Vietnamese Immigrants  


Quynh-hoa Nguyen

The congregation of the Vietnamese Anaheim United Methodist Church, Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, is composed of two major groups—those who left Vietnam by boat (commonly referred to as the “boat people”), and their progeny; and those who were held as political prisoners after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and their progeny.  The stories of both groups are interwoven with the Bible. The latter is used as a bridge for social transformation and adjustment--from the chaotic and traumatic experiences in their homeland into hope and identity reconstruction in the United States.

Accounts of Persecution, Escape and Survival

The accounts of the immigrants begin with the fall of Saigon on April 30,1975.  The events of 1975 ended the war that had divided Vietnam for 20 years. A type of political unity was achieved, but peace was not realized by the general populace.  During Saigon’s horrific final days, hundreds of thousands of people fled Vietnam for fear of political persecution.  Those who were left behind felt hopeless about the future and began to escape by boat. The “boat people” left Vietnam from the late 1970s into the 1980s.  Many of these “boat people” never reached shore.  It is estimated that from 1976 to 1979 between 40,000 and 150,000 lost their lives at sea.  By July 1979, more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees had arrived in Southeast Asian countries. [1] They took refuge in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia for at least a year before being allowed to settle in the U.S. or other countries.  The “boat people” brought with them gripping stories of escape and survival.  Phan*, one of the boat people in the Anaheim church tells her story of six days and seven nights on the high seas in 1989:

    We got a signal of a Vietnamese patrol, so our boat had to leave even before our supplies of food and water could be loaded.  The third day on the sea everyone was starved, thirsty and seasick.  There were little children on board.  They kept crying, pointing to the water in the sea.  The fourth day, we had a thunderstorm, and it rained and stormed all day and all night.  The waters came up over the boat.  It was dark.  We were sinking.  We were trying to bail water out of the boat.  We burned all our clothes and shoes to send an SOS signal, but no ship saw us.  So young, I thought I was going to die.  I was only 22.  There were two brothers in the boat; one was eighteen, the other thirteen.  They did not say anything.  Both of them held on to a tank and jumped into the sea.  They disappeared right away in the water.  We cried.  It was too late.  We were not able to stop them or save them. [2]

Former political prisoners joined the church between 1990 and 1995.  They had been members of the South Vietnamese armed forces or government.  They were brought to the U.S. with their families under the Humanitarian Operation Program instituted in 1987 by the U.S. and Vietnam.  By 1995 this program had facilitated the move to the U.S. of 10,000 former political prisoners. [3]   In Vietnam this group had suffered through political oppression, socio-economic deprivation, and religious persecution. [4]

The Bible and Social Hope and Adjustment

The journey of the “boat people” from their homeland to the U.S. was understood as a “flight from bondage” and a flight into the hope that they would be able to reconstruct their lives in what they considered “the land of freedom and opportunity.”  But, of course, upon reaching the U.S. they experienced first not so much freedom and hope, but mostly alienation and disorientation, insecurity, fear and confusion.  In this transitional period, the Bible was turned to as a resource, as a language and a narrative world by which they could understand who they were and through which they might transform themselves in the strange, new country.  The church’s pastor Tran, who was himself a political prisoner and escaped Vietnam by boat in 1984, shares his understanding of the import of the Bible for the congregation of immigrants:

    Biblical stories are similar to the accounts of the refugees.  We left our homeland, longing for freedom in a better land.  So, we find stories in the Bible related to our lives and these stories become real to us.  The most important stories are Exodus, a story of salvation, and Easter, a story of a new life and hope.  We can relate to these stories as our own. [5]

Making biblical stories their own, they now identify themselves as a liberated people rather than an exiled people.  They form a new biblically-inspired identity that provides them with security in the face of the instability of America society.  Their new identity as liberated people also implies a critique of the communist oppression.  This biblically-inflected political interpretation of their new status is commonly understood among congregants, even though it is not made explicit by the pastor.  Considering themselves as a liberated people does not mean they deny aspects of exile in their diaspora experience, but that they celebrate their survival. The biblically-inflected political interpretation by the pastor is also shared by Mrs. Kim, whose husband is a former political prisoner.  They came to the U.S. in 1993.  She reflects on her experience of being in the U.S.:

    I still think I am a Vietnamese refugee in this country, but I don’t think I am in exile.  Here I am freed from political persecution.  I am thankful for the freedom and economic improvement I enjoy here.  Though I have to deal with many challenges, I have hope for my children’s future. [6]

In her experience as a refugee, she finds in the Bible comfort in times of anxiety as she deals with daily issues in this country.  Kim tells how the word of God calms her in the face of fear:

    I had to rely on my husband for health insurance.  I needed to use coverage every month Unfortunately he lost his job.  I was so worried!  But the next moment the Bible speaks to me, “The LORD will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." [7]
The Bible also speaks to her concern about her children growing up in a culture that challenges many Vietnamese traditional values.  She cites Isaiah 54:13a, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord.”  Kim says, “God’s promises, like this one, comfort me and keep me tranquil about my children and not overly worried.”  [8]

For many among the young congregants of the immigrant church the Bible ironically is sometimes understood as reinforcement and validation of the minority (Vietnamese) culture over against the dominant culture.  Nguyen, a youth leader, asserts the role of the Bible in her life:

    As I struggled with my family and with everyday life, I realized that I needed the Bible every day. Since then, the Bible has been a mirror, a guideline, a reinforcement to which I can keep going back to find structure in my life.  Otherwise, it can get too chaotic.  School taught me to be independent, to move away from home when it was time for college.  Peers are “cool” and lots more fun than family. There was a lot of pulling in many directions.  When my family pulled at me, I just wanted to pull back.  But the Bible reminded me to honor my parents.  Now part of my identity is that of family values. [9]

But at other times and among some of the young congregants, it is not so much the Vietnamese or the dominant U.S. culture that holds sway. For some of them the Bible stands as a mediator between the two conflicting cultures, serving as a guide for them to find their way as members of participants in two different sometimes, conflicting cultures.  Le, another youth leader, alludes to Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians 6, in arguing for her rebellious behavior:

    When I came back from college, I knew that people thought that I was wild and not a girl that was supposed to be in a Vietnamese church.  I went clubbing and all that kind of thing.  For some of the people, that was bad, but to me I felt that as long as I did not get drunk or I did not do anything that might violate my body that God would not approve, then I would be pretty much OK. [10]

The uses of the Bible among the Vietnamese congregants in Anaheim bear similarity to the uses of the Bible hermeneutics within social-political contexts that have been defined as the Peoples’ Reading, “reading as a single act where the text and life coalesce.”  [11] The Bible is used to interpret their lives. [12]   This is true of the Vietnamese congregants in Anaheim, as the pastor makes clear regarding his own use of the Bible:

    In the first years, I normally used the Exodus story to remind our people of who they are. Now that the church has grown, I tend to look at the needs and problems in their everyday life to find biblical stories that have a message for them. [13]

Viewed from the People’s Reading hermeneutics, the Vietnamese congregants’ appropriation of the Bible rightly critiques Vietnamese Communist oppression, but sees America as the Promised Land, and therefore above social and political criticism.   In this stage of their exodus, when they are exiles and guests in a new land, they read the Bible and find in it an inspiration to construct and transform their personal and small group lives rather than oppose a socio-political institution.  They are also reluctant to take upon themselves the challenges of socio-political critique. [14] 

[*] All names have been changed to protect subjects.
[1]Linda Hitchcox, Vietnamese Refugees in Southeast Asian Camps (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 69-74.
[2] Phan, telephone conversation with investigator, Anaheim, CA, 8. Nov. 2003.
[3] James M. Freeman, Changing Identities: Vietnamese Americans, 1975-1995 (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), 36, 63.
[4] The investigator of this site recalls her own dramatic life story as part of the larger world event: “I can recall my own experience as the child of a political prisoner: After the fall of Saigon, my father was incarcerated for political reason and my family had to leave the city for the small village where my grandparents had lived.  It was the place where a major battle had taken place, so when we got there it was devastated and dangerous with land mine.  I was going up to the fourth grade, but the village school only went up to the third grade.  I thought that’s it--a third grade education was all I would get.  Then my father came back from the reeducation camp.  He sent me back to school in the city.  I finished high school, but again I was not able to go on to college because my father was a former political prisoner and I was a ‘Christian.’”
[5] Tran, interview by investigator, tape recording, Anaheim, CA, 20 Oct. 2003.
[6] Kim, interview by inverstigator, tape recording, Anaheim, CA, 3 Jul. 2004.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Nguyen, interview by investigator, tape recording, Anaheim, CA, 2 Nov. 2003.
[10] Le, interview by investigator, tape recording, Anaheim, CA, 2 Nov. 2003.
[11] Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial, and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 216.
[12] Carlos Mesters, Defenseless Flowers: A New Reading of the Bible, trans. Francis McDonagh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1989), 71.
[13] Tran, interview by investigator, tape recording, Anaheim, CA, 23 Aug. 2004.
[14] Peter C. Phan, Christianity with An Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003), 232.

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