The American nation is unique in a sense that it represents a peculiar amalgamation of different cultures. The modern U.S. multiracial society has undergone a durable process of incorporating the constant flow of new immigrants. The history of the Vietnamese immigration is praise of the people’s strong determination to build a better life in a prosperous and democratic country. In her book, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings, the renowned American Professor of Asian Studies, Sucheng Chan, offers a detailed history of Vietnam, as well as a collection of the insightful personal narratives. According to Chan, Vietnamese immigrants encountered numerous obstacles during the process of adaptation and self-discovery that influenced separate individuals and their families, as well as became a life-changing experience for all.
The author promptly provides a comprehensive analysis of the Vietnamese history that allows understanding the overall context of narrations. In fact, Chan outlines a long chain of events that, eventually, drove thousands of the Vietnamese out of their motherland. The author refers to the main characters as “1.5 generation.” This term emphasizes the foreign origin of young immigrants that retained their knowledge of the native country (Chan xiv). The fall of Saigon concluded the exhaustive Vietnam War in April of 1975 and was the starting point of the massive evacuation of the South Vietnam population that risked becoming immediate victims of the Communist regime (Chan 60-62). The staggering cruelty of victorious Communists from North Vietnam significantly contributed to people’s desperate attempts to leave the country. Enormous re-education camps were a place of the forced confinement for undesirable categories of Saigon’s population whereas the captives suffered “hard labor, a near-starvation diet, and political indoctrination” (Chan 66). Witnessing or listening to the drastic news about systematic repressions in the native country made an idea of living in a peaceful and progressing country rather appealing.
However, the book vividly illustrates enormous social barriers that considerably complicated the process of adaptation for Vietnamese immigrants to new living conditions during the time at schools due to a different ethnic background. Reactions of Asian children to the new environment varied from shyness to an extreme feeling of isolation and embarrassment. While studying at school was easy for most of them, after a small period of adaptation, the lack of peer friends and the language barrier prevented them from further socialization (Chan 124-125). In extreme cases, the discriminative treatment caused the development of depression and low self-esteem, as well as hatred toward the American society, in general (Chan 139). Conversely, surviving an incredibly dangerous trip to the USA enabled Asian students to overcome any social difficulties by cultivating the sense of confidence. Despite the highly unwelcoming behavior of classmates, Vietnamese children were determined to prove their abilities by mastering the English language and significantly improving their academic performance (Chan 216).
The life of an adult Vietnamese was equally difficult. Despite considering the USA a land of opportunities, many women and men struggled to find a well-payed job and learn English. In fact, a Vietnamese American often had no choice but to work two shifts as pizza parlors, cooks, or tailors (Chan 139). Due to the high unemployment rate and lack of specific skills, most Asians had to rely on the external help in finding a job (Chan 179). In some instances, parents resisted the process of incorporation into the new society by refusing to learn the language, resorting to seclusive life, and concentrating on raising children (Chan 226). The stories of Vietnamese Americans who worked in their field of knowledge are relatively rare. Only one narrator indicated that his parents were allowed to practice medicine after a long period of study and passing licensing examinations (Chan 156). Moreover, the book recounts numerous instances of single Vietnamese mothers that struggled to carry the burden of the decision-making. Some women divorced or left their husbands in Vietnam while some wives waited for their spouses to be freed from Vietnamese prisons (Chan 252). Both generations of immigrants from Vietnam were experiencing and, eventually, overcame a great number of difficulties.
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Naturally, the adaptation to the American lifestyle had profound effects on the relations between children and parents. Obvious cultural differences evoked widespread concerns among the older generation regarding the quick Americanization of their children. The Vietnamese are strict adherents of Confucianism, a system of beliefs that confess the social stratification and strict division of gender roles (Chan 144). By contrast, the American society propagates social, racial, and gender equality that are unfamiliar to Asian immigrants. Vietnamese children lacked the understanding of such notions as the informal behavior, active socialization, and early relationships (Chan 239). The life in a new environment forced them to reconcile with the ideas of liberal values and the absence of age and sex hierarchy, as well as freedom and openness in establishing and maintaining relationships (Chan 134).
Impressions of the adults from the first encounters with the foreign culture varied from the shock to resentment. Some parents worried about the exposure of children to such risks as smoking, violent movies, and disrespectful manners (Chan 134). Since the gradual Americanization was inevitable and could lead to forgetting native customs and tradition, concerned parents preferred to limit their engagement in extracurricular activities after school and speaking English at home (Chan 165). They decided to stay loyal to old traditions of the child upbringing by cultivating a respectful and obedient behavior while punishing any misconduct (Chan 140). Unfortunately, the embracement of the American lifestyle by teenagers provoked family fights and judgmental remarks. One narrator, in particular, describes strong objections from his family against his enrollment in the Junior Reserved Officers’ Training Corps by choosing a remote college and unprofitable profession of a psychologist (Chan 167-169). Mentioned examples strongly emphasize the overly negative attitude of the older generation of Vietnamese immigrants to the American culture.
Similarly, the introduction to the American lifestyle had a staggering effect on the Vietnamese perception of the USA. A close look at the American behavior revealed some major inconsistencies between the popular assumptions and reality. Initially, narrators demonstrated a favorable attitude to their new neighbors being driven by deep curiosity (Chan 113). A previously positive image of Americans was mostly derived from the information acquired from Vietnamese schools, American movies, and their support of the South Vietnam (Chan 149). The USA was considered the most powerful nation in the world while its involvement in the Vietnam War caused the feeling of gratitude and indebtedness (Chan 149). However, constant exposure to the American culture has significantly changed common opinions. The materialistic worldview of the US became a major contributive factor to considering Americans selfish and calculative. As the narrators became aware of the racial discrimination and imperfections of the U.S. judicial system, the image of a powerful state simply shattered (Chan 114). Immigrants got the first-hand experience of living in the White-dominated society being representatives of the ethnic minority that struggled to survive among the profit-oriented people (Chan 133). Moreover, Americans were frequently accused of the negligible treatment of the Vietnamese as they tended to ignore the calls for help and casualties caused by the airstrikes (Chan 113). Upon coming to Vietnam, the U.S. soldiers introduced the native population to drugs and favored prostitution that resulted in a large number of the mixed-blood orphans, which were often abandoned by their parents (Chan 149).
The American lack of tolerance and self-centeredness forced the Asian youth to reevaluate own priorities. Many narrators expressed the desire to preserve the cultural identities as consequences of the Americanization became more obvious. In some cases, Vietnamese teenagers tried to dedicate more time to their spirituality by practicing old customs, singing folk songs, speaking the native language, and preparing national food (Chan 142). The newcomers eventually decided to move to regions that were highly populated by ethnic minorities. Californian city of San-Francisco is especially attractive to Vietnamese immigrants due to the presence of a large share of the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese population, as well as warm weather (Chan 133). Upon becoming an integral part of the American society, the most active members of the community aspired to help their compatriots by joining different non-governmental organizations. According to one of the narrators, the membership in the Vietnamese Student Association allowed him organizing the fund raisings for helping refugee camps in Malaysia and Hong Kong (Chan 218). The book strongly emphasizes the crucial role of the degrading features of the American lifestyle in the Vietnamese immigrants’ return to their native cultural values and identifying themselves as the Asian minority.
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The reviewed book is a source of the abundant information and the comprehensive account of the first-hand experience of Vietnamese immigrants in the new environment. Sucheng Chan thoughtfully offers a short overview of the Vietnamese history and allows seeing the discussed issues with the eyes of the narrators. The book successfully depicts the influence of social, cultural, and racial barriers on the lives of those Vietnamese Americans that choose to cherish their cultural legacy. The neutral tone, as well as the accurateness of historical facts and horribly realistic narrations, makes this book highly recommendable for reading by the general audience.