, “the people... of Vietnam were valiant in their
resistance to the aggression of communist North Vietnam… the
refugees of the Republic… should be honored and remembered
for their sacrifices.”
event, like many before it, attempts to distinguish the Vietnamese
Americans from the nation of Vietnam. However, in doing so, it feeds
into the Asian victimization theology. Vietnamese
Americans will never escape the impression of helplessness. The
public will continue to refer to them as “refugees”,
or temporary citizens instead of the American public. Helen Lee
speaks of this in Sally’s Beauty Spot.
experimentatal film portrays the objectification of the Asian women
through visual imagery. The found footage is of an American man
stripping an Asian woman’s Western clothing, demanding “take
that off, you look at a streetwalker,” comments on the obsession
of conforming, and the minority’s desire to assimilate with
popular culture. The repeating cuts of Sally scrubbing the mole
on her breast suggest rejection and postulate that “Asian
American self-representation can never be free of the ‘deathly
embrace’ of Orientalism” (Lape 144). In other words,
Vietnamese Americans find themselves in a Catch 22 situation, if
they reject the FOB stereotypes, which cast them as the socialist
rejects, they further distinguish themselves from the American public,
making it difficult for assimilation, the process necessary to obtain
power and recognition.
Lawrence. “The Postmodern Ethnic Brunch: Devouring Difference.”
In A Different Light. (1995): 253-262
David L. Queer Transexions of Race, Nation, and Gender. “Out
Here and Over There: Queerness and Diaspora in Asian American Studies.”
Social Text. 52/53. (Autumn-Winter, 1997): 31-52.
Noreen G. “The Politics of Representation in Asian American
Literature.” College Literature 29.4 (Fall 2002): 144-151.
Moreover, this pro-Capitalist
ideology implicitly declares any beliefs or ideologies that deter from its
direction are unauthentic and unimportant. Monique Truong, a one-and-a-half
generation Vietnamese American novelist and writer for the Michigan Quarterly
Review, voices her frustrations. She questions the guilt resulting from
her inability to provide the “correct” response to her friends’
comments concerning the progressiveness of her birth country, which “lack[s]
of anger toward America [and is open] to all things American.” She
compares Vietnam to a tattoo, “an ‘S’ on my forehead,
an invitation for anyone to come along and to comment on that country’s
evolving role on the world stage.” She is a non-voluntary relic to
the Vietnam War.
short, the heart of the problem
is not so much location but perception.
Truong can voice her opinion of Iraq, the media has decided for her. Since
she is a survivor of the bombing in Can Tho, a city in the south of Saigon,
the public automatically brand her as the supporter of the Bush’s
administration because of its promise to liberate and democratize Iraq.
She states, “I was alienated from the goings-on from the start…
This was not my war.” This assumption based on ethnicity leads to
her realization, “despite the citizenship papers and the gold eagle
on my passport, the U.S. also is not a real home for me… I felt
small, insignificant and without recourse, not like an American at all”
have found a comfortable spot,
publicly crying discrimination
while behind closed doors,
gracefully accepting the status quo.
Americans are tornbetween American
which sees them through the stereotypical lens of Hollywood, and
the socialist discourse, which situates them as immigrants. Somewhere
between these schools of thoughts, they are expected to form an authentic
identity. Conflicted, they remain in limbo.
years ago, I attended the Tet celebration in Orlando. There, I meet two
girls who were a few years younger than myself. Against my better judgment,
I agreed to watch the annual beauty pageant with them. One of the questions
for the contestants was, “What part of the Vietnamese heritage do
you believe to be most important?” There were the usual - “love
my parents” and “help improve the community”. The girl
on my right, unsatisfied with the answers, turned to me and said, “These
girls are so stupid. Duh! It’s Cong, Dun, Ngon, Hanh.” While
I doubt the girl fully understand what these words mean, the fact that
she accepted them so unquestionably made me nervous. It was then that
I realized that the Vietnamese Americans have given up on identifying
themselves. They have found a comfortable spot, publicly crying discrimination
while behind closed door, gracefully accepting the status quo.
suggested by Lawrence Chua in The Postmodern Ethnic Brunch, they are subjecting
themselves to the victimization - “whines, ‘You hurt me.”
And then, whispers needily, “Hit me harder” (Chua 262). Virginia’s
Bill is an example of this irony. The community rallies up their forces
so they can change the design on an insignificant flag. How is this victory
raise awareness of the discrimination of Vietnamese Americans? All it
accomplished is to further emphasize their foreign origin and immigrant