“Ngày Mất Nước” marks the day the Vietnamese lost their country. Since the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese refugees have fled their country for safe harbor across the world; it is not uncommon to have relatives living in several different continents. However, most of the diaspora found its way to the United States. Forced from their homeland and plunged into an unfamiliar place with minimal education, few marketable skills, and little knowledge of western society and language, the immigrant does not partake in the American Dream of success. Rather, they dream of survival. Americans have the privilege of having a home that is easy to identify, like a physical location on a map. For an immigrant, their homes are immigrants. Through nostalgia of what once was, immigrants create spaces for others that help them survive in a foreign land.
For most 1st-generation immigrants, America promises a better, more comfortable life worth fighting for. “America makes it possible for us to live the life of our dreams. If we were still in Vietnam, our struggles wouldn’t get us anywhere,” my dad would say. Because of him, my mother rarely ever expresses her regret of coming here and the guilt for leaving behind her family. Beckoning at me, her house, and her car, she asks why should she feel remorse when she has all this? However, this is not the case for most 1st-gens. Post-1975 immigrants face a tougher economic environment as today’s American economy is highly segmented: “One segment requires a college education and sophisticated technical or interpersonal skills. The other is comprised of low-skilled, labor-intensive service jobs which hold little hope for advancement or long-term security” (Min & Bankston, 1998) For my family, it meant inserting themselves in the Vietnamese-American niche of nail salons, despite both having doctor licenses in Vietnam. Even though many immigrants are educated, a college degree from a war-torn refugee country means little to nothing here. Effectively, this creates an hourglass economy where assimilation into American life is virtually impossible for 1st-generation immigrants.
For the 1.5 generation, the internalization of both cultures grants them the understanding that is uniquely expressed by Ira Sukrungruang in that “an immigrant is always lonely, and an immigrant [child] will inherit that loneliness” (Southside Buddhist, 149). 1st-generation immigrants came to America with expectations, and those expectations were passed down to the 1.5 and 2nd-generations once they realized they cannot attain it themselves. As such, they threw away their lives for their children’s success, and their children now have to bear the isolating responsibility of taking their parents’ lives and making something out of it. They are constantly reminded through the lack of the same responsibility by their peers. Speaking on their behalf for business calls and food orders, walking them through bills and mail, effectively assuming the parental figure for all things American, I often find myself frustrated. By living two lives at once, the one my parents sought for and the one I sought out for myself, I could see how one could be of one country but live in another. Thus, issues concerning identity are common among the 1.5-gen. For mainstream Asians immigrating post-1960, the formation of their individual Asian American consciousness was well underway and they were able to anchor onto that identity while distinguishing themselves from American culture as well as the Asian American panethnic identity. For the Vietnamese, they arrived “during a historical context when the existence of Asian American panethnic consciousness precedes that of Vietnamese American consciousness” (Phan, n.d), forcing 1.5 generation Vietnamese immigrants to reconcile three levels of culture influence all at once instead of two: the Vietnamese, the mainstream American, and the Asian American panethnic culture. This tri-level cultural influence is not observed in the 1st-generation due to their pre-established identity and traditions along with difficulty in adapting to American culture. As such, many are self-identified solely as Vietnamese. No matter their level of assimilation, the 1.5-2nd generation have to engage with their American identity no matter their level of assimilation as they are still physically Vietnamese. Subject to racism based on their ethnicity, they are forced to confront their identity as a Vietnamese American.
Forging identities for 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans comes in the form of university organizations coming together to celebrate and discuss Vietnamese culture, values, and identity in both in their space and in the larger context of American society. Safe spaces across universities are analogous to the Little Saigons spread across the country. The creation of these spaces has redefined their sense of home and thus, a sense of self. The Vietnamese-American identity was first forged in Orange County, California. Naming it Little Saigon, they could still associate their beloved fallen city ever since it was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the war. The naming portrays the longing of the Vietnamese to return to a time and place that no longer exists. Like how the Vietnamese student associations are anchors for college students, Little Saigon serves as an anchor for older generations to engage in their Vietnamese identity in a different time and at a foreign place.
A major product of the diaspora working in conjunction with Little Saigon to foster the Vietnamese American identity is Paris by Night, a Vietnamese variety show consisting of elaborate musical and dance numbers, comedic and theatric products, and fashion shows all featuring Vietnamese artists in their traditional dress. Based in Little Saigon, it has become a symbol of tradition and culture for Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. This is exemplified through the show’s iconic emcees Nguyen Ngoc Ngan and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen. The former lost his family fleeing a Vietnamese labor camp in 1979 and the latter, the daughter of the former South Vietnamese prime minister, serving as the voice of an Americanized 1.5-generation immigrant. Together, they engage in dialogue about Vietnamese culture and history while bridging the intergenerational gap. Paris by Night allows older immigrants such as parents to let their children into their lives without directly and actively engaging in the personal and emotional discourse. Furthermore, I would argue that it provides a unique platform that contributes to the space of diaspora and the Vietnamese American identity in that the space itself is intangible. Fighting stereotypes of the model minority and the refugee, Paris by Night reinforces the new hybrid bourgeois ethnic identity by using the variety show form invoke memory, nostalgia, and an idealized Vietnamese nationalist vision of a community. With the transnational Vietnamese American identity in mind, the production draws inspiration from American film and television shows in Hollywood and MTV along with variety entertainment from Hong Kong. By meshing American with Vietnamese, it creates a space of Vietnamese America that allows for a discussion of issues related to the diaspora using familiar aspects of the Vietnamese language and culture, rehashing history and molding cultural identities. Amidst multiple marginalities, this Vietnamese American space places the addressing diasporic Vietnamese American issues in a predominantly American and white environment. The creation of Little Saigon erected the lost capital of Saigon in a new place, donned with cultural institutions and immigrant-run businesses in which Paris by Night features in its videos. The two work in tandem to foster a sense of self and identity, ultimately to build a new community and country.
Moving forward, I hope to address my other identities as a Vietnamese-American. Resulting from my 1.5 generation upbringing in America, my other identities are “dancer” and “gay.” Both of these things conflict with my Vietnamese Identity due to its very traditional and heteronormative nature. Boys don’t dance. They work hard and provide for their families. As the only son, there is pressure for me not to just succeed individually but to help my family succeed. It is pretty obvious how my family reacted when I came out to them. They still believe being gay is an illness, a western influence, a choice of individuality and rebellion from values that they hold dear. They think it’s my choice to disregard my family and being gay means I don’t love them. They love me the best way they know how, and I don’t know how to validate their sacrifice other than to work hard to achieve their goals for me to be successful. I can’t change my sexuality, but I can at least give them a house to live comfortably and take care of them as they have for me. My identities as gay and Vietnamese tug at me, and sometimes I feel like I have to choose one over the other, lest I be torn apart.