Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam: “floating between different worlds”?

Today Plaza in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, where Lieu did most of her research. Not only is the sign for the plaza in Chinese as well as Vietnamese, but on the left you see United Commercial Bank (聯合銀行), a Chinese American bank that has since been acquired by another Chinese American Bank, East West Bank (華美銀行). Photo: Nate Gray (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I just finished reading cultural studies scholar Nhi T. Lieu‘s first book, The American Dream in Vietnamese, which explores the identities and aspirations of Vietnamese Americans as reflected through popular culture. Lieu takes a close look at cultural forms that have not previously been the focus of scholarly attention, such as variety shows and beauty pageants.

What most caught my attention was her second chapter, in which she discusses the conflicts between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese refugees. She argues that the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese form an “overlapping diaspora”, and that the negotiation of conflicts with ethnic Chinese helped form Vietnamese American cultural identity, and vice versa.

The concept of the overlapping diasporas does not preclude ethnic Chinese from their past as immigrants and refugees from Vietnam. Nevertheless, because ethnicity is deployed strategically in an overlapping context, the politics of affiliating through ethnic and cultural identification takes precedence over shared historical experiences.

(Kindle location 612-614. Frustratingly, the Kindle edition of the book does not have page numbers. Step it up, University of Minnesota Press!)

Vietnam has long had troubled relations with China and Chinese people. China once colonized Vietnam, and later under French rule ethnic Chinese continued to maintain the upper hand in the Vietnamese economy. Unsurprisingly, ethnic Chinese were one of the primary targets of the Communist government. Many of the “boat people” who fled Vietnam during the war were ethnic Chinese. (My father’s family was part of this wave of refugees.)

Although the war and the refugee crisis seemed to give everyone the same status as penniless foreigners, ethnic and class distinctions never disappeared, and eventually re-surfaced:

Though the ethnic Chinese consisted of only 3 percent of Vietnam’s population at the end of the war in 1975, they make up one-quarter of the emigres in California and reportedly own “a disproportionate share of ‘Vietnamese businesses'” in the United States. (Kindle location 797)

As far as identification is concerned, most ethnic Chinese from Vietnam identify themselves as such. In Chinese, the term is 越南華僑 (Yuènán huáqiáo), 越南 meaning “Vietnam” (indicating place of origin) and 華僑 meaning “overseas Chinese” (indicating ethnicity). The Chinese are fond of four-character terms and idioms (四字格) because of their inherent symmetry. 越南華僑 is “Vietnam” and “overseas Chinese” in equal parts.

English terms for this community are often clunky. We have “ethnic Chinese from Vietnam,” a clear but awkward turn of phrase, and Sino-Vietnamese, a term that I choose not to use because of its vague meaning and emphasis on the Vietnamese, to which many community members would object. This objection to being classified as Vietnamese largely stems from ethnic pride and a desire to reinforce the link between oneself and a larger Chinese community.

Lieu also sees a practical, instrumental motive in this choice of identification. She writes of controversial Little Saigon developer Frank Jao (趙閥), who is of Chinese descent. Jao notably changed the spelling of his surname from Sino-Vietnamese Triệu to something that sounds more Mandarin or Cantonese:

Many ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam believed that affiliating with the Chinese diaspora opened economic doors to the East and the Pacific Rim. Jao’s flexible identification granted him access and the ability to float between different worlds and succeed financially. (Kindle location 811-813)

This identificational flexibility and ambiguity is why I am so interested in the members of the Chinese diasporas of Southeast Asia and Latin America who settle in “multicultural” western nations like the US and Australia. In a diverse, multi-ethnic society, where do these groups fit in? Do they side with Chinese co-ethnics from other regions of the world? Do they feel more comfortable with the majority group of the countries from which they came? Or do they “float between different worlds”? If so, what are the social, psychological, and material consequences of floating?

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