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    Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    A Tale of Two Peoples 2: The "Việt Kiều" word

    "Emigrant, my friends! Do you not see me here, in France, of my own will?"

    "You are a cursed emigrant," cried a farrier, making at him in a furious manner through the press, hammer in hand; "and you are a cursed aristocrat!"

    ... Darnay said, as soon as he could make his voice heard:

    "Friends, you deceive yourselves, or you are deceived. I am not a traitor."

    "He lies!" cried the smith. "He is a traitor since the decree. His life is forfeit to the people. His cursed life is not his own!"


    "What is this decree that the smith spoke of?" Darnay asked the postmaster, when he had thanked him, and stood beside him in the yard. "Truly, a decree for selling the property of emigrants."

    "When passed?"

    "On the fourteenth."

    "The day I left England!"

    "Everybody says it is but one of several, and that there will be others- if there are not already- banishing all emigrants, and condemning all to death who return. That is what he meant when he said your life was not your own."

    "But there are no such decrees yet?"

    "What do I know!" said the postmaster, shrugging his shoulders; "there may be, or there will be. It is all the same. What would you have?"
    (Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, Book 3 chapter 1)

    In "A Tale of Two Peoples," I set forth the view that the Vietnamese in Vietnam and the Vietnamese living oversees are quite totally two different peoples. Many people made good, cogent comments. Possibly stemming from our unconscious ethno-centricism, most points focused on the status of the Việt kiều.

    However, at least equally responsible for the gulf between the two peoples are the Vietnamese mới. To prove that two peoples exist, I must both show a feeling of community that defines a people, and show feelings of disconnection between the two groups.

    I alluded to this when I said,
    "I cannot count anymore the number of times I've heard "việt kiều" come out of someone's mouth as a derogatory comment."
    and this term's connotation shows the gulf of which I write.

    Of course, these are two peoples currently moving apart, and as such there will be exceptions to my theory, but I do feel they are the minority, not majority.

    The term "việt kiều" is used by the communists to include people of Vietnamese descent living oversees as Vietnamese--to establish jurisdiction over them in the government's mind. This concept is foreign to someone from the United States. We do not wake up each morning, grab the paper, and read on the front page about the awards or escapades of someone of American descent living in a foreign country--France for instance--especially if that person was born and raised in France.

    But that is what the Vietnamese do every morning. Example: Open up your Tuổi Trẻ newspaper in the morning and you'll likely find an article (conveniently located online in the "Người Việt xa quê" [Viets away from home] section) about someone of Vietnamese descent doing something in another country, often barely related to Vietnam at all.

    Yet all the newspaper articles cannot stop the divide between people. I spoke with an old student of mine the other night, and this is part of the conversation we had:

    Student (4/19/2007 9:55:43 PM): o viet nam
    Student (4/19/2007 9:55:50 PM): co nhiu nguoi tu nhan la viet kieu
    Student (4/19/2007 9:55:54 PM): nhung ho hok het di lam
    Student (4/19/2007 9:56:02 PM): ma chi la di wa my rui ve
    Student (4/19/2007 9:56:14 PM): chu hok he lam viec
    Student (4/19/2007 9:56:26 PM): va ho chi mang mac viet kieu ma thoi
    Student (4/19/2007 10:04:46 PM): theo thi co 2 loai viet kieu thay ah
    Student (4/19/2007 10:04:51 PM): mot la nhu em da noi
    Student (4/19/2007 10:04:58 PM): ho lam viec cuc kho de kiem tien
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:12 PM): rui gui ve cho gia dinh dang kho khan o viet nam hay ba con
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:20 PM): nhung con mot loai viet kieu nua la
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:25 PM): ho chi co danh thoi
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:32 PM): chu ho hok he di lam de kiem tien
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:41 PM): nen ho chi bit huong thu thoi
    Student (4/19/2007 10:05:59 PM): doi khi con co nhung nguoi mang danh viet kieu de di lua dao nua
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:01 PM): v.v
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:04 PM): nhiu lam thay oi
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:29 PM): nen o viet nam neu viet kieu ma ve thuong xuyen la nguoi ta biet viet kieu gia
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:45 PM): boi vi ve thuong xuyen thi co dau co di lam udoc
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:56 PM): ma hok di lam thi sao lam ra tien phai hok thay
    Student (4/19/2007 10:06:59 PM): :-)

    Another viewpoint stemmed from this conversation I had with my wife.

    Me: Dear, when you hear the word "việt kiều" how do you feel?
    Wife: I don't like it. I don't want to be one.
    Me: But in Vietnam, does it have a negative or positive connotation?
    Wife: Negative.
    Me: Why?
    Wife: Because we don't like them, the việt kiều, coming into our country and acting like they're all good. Last time we were in Vietnam, I went with my mom to Parkson, and she pointed them out. They walk around and flash all their money like they're better thank us.
    Me: How could you tell them from other rich Viets?
    Wife: Oh you can tell. They're so nhà quê. They look like they've never been in a department store before, wandering around, not knowing where to go, but then they pull out all the money and flaunt it around saying 'Hey, we're rich.' They go to America and work for nothing, living a poor life, and then they fly back to Vietnam and throw it around acting all rich and better.
    Me: Your family's been blessed lately, and are pretty well off. Is it just a case of envy, or do others feel this way?
    Wife: All my friends felt that way, and many of them have no money. I felt this way growing up--before my parents got money. I think it's pretty common.
    Me: What about my student, who said "việt kiều" was used for those who went to work in America and came back?
    Wife: I don't know how the young generation uses it, but it can have many meanings--
    Me: Didn't it start from the government in newspapers trying to take credit for things done by ex patriot Vietnamese?
    Wife: Yes, and if you read the newspaper and see it, then that's what it means--the dictionary definition. But it has more than that. Most people use it derogatorily.
    Me: About the newspapers...did you ever feel kinship with the việt kiều written about in the Tuổi Trẻ?
    Wife: No. I thought it was stupid. They're not Vietnamese. The government is just trying to take credit for things that they do. If I did something here in America, and they wrote about it in Vietnam, that doesn't make it Vietnamese. It was a product of me, here in America, with these opportunities, and skills, and will always be an American thing.
    Me: What about a Vietnamese person who -- well, let's say you have a Vietnamese person in America--a high school student--who wins an award in math, and then a white kid wins the same award, and both are reported in the newspapers in Vietnam. Would you feel more closely with one or the other?
    Wife: Well obviously the Viet ... I'd think 'that's our Vietnamese brain! Good at math!' But as far as taking credit for him, no, because he grew up in America. He's not Vietnamese.

    Both viewpoints highlight the heterogeneous feelings that the Vietnamese mới have for the Việt kiều, and mirror what I felt I saw while there. In Vietnam, like always, there is great respect for hard work. The Vietnamese are some of the hardest working people I have ever seen. Therefore, those Vietnamese who live in America are respected for their hard work by those who understand that not all streets in America are paved with gold.

    However, the very visceral feelings of hurt, anger, pride, jealousy, etc. are also evident when those same people return to Vietnam. The ties between Việt mới and Việt kiều are minimal--possibly hair color and height only--because of the radically different circumstances in which they grew up and lived. Look at my wife's answers to my last two questions. She feels more connected to the Viet math star than the white math star, yet truly doesn't feel close to any person of Vietnamese descent living in America ("They're not Vietnamese").

    A middle class Vietnamese person makes between 3 million and 10 million đồng a month in Saigon. Actually, that's almost upper middle class. It's a lot less outside Saigon and Hanoi. The income disparity is massive. The new educated youth that speak English are taking foreign money and living well, but that is not nearly the norm for most of the country.

    Picture 110

    So, a 24 year old mechanic sees a 24 year old Việt kiều walk out of Parkson with a shirt that cost 800,000 đồng and a tie that cost 300,000đ and he doesn't say, "hey bro." He says, "you just spent my monthly wage on a shirt and tie, and you say you're one of me? You don't know me. You haven't lived through what I do. You aren't anything like me. You're not me."

    This is not a hatred, but a dissociation. The Việt mới stick around those who share their experiences, can empathize, and identify as being true Vietnamese.


    Thuy said...

    Very interesting article. I didn't know the terms 'Viet Kieu' is in a negative way. What do you call a Vietnamese that's been in the US for a long time (possibly US citizen)?
    And I definitely agree with your wife about the Vietnamese working in America and going back to Vietnam acting like they have lots of monies. I have a half-sister that met some Vietnamese guy online and married him. She came over with her children (all from different fathers - but that's a story for another day). She travels back to Vietnam all the time and she is flashy about her money. I don't even know how she could afford to go to Vietnam so much.

    Kelvin said...

    i think the term has been misused in most circumstances in vietnam. obviously "kieu", a sino-vietnamese term means "denizen" and this case "viet kieu" is to imply vietnamese denizens residing in a foreign country (other than vietnam). when they're back to VN why are they still called with that term? it's funny!

    Anonymous said...

    Per Thuy comments,

    she could afford to go to Vietnam so much.

    1-she is on welfare
    2-work without paying tax
    3-who know what she is doing for the living

    Triet said...

    My wife and I disagree over Thuy's question, and this is because of our backgrounds.

    Understandably, my wife is from Vietnam, a permanent resident of the USA, and considers herself Vietnamese. In my lingo, that's viet moi.

    I see my wife, who speaks fluent English (dreams in it, so I'd call it her primary language now), understands the American culture pretty well, and enjoys football, as viet kieu.

    But that, you see is where nuance must come in. We are both right, my wife and I. However, when she sits with viet kieu at dinner, she doesn't identify with them, because she has spent 75% of her life in Vietnam, especially her formative years. Yet when she returns to Vietnam, her increased comfort among Vietnamese people is tempered by the way they often subconsciously view her -- since she got an education in America and married an American, she must be rich and different.

    Hence, she uncomfortably habits the middle zone--a child of both families but not fully accepted by either. My gut feeling is that she will never fully identify with either side.

    Kelvin is probably right in saying that the term viet kieu is misused in Vietnam -- but its use now defines it. It is quite interesting the etiology of language.

    Lastly, unfortunately I know far too many Vietnamese that follow points 1,2, and 3 by anonymous. Welfare helps many Viets who are trying to make a life in America, but unfortunately, many other Viet families spoil the pot for those who need it by taking only cash at their businesses, not reporting it (hence not paying taxes), thereby qualifying for welfare they shouldn't have. They are sapping the system they aren't paying into.

    Luckily, not all viet kieu do that, and ultimately they can't stop assimilation. As Vietnamese businesses work harder and harder for clientèle, they are forced to use electronic transactions and play by the rules. That's the natural progression of all groups merging into American society.