Vietnamese Americans are a strange bunch. The majority of the population is separated into three groups. The older baby boomer generation, a smaller Gen X, and the younger millennial generation. Each of these groups has a different relationship to Vietnam.
(I’ll be speaking in generalities in this article for brevity.)
Vietnamese American baby boomers and Gen X’ers
For the baby boomers and the Gen X’ers, many of them remember a very impoverished and war-torn Vietnam, which they fled for greener pastures in America. Many of them have strong political views about Vietnam’s current situation and have a certain suspicion about what is in store for the new Vietnam. Many of these folks haven’t been back to Vietnam since they left and have little or no intention to come back. Some who came to America in their teens have little connection to Vietnam. Most see Vietnam only as a travel destination amongst the sea of countries they’d like to visit. It isn’t a connection for them that they’d like to grow. Many simply identify as Americans, not Vietnamese in any meaningful way.
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The psyche of Vietnamese American millennials
For millennials that have little or no connection to Vietnam, a handful of them go to Vietnam for an exchange program or study the language at a university for easy credits, but their psyche is American to the core. Depending on their family culture, they’ll only be Vietnamese for the red envelopes given during Tet and normal Vietnamese social etiquette. They eat Vietnamese food on family occasions and at home. But they also may prefer pizza. A few millennials may end up forming a deeper connection with Vietnam. Traveling throughout Vietnam, living in Vietnam, or forming bonds with their parents’ homeland that completely changes their lives. But the majority of Vietnamese Americans stick to simply having Vietnamese blood. It’s unfashionable to go live in Vietnam and the opportunities in America take less cultural and economic risk.
Does this mean that America is slowly weeding out Vietnamese-ness? For me, it’s common sense and numbers. As Vietnamese people immerse themselves more with American culture and other groups, they’ll become more American. They’ll get exposed to non-Vietnamese ideas and non-Vietnamese etiquette. With every passing generation, the population of overseas Vietnamese will become less Vietnamese. They will steadily assimilate into the culture they’ve adopted.
In many ways, this is just a function of immigrant communities. They will assimilate and within generations, they eventually no longer associate themselves with their country of origin. Looking at Caucasian Americans, it’s quite clear. Most Caucasian Americans identify as Americans and only identify with their particular ancestry via genetics and not culture. Is there an argument that Vietnamese people are assimilating faster than other Asian ethnicities?
The loose identity of being Vietnamese
When looking at Chinese and Indians, their immigrant communities maintain strong identities along with less interracial marriage openness. With Chinese immigrants specifically, they open up Chinatowns in every city they immigrate to, engendering a central geographic point for their people.
Historically, Vietnamese over the last several thousand years, have maintained a rather loose identity. It’s a group of people (not necessarily a nation-state) that has experienced colonization and heavy military influence from three major powers: the Chinese empire, French colonizers, and Americans (you can forgive me for omitting the Japanese, and others). The Vietnamese people also pushed and melded with the Cham and Cambodian peoples centuries before the Chinese even came into the picture. In short, Vietnamese people have been in constant confluence with other cultures.
This is the irony of being Vietnamese. A fundamental aspect of Vietnamese culture is its malleability. De-Vietnamization is a fundamental part of being Vietnamese. It’s the paradox of being Vietnamese.
It’s even more ironic when you hear Vietnamese elders telling you that you have “lost your culture” or your origin. Because they are forgetting about that malleable and ever-changing aspect of Vietnamese culture. Maybe it’s a part of getting old or it’s a part of the legacy of preservation when people are being forced out of their homes and their country. That time and place they had to flee is forever frozen in time.
And yet, there is a deep cultural truth that the elders are harkening towards. It’s truly a shame that younger generations of Vietnamese are not learning Vietnamese. They are cutting themselves off from their peers in their parents’ country of origin. They swallow Vietnam piecemeal and ad hoc. In the process of Americanization, people lose their historical identities. America is only a melting pot in so much as it boils you so much that your culture peels off. By the time you turn around, you don’t know what you’ve lost.
The parallel world of Vietnamese youth is similar
This is even more pressing when you look at Vietnam and its intense push forward into the future. Vietnamese kids, slightly ignorant of Vietnamese ancestry via parenting and the education system, rush head first into the internet and aspirational Westernization. They wear jeans, post on Instagram, speak English, and listen to Taylor Swift. But if you ask them about Vietnamese history, literature, and culture that stretches back farther than a hundred years, their knowledge is few and far between. They may know the celebrities of today, a handful of heroes of the past, and maybe a book here and there. But these are talking points more than features that craft one’s holistic identity.
It’s even worse in the countryside. Although they are more in touch with their Vietnamese roots since communities are smaller and family values are stronger, poverty and lack of resources prevent them from preserving knowledge and traditions. They hang onto their traditions and values, but it doesn’t go deeper than that. If you look at the study of Vietnamese literature within Vietnam, you’ll notice that it is in slow decay. This is quite different from other Asian nations like Japan, Thailand, China, India, and etc. where local and foreign scholars work to preserve and educate the population across all geographic regions. This adds depth and character to their cultures that allow them to innovate on their culture and gather around values that represent them to the world.
Today, Vietnamese family values and Western business aspirations craft a modern Vietnamese person’s identity. But is that enough? The war, the educational system, and society have shielded or divorced the youth from the past. Like any youthful population of any country, Vietnamese millennials are future and present-oriented in their thinking. This makes it especially troubling to identify what it really means to be Vietnamese for a young person. It’s easy to say that the food and the way people used to dress is culture. But frankly, that’s shallow.
Can you blame them?
At the end of the day, you can’t blame the Vietnamese American youth for embracing American culture like a Vietnamese person would. And you can’t blame the Vietnamese youth for jumping headfirst into the future because the present is so superficial. Vietnamese identity requires reinventing itself in the modern age. Vietnamese culture is more like a quilt, sowing together many disparate parts together, than like an onion with many layers.