Elijah Ferrian explores the meaning of a seemingly simple term, and confronts themes of cultural and personal identity through conversation with the global Vietnamese community at “home” in Saigon. Photos by Vinh Dao.
As a foreigner that’s only lived in Vietnam for a bit over a year, taking on a story about Viet Kieu seemed daunting. Something became obvious quickly, and that was what Viet Kieu once meant, and what it seems to mean now, are two very different things.
The definition of the term Viet Kieu is simple: literally “Vietnamese sojourner”, or as it is more popularly discussed, “Overseas Vietnamese”. Any Vietnamese person that lives outside of Vietnam could be considered Viet Kieu. Originally the term denoted the over 3 million people that fled from the country as refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975.
This simplicity starts to spiral into complexity when asking individual people, that would be classified as Viet Kieu, what the term means to them.
Categories Aren’t Everything
Firstly, many overseas Vietnamese do not recognize Viet Kieu as a term that they use to describe themselves. Most of the people interviewed for this story didn’t seem to have a problem with the phrase. We used Viet Kieu in conversation, but to be fair, it just seems to be the most widely-used term here in Ho Chi Minh City.
What became apparent was that for many, the term can seem like a gross overgeneralization of a diverse subsection of people that were already quite varied in cultural origin to begin with. The term that many Vietnamese living outside of the country seem to prefer is the literal translation of “Overseas Vietnamese”, Nguoi Viet Hai Ngoai.
Secondly, there are different categorizations of Viet Kieu, but this is also complicated by the ever-increasing variety of people that technically fall under various areas of “Viet Kieu-dom” as we move into the future.
Historically, the categories are as follows: The first category consists of people who have been living in territories outside of Vietnam prior to 1975; they usually reside in neighboring countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, and China. During French colonialism, many Vietnamese also migrated to France as students or workers. These people are not usually considered “Viet Kieu” by people residing in Vietnam.
The second category are Vietnamese who fled Vietnam as refugees, after the end of the American War, along with their descendants. They usually reside in industrialized countries such as those in North America, the European Union, Hong Kong, the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and Australia.
The third category consists of Vietnamese working and studying in the former Soviet bloc who opted to stay there after the Soviet collapse. Generally, this group resides mostly in nations that were aligned with, or under rule by the Soviet Union: East Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria.
The last category consists of more contemporary economic migrants working in various Asian countries like Taiwan and Japan. They also include Vietnamese brides who married men from Taiwan and South Korea through marriage agencies. This has become even more complex, with many Viet Kieu men coming back to Vietnam and marrying Vietnamese women, then subsequently bringing their new spouses to become citizens to their overseas home nations.
Now, this categorisation reads fine. It helps to make sense of a pretty complex issue. What the “universally accepted” categories fail to confront, however, is that generally, to local Vietnamese that have never left their nation, any foreigner that looks Vietnamese is Viet Kieu, regardless of the backstory.
The categories work nicely within academia, but in the past I have been told things were like this: if you’re Viet Kieu, you’re a rich westerner. That seems to have changed quite a bit today, but it still rings true for many contemporary Viet Kieu.
Things get murky when we delve into the personal history of individuals that carry this label in modern-day Vietnam.
Cultural Identity, or Just a Legal Status?
Chi-Minh De Leo is an executive producer for Clubhouse Films. He’s technically Italian, but he doesn’t speak the language. He holds an Italian passport, but was born in Germany to a Vietnamese mother and Italian father, and grew up in Taiwan from ages two to nine, then Vietnam from nine to fourteen, France from fourteen to twenty-three, and he’s been back in Vietnam for the past ten years.
“My Mom moved around, and obviously I went wherever she went.” De Leo says. “It’s difficult when people ask me about [my background], because I’m Italian, and I don’t speak Italian, but my first language is French. [In Vietnam], when I talk to [locals] on the phone [in Vietnamese] I have a Hanoian accent. I grew up north, and if they don’t see me they think I’m Vietnamese, but in person I am not Vietnamese.”
In De Leo’s case, it is obvious that no matter where he is, there is always a sense of not quite fully belonging to that culture. He gets treated like a foreigner in a country he lived a fair amount of his life in. Perhaps this situation contributes to the way he sees “Viet Kieu”.
“For me, Viet Kieu is just a legal status. It’s not necessarily a social thing,” De Leo explains. “There’s a Viet Kieu certificate in Vietnam. You can apply for a Viet Kieu visa. It’s not really a part of my identity. Everyone lives their lives differently. For me, people treat you different. Just like foreigners get treated differently. You’re not considered a foreigner, but you’re not born and raised here, so you don’t have the same culture, and job-wise you probably make more money strictly because of your outer education.”
Tristan Ngo is a restaurateur in Saigon, and he’s lived in Vietnam since 1999. His family was part of the first wave of refugees that left Vietnam for the US in ‘75. They moved to Culver City, California, the “Old Hollywood”, and he went to college at the University of San Francisco, where he studied international business. He tends to agree with Chi-Minh De Leo on Viet Kieu status.
“It’s just a title,” Ngo says. “You’re Vietnamese, overseas. It means that you hold a different passport, and it used to mean that they’re from overseas and they’re loaded. Now, you could say it means that they went overseas, and now they think they are different, or for some ego-driven kinds of people, that they are the shit.”
While this may sound harsh, I find it understandable after hearing Ngo explain his personal situation a bit more.
“When I first came back to Vietnam, it was 1994, maybe 1995,” Ngo reminisces. “It was a very different time. I was a backpacker, late twenties, and I came back just to visit and I loved it. I’d walk out of the airport, and hundreds of people with signs were waiting for people to come in. It was beautiful. I consider myself Saigonese. I was born here, but wherever I went, they knew I was a foreigner, and that because of this, I must have had tons of money.”
This is mentioned with most everyone I spoke with. It’s only natural that coming back to a country that was devastated by years of conflict, and thrust into a new age of economic policy, that locals would automatically assume that anyone that could afford to show up in Vietnam on a plane had to be quite wealthy. But for many Viet Kieu, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“I barely scraped the bottom to get tickets to be able to get to Vietnam.” Ngo says. “Even after living here for so long, I do still consider myself a guest in this country. I’m very Americanised, and I always understand that the golden ticket we have is the [foreign] status, but that’s really it. At least for me.”
Thanh Charles, owner of Meatworks Butchery, was adopted to an Australian family in 1974, and spent his most formative years in Australia. Charles, like Ngo, first came back to Vietnam as a backpacker in 1992.
“Viet Kieu when I first arrived meant Overseas Vietnamese that left during or after the war,” Charles says. “I didn’t have a choice, I was adopted at four months. Essentially it turns into, I could get into a detailed conversation every time I meet someone new, or I can just say yes when people ask me if I am Viet Kieu. People weren’t huge fans of Viet Kieu back when the economy opened up because they seemed flashy. There was a thought that they would come back and take the women. Now, there is a huge push from the younger generations that have come back to Vietnam helping to drive the country forward. Before it was more people coming back for vacation.”
Although those that fled, or left later by preference, did achieve citizenship in countries that were well in the top-tier of global economic status, what cannot be downplayed is how hard these families had to work to climb their way up the ladder once settled in their new homes.
Now, more than ever, there is migration of young Vietnamese headed out to other countries to study and develop skills to improve their economic standing. Additionally, there are many people coming back from their parent’s adopted Western homes to visit, and sometimes start businesses, and there’s similarities between both Western and Vietnamese youth that may go unseen.
Grass Is Always Greener
Tran Mai is the Vietnam Marketing Manager for an e-commerce and printing company. She’s been living in San Francisco, California for the last year-and-a-half, and she lived in Australia for four years while attending university there. She speaks a lot about some of the cultural aspects of being an outsider to a nation as a native Vietnamese person, and echoes some of Tristan Ngo’s sentiments, but inversed.
“I don’t live in the US as Viet Kieu,” Tran says. “Living there I still see myself as a Vietnamese person. I fly back [to Vietnam] a lot for work. Most of the time I stay in Vietnam for a week or two, and back in San Francisco I tell my friends I miss home, my friends and family. But then when I am here, after awhile, I have the same thoughts about missing the States.”
It’s an odd place to find oneself. The typical Viet Kieu categories don’t necessarily apply to Tran Mai, yet she is undoubtedly living a comparable life to someone that moved from the US to Vietnam.
“I always feel like this side of me, like I don’t belong in the US. Mostly because there are a lot of cultural things [I don’t understand yet] like [American] football, college sports, and popular culture. I feel like an outsider. Yet I do happen to think that America is very rich in culture, and I really enjoy my time there. When I first got [to San Francisco], when I started speaking English, they didn’t understand me, and they refused to understand me unless I spoke with the perfect pronunciation. That was very shocking for the first four or five months.”
Thanh Charles can attest to that.
“When I came back, I had to learn Vietnamese, and my wife will still tell you my Vietnamese is terrible,” he laughs.
Tran Mai prefers not to categorize people so simply as “this or that”. She remembers being young and hearing that her Viet Kieu uncle was coming to visit family in Vietnam, and expecting gifts and money simply because he was coming from a rich country.
Now, having seen both sides of the issue personally, she knows that it’s never easy to reduce people into neat definitions.
“If I had to categorize I would probably say there are the Viet Kieu that really connected with the Vietnamese culture early on in their life, and then there are the people that didn’t really imprint the culture,” Tran says. “When they come back to Vietnam, they look like they should know the language and how everything works. I think it is difficult for everyone, no matter where you’re from.”
Most of the people I talked to didn’t like having to try to define people so much. There was an overall feeling that with the rapid changes in technology and global commerce, that anything is possible, and sticking to outdated ideas of cultural identity isn’t helping anyone.
There’s an increasing trend that Tran sees as she works with fresh college graduates in her industry. A kind of pie-in-the-sky idea of making it to the West, and a feeling that once this is accomplished, they will have finally “made it”.
“I have a message for young Vietnamese: stop being superficial.” Tran Mai says emphatically. “Stop thinking that moving to a Western country will solve all of your problems. It is very, very hard in the States. I live in San Francisco, and I am working all of the time. If I get up at 6.30pm to leave work, people would laugh at me. Many of the people I work with are in the office until midnight. There’s a lot of to-go meals and sleepless nights.”
Phan Van, owner and chef of uber-popular Ichiba Sushi, was born in Saigon, but grew up in America. He echoes this sentiment.
“I didn’t know that the skills I was learning in the USA would translate so well back in my home country,” Phan explains. “You live and you work for the system there, just like anywhere else. But I would say that it is very stressful there. Over here [in Vietnam] you can think, and you can develop and utilize the energy and passion of the young people to make something out of your ideas. Each country has their good and bad side. It doesn’t matter what you know, it’s who you know, and that’s true across the world.”
I found it ironic that so many people that I know back home fantasize about “escaping” the West and going abroad to find themselves. To search for opportunities outside of tending bar at a restaurant, or working entry-level jobs in order to slowly chip away at their exorbitant university debts.
We are all much more similar than we may be aware.
Finding a Sense of Belonging at Home
According to the 2010 census, there were upwards of 1.8 million Vietnamese Americans living in the US. Vietnamese make up more than 5 percent of the population in Cambodia as of 2011. As of 2014, there are over 300,000 Vietnamese living in France.
Yet, how many Vietnamese sojourners have come back to their birth nation to reconnect with their roots, and to help build up once again the strong, admirably proud culture that their families had to leave behind for many years? That’s a more difficult number to come by.
Perhaps the time has come to focus on how the Vietnamese people returning home as a second generation, empowered with a new set of skills and education, will choose to handle the future of their nation.
Cao Do Vinh, a Saigon-born entrepreneur that immigrated to Hawaii during the second wave of refugees in the 1980s, and came back to Vietnam by way of Los Angeles in 2015 is thinking differently. He’s working in technology and intellectual property, hoping to develop educational and production systems for hydroponics and sustainable farming. He sums up this ‘future improvement’ idea quite well.
“I suppose I look at success in a different way than others do.” Cao Do says. “I came home to help my people, not to make a dollar. If you’re constantly fighting to survive, you will constantly be fighting other battles, instead of being able to focus on the more important, inner layers of life. I measure my success not by the money I make, but by how many lives I can touch by transforming them from the inside out.”