A long long time ago, academics, journalists, and casual observers all figured out that events in the Vietnamese-American communities of the U.S., or more specifically California, cannot be explained by what’s happening locally alone. They knew that what goes on in Vietnam half a world away can cause outburst in Viet areas all over the U.S. They also knew that the same butterfly effect can magnify small slights into great storms of paranoia.
That’s not new, and those are not the only points of “Transnationalizing Vietnam: Community, Culture, and Politics in the Diaspora,” an in-depth look at the many facets of the Viet community written by Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde who teaches at UC Davis, and published by Temple University Press, the premier publisher of Asian-American Studies works. What this book also points out is that the transnational influences flow both ways, and the author demonstrated that through more than two decades of research in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Saigon, and Hanoi.
Just what is “transnationalism”? In this context, it is the interaction across the oacean between the Vietnamese-American community in California and the people and country of Vietnam, with or without the U.S. and Vietnamese government.
This process will take place with the support of these governments or in spite of them — what Valverde’s book decribes as “going above (having power that influences governing bodies), below (generally by illegal means and non-state-sanctioned activities), and through (with knowledge and acceptance by governments, but often with ramifications beyond their vision and control) traditional nation-states.”
This transnationalism is expectedly strong with a diaspora as young as the Viet community, being less than 40 years old. As communist forces overran South Vietnam in 1975, President Gerald Ford authorized the admission of 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees. They would form the first wave of Viet immigrants, which would grow with subsequent waves of arrivals to form the complex and diverse community that we have today.
Originally brandishing the refugees as traitor, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam came to realize that, like other diasporas, American Viets can form a valuable bridge to the global market. “Vietnamese who left after 1975 … now are referred to by names like Kiều Bào (people coming from the same womb).”
In Washington, the U.S. lifted economic sanctions on its former enemy, established normal diplomatic relations, and supported Vietnam’s entry in the World Trade Organization. With connection between the two nation-states at nearly full capacity, the road is wide open for transnationalizing not just the Vietnamese-American community, but also – and this is where the book goes beyond the common wisdom – Vietnam as well.
Valverde demonstrated this premise through three aspects of Viet life: Entertainment, politics, and culture. She established that there had been two-way influences in these areas, even in politics; the entrenched communist rulers often had to directly address issues raised by the diaspora, and concrete reforms appeared to have been made as a result of such pressure. The campaign to fight exploitation in Nike’s sweatshops in Vietnam is one such example.