New Year, Old Unresolved Passion: Vietnam and its Diaspora
New America Media, News Analysis, Andrew Lam Posted: Feb 07, 2008
Editor's Note: It's been more than three decades since the Vietnam war ended and there are now over three million Vietnamese living abroad. While new economic and cultural ties are being built, politically, the Diaspora and its homeland are still feuding. But NAM editor, Andrew Lam, says that it's time for those living abroad to engage, and not just denounce and protest.
Is the Vietnamese Diaspora still in exile? Judging from the ads in the Vietnamese-language papers in San Jose, Orange County, and Houston, the answer is no. Selling phone cards, money orders, variety shows featuring young singers visiting from Saigon and Hanoi, cheap flights back home, and the latest satellite connections for TV shows in Vietnam – advertising seeks to tell the story of deepening ties: The Vietnamese Diaspora, no longer unmoored, is steadily reintegrating with its homeland.
Each spring, 200,000 Viet Kieu – Vietnamese nationals living abroad – return to Vietnam to spend their Tet holidays. The bulk of this reverse exodus is from Texas and California, home to the largest and most prosperous overseas Vietnamese population.
Not so long ago, a Vietnamese in America had little more than nostalgic memories to keep cultural ties alive. During the Cold War, letters sent from Vietnam could take half a year to reach their recipients in America, and they unanimously told of tragic lives: Auntie and her family barely survived; Uncle is incarcerated in a re-education camp; and Cousin has disappeared somewhere in the South China Sea. There was a time when leaving meant risking losing their lives in the turbulent sea, and, if they made it to foreign shores, they would not expect to ever see their homeland again.
These days, however, Vietnam is but an 18-hour flight from California, and Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans chat online, text one another, talk on skype. Many Viet Kieus have returned to work, live, invest, and retire in Vietnam while many Vietnamese nationals are coming to the United States as brides, tourists, foreign students, and, in smaller numbers, businessmen. Hanoi is even considering granting dual citizenship to Viet Kieus to spur further repatriation.
Yet while the Tet holidays are a time to forget old troubles and celebrate newness, deep fault lines remain for many of those who live abroad.
Economies and culture may be fluid, and bridges are being built, but long-held political tensions remain unchanged on both sides of the Pacific. The Vietnamese Diaspora, even as it is falling steadily into Vietnam's orbit, publicly denounces the regime. Through routine rallies and protests against human right abuses, the Diaspora hopes to bring democracy and freedom to the country. Yelling in Vietnamese and waving banners and flags on America's streets for three decades, however, has failed to translate into political action – or a coherent foreign policy.
Little Saigon's political concerns and extraterritorial passion rarely reach the prominent ears of Washington, D.C., not to mention those of the general public. Moreover, it increasingly fails to reach members of its own community, especially its disenfranchised and disengaged younger generation.
Lan Nguyen, writing for Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese paper in Orange County, noted that, “While the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans shares with elders a general concern regarding human rights, democracy, and freedom in Vietnam, they are not as invested in the cause.'' Nguyen, who lives in San Jose, cites language barriers and lack of experience under communism as the factors that help widen the generational gap. "The Vietnamese American youth… often are disillusioned as it seems their every effort to help Vietnam is met with criticism by those older than them. The elders in turn are horrified to see young people organize philanthropic missions to Vietnam.''
There is also a sad practice within the community called chup mu, or "putting the communist hat on someone.” Those who have any dealings with Vietnam are automatically suspect; those who show any political disagreement with the unconditional anti-communist stance become pro-communist – a reverse of the political paranoia of the cultural revolution.
But those who seek to isolate Vietnam have become isolated themselves. Over time, the business of regime change has turned into the business of keeping Little Saigon from changing, and the bulk of these efforts are in the realm of the symbolic: flying the flags of South Vietnam in shopping malls, erecting war memorials for fallen soldiers, organizing anti-communist protests and, lately, renaming business districts – actions that have no apparent effect on Vietnam itself.
Vietnam, meanwhile, which has joined the World Trade Organization and been elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is rapidly integrating into the world economy and can no longer be isolated. Nor can regime change occur from the outside. Vietnam's population is young and optimistic, and with an average of 8 percent Gross National Product since 2003, an entire urban population has fallen under the spell of materialism. Vietnam may wear the hammer and sickle on her sleeve, but her heart throbs with commerce and capitalism.
To be sure, Vietnam is a regime that is seriously in need of change. While it makes economic reforms, it continues to crack down on political dissidents, monitors its clergymen and intellectuals, and controls political thought by controlling the press. Most worrisome, it continues to give away land to China – recently ceding the Spratly and Paracel islands, and thereby a large bulk of the South China Sea – in exchange for political support, which has spurred mass protest overseas and spontaneous protests in Vietnam.
Vietnam has reached an ideological dead end – but in the private sphere, new political thoughts are being formed. There is, along with a fledgling civil society, a growing middle class, and a slow erosion of the political barricade as the pressure rises for political reform, transparency and pluralism.
The return of the Diaspora to the homeland is a double-edged sword: Many bring back financial investment and technological know-how. Yet with the presence of so many vocal Viet Kieus in Vietnam, a complex narrative is being formed, one in which knowledge and ideas of the outside world permeate the local culture and society. In this private sphere, and on the Internet, the din of political debate and exchange can loudly be heard.
The question is whether the Vietnamese Diaspora can be an effective agent of change and find new ways to influence the future of the country. To do so, it needs to ask tough questions regarding freedom and democracy.
Is there real freedom for those who give into their hatred and are ruled by it? Is democracy for Vietnam possible when those who live in America often fail to understand and practice it? And what does it take to move beyond anger and lust for revenge, and create space for constructive discussion and dialogue and spur new political thoughts?
The Vietnamese living abroad is no longer exiled from his homeland, but he risks being sidelined if he doesn’t adapt to the new realities of 21st-century Vietnam.
Andrew Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora". His short story collection, "Birds of Paradise," is forthcoming.
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