Vong on Nguyen, 'Becoming Refugee American: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon'

Phuong Tran Nguyen
Sam Vong

Phuong Tran Nguyen. Becoming Refugee American: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 236 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08288-7.

Reviewed by Sam Vong (University of Texas at Austin, Department of History) Published on H-Asia (September, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51208

In Becoming Refugee American, Phuong Tran Nguyen offers a timely and critical analysis of the history of Vietnamese refugees in the United States. The book focuses on how the politics of rescue and a postwar narrative of redemption have shaped Vietnamese community formation, the institutional memories of the Vietnam War, and the social and political identities that emerged as a direct consequence of the war. This social and cultural history of the Vietnamese diaspora is organized around the concept of “refugee nationalism,” which Nguyen describes as an exile identity and set of practices of Vietnamese refugees who “keep alive the symbols of the old regime, never doubting for a moment their claim to statehood” (p. 2). This yearning for a lost statehood in exile, according to Nguyen, has flourished alongside the process of becoming American, giving rise to what Nguyen refers to as “Refugee Americans” who embody America’s humanitarian character while representing America’s “past foreign policy failures that made asylum necessary” (p. 3). Nguyen examines the contours of this nationalism and the dynamic processes of becoming “Refugee American” in one of the most iconic symbols of Vietnamese America, namely, Orange County’s community in Little Saigon, the second-largest Vietnamese enclave after San Jose, California.

Each chapter of the book demonstrates how refugee nationalism emerged and developed. In chapter 1, Nguyen traces the origins of this nationalism to the 1950s, beginning with US involvement in the Korean War (1950-53). Nguyen shows how US Cold War strategies to secure Korea as anticommunist extended to Taiwan and Vietnam to establish an anticommunist “Free Asia.” According to Nguyen, the strategic significance of these fledging countries transformed them into America’s “accidental allies,” turning them from minor countries into major players in the global Cold War. In tracing these connections, the author lays out the context for how a sense of eternal gratitude would later emerge among Vietnamese refugees who were sympathetic to the US government’s anticommunist agenda. After sketching out the geopolitical context of this moral crusade, Nguyen notes how the US government evacuated more than 130,000 Vietnamese after the failed American mission in Southeast Asia. In granting parole to thousands of Vietnamese, the US government engaged in a politics of rescue and transformed a story of militarized violence and failed intervention into a narrative of redemption. Vietnamese refugees, according to Nguyen, played an important role in this transformation by expressing gratitude for American benevolence. Drawing on newsletters produced by Vietnamese refugees while in one of the four refugee camps in 1975 in the United States, Nguyen shows how such newspapers cultivated and even encouraged gratitude among refugees by selectively publishing articles that portrayed positive American reception to the new immigrants. These newspapers reinforced an image of the United States as a humanitarian nation and affirmed America’s rescue narrative.     

Subsequent chapters of the book proceed to examine the “social work” (p. 55) of Vietnamese exiles through which they articulate a collective identity and refugee nationalism. Nguyen analyzes pre-1975 Vietnamese music, local Vietnamese newspapers like Nguoi Viet Daily, and the founding of anticommunist organizations as important sites where Vietnamese refugees sometimes critiqued US intervention in Vietnam, but mostly used these sites to express a sense of national loss. This is best exemplified by the formation of anticommunist organizations by Vietnamese exiles. Anticommunist organizations in Little Saigon not only revitalized Vietnamese refugee communities, but they also enabled Vietnamese to move away from portrayals of victimization toward embracing a more militant and active anticommunist identity. While Nguyen sheds light on some of these anticommunist organizations, this reviewer did not get a sense of the internal dynamics of the organizations, nor a sense of their membership base and objectives beyond affirming anticommunist sentiments. Perhaps tapping into an organization’s papers or archives would have illuminated more nuances and texture about some of these organizations. Similarly, Nguyen’s discussion of music as a site of resistance and the development of a refugee press as part of an “emerging public sphere” (p. 64) could have been strengthened with more data about where these Vietnamese cultural productions were distributed and who and how many people consumed them.   

The most stimulating parts of the book are chapters 5 and 6, in which Nguyen shows the rise of Vietnamese Americans as the newly anointed “model minority.” This new status as a model minority, Nguyen argues, has helped to counter the history of America losing the Vietnam War. If Nguyen considers Vietnamese Americans as the new model minorities, I would have liked to see him address the question of who constitute the new minorities who are expected to model their behavior after Vietnamese Americans. Are they other refugee groups? Other communities of color? More interesting, these chapters reveal the gradual engagement of Vietnamese Americans in local politics, particularly in Little Saigon, as well as the strategic courting of Vietnamese constituents by Republican politicians.  

Two critiques of this book emerged for this reviewer. First, while Nguyen presents some new original sources, such as refugee newsletters and Vietnamese cultural productions, the bulk of the evidence relies heavily on mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. In evaluating the evidentiary base of this book, however, this reviewer wonders why the author did not consult archival records located in the presidential libraries of Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford, or the vast holdings in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, or the Vietnam Center and Archive in Lubbock, Texas. Some of these collections, which contain rich documentation of the migration and resettlement of Vietnamese in the United States, may have helped to bolster and strengthen some of the claims of this book. Second, I wished the author would have drawn more connections between the “refugee nationalism” of Vietnamese exiles and, say, the millions of Europeans who were displaced from their homelands and nations during the Great War. In other words, are there any similarities or differences between the “refugee nationalism” exhibited by Vietnamese and the expressions of loss exhibited by displaced groups during and after World War I as European empires were being dissolved and new national boundaries and claims to citizenship were being established?

Despite these critiques, this book is well written and insightful. It represents a solid contribution to the history of Vietnamese Americans. Some of the insights of Nguyen’s research can even be applied to understand how refugees arriving in the United States navigate the process of becoming “Refugee American.”

Citation: Sam Vong. Review of Nguyen, Phuong Tran, Becoming Refugee American: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51208

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