by Yen Espiritu
The socioeconomic conditions in which most Vietnamese children found themselves have been greatly insecure, “comparable only to those encountered by children of the most underprivileged native minority group.”[i] And yet, since the late 1980s, scholars, along with the mass media and policymakers, have depicted the Vietnamese as the newest Asian American “model minority.” In Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (UC Press, 2014), I argue that Vietnamese American attempts at prosperity are often valiant, if not always successful, efforts to manage and compensate for the personal and material losses incurred by their families during and after the Vietnam war.
Having witnessed their parents’ economic anxiety and experienced its tolls on all of their lives, many of the sixty second-generation Vietnamese I interviewed felt deeply and personally responsible for realizing their parents’ dream of “making it” in the United States. Their investment in success and money is meant to improve the lot and status of their families, and not only or primarily about the pursuit of personal achievements. This investment in intergenerational economic mobility is thus much more than a reflection of “Vietnamese core cultural values”: their alleged strong work ethic, high regard for education, and family values. Rather, it exhibits the poignant and complex ways in which Vietnamese refugees and their children use public achievements to address the lingering costs of war, to manage intimacy, to negotiate family tensions, and to assure their social position and dignity in the racially and economically stratified United States.
I thus offer an alternative explanation for the postwar generation’s seeming drive to succeed: what appears to be an act of economic assimilation on the part of the “generation after”—an act of moving beyond the war—is in actuality an index of the ongoing costs of war, not only for the witnesses and survivors but also for their children.
[i] Zhou, Min. 2001. “Straddling Different Worlds: The Acculturation of Vietnamese Refugee Children.” In Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, edited by Ruben Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, p. 194.
Yen Le Espiritu is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees, and the award-winning Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries.