Framing A Vietnamese Identity
As a researcher of the cultural life of Vietnamese living overseas, one of the major lenses through which I analyze their world is semiotics: the study of symbols and meaning. Because of the many overseas Vietnamese who left their homeland in the late 20th century, I often think about what being Vietnamese means to people who feel disconnected from the geographic symbol of Vietnam.
When someone says, "Tôi là người Việt Nam" (I am a Vietnamese person), what other concepts of self and group identity are they using to understand themselves as Vietnamese?
From the perspective of history, Việt Nam the nation-state is a relatively modern concept, attaining its current meaning in the writings of late-19th and early 20th century nationalists who were looking for ways to distinguish their homeland during the decline of colonialism. Indeed, “Nam Việt” was the natural form until the 16th century, and “Việt Nam” was used only occasionally as a linguistic inversion—”Southern Viet” versus ”Viet of the South.” The scholars and politicians who used “Việt Nam” were repositioning their kingdoms as the center of the South rather than the subordinate of the North.
The naming of the region that is now Việt Nam has always been politically charged, with titles such as Đại Việt (Great Viet) used for the majority of the last millennium (1054-1400; 1428-1804 A.D.) or Annam (Peaceful South) from the seventh to ninth centuries (602-757; 766-866 A.D.). For a time, emperors Gia Long (1762-1820) and his successor Minh Mạng (1791 - 1841) even used the term "Trung Quốc" (the Middle Kingdom) to refer to their land, a phrase today most often claimed by China. Their framing was an effort to distinguish their "civilized" and Han-assimilated people from the other, "uncivilized" people of southeast Asia like the Khmer (Cambodians) and Chăm. The history of the Chăm people is particularly tragic: they were a Hindu/Muslim kingdom ruling much of the territory we now know as central Việt Nam, whose cities were systematically wiped out over the course of centuries by kingdoms like Đại Việt. Today, the linguistic vestiges of their legacy emerge in mere traces, such as the name of the city of Đà Nẵng, likely a Vietnamese rendering of a Chăm word. In words and names, we find threads of an ongoing struggle for the identity of Vietnam and its people.
Calling oneself "Vietnamese" in today’s world is an act heavy with the echoes of a history both dark and hopeful. It is the most audible part of a narrative we create about ourselves that encompasses both the erasure of entire civilizations (like the Chăm) and noble aspirations about self-rule and independence. What Vietnamese person doesn’t know the story of the heroic sacrifice of the Trưng sisters? Hasn’t sung the children’s song about the mythic romance between the dragon prince Lạc Long Quân and the fairy princess Âu Cơ? Hasn’t watched a Paris by Night variety show (voluntarily or otherwise)? Through such stories and experiences, Vietnamese identity gains a shorthand for a sense of belonging rooted in history. But the boundaries for that identity are fraught with complication and contradiction.
Is being Vietnamese a racial or ethnic distinction? What are the consequences of thinking of Vietnamese identity in terms of bloodlines ("giòng máu") or distinguishing between races and ethnicity? When you say “Vietnamese,” do you include the Hmong, Ede, Chăm, ethnic Chinese, etc.? The mixed-race “Amerasians” largely born from relationships between American GIs and Vietnamese mothers?
Is being Vietnamese related to nationality? Nationality is a system of classification that defines a civic affiliation and allegiance to a government within specific geographic boundaries. If your parents were Vietnam War refugees fleeing what they saw as a corrupt socialist regime in Vietnam, how well would this rubric for identity sit with them? Do you lose all or part of your Vietnamese-ness when you pledge your allegiance to the United States?
Is Vietnamese identity a question of culture? Who draws the cultural boundaries? Do you have to be able to speak and read Vietnamese to be truly Vietnamese? Eat Vietnamese food? Listen to Vietnamese music? Do fan dances at Tết (the Vietnamese New Year)? Show up at Tết?
In my research, I avoid answering these questions for others. Instead, I focus on studying the contexts in which being Vietnamese matters, analyzing how people interpret how and why it matters. Nobody spends every waking minute of every day "being" Vietnamese or any other ethnicity or race. Sometimes, you're just an employee or an employer. A child or a parent. A friend or a partner. A student or a teacher. These are other systems to organize identity that are relevant in different social situations, even as there are certain moments where it is most relevant to be Vietnamese. Every time people express or feel their Vietnamese identity, they tell us what that identity can be and does in the world in a way that is unique to their own circumstances.
Yet, paradoxically, most people also treat Vietnamese-ness as universal, as something inherent to their very beings. After all, everyone who is Vietnamese has at least one thing in common—being Vietnamese—which is often enough to instill a sense of community. Often, I will travel for research and a stranger will do me a favor that they'll justify simply with, “It’s alright; we're both Vietnamese here” (“Thôi, thì mình là người Việt Nam với nhau mà.”). In our diasporic (meaning: outside Vietnam) contexts in which we are so often treated as a racialized Other, the shared experience of our Othering is often enough to bring us together. Like the concept of gender, we feel Vietnamese-ness like it was always there and recognize it in others seemingly instantaneously.
But when Vietnamese-ness does not look the way that we expect, the interaction can be a shock that disrupts our assumed connections to one another.
Lately, much of my research has been with Vietnamese American and overseas groups engaging with Vietnam either politically (i.e. activism and international relations), philanthropically (i.e. charities and NGOs), or economically (i.e. international business). The main lesson I've learned from observing these interactions: when it comes to Vietnamese identity, it matters who does the imagining. Only when imaginations overlap, even by the smallest of margins, do coalitions and cooperation across different groups succeed.
Each group understands being Vietnamese—what it is and how it is juxtaposed against other identities—in its own ways, patterned by the particulars of its history and juxtaposed against the social pressures of its own contexts. I'm not suggesting that Vietnamese peoples in different circumstances have nothing in common; in fact, while ideas about what it means to be Vietnamese can be vastly different, they are still historically intertwined. A recognition of that distinction between same-ness and interrelated-ness is a crucial step to understanding Vietnamese people’s differing desires, goals and agendas in a non-reductive way. How does a generation raised on the symbols of a socialist Vietnam interact with a generation that left Vietnam in fear of those symbols, each side with its own flags and anthems and songs? Even among Vietnamese Americans, how does a first generation that sustained itself on the language of anti-Communism find common ground with a second generation that speaks the language of social liberalism?
Those who earnestly wish to work across competing notions of Vietnamese identities must be willing to navigate murky waters and negotiate differences between people who will each consider their version of that identity as universal. I could write endlessly about all the things that others have told me are apparently true of all Vietnamese. That we are the smartest people from Asia. That we are the dumbest people from Asia. That we have the greatest family values. That we have the worst family values. That we value education above all else. That we don't value education enough. That Vietnamese folk culture ought to be preserved. That we need to move beyond old-fashioned stuff. On and on the list goes, as people engage in the work of understanding for themselves and for their communities what being Vietnamese is, how it is understood in the world, and what can be achieved with it.
Yet, the ironic thing about universalized identities like "being Vietnamese" is that they don't actually exist: there really isn't that one thing that automatically ties every Vietnamese person together above all else. Rather, we must imagine Vietnamese-ness as an aspiration to the universal, a desire to connect with people who claim the same identities with us, no matter how different our starting points. In the act of coalition-building and in the work of finding common-cause, we learn to enact universal connection rather than assume it. A social identity-group must, after all, be created socially; that is, it must be brought to life by people who, despite their countless differences, believe that they belong together.
If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.
Jason R. Nguyen
Jason R. Nguyen is a dual-Ph.D candidate in Folklore & Ethnomusicology and Communication & Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. His doctoral research focuses on Vietnamese diasporic popular culture and the role of identity discourses in Vietnamese American lives. He is also a musician, teaching and performing on the đàn bầu, a one-string Vietnamese zither.