Identity: American Viet Kieu Millenials
More than ever, in places like the US, the UK and the EU, immigration is a hot-button topic. Whether this influx of immigration is welcomed with open arms or met with derision, there is an intuitive understanding by most as to why these immigrants and asylum-seekers look to transition from their homelands to new territories in search of greener pastures. It’s a no-brainer, as the countries they gravitate towards have better economies and generally higher standards of living.
While it is true that most Vietnamese immigration moves outward and overseas from Vietnam to the West, there is a significant population of foreign-born of Vietnamese descent who are repatriating to the homeland of their ancestors. What drives Vietnamese-American millennials to return to Vietnam to live, and what effects do these migrations have on their identities, and Vietnam as a developing economy?
What Does it Mean to Be Vietnamese-American?
The term “Viet Kieu”, which literally translates as “Vietnamese sojourner” originally had a derogatory connotation, but these days the phrase is more benignly used to distinguish people of Vietnamese descent who live in the diaspora. Since 2004, the term has also indicated a legal status, as the communist government at that time officially declared “Viet Kieu” living abroad as being a vital part of the Vietnamese community.
Image source: lawyer-monthly.com
In 2007, the “Viet Kieu” status became more highly elevated when the government began making exemptions for members of the diaspora who could prove that they were of Vietnamese descent. Presently overseas Vietnamese or “Viet Kieu” benefit from tax breaks, loosened restrictions on business licences and property ownership, in addition to having the ability to bring to the country foreign spouses and progeny.
Vietnamese-Americans Changing Society and Economy in Vietnam
The reestablishment of these connections, including repatriation by Vietnamese-Americans, has from the onset had a considerable impact across the country. Remittances have always contributed greatly towards the Vietnam economy. In 2017, the US$13.8 billion in remittances it received accounted for 6.7% of the economy, with Ho Chi Minh city receiving a US$5.2 billion share. Overseas Vietnamese entrepreneurs have played a significant role in reshaping the cultural and economic landscapes. As Peter Cuong Franklin, chef-owner at the new-school restaurant ănăn explained to Vice Magazine...
“Viet Kieus are making great contributions in the creative fields such as food, art, literature, music and fashion. They bring an international perspective and help to connect Vietnam with the rest of the world”.
Image source: gdb.voanews.com
Family and Reasons for the Return ‘Home’
For many Vietnamese American millennials, repatriation is a step towards bridging complicated and deep familial chasms following their parents move to the US after the Vietnamese resistance.
Chrissa Nguyen, 29, is a Vietnamese American makeup artist with her own business that does creative party makeup and costuming for special events, and is a live performer. She spoke with #iAMHCMC about her experiences living in the state of North Dakota, and her migration to Vietnam, her parents’ homeland.
“I always knew I’d come back to Vietnam. The area I lived in was very White, but my parents raised me in a very Vietnamese household, studying the language, and eating almost exclusively Vietnamese food. When I was young I didn't fit in. I always knew I wanted to come back to Vietnam”.
Image source: Chrissa Nguyen
When asked about how her family felt about her decision to repatriate to Vietnam, she explained, “They were really unhappy, because I think as is with a lot of Vietnamese there's a lot of trauma from war and what life was like after the war. Now they see that I'm happy here, so they've totally come to terms with it and accepted it. I don't know if they'll ever visit me here. I don't really have hopes for that. I think they realise that I'm a lot happier here than I ever was in the US and that's what matters to them now”.
Christina Bui, 26, a Vietnamese American woman from Virginia, USA, and project coordinator for the non-profit organisation Pacific Links Foundation, has been a resident of Vietnam since 2015. Like Chrissa, she was met with resistance when expressing her desire to move to Vietnam to her parents. Her mother and father both emigrated to the United States, after Vietnam’s successful resistance, in 1975 and 1986 respectively.
“They hated it at first. I encountered a very strong pushback, especially from my mom, who was vehemently against it (which was understandable given the trauma my family experienced). After talking to my boss on the phone (for three hours, no less) and meeting her in person, my mom became a bit more ‘OK’ with me going. (Also because she thought I’d only be gone for a year! Little did any of us know…)”.
Vietnamese-Americans in Vietnam often find more job opportunities and enjoy a higher level of status than they do back in the United States. Many of them are bilingual, but speak English with a native accent, which both makes them valuable in the job market and gives them a lot of social mobility. Some also express that they feel a greater amount of freedom in Vietnam than they even did in the states. ‘Yeah, I pretty much do whatever I want! It's really great, because coming from New York City which was my home for over ten years, I feel pretty New York in a way. But here, I feel so much more free, and so much more able to freely express myself than I can in New York. I did creative stuff in New York, but not like the stuff I'm doing here. It was hard to think of myself as artistic or anything before I came here. Coming from America, and especially New York oh, you get a lot of “Oh, this country is the best! There's nowhere better than New York. New York is the best! You have the best of everything here!” I was attaching myself to that. I almost wondered how I could be cool outside of New York. I realized after a while that although I love New York, I was never happy there.”
Identity Through Repatriation
For many Vietnamese American millennials, coming to Vietnam helps them to achieve a deeper sense of self, having straddled both Vietnamese and Western identities.
Chrissa says, “It was difficult when I first came because growing up the way that I did, in between two cultures. Not being White, I couldn't really identify with being American. Coming here I thought that because I grew up in a really Vietnamese household that I understood and knew Vietnamese culture. I had to let go everything that I thought I knew about Vietnamese culture, and also part of my identity. Like, ‘Oh, I'm not actually Vietnamese’. That was something I had to reset in my mind, but it was actually quite freeing to let go of these identity markers. I'm not Vietnamese, I'm not even American. I'm not any of these labels that people assigned to you because of how you look or how you speak”.
Image source: tapchihoaky.com
Christina echoes Chrissa’s sentiment...
“I think I’m more certain of my dual identity now—neither completely American nor completely Vietnamese. At times I feel ‘too American’ for Vietnamese people, and ‘too Vietnamese’ for Americans, but I’ve grown to be more comfortable with those labels. And, of course, it becomes a point of pride to be lauded by my Vietnamese coworkers that I’ve become ‘real Vietnam-Vietnamese’, since it does say something about my assimilation here”.
Chrissa reflects on her consistent excitement about living in Saigon, "It hits me every day. I'll be in traffic and see some signs in Vietnamese or I'll see a guy welding something wearing sunglasses and think, ‘Oh, my god. I live here!’"
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