The Vietnamese people of Southeast Asia are one of the first sets of Asian refugees (versus just being an immigrant) to come to the United States. Immigrants choose to leave their homeland, while refugees are driven from their homes usually to escape death or persecution. The Vietnamese came to some communities in the U.S. (such as in Linda Vista, San Diego) in 1975 in search of low priced homes and good job opportunities. The ancient kingdom of the Viet people were called Nam Viet, a tribe from southern China who settled in the northern part of what is now called Vietnam. The Chinese attempted to convert the Viet People to Chinese ways, but the Vietnamese resisted and retained their own ways. Although heavily influenced by the Chinese, the Vietnamese maintained their own language, established their own country and kept their basic philosophies.
In the early 1800’s Europeans began to recognize Vietnam for its commercial potential. During the French colonial period, the Vietnamese suffered many hardships. The French increased Vietnamese tax prices and tried to impose a European way of life. During WWII, European colonial forces were driven out by the invasion of the Japanese. At this time a communist movement, the Vietminh, emerged to fight off the Japanese. In 1945 Vietnam seized power of the north and established a free Republic and fighting broke out. Concerns of communism spread throughout the world and the division of Vietnam’s northern and southern borders were defined in 1954. The hostility continued and the Vietnam War broke out. About 2 million Vietnamese were killed. Finally, in 1975 the southern government fell and the entire country came under communist rule. The people of Vietnam suffered a great deal during the war. Their villages were burned, cities were bombed, farms destroyed, and millions of innocent people were killed. Many became refugees, and major waves of Vietnamese fled the country in hopes of one day finding freedom in the United States.
The fist wave of refugees (1975-1979) left Vietnam when the communist regime took over privately owned businesses and many Southern Vietnamese businessmen were sent to work in harsh labor camps. The second wave (1979-1982) came when the Vietnamese government faced rapid economic erosion. The Vietnamese fled to the United States in search of better jobs and stable environments. Today, the Vietnamese tend to live in ethnic communities that some call “little Saigon” in the United States. For some a goal is to eventually start their own businesses, which may have already done. Tailor shops, gift stores, and family owned restaurants are proving to be very stable enterprises for Vietnamese refugees. They have left their homeland, suffered great hardships on the journey over, and have endured much difficulty adjusting to the American culture. But to many Vietnamese, the struggle was worth it.
Vietnamese is the national language of Vietnam. This ancient language has developed over many centuries and it shares its roots with the Chinese, Cambodian, and Thai languages. The Vietnamese language is monosyllabic. It is made up of words that have only one sound. The language is also tonal, where the meaning of each word depends on the tone of voice. There are many different dialects spoken in the north and south. The tones make Vietnamese sound a little like singing Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language like Thai, Lao, and Chinese. Monosyllabic languages emphasize syllables in one word as separate parts. Some Vietnamese is also polysyllabic, where speakers pronounce syllables of one word together. Basic differences of Vietnamese versus English:
1. Vietnamese words do not change to show grammatical changes such as gender, numbers, tenses, or mood.
2. There are no prefixes, suffixes, or conjugation with Vietnamese words.
3. The modifying adjective or noun usually follows the modified element, i.e. car blue instead of blue car.
4. The possessive relationship follows the noun, i.e. “car I” means my car.
5. The Vietnamese writing system tries to represent the pronunciation of the Vietnamese language. The writing system is based on the Roman alphabet, with additional symbols to represent tones and sounds not existing in the romance languages.
6. The Vietnamese alphabet consists of 12 vowel letters, 26 consonants or groups of consonant letters, and five tone marks.
Buddhism is the primary religion of Vietnam, but there are also many Taoist, Confucian, Hoa Hao, Caodaists, Muslim and Christians.
White rice is a staple food of Vietnam, but it is often mixed with vegetables, meats, and fish.
Within the Vietnamese culture, family is the most important social unit, and it is the responsibility of every member to help the family survive. The family structure is a well-defined hierarchy of layers consisting of the immediate family and the extended family. Children in the Vietnamese culture are taught to place the family above the individual. Children defer to their parents, allowing them to make decisions on their behalf and always showing respect for their authority. Respect is very important to Vietnamese people. When they greet each other, the Vietnamese bow their heads. In Vietnamese culture it is polite to look away when speaking to someone and rude to look directly at them. This can often cause misunderstandings as this is in opposition to American behavior, and many refugees are often accused of being rude or unfriendly. In Vietnam expressing oneself is not acceptable and public display of emotions are taboo. Children in Vietnam do not question authority, where children in American culture tend to be encouraged to be independent and out spoken.
Although many Vietnamese refugees want to learn as much as possible about American culture and how to adapt to American life, many also want to keep their customs and language of homeland alive. Their goal is to become American without loosing touch of their ethnic identity. The Vietnamese refugees have endured one of the most tragic and traumatic ordeals of any group of immigrants this country has had in the last half of this century, yet the Vietnamese have been able to find their niche and establish themselves as Americans without loosing their heritage or the memory of those who died trying to get here.
Bondon, A. (1994). Vietnamese Americans. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Kalman, B. (1996). Vietnam: The Culture. New York, NY: Crabtree Publishing Company.
California State Department of Education Office of Bilingual Bicultural Education. (1982). A Handbook for Teaching Vietnamese Speaking Students. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center.
Cummins, James. (1979). Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Development of Bilingual Children Bilingual Education Paper Series, 3.
Websites Worth Surfing
This site allows users to search for desired links and information in the Vietnamese-related website.
Vietnamese Cultural Profile
This site provides more information about Vietnamese language, religion, nutrition and food, and child rearing practices.
Southeast Asia Information
This site offers information about Vietnam, geography, facts, and additional links to specific Vietnamese websites.
Southeast Asian Refugee Experience
This site offers a visual exhibit experience of refugees through pictures and collected artifacts, and information about the immigration of refugees into the United States.
Websites For Teachers
Multicultural Perspectives in Literature
These site offers teachers strategies, lesson plans to teach multicultural issues in literature, and links to literature regarding African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.
Multicultural Literature for the classroom
This site offers a list of multicultural books, excerpts included, ranging from Southeast Asian to Travel and US Culture. Many other cultures are included.
Asian-American Literature Page
Georgian Court College’s English 320 class with reviews of literature, suggested readings, and links to Asian-American sites.
Books for students/teachers
Huynh, Jade Ngoc. South Wind Change.
Reyes, Adelaida. Songs of the Caged, Songs of the Free: Music and the Vietnamese Refugee Experience.
Rutledge, Paul. Vietnamese in America (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 1987).
Schmidt, Jeremy and Wood, Ted.(1995). Two Lands, One Heart: An American Boy’s Journey to His Mother’s Vietnam.
Tran, Barbara, Monique T.D. Truong, and Luu Truong Khoi. Watermark: Vietnamese Poetry and Prose.
Wapner, Kenneth. Teenage Refugees from Vietnam Speak Out (New York: The Rosen Publishing, 1995).
Freeman, James A. Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).
Ngan, Nguyen Ngoc. (1982). Will of Heaven
Shalant, Phyllis. Look What We’ve Brought You From Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988). This book lists crafts, games, recipes, stories, and other cultural activities from new Americans.
Tenhula, John. Voices from Southeast Asia: Refugee Experience in the U.S(New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991). This book is a collection of actual poems, stories and an oral history.