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Chia Youyee Vang

In geopolitical terms, the Asian sub-region Southeast Asia consists of ten countries that are organized under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Current member nations include Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Malaysia, Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The term Southeast Asian Americans has been shaped largely by the flow of refugees from the American War in Vietnam’ however, Americans with origins in Southeast Asia have much more diverse migration and settlement experiences that are intricately tied to the complex histories of colonialism, imperialism, and war from the late 19th through the end of the 20th century. A commonality across Southeast Asian American groups today is that their immigration history resulted primarily from the political and military involvement of the United States in the region, aimed at building the United States as a global power. From Filipinos during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees from the American War in Vietnam, military interventions generated migration flows that, once begun, became difficult to stop. Complicating this history is its role in supporting the international humanitarian apparatus by creating the possibility for displaced people to seek refuge in the United States. Additionally, the relationships between the United States, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are different from those of other SEA countries involved in the Vietnam War. Consequently, today’s Southeast Asian Americans are heterogeneous with varying levels of acculturation to U.S. society.

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Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.