Our Little Saigon: Vietnamese Boat People - Migration and Assimilation of Vietnamese Refugees

In 1973, Vietnam was far from an idyllic place to live. Unless affiliated with the Communist government officials, the vast population of Vietnamese were guaranteed to live in poverty, regardless of intellect or skill set. Statistics further evaluated that the majority of Vietnam’s population reached the extent of poverty to the point where the affordability of education and even a bag of rice were out of reach (Alperin and Batalova). Due to the fall of communism, impoverished conditions, and in the plight of the Vietnam War in 1975, many decided to flee Vietnam and escape the oppressive conditions. However, due to the strict regime of the country, the attempt to escape was difficult and many were jailed for months and even years (Pham-Nguyen). The mere success to flee took trials of execution and a small rowboat or tattered raft in dangerous conditions of the open sea (Pham-Nguyen). Once arriving into their host country, Vietnamese refugees were hopeful for opportunities and a new life. They did not have the opportunity to examine the existence of any cultural consciousness relating to their own Asian culture; Vietnamese refugees who arrived after 1975 could not study the different cultural consciousness as a model of adaptation simply because it did not exist. This refugee group, nicknamed “boat people,” shared a common feeling of disorientation during the process of assimilation. Monuments dedicated to Vietnamese refugees rightly recognize the adversity faced during the migration process, but fail to highlight the continued burdens of the refugees when assimilating into their host country of an entirely different culture.


Image result for "Vietnamese Refugees", a monument in Footscray, Australia

The "Vietnamese Refugees", a monument in Footscray, Australia, dedicated the thousands of refugees who died trying to escape Vietnam, while also extending gratitude towards Australians who helped resettle Vietnamese refugees during the 1970s (Monument Australia 21 June 2008).

Image result for "The Memorial to Boat People" located in Malaysia

In 2005, Vietnamese refugees established a memorial called "A Memorial to Our Ghosts" located in Malaysia. This memorial acknowledged the harsh experiences that Vietnamese refugees faced and honored the organizations and people that helped the refugees. However, the memorial was destroyed and dismantled with nothing left but rubble by the Malaysian government.

In relation to America, the Vietnamese exodus and their resettlement in the United States had come at an unfortunate time in that period of American history. The Vietnam War was an extremely unpopular conflict in the U.S. in which about 50,000 American men and women died with 2,500 listed as “missing in action” or as prisoners of war (Capps, Walter). Having deeply divided the nation and the general atmosphere of the American public, the time following the war included a hostile attitude towards Vietnamese refugees. A Gallup Poll was taken in May of 1975 showed “54% of all Americans opposed to admitting Vietnamese refugees to live in the United States and only 36% were in favor with 12% undecided” (TIME 21, May 1975). A common concern of the American public was one of economic self-interest; fear of having jobs taken away, as well as an excess of public assistance and welfare given to the refugees. During this time, the United States was in a period of recession with an unemployment rate of 8.3% (Kelly, Gail). Early studies documented that a substantial number of American preferred the exclusion of the refugees from the United States (Starr, Roberts). 

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Apart from a specific condition resulting from the Vietnam War and the recession, this hostile reception given by the American public represented a continuation of the tradition of racism and hostility toward immigrant minority groups that have been prevalent and well documented throughout United States’ history. Even the children of these refugees experienced the rigors of the American lifestyle. Because their parents were forced to work during the day, struggles were faced to provide enough food, clothes and other necessities to smooth their children’s transition from their home villages to live in the city.

The Vietnamese who entered the United States in 1975 were refugees who unwittingly became immigrants. In scrambling for the boats, helicopters, and planes, they believed that their departure would be temporary, that the new Communist rulers in Saigon would soon go the way of the alien Chinese and French conquerors during times past, that Vietnamese suddenly abroad should retain their old culture in the belief that they would be returning to their homeland in the future… these illusions of the refugee were painfully shattered when the Vietnamese entered American refugee camps. The Vietnamese now realized that their future, for good or ill, was to be as immigrant members of American society. In confusion and chaos, they had jumped into the great American melting-pot (Kelly).

The "Vietnamese Boat People" monument, located in Westminster, California, recognizing the Vietnamese refugees that fled their homeland in hopes of survival due to the effects of war and the drastic regime change of communism (SCR-162 7 Aug. 2018).

Despite this open U.S. attitude toward Vietnamese refugees, the formation of Vietnamese ethnic communities as an economic, social and cultural adaptation strategy resulting from structural and social barriers that existed in the United States at the time of their arrival in 1975, and their cultural characteristics. This community acts as an ethnic enclave where people can interact and continue the mutual support system as well as the extended family network that was prominent in their homeland. Communal Vietnamese enclaves grew most quickly in terms of economics, which is astounding when one considers that his group entered as refugees, and often without money. Although many still rely on welfare or occupy low paying jobs, the Vietnamese community as a whole has prospered at an unexpectedly quick rate (International Focus Magazine, 28 Feb. 2018).

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One example lies within “Little Saigon,” a Vietnamese community in the City of Westminster, California, where the overseas Vietnamese take pride in their ability to establish strong roots in America (International Focus Magazine, 28 Feb. 2018). With 1,000 shops and offices in Little Saigon, these group of refugees succeeded to come back from the brink and establish a good, vibrant business environment (International Focus Magazine, 28 Feb. 2018). The acknowledgment of the treacherous migration process that Vietnamese refugees endured and those who contributed assistance should respectively be in remembrance, however, the sacrifices made without provisions or any idea of the potential destination or outcome of a better life should also be recognized. Their perseverance to assimilate was a crucial stepping point for Asian awareness in differing nations and future generations. 

Alperin, Elijah, and Jeanne Batalova. “Vietnamese Immigrants in the United States.” Migrationpolicy.org, 11 Oct. 2018, Accessed 12, March 2019

Capps, Walter H. The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience. Beacon Press, 1982, Accessed 12, March 2019

Kelly, Gail. From Vietnam to America: A Chronicle of the Vietnamese Immigration to the United States. Vol. 11, no. 2, Sept. 1980, pp. 452–53, Accessed 12, March 2019

Nguyen, Tuan Andrew. A Memorial to Our Ghosts. lost-at-sea-memorials.com/?p=1006.

“REFUGEES: A Warmer Welcome for the Homeless .” Time, vol. 105, no. 21, May 1975. Accessed 12, March 2019

“SCR-162 Vietnamese Boat People Memorial Intersection.” Bill Text - SCR-162 Vietnamese Boat People Memorial Intersection., CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE, 7 Aug. 2018, Accessed 12, March 2019

Starr, Roberts. “Attitudes Toward New Americans: Perceptions of Indo-Chinese in Nine Cities.” Research in Race & Ethnic Relations, vol. 3, 1982, pp. 165–86, Accessed 12, March 2019

Pham-Nguyen, Trang. “Stories Of Vietnamese Refugees Escaping From Communism To America.” Epicure & Culture, 17 June 2018, Accessed 12, March 2019

“Vietnamese Refugees.” Vietnamese Refugees | Monument Australia, Monument Details Supplied by Monument Australia, 21 June 2008, Accessed 12, March 2019