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THE VIETNAMESE AMERICAN IDENTITY
Presented by Kelly Le
Doctoral Program in English / Columbia Fall 2006


The Vietnamese American identity is a facade. The 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.

Unfortunate Choices

Before 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. This “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.

The 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 Asian culture.

For every “token black man”, there is at least one unnoticed Asian man.

In 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 constrains 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. Since 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.

DARING FILMS W/ASIAN MALES
There has been relatively few daring attempts in dealing with interracial romantic relationships with Asian/Asian Pacific American males in films throughout history. Listed below are some prominent and rare examples.

In the early 1900's, isolated films such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat brought to the screen the feelings of forbidden love between a White woman and an Asian man.

In the 1950's, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Crimson Kimono (in which, James Shigeta won the gorgeous White female - Victoria Shaw - from his White male co-star) featured an Asian Male and a White Female in starring romantic roles in major films!

In South Pacific, the song "You Have to be Carefully Taught" highlighted in the film one of the main reason why people fear interracial romantic situations.

In Bridge to the Sun, James Shigeta was married to the pretty Carroll Baker in a daring story during WWII!

In the 1990's, Disney's Johnny Tsunami was one of the last example of romantic featured roles featuring an Asian/Asian American male and a White female.
Click the "yellow links" for more info

In 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. For 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.

Through 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.

Not 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.”

Vietnamese Americans are
torn between American capitalism,
which sees them through the
stereotypical lens of Hollywood,
and the socialist discourse,
which situates them as immigrants.

This 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.” This is 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. The experimentation 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (Works Cited)
Chua, Lawrence. “The Postmodern Ethnic Brunch: Devouring Difference.” In A Different Light. (1995): 253-262
Eng, 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.
Lape, Noreen G. “The Politics of Representation in Asian American Literature.” College Literature 29.4 (Fall 2002): 144-151.
Lee, Helen. Race in Contemporary American Cinema. “A Peculiar Sensation: A Personal Genealogy of Korean American Women’s Cinema”. Cineaste. 23:1. (Winter 1996): 36-9. UCB Media Resources. 29 Mar. 2005
Li, David L. “On Ascriptive and Acquisitional Americanness: The Accidental Asian and the Illogic of Assimilation.” Project Muse. Contemporary Literature XLV.1 (2004): 106-134.
“New Analysis: Vietnam Flag”. Viet Quoc. February 2003. 20 April 2005

Sally’s Beauty Spot. Helen Lee. 1990.

Takaki, Ron. Strangers from a Different Shore. Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
“To be or not to be: What’s to Become of Asian American theatre?” Audrey Oct/ Nov 04.
Mindling. 20 April 2005 <>
“Spring-Watching Pavilion by Ho Xuan Huong.” Author Biography. Bookrags Inc. 20 April 2005
Truong, Monique. “Real and Flaw.” Michigan Quarterly Review. Vol 43. 4. (Fall 2004): 686-698.
“Vietnam War”. The History Place. 1999. 20 April 2005
Vo, Liem T. “History of the Imperial Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam: A Genealogical Account.” Imperial Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam. 20 April 2005

Zhou, Min. “Straddling Different Words: The Acculturation of Vietnamese Refugee Children.” Research and Seminars. University of California. 20 April 2005

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. Before 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” (Truong 686)

Vietnamese Americans are torn between American capitalism, 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. Two 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. As 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 status.


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