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“The New Americans”: The Creation of a Typology of Vietnamese-American Identity in Children's Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2010

Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi. E-mail:


The influx of Vietnamese refugees, “boat people,” and immigrants into the United States after April 1975 has led to the establishment of a significant Vietnamese-American community. There is a body of literature written for children and young adults that creates and delineates this new community within the topography of a welcoming and immigrant-friendly USA. This paper will examine the meanings and implications of the appellation “Vietnamese-American” as defined within a body of nonfiction children's literature. It will highlight how these texts negotiate questions related to refugee status, immigration, identity and belonging, contributing in many instances to a bland re-creation of a formerly oppressed but now coherent and increasingly prosperous and Americanized people. The children's literature plays an important role in defining the relatively new community to itself and to mainstream America. In its dissemination of truisms about Confucian heritages and stereotypes of “model minorities” the literature reveals as much about American ideological desires as it does about “the new Americans.”

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Earlier studies include Lai Nam Chen, Images of Southeast Asia in Children's Books (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981); Susina, Jan, “‘Tell Him about Vietnam’: Vietnamese-Americans in Contemporary American Children's Literature,Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 16 (Summer 1991), 5863CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Michael Levy, Portrayal of Southeast Asian Refugees in Recent American Children's Books (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2000).

2 Cited in Joe Ferry, Vietnamese Immigration (Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2004), 40.

3 James M. Freeman, Changing Identities: Vietnamese Americans, 1975–1995 (Boston and London: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), chapter 3.

4 Gail Paradise Kelly, From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of the Vietnamese Immigration to the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977), 30.

5 Ibid., 36.

6 See Kelly; William T. Liu, Maryanne Lamanna and Alice Murata, Transition to Nowhere: Vietnamese Refugees in America (Nashville and London: Charter House Publishers Inc., 1979); Darrel Montero, Vietnamese Americans: Patterns of Resettlement and Socioeconomic Adaptation in the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979); Paul J. Strand and Woodrow Jones Jr., Indochinese Refugees in America: Problems of Adaptation and Assimilation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985); David W. Haines, ed., Refugees as Immigrants: Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in America (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1989); Steven J. Gold, Refugee Communities: A Comparative Field Study (Newbury Park, London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992); Paul James Rutledge, The Vietnamese Experience in America (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992); Nazli Kibria, Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); Freeman; Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III, Growing up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998); Hien Duc Do, The Vietnamese Americans (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1999); Sucheng Chan, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006); Nghia M. Vo, The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975–1992 (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006).

7 Kunz, E. F., “The Refugee in Flight: Kinetic Models and Forms of Displacement,International Migration Review, 7, 2 (Summer, 1973), 125–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 138–39.

8 Gold, Refugee Communities, 121, 127.

9 Thomas A. DuBois, “Constructions Construed: The Representation of Southeast Asian Refugees in Academic, Popular, and Adolescent Discourse,” Amerasia Journal, 19, 3 (1993), 1–25.

10 Ibid., 4, original emphasis.

11 There are many fictionalized picture book accounts of the Vietnam War and its aftermath which are beyond the ambit of this study. These include Michele Maria Surat, Angel Child, Dragon Child (Milwaukee, WI: Raintree Publishers, 1983); Tran Khan Tuyet, The Little Weaver of Thai-Yen Village (San Francisco: Children's Book Press, 1987); Sherry Garland, The Lotus Seed (San Diego and New York: Voyager Books, 1997); Lawrence McKay, Journey Home (New York: Lee & Low Books, 1998).

12 Levy, Portrayal of Southeast Asian Refugees, discusses aspects of texts by Rutledge, Auerbach, O'Connor, Wapner, and Greenberg.

13 Lewis K. Parker, Why Vietnamese Immigrants Came to America (New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2003), 4–5.

14 C. Ann Fitterer, Vietnamese Americans (Chanhassen, MN: The Child's World, 2003), 13.

15 Ibid., 7.

16 Andrea Warren, Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy (New York: Melanie Kroupa Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), xvii.

17 David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, “VietnamA Portrait of Its People at War (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996), xxi.

18 Truong Nhu Tang, Journal of a Vietcong (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), 213.

19 Andrew Lam, “Love, Money, Prison, Sin, Revenge,” in De Tran, Andrew Lam and Hai Dai Nguyen, eds., Once Upon a Dream … the Vietnamese-American Experience (Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1995), 83.

20 There are some exceptions in children's writings which do mention American involvement (Tran Khan Tuyet) and discuss the war (Huynh Quang Nhuong's The Land I Lost: Adventures of a Boy in Vietnam (1982) and Water Buffalo Days (1997)), but they too seem to participate in nostalgic reconstructions of the homeland. This may be unsurprising given the exigencies of exile but important within the context of writing, rewriting and remembrance.

21 See, for example, Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind, trans. Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988); Le Minh Khue, The Stars, the Earth, the River, trans. Bac Hoai Tran and Dana Sachs, ed. Wayne Karlin (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997).

22 See James M. Freeman, Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989).

23 Don C. Locke, Increasing Multicultural Understanding: A Comprehensive Model (Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1998), 134.

24 Parker, Why Vietnamese Immigrants Came to America, 10.

25 Lori Coleman, Vietnamese in America (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 2005), 5.

26 James Haskins, The New Americans: Vietnamese Boat People (Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1980), 44.

27 Susan Auerbach, Vietnamese Americans (Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corporation, Inc., 1991), 39.

28 Strand and Jones, Indochinese Refugees in America, 141, 142. Prior to the Vietnam War, “the first Refugee Relief Act (RRA), which became law in 1953, and its amendments, allowed for the admission of people persecuted by communist governments.” Ferry, Vietnamese Immigration, 50.

29 Gold, Refugee Communities, x.

30 Cited in Time, 19 May 1975, 9.

31 Newsweek, 12 May 1975, 32.

32 Liu, Lamanna and Murata, Transition to Nowhere, 70.

33 Warren, Escape from Saigon, 59. Warren's views may be contrasted with those of Zigler, who referred to the “massive disrespect for the Vietnamese people (both North and South)” implied in Operation Babylift, which suggested that the Vietnamese would not care for their children and that “being raised by Americans in America was superior to being raised Vietnamese in Vietnam.” Cited in Liu, Lamanna and Murata, 72.

34 Tran Khan Tuyet's The Little Weaver of Thai-Yen Village does not erase American involvement but it too participates in the narrative of hope.

35 Keith Greenberg, Vietnam: The Boat People Search for a Home (Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, Inc., 1997), 31.

36 Bruce Grant, Boat People: AnAgeInvestigation (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979), 6.

37 Quynh-Trang Cindy Nguyen, “Byline,” in Huynh Sanh Thong, Hoang Ngoc Hien and Truong Vu, eds., Vietnam Review, 2 (Spring-–Summer, 1997), 447.

38 Nazli Kibria, in her work on Vietnamese families in Philadelphia, noted, “The Vietnamese immigrants recounted feelings of euphoria in the days immediately following arrival in the United States. There was excitement at being in a country that carried images of great material wealth and personal freedom … But this initial elation soon dwindled. It was replaced by often overwhelming anxieties about the task of building a new life and of regaining the middle-class status that had been lost in the years following 1975.” Kibria, Family Tightrope, 73.

39 Fitterer, Vietnamese Americans, 27.

40 Zhou and Bankston, Growing up American, 143.

41 Ibid., 148.

42 “The model minority is an identity that is testimony to the Asian American ability to be good citizen, productive worker, reliable consumer, and member of a niche lifestyle suitable for capitalist exploitation. The model minority is the vehicle of entry for a racial population not only into American capitalism but also into American politics – indeed, the two go hand in hand.” Viet Thanh Nguyen, Race & Resistance: Literature & Politics in Asian America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

43 See Hien Duc Do, The Vietnamese Americans, chapter 3. Also Zhou and Bankston for the ways in which the model-minority tag is used to berate other minority groups, particularly African Americans. “One of the reasons the model minority concept is so unfair is that it compares groups of peoples with entirely dissimilar backgrounds.” Zhou and Bankston, 238.

44 Margaret C. Hall, Vietnamese Americans (Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2003), 24.

45 Auerbach, Vietnamese Americans, 73.

46 Haskins, The New Americans, 4.

47 “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world … There is room for everybody in America.” Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, “Letter III: What Is an American?”, in idem, Letters from an American Farmer (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951; first published 1782), 45, 57.

48 F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is perhaps the best known representation and critique of this myth of self-renewal.

49 Haskins, 51. The catalogue is from an earlier paragraph in Haskins.

50 Gold, Refugee Communities, 108.

51 Hall, 27.

52 There are picture books specifically centred on Vietnamese-American children who go home for a visit or who wish they could go home. See McKay, Journey Home; and Jeremy Schmidt, Two Lands, One Heart: An American Boy's Journey to His Mother's Vietnam (New York: Walker, 1995).

53 As a matter of policy Vietnamese refugees in stateside camps were dispersed to all states of the union so as not to be a burden on any particular part of the country. Such dispersal, it was premised, would lead to a “disappearance” of the refugees until, of course, they emerged as successful Vietnamese-Americans.

54 Tricia Springstubb, The Vietnamese Americans (San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2002), 29.

55 Ibid., 91.

56 Haskins writes, “They [the boat people] may have hated the government, but the country was their home and there are things they miss about it, like the way the sun rose over the mountains, or the way the fields looked just after the monsoon season was over.” Haskins, 54. This is more reflective in its awareness of loss but does not distract from the surge towards a new and better life.

57 Warren, Escape from Saigon, xvii.

58 “An ethnic enclave can serve various functions for its members such as sharing of information on how to cope with the new culture, providing a somewhat familiar social life, and protecting the refugee or immigrant from cultural shock. Under certain situations, an ethnic subculture can also preserve tradition and cultural continuity.” Alden E. Roberts and Paul D. Starr, “Differential Reference Group Assimilation among Vietnamese Refugees,” in Haines, Refugees as Immigrants, 43.

59 “There are many aspects of culture that never become symbols of ethnic identity despite the fact that they may be central or crucial to a community's daily life. In fact, the litany of ‘acceptable’ symbols or tropes of ethnicity in American culture: e.g., foodways, festivals, handicrafts – reflect a power structure that prescribes certain acceptable modes of difference within the society and castigates others.” DuBois, “Constructions Construed,” 13.

60 Springstubb, 95.

61 “Aware of the transformation that has occurred in their home countries, some refugees believe that they are the sole repository of their traditional culture.” Gold, Refugee Communities, 18.

62 Locke, Increasing Multicultural Understanding, 132.

63 John K. Whitmore, Marcella Trautmann and Nathan Caplan, “The Socio-cultural Basis for the Economic and Educational Success of Southeast Asian Refugees (1978–1982 Arrivals),” in Haines, 137.

64 Cited in Zhou and Bankston, Growing up American, 214.

65 Parker, Why Vietnamese Immigrants Came to America, 18–19.

66 Coleman, Vietnamese in America, 49. Coleman and Rutledge append a list of “notable Vietnamese Americans” to bolster the success narrative.

67 Nguyen, Race & Resistance, 111. Discourse dominance is evident in Hollywood representations of the Vietnam War, ranging from The Green Berets to The Deer Hunter to Platoon.

68 There is a distinguished literature which analyses the outlines and implications of the United States as victim during and after the Vietnam War. H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam & Other American Fantasies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); and Katherine Kinney, Friendly Fire: American Images of the Vietnam War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), are two notable examples.