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The unsettling resettlement of Vietnamese boat people.

THE RESETTLEMENT of Southeast Asian refugees in Sacramento, Calif., offers a pointed example of the social practices by which new immigrants are shaping the emerging U.S. urban landscape. This reterritorialization has created problems, as well as opportunities, within the Vietnamese migrant community. The practice of similar customs and traditions by both first- and second-wave immigrants from Vietnam to Sacramento conceals real differences between their patterns of adaptation to American life. The diversity often is masked by the promotion by the popular media of the Vietnamese as the contemporary model minority through images of strong family unity, children as valedictorians, and successful businessmen, as well as in the academic literature measuring economic adjustment. In fact, discussing the Vietnamese by extrapolating from the backgrounds and experiences of the most well-equipped first-wave settlers tends to ignore the splits both within and between them and second-wave refugees, masking many adjustment difficulties, particularly among the latter.

Although often exaggerated and oversimplified, the adjustment of the first wave is attributable in part to their social backgrounds in Vietnam--many refugees were from urban areas, educated, with professional and military experience. Although their occupational skills from Vietnam were not immediately transferable, a number eventually were able to adapt their abilities and skills to jobs where there was some carry-over after developing a functional command of the English language. Their relatively high educational and occupational backgrounds, plus their familiarity with urban living and exposure to Western culture, helped to contribute to their relatively successful adaptation.

The situation of second-wave refugees has been quite different. Arriving from 1979 onward, they generally are less educated, not as well off financially, and often from rural areas with limited exposure to Western culture or to a technical and urbanized way of life. In many cases, illeteracy and the concept of classroom learning, particularly in acquiring English language skills, is a major obstacle. Frequently, these refugees were ethnically Chinese minorities in Vietnam who had faced past discrimination there, particularly since the fall of Saigon. Furthermore, the conditions of their escape left second-wave boat people with few financial resources, deep emotional scars, and in many more ways less prepared than the first wave to make a smooth transition.

Our research, based on in-depth, ethnographic interviews with second-wave immigrants in Sacramento, is revealing that they tend to be isolated, not only from the mainstream society, but from first-wave settlers their own community. For example, we are finding surprisingly little use of or involvement by second-wave refugees in established local Vietnamese associations and the services they offer. The differences in the backgrounds between second- and first-wave settlers--stemming not only from economic, social, and ethnic factors, but from the vast regional differences found in Vietnam--often make it difficult for them to relate to each other. Moreover, given the political conditions in Vietnam, the second wave often displays a distrust of former government officials found in the first wave, who tend to dominate Vietnamese associations and clubs. Perhaps most significant, according to an active Vietnamese community member and social worker for Child Protective Services, first-wave settlers running the Sacramento Vietnamese associations tend to lose sight of, or are out of touch with, the concerns and problems facing the majority community of second-wave immigrants. Among the key areas are those confronting youth in attempting to figure out what it means to be both Vietnamese and American. Lack of knowledge about and/or inability to identify with the perceived purpose and interests of Vietnamese associations has contributed to the second waves lack of participation in formal social networks created by the first wave, further increasing their isolation.

Part of the isolation experienced by second-wave settlers may be attributed to the nature of the Sacramento community. Although many second-wave immigrants tend to settle in the Lemon Hill neighborhood, there is no overarching Vietnamese organization or even industry--such as electronics in San Jose, Calif.--binding them together. If participation in formal networks by second-wave immigrants has been minimal, the creation and use of informal ones also is weak. The majority of respondents have reported that they do not know their neighbors, whether Asian or Anglo, except for passing hellos.

The emerging pattern for second-wave settlers is an extreme reliance on the immediate family in its various stages of construction, as many families only now are being unified through the Orderly Departure Program, and on government services to which they are entitled. These are sorely inadequate, as incoming refugee aid is limited to four months, in comparison to the 18 months of benefits available to most first-wave refugees. Older parents tend to supplement welfare with informal work in jobs where English-speaking ability is not essential, such as gardening, restaurant work, sewing, and cosmetology. Parents place their hopes for success on their children. After initially receiving welfare, the offspring tend to get jobs to put themselves through school and contribute to the family income. This heavy reliance on familial networks is placing a strain on relations within the Vietnamese family, as well as on youth in their self-formation and in making choices in the wider society.

Parents' concern for and lack of control over their children's behavior in the new society is overwhelming. Typical is one mother's response when asked if it is more difficult to raise children in the U.S. than in Vietnam: "Yes, I think so because it's so free in America. I feel that I don't have that much control over my children since I can't afford to pay for their education. It's not like in Vietnam; I pay for their education, so they have to listen to me. Also, my children are self-[sufficient]; I have no control over when and where they go. The time they spend at home is minimal. They can't do that in Vietnam; they have to be home after school. Furthermore, since my children were not so financially independent, they had to ask me for money to buy certain things. Therefore, I had more control and supervision over them."

Another respondent, a father, put it even more pointedly: "According to my understanding, in the American way of life, children have many misguided thoughts. They are free in an excessive sense. [Life] experience is very expensive to buy. Vietnamese say |a child disobey their parents, a child is delinquent in hundred ways.' In reality, if a child is still alive, his mistake will affect him over time, and slow. But for example, in the recent case of a child drowning in the American River, the child died because he disobeyed his parents. When he died, that's it. No more. If he did not die, he will get into other troubles later on in life; who know what? Therefore, children is the issue of gravest concern for Vietnamese family."

If parents are expressing difficulty in coping with the contrasts between the relative openness of the new society and their traditional parental roles, children face a set of conflicting expectations and often confusing choices. In addition to such practical issues of adjustment as learning a new language, becoming accustomed to the U.S. school system, and meeting new peers, they face a host of social-psychological issues in straddling or negotiating conflicting Vietnamese values and expectations of filial respect and authority. They also must confront the expectations of independence, self-satisfaction, and questioning of authority to a point encouraged by their new society. The biggest challenge to adjustment will be for youth in carving out an identity and place in their own families and in becoming Vietnamese-American in the larger society.

A Vietnamese teacher cited the level of cultural misunderstanding that exists between recently arrived refugee families and the American school system. When a note is sent home from the teacher discussing a student's progress, it often is interpreted by the parents as a criticism of them. In the absence of government services and school and youth counseling programs to bridge these gaps, it is no wonder that many recently arrived families feel frustrated and overburdened.

Changing roles

The changing roles experienced by Southeast Asian refugee women in their new culture in which many have entered the labor market for the first time, out of choice and necessity, is leading to increased conflict and family upsets in the household. This is exacerbated by the contradictory position of the father as authority figure at home, while experiencing a loss of power in the public sphere, either by accepting a job below his skill and educational level (as is the case with first-wave Vietnamese men) or facing unemployment and discriminatory practices in the occupational world.

All of the community development specialists we interviewed concurred that increased tensions in the household are being experienced as these families attempt to reconcile the traditional with changing "modern" roles in a new cultural context, as reported by one respondent: "There's a lot of real frustrations for men. They are no longer able to assume that dominant role, because they are not breadwinners anymore; they aren't held in respect anymore because they don't know English and they can't get along and that is a big problem, not only between women and men, but between parents and the children. |Oh mom and dad, you're so old fashioned. What do you know? You don't even speak English; why do I have to listen to you?' . . . It's something that Americans would say their teenagers have been saying for years, but these people are not used to it.... They are used to the old subordination to the parents, and that is the norm, and that's what's expected and that's how they've been trained. So then it just throws them for a loop when the kids are out of control now."

Increased conflict at home is leading new Southeast Asian refugee women to engage in additional survival strategies, such as seeking help in tension-ridden or even abusive situations. The motivation of new refugee women is especially important here because the social services available in the form of counseling and battered women's shelters often are underfunded, understaffed by bilingual counselors, and lacking in familiar cultural products and basic foodstuffs, such as rice. A community development specialist described one of her cases, which illustrates the severity of family difficulties occurring in the Southeast Asian refugee community and the extreme actions engaged in by some new refugee women:

"Family problems, there are family problems; I don't know if I can say which one is the most severe. Some groups experience some types more than others; the alienation of the kids is a big problem. Some wife abuse, some child abuse. I say child abuse is probably low, but wife abuse is higher than we like to see it.... And a lot of times it is a real result of frustration on the part of the men who are disempowered and who are frustrated and can't control the children, can't control their wives and that's the only way they know how... People are not interested in using, say, family counseling services. Women don't know, or can't use, because of language barriers or whatever, they can't use the family or the battered women resources.

"I once had a woman who called them, one lady who called here because her husband had beat her and they were living near his family which is their custom. And she didn't have any people, you know, her own relatives here. And he forbade anybody of his family to help her, so she had nobody. ...Once we got in contact with her, we called around to the various women shelters and ... some of them were equipped for limited English speakers and some weren't. ...Some of them had rice in stock and some didn't. You know that kind of thing would be [a] plus. How would the woman get there? She doesn't drive. I took her because we found out about her and it was just a very, very roundabout way we even found out about her. Because she called the only people she knew ... being a new person here, she called her family who happened to live in Wisconsin. They called Lutheran Social Services, who called us here in Sacramento, and then we happened to get in touch with her. But, see, talk about limited access, that was very roundabout, and it's only because she is very determined that she got it. I have always been thinking since then: how many other women are there who don't get or can't get help for that kind of thing?"

New immigrant survival strategies in Sacramento have been affected significantly by changing gender relations produced by the changing social relations of female employment in the new context. Thus, first-wave Vietnamese refugee women have been willing to take any jobs to reproduce the household. Despite their middle-class backgrounds, they accepted work as manicurists, nurse's aides, and restaurant and hotel workers, as well as in labor jobs. First-wave Vietnamese men, in contrast, had tended to be government officials and did not like to take positions too different from their past experience. They avoided labor jobs, preferring unemployment or governmental clerical work when available.

Similarly, the second-wave Vietnamese refugee women obtain low-skilled service or manual labor jobs to help support their families as part of a low-income, dualearning household or while their spouses obtain education, job training, or, in many cases, face unemployment. This has become a source of conflict and tension within these Vietnamese households because wives have been able to get clerical training and find jobs that have helped to enhance their self-and social esteem while husbands have lost status, both in the household and larger society.

The problems of second-wave boat people in Sacramento have been compounded by cultural misunderstandings surrounding the emergence of gang activities in their neighborhoods. In 1989 and 1990, a series of extortion attempts of small Southeast Asian-owned businesses and residential home invasion robberies began in the Lemon Hill neighborhood and nearby suburbs with Vietnamese enclaves. Press accounts based on interviews with police and some of the victims paint a picture of the rise of nomadic Vietnamese bui doi (dirt in the wind) gangs whose members are "fearless and ice cold" youth who "have no compassion" and engage in brutal and violent practices against fellow immigrants. These were learned initially in the squalid and chaotic refugee camps of Southeast Asia and now are reconstituted and re-enacted in various "Little Saigons" throughout the U.S., including Lemon Hill.

The bui doi gangs are fundamentally different from other ethnic gangs in California. Their practices are delocalized; they seek neither to obtain nor defend local "turf"; and they occupy an entirely new social space. Their internal structure is based on the reproduction of transnational social networks that transcend locality, community, and place. They are nomads, rather than settlers, moving nationally and even internationally from place to place where Southeast Asian refugees are concentrated, using the easy exit option of freeways and airports to escape identification and capture. Their "home," both in transit and when operating in the scattered ethnic enclaves they victimize, is the motel. They prey upon localized ethnic households, exploiting their knowledge of the general cultural understandings and misunderstandings that handicap the least adapted segments of these communities. These vagabond gangs appropriate globalized images readily available on "Kung Fu" movies and videos to glamorize the brutal tactics they use to coerce their victims.

The bui doi gangs in Sacramento largely are comprised of ethnically Chinese Southeast Asian refugee youth who prey upon older refugee families reluctant to contact police because they mistrust formal institutions of law enforcement and fear reprisals. The victims are chosen precisely because of their isolation from and misunderstanding of mainstream American institutions. Unfamiliar with or mistrustful of banks, many second-wave refugee families keep their life savings in cash or commodities like gold and jewelry hidden in their homes. The gang members target such households for invasion, often torturing their robbery victims to get them to reveal the hiding place of their store of capital. Once robbed in this way, the victims' cultural misunderstanding of the legal practices of bail bonding and probation leads them to assume that their assailants have bribed police officials to obtain release from jail. They thus transfer their knowledge of corrupt practices that have been common in Vietnam both before and since the fall of Saigon into a different cultural context where it is inappropriate because it reinforces their suspicion and mistrust of potentially useful institutions and impedes the ability of the legal system to try, convict, and incarcerate a basically parasitic segment of the refugee population.

Combating extortion

In a dramatic example of resistance to this mode of intimidation, a Chinese-Vietnamese woman refugee, the proprietor of a local Southeast Asian market, testified against a group of gang members attempting to extort $100 per day from surrounding Southeast Asian business people. In addition, she persuaded her reluctant male employees and fellow merchants to testify against the gunmen. The courageousness of her act is evidenced by the fact that her employees repeatedly were threatened at gunpoint, while another merchant was beaten brutally at gunpoint by gang members in front of his employees and customers. Moreover, invoking law enforcement authorities demonstrates a willingness to learn about, identify with, and use the formal social controls available in the new context. In the woman's own words: "Somebody had to do something. Other people in this community scratch their own backs. It's almost a custom to keep the problem to themselves and not cause trouble. Not me. I'm not going to let this go. .. What good is it if nobody is standing up for what is right? This is America, and I'm going to do what is right in this country. What do I gain if I let them keep coming back and threatening? I'm not scared; I work too hard to give my money to someone else."

In this case, the woman storekeeper defied cultural barriers both in overcoming traditional gender role expectations, as well as past localized suspicions of authority figures. In addition, by participating in the legal system, the rights and benefits, as well as the obligations, of citizenship are being incorporated into her identity. Unfortunately for the community, the tactics used by law enforcement officials in Sacramento to combat the recent extortions and home invasion robberies have undermined this type of legal and political incorporation, reinforcing, rather than overcoming, the reluctance of most second-wave refugees in Sacramento to use the U.S. legal system. Despite the fact that, by their own accounting, the home invasions were perpetrated by nomadic gangsters, Sacramento police officials have engaged in a series of indiscriminate searches of local Vietnamese residents during random "sweeps" of all the patrons of restaurants, clubs, pool halls, and other establishments. In a three-week period during March, 1990, scores of patrons were detained, photographed, and interrogated although there was no evidence linking them to any crimes. Challenged by civil liberties advocates for ignoring the probable cause for search requirement, these sweeps were justified by law enforcement officers, who waxed enthusiastically in the local press about their effectiveness. In defending the need for the sweeps and their legality, officers used phrases like "turning up the heat," "shaking the trees," and "putting on the pressure" in reference to the raids. Despite this implicitly intimidating rhetoric, detectives in charge of the robbery investigations told the Sacramento Bee that the purpose of the raids was legitimate--"we did not do this for intimidation, but for identification and intelligence gathering. "

Some segments of the first-wave Vietnamese refugee community defended these raids. For example, Hung Le, an administrative aide to Sacramento Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg, blithely minimized the civil liberties violations and stigmatizing effects of the raids by telling the press: "Personally, I don't think [the raids] violated their civil rights. Hey, compared to Vietnam it's nothing. I feel those actions are necessary. It doesn't sound like democracy, but hell, it works."

Needless to say, such strategies are unlikely to reduce the mistrust of law enforcement agencies that enables the bui doi to operate. Indeed, they depend on precisely such mistrust. The tactics and their defense by more privileged first-wave refugees reinforce the mistrust and hence the vulnerability of the most isolated second-wave families facing the pressures of adjustment.

In America's popular understanding of the new immigration from Southeast Asia, images and representations of refugees from Vietnam have been fraught with misunderstandings, exaggerations, and sometimes even clear misrepresentations of the fluid, highly differentiated, and still emergent character of their settlement experiences. At present, we are witnessing an emergent climate of backlash against many of America's new minorities. What some have called "the politics of difference" exists as much within as between new immigrant groups in their relations with each other and their new society. The shapers of public expectations of receptivity or opposition to the new minorities often fail to give due recognition to the complexity of these internal differences, thus contributing to the development of new ethnic and racial stereotypes. By paying close attention to the differences within the U.S.'s newer minorities, we may be able to avoid another round of ethnic and racial antagonism in which our deep-seated structural problems are blamed on new immigrants.
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Author:Smith, Michael P.; Tarallo, Bernadette
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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