Click here for the introduction by Lan Chu; here for Mytoan Nguyen-Akbar’s article; and here for mine.

My last post is about a long history article on American Catholicism.  This post is about another long one: my own.  It is published in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, and the entire issue should come out by the end of the month.

The article is part of a “featured section” that includes also an article by Mytoan Nguyen-Akbar on 1.5 and second generation Vietnamese Americans returning to Vietnam, plus an introduction by Lan Chu.

Entitled “Finding the American Dream Abroad?”, Nguyen-Akbar’s article is based on her fieldwork in HCMC for her dissertation. Return migration to Vietnam is hardly a new phenomenon, but this article interprets the return of younger Vietnamese Americans in the context of “an era when attainment of middle class upward mobility has become increasingly elusive for younger generations of US college graduates in the post-2008 Global Recession.”  It engages the scholarship about transnationalism, albeit with a few twists, including the unique past of many returnees as once refugees.

From the conclusion:

The motivations [among the returnees] of going to and remaining as semi-permanent migrants in Vietnam cannot fully be captured through the lens of work opportunities.  Structural conditions made return migration attractive; multinational firms and organizations desired the Việt Kiều as cultural and economic “bridges” between the United States and Vietnam.  The Vietnamese socialist state granted, and continues to extend legal residency, home ownership, and dual citizenship benefits to its overseas population. This implementation of these bureaucratic policies is ambiguous, casting doubt about whether Việt Kiều will make a commitment to stay. Among this class of Việt Kiều, their pursuit of upward mobility was emblematic of the pursuit of the American dream back home, facilitated by the movement of global capital in their for-profit or philanthropic investment projects.  The American dream looks different and takes new forms in Hồ Chí Minh City.

It is not the end, however, and there is one more twist in this transnational and neoliberal order.  The last words of the article:

The Việt Kiều occupy a liminal class in Vietnam in comparison to the adult children of Vietnamese domestic elites who are now coming back in large numbers to assume jobs that previously favored the college educated Việt Kiều. 

Of course, these adult children of the domestic elites are a different topic for a different day.

As for my article, called “From Reeducation Camps to Little Saigons: Historicizing Vietnamese Diasporic Anticommunism,” I began working on it two summers ago.  The topic, however, has stuck with me for fifteen years.  In 2001, I applied to three graduate schools and received offers from two:  history at Notre Dame and the now-defunct University Professors Program at Boston University.  Commonly called UNI, the program at BU was designed to be cross-disciplinary, and drew some well-recognized names among the faculty, including Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow.  But my admission to BU came with too small a fellowship, and it wasn’t difficult at all to turn it down in favor of Notre Dame.

The application to UNI asked for a proposed research interest, possibly for dissertation, and I remember having some difficulty thinking of one. Finally, I settled on something along the line of “studying the experience of reeducation camps among former South Vietnamese military officers.”  In the admission letter, UNI informed that were I to come, I’d be assigned Prof. Uri Ra’anan, a political scientist specializing in international relations, especially Soviet and Russian affairs.

Truth be told, I put down the topic in the application more because I couldn’t think of a better one at the time.  Having lived in the postwar south and among Vietnamese Americans, of course I knew quite a bit about the experience of reeducation camps.  I also came upon some recollections of this experience in publications (usually ethnic journalism) as well as oral form.  One possibility, I remember writing in the application, is to conduct interviews among former prisoners on this experience.  At that time, however, it was an impromptu topic to put down rather than something yet well thought out.

In any event, the idea was swiftly set aside even before I arrived to South Bend. Graduate work buried the topic further.  Thirteen years later, however, it resurfaced for several reasons.

First, Vietnamese diasporic anticommunism has become a topic of academic discourse, especially in the field of Asian American Studies. However, almost all scholars writing about it, at least up to the last few years, are not historians. I find this lacuna to have hindered as much as it advances scholarship. The lacuna also provided me added motivation to look into this subject matter.  “A good deal of this scholarship,” I argue,

has come to view diasporic anticommunism as ideologically extreme, intellectually incoherent, psychologically irrational, politically frozen in time, and culturally damaging to the community. Unwittingly, pathology becomes a dominant lens to interpret anticommunism as opposed to anthropology or political science or history.  Yet it is precisely the historicity of anticommunism in the United States that should be examined and studied.  For too long, much of Asian American Studies scholarship has concentrated on the effects of diasporic anticommunism rather than its cause, on its manifestations and symptoms rather than its origins.

Historicity often has to do with sources, leading to the second reason: an abundance of sources in the form of prison memoirs. Since 1975, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to the U.S. have maintained a vibrant ethnic press and have published a great deal of materials in Vietnamese.  They include memoirs and recollections about reeducation camps: during the 1980s and 1990s, but especially in the 2000s.  They constitute a terrific body of sources for historians and other scholars to work now and in the future.

Third, I don’t think I could approach this topic well at all without having looked first into the anticommunist tradition in colonial Vietnam and South Vietnam.  Indeed, one section in the article is about this very tradition.  Most of this section, I’m happy to say, came from a chapter of my dissertation. This chapter employs some primary sources and many secondary ones from historians such as David Marr, Charles Keith, François Guillemot, and Nu-Anh Tran.

Fourth, living near Little Saigon in the last few years didn’t hurt in getting me back to this topic.  The concentration of Vietnamese Americans, especially former reeducation camp inmates, sure helped to remind alert observers of the intimate tie between incarceration and anticommunism.  On the research side, the public libraries of Orange County, especially in Garden Grove and Westminster, carried many titles of Vietnamese publications, which I utilized in addition to online sources and materials already in my possession.  It was indeed the first time that I didn’t resort to Interlibrary Loan at all for research and writing.

Hi-Tek protestors in a cage by Kien Truc Ly 1999 Southeast Asian Archive UCI (1)
Two anticommunist protestors in Little Saigon and their representation of communist incarceration, 1999 ~ pc Southeast Asian Archive, UC Irvine

Finally, the then-approaching 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon provided a spark to “get something out there.”  The anniversary also helped me read primary sources with fresh eyes, and it pressed me to explore implications to the point that the section on the Fall of Saigon became the most original section of the article.  As far as I know, it is the first time that the shock of national loss to anticommunist South Vietnamese is discussed at length in scholarship.  It is a subject that I plan to develop further in the future.

A large chunk of the article – thirteen and a half pages – describes and analyzes the experiences within reeducation camps and their effects on the anticommunist belief of the prisoners.  In addition to physically and psychologically punitive measures, the prisoners were also ridiculed for their brand of nationalism.  Centrally, the conflict was about the legitimate claimants to the mantle of Vietnamese nationalism: the communists or the former South Vietnamese officials and officers.

The article concludes:

Vietnamese anticommunism in America since the 1990s traces back to at least the political competition between communist and noncommunist Vietnamese during decolonization. Anticommunism intensified during the Vietnam War, and took another turn after the fall of Sài Gòn. Just as the communists saw anticommunist Vietnamese as “the other,” the imprisonment of South Vietnamese government officials and military officers in reeducation camps diminished any hope for national reconciliation.  On the contrary, the postwar experience validated wartime beliefs about the inhumanity of Vietnamese communism.  The carceral experience convinced prisoners and their families that the [Vietnamese Communist Party] was not capable of change in any meaningful way because any change would merely serve the interest of the Party and not the nation.  Once resettled abroad, these reeducation camp prisoners supported anticommunist activities by establishing political networks, organizing public protests, and contributing to diasporic publications and media.  They ultimately shaped Little Saigon anticommunism. 

There it is: without having had a chance to attend BU or study under Prof. Ra’anan, somehow the topic of reeducation camps and I went full circle.  The timing is also a lot better than the early 2000s when emotions were very high.  I hope that the article advances some aspect of the scholarship on Vietnamese American history as well as the history of postwar Vietnam.

Having already acknowledged Lan Chu and Trinh Luu and the JVS editors in the article, I’d like to thank Tuong Vu here for having welcomed a proposal for the Engaging with Vietnam conference in Fall 2014.  Attending that conference not only renewed my research but also refreshed my teaching.  (I was teaching Great Books I that semester, and still remember re-reading Plutarch’s life of Caesar on the plane ride to University of Oregon.)  Appreciation also goes to Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, Janet Hoskins, Mariam Lam, Roy Vu, and all other participants at a day-long conference at Occidental College six months later.  (A special thanks goes to Billy Noseworthy, who couldn’t come but wrote comments on all the drafts.)  Their comments sure helped to think about several issues and sharpen the argument.

Last but not least, the anonymous reviewers provided very different – even opposite – readings and comments on an earlier draft.  I benefited from both reviews, especially from the more critical one because it pointed out a couple of problems and forced me to revise and sharpen the argument further.  As for the other review, it made me smile because the reviewer said that this paper will be read and cited widely.  It was flattering to hear, but I better hold off the prediction on citations.  At least, the article is available for reading and critique.

Oh, an appreciation to JVS for the willingness to publish long.  Now in its eleventh year, this journal seems to have established something of a tradition of publishing lengthy articles, especially from junior scholars, including a hitherto unheard-of ninety-pager!  I completely understand the need for succinctness.  At times, however, one needs space to elaborate sufficiently.  For this one, I was sure glad to have a chance to elaborate my evidence and arguments longer than usual.