Deconstructing the 'Good Refugee' Myth

I unravel the inner operations of the “good refugee” narrative stemming from the first wave of Viet refugees, to see how it parallels and interacts with the model minority myth, especially with respect to anti-blackness.

4 years ago

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Banner photo: cover of the first issue of Triple Jeopardy (1971-75), a publication of the Third World Women’s Alliance.

Author's Note: It would be an oversight to write about the construction of an identity without acknowledging my own identity and whom I’m writing for. I am ethnically Kinh, the ethnic majority people of Viet Nam. As with many Viet people – and in fact much of humanity – I am genetically “mixed” (Viet, Chinese, Indonesian, Khmer, and Burmese). I’m writing this to all people who identify as người Việt and especially to non-Black Việts. The land called Viet Nam today has had a long and rich history, where people have been mixing and migrating to and from for millennia and blood purity is yet another myth concocted by whiteness.

“The first function of poetry is to tell the truth.” – June Jordan
“They blew up your homes and demolished the grocery / stores and blocked the Red Cross and took away doctors / to jail and they cluster-bombed girls and boys / whose bodies / swelled purple and black into twice the original size / and tore the buttocks from a four month old baby / and then / they said this was brilliant” – June Jordan

This piece is about my personal journey in deconstructing the model minority myth and its cousin, the good refugee narrative, to situate myself in the fight for Black Liberation as a non-Black Viet person. I trace the history of when Viet people arrived en masse in the US after 1975, when the concept of an “exceptional refugee” deserving of US protection emerged. I explore how the framing of the “grateful” refugee functions as an anti-Black and Orientalist invention.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive record of Asian American or Viet American history. It is further not intended to dissect all the ways that the model minority myth have created damage and division in intra- and inter-Asian communities and with other racialized groups. I write this piece in hope of contributing to more dialogues and understanding, stronger coalition-building, and collective healing.

The model minority construct has been a topic of fervent discussion among the pan-Asian diaspora in the U.S. in the wake of the movement for Black Lives in 2020. These conversations enable increasingly more Asian Americans to dissect and understand that “model minority” is a harmful tall tale invented to cast other racialized groups of non-white people, especially Black people, as the “problem minority.”

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge the deeply complicated and fraught label “Asian American.” Who consider themselves “Asian”, and who are considered “Asian” are ongoing discourses. For instance, the U.S. Census defines “Asian American” as those having origins in East, South, or Southeast Asia; and, absurdly, it categorizes Central and West Asians, like Afghanis and Palestinians, as white.

In this piece, I will refer to “Asian American” and “Southeast Asian” as political identities in the spirit of  Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “strategic essentialism,” which proposes that, even with strong differences and ongoing debates, it can be useful to temporarily essentialize ourselves to achieve common goals.

Broadly, in the colonial hierarchy, Southeast Asians have often been ranked lower in status than East Asians. Within the Asian American umbrella, Southeast Asians – namely the various ethnicities from the former French Indochina colonies: Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam – occupy a specific position in the U.S. due to our migratory paths.

Furthermore, within that specific Southeast Asian umbrella, Viet people have historically been stratified above Montagnard, Hmong, Khmu, Iu Mien, Lao, and Cambodian people – a result of various factors, including internal conflicts, occupation, land conquests, French colonization, and economic, diplomatic, and military involvement by Japan, China, and the U.S.

(Southeast Asia geographically includes Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, and territories belonging to India and Australia. Culturally, Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse with over 1200 ethnic groups speaking over 800 languages.)

“Chị em sao ngủ say quá vậy / Chuông tự do khua rậy bên tai / Ầm ầm vang khắp mọi nơi /  Sao mình không dậy trông người thử xem.”
“Siblings why you’re so deep asleep / The bell of freedom rings by our ears / Roaring everywhere / Why don’t you wake up and see” — Bảo Lương - Nguyễn Trung Nguyệt

Southeast Asians were not the intended recipient of the model minority myth – which was specifically about Japanese Americans who had been the target of U.S. Orientalist racist policies during WWII. Over time, this myth expanded and shifted to incorporate other East, South, and Southeast Asian groups.

The label “Asian American” – while originally meant to be a political identity of pan-Asian solidarity – has also collapsed and concealed the experiences of distinctly different Asian peoples, whose income inequality gap is the greatest in the U.S.. With ongoing calls for data disaggregation, there are also ongoing debates about whether the model minority myth applies to Southeast Asians broadly, and Viet people specifically. This debate is incomplete without a discussion of class inequalities and the various waves of refugee arrivals.  

The first wave, in 1975, consisted mainly of military personnel, educated professionals, and their families. They had higher economic and social resources and had worked for or had strong ties with the U.S. military or the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. Two-thirds could speak English, and about half were Catholic or Christian (compared to 10% in the population at large.) This wave also included those considered orphans under Operation Babylift.

Refugees in the second wave, from the late 70s to early 80s, fled by sea or by land under treacherous conditions in what’s known as the Indochina refugee crisis – many were ethnic Chinese whose families have lived in Viet Nam for generations. Viet Chinese were 7% of the entire population but controlled 80% of the retail trade at this time, and they were the target of the new Viet government in the effort to eliminate the "bourgeois" class.

This wave of refugees included a mix of both wealthy educated people from urban centers and poorer people with less formal education from rural areas.

During the third wave in the 80s and 90s, the American Homecoming Act brought Vietnamese Amerasians (children of Viet mothers and Black or white U.S. servicemen) to the U.S in 1988. Under the UN’s Orderly Departure Program (ODP), three categories of refugees that the U.S. admitted were: former U.S. employees, former reeducation camp detainees, and those sponsored by family.

The majority of Montagnards – people from Central Highlands of Viet Nam who served as front-line war fighters for the U.S. – were resettled at this time, as well as Viet people who spent years in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

Refugees in this wave generally had less formal education, professional skills, and/or lower English proficiency, like my dad. As a former reeducation camp prisoner, he qualified to bring our family to the U.S. in 1994, a year before the third wave officially ended as the U.S. and Viet Nam normalized bilateral relations.

Since the late 90s, Viet people entering the U.S. have been primarily immigrants sponsored by relatives, or international students. (Viet Nam is the sixth leading country of origin for all international students in the U.S.) In 2000, the U.S. Viet population was almost 1 million. In 2018, that number more than doubled to 2.1 million, just under one tenth of the total Asian American population.

Refugees and immigrants’ backgrounds and the institutional and communal assistance they receive can have significant social, economic, and educational implications for them post-immigration. As such, the actual lived-reality of Viet refugees and immigrants vary; however, there are two contradictory stereotypes about us collectively. On the one hand, Viet refugees have been portrayed as hardworking, trustworthy, exceptional, while on the other hand viewed with suspicion as troublemaking high school dropouts, import-car “ricers,” gangsters, or criminals.

Disaggregated data has shown that Southeast Asians do not attain the same level of success as other Asian groups. But the model minority myth wasn’t constructed to reflect reality and nuances. Its main function is to drive a wedge between non-Black Asians and Black people. To see its inner operation, I unravel the construction of the “good refugee” narrative stemming from the first wave of Viet refugees, and trace that specific rope line to see how it parallels or interacts in conjunction with the model minority myth.

in 1975, a Viet refugee identity would be forged from the combination of collective U.S. American guilt and a survival mechanism for arriving Viets

Looking at the word “model minority,” first there is the word “model,” To be a model is to “serve as a visual aid” or to “promote a commercial product.”

With the casting of this role, the “visual aid” Asians in the U.S. are supposed to portray is the upward mobility, economic success, and overcoming of obstacles without any help. The “commercial product” is the racial equality, freedom, and democracy advertised as unique in the United States.

In 1966, at the inception of this fable, Asians were framed as genetically gifted, hard working, embodied good family values, and crucially, assimilable. Asians were characterized in contrast to Black people as “law-abiding” and docile, that they did not incite and provoke the U.S. government demanding for equal rights – nevermind the fact that the very label “Asian American” was created with a political agenda of anti-racism and anti-imperialism in 1968 by people of East Asian descent.

In 1966, across the Pacific Ocean, Viet Nam was, as Robert McNamara said, a “tiny, backward nation” where the U.S. would kill 1,000 non-combatant Vietnamese a week under commands such as “kill everything that moves.” It was a “jungle” that “we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas” according to Ronald Reagan. It was a “fourth-rate power” which Henry Kissinger claimed “would have a breaking point.”

A decade later, in 1975, a Viet refugee identity would be forged from the combination of collective U.S. American guilt and a survival mechanism for arriving Viets, according to Phuong Tran Nguyen in his book Becoming Refugee American.

After the American war, the U.S. was steeped in guilt and shame. Having seen “the first television war,” the U.S. American public was haunted by the horror and guilt from seeing U.S. military violence, exemplified by Air Force general Curtis LeMay’s declaration to “bomb them back to the stone age.” U.S. politicians – especially conservatives – were ashamed of having lost a war which president Lyndon Johnson announced, “I am not going to lose Vietnam.”

The solution to assuage and atone for this was the savior narrative. These refugees were victims – not of a complex post-colonial geopolitical global power struggle – but of communism, of an oppressive “regime.” The U.S. would have the opportunity to rebrand itself as a knight performing rescue – eager to cover up and divert from the accusations of its role and the legality of the war, including its provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin and the so-called secret bombing.

Bảo Lương Nguyễn Trung Nguyệt, who pretended to be a man and joined the revolution to fight against French colonization.

“Rescue,” Phuong Tran Nguyen stated: “made these foreigners appear a little less foreign and a little more assimilable. U.S. American guilt provided the push needed to move refugees past the shame of being homeless, hopeless, and hungry and of waiting for rescue by the same people who had hung them up to dry.”

Viet refugees were treated relatively better than other groups of Asian Americans by white Republicans, whose main interest was in validating justification for their role in the war and saving face from the humiliation of defeat. As communists were and are characterized as evil, the rescue of anti-communist Viet refugees gave hyperpatriotic white Republicans a chance at moral redemption.

Fused with Viet people’s sense of indebtedness and gratitude, a “good refugee” narrative was created. (“Viet refugee” and “anticommunist” would from then on become synonymous. Following generations of Viets would also embrace “anticommunist” as an identity.)

In Little Saigon of Orange County, where the largest enclave of Viet people reside, stories of generous United Statesian sponsors giving keys to their cars and houses abound, but sometimes conveniently left out when the bootstrap story is told, replaced with, “We came here with nothing but a shirt on our backs.”

These anecdotes conceal another reality faced by Viet refugees who were resettled without church-affiliated middle-upper class sponsors, in disinvested neighborhoods and poverty-stricken areas, where institutional racist policies have resulted in insufficient public infrastructure and services, where over-policing criminalizes Black people.

Where the systems put young Black people through the school to prison pipeline, young poor Viet refugees – similarly lacking resources and support, traumatized, displaced, and seeking belonging in gangs – are put through the “war to refugee camp to school to prison to detention center to deportation” pipeline, which continues to tear Viet families apart to this day.

And yet, trapped in the portrayal of the “good refugee,” the pressure to be loyal, patriotic, and to align with U.S. American neoliberal white supremacist systems continues to persist.

That portrayal paints Viet refugees as passive victims with little or no agency who escaped from a heinous society ruled by a vile communist regime and evil authoritarianism. With good intellect and strong work ethics, a good refugee can be assimilated to become a peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying U.S. citizen and attain “the American dream.” A good refugee can even rise to prominent political positions to further racist anti-refugee agendas.

That’s because a good refugee is just different enough to participate in liberal multiculturalism, but does not challenge white Western dominance or believes in its salvation and protection. The refugee rags to riches success stories are used as proof that the U.S. is a fair and equitable society, where anyone, regardless of class or racial background, can make it based on merits alone.

Like the model minority myth, the “good refugee” is not only an anti-Black construct, it’s also Orientalist. It silences, erases, and diminishes Vietnamese and Asian radicalism. For example, I grew up never learning about Viet students in the U.S. who were part of the anti-war, anti-imperialism, and Black liberation movements in the 60s.

A good refugee is a grateful one. Over and over, this is drilled into my head as my parents continuously insist that the U.S. saved us, that they saved my dad’s dignity and gave me education opportunities. “This country gave my family everything,” – a Viet friend declared to me once, a common sentiment I hear among diasporic Viets.

Very rarely, however, do I hear, but what did this country take away from us? Why did the U.S. give $2.5 billion in military assistance to France to recolonize Viet Nam after WWII? Who obstructed the reunification elections scheduled in 1956? How did 20 years of Western sanctions affect poverty in Viet Nam, after the U.S. dropped more than three times as many tons of bombs as the Allies dropped in all of WWII? To inquire seems like a bad refugee move. And indeed, asking questions about the United State’s motivation in the war in Southeast Asia would risk earning me ire, condemnation, and accusation of betrayal and ungraciousness from my family and community.

The model minority myth and the good refugee narrative are cousins. Both are stories someone else fabricated so that I would not know my own, so that I would be complicit in perpetuating anti-Black racism.

In his piece I Remember Anyway, Ocean Vương reminisced, “I remember my mother saying to me: Remember, child—don’t get noticed. You’re already Vietnamese.” Like Ocean’s mom, when I protest military violence in the Middle East, when I challenge America’s proclaimed virtuous role as the arbiter of human rights and the harbinger of freedom, my mom, fearful for my safety, would remind me: “We’re a minority here. Don’t stir up anything.”

“Minority” is the second part of the model minority myth, where in the U.S., it is commonly understood as a person who is not white. In 2020, the word “minority” is being replaced by the term “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” (BIPOC) due to criticism that it is demographically incorrect, and it implies a power imbalance, giving non-white people a lesser social status.

In addition, to me, “minority” obscures an aspect of my identity that’s not the same as that of Black and/or Indigenous people of North America. It doesn’t represent my relationship with the land on either side of the Pacific Ocean – the land where I live now, and the land where I am displaced from.  

Edward Said described the experience of exile as a “crippling sorrow of estrangement.” “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” That sadness is stored inside of me in unknown amounts, until something triggers my memory – hearing a lullaby in Vietnamese, seeing an old photograph of my grandmother’s house – and tears would stream down my face. Those tears would confirm, as Toni Morrison noted “water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

The model minority myth, or the good refugee narrative, and the false promise of belonging in a settler state sever the relationship between Asians living *in* and those living outside of its borders. Under this myth, I’m conditioned to think of a Viet person and a “Vietnamese American” as separate. The myth demands that I give up a part of the former to become the latter. In doing so, I would internalize the model minority narrative which decades ago sought to defang the radical Asian American internationalist spirit.

It is this internationalist spirit that I seek to constantly cultivate and learn from Viet and Black radical thinkers and leaders – from Mariame Kaba who says “I can’t imagine my organizing not being international” to Malcolm X who said, “the struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.”

In that spirit, I reflect on how the Third World Women's Alliance – a Black-led socialist women of color organization – had taken inspiration from Viet women as examples of revolutionary struggle and solidarity in the 1970s, and said, “We see, then, that no matter where people are geographically located… Our enemies are the same; our oppression is one; our similarities are greater than our differences.”

Geographically, I consider myself “in diaspora.” The word “diaspora” gives me an anchor to the “native place” that Edward Said described. Through it, I can learn my own history, Viet history, and the history of U.S. military, capital, and labor policies. From there I can draw the connection between the military-industrial complex and the perpetual wars abroad and the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration at home.

And though the idea of “home” is always in flux for me – “home for the exile in a secular and contingent world is always provisional,” as Trinh T. Minh-ha said – through “diaspora,” I can reflect upon notions of belongingness and locate myself.

Through firmly locating myself, I can situate myself in the fight with Black Liberation not through a white liberal allyship framework, but as a diasporic Viet person with a specific history with white colonialism and the violence that that has brought. I can be a part of the movement for Black Lives, “motivated not by charity or empathy, but an analysis of the intertwined systems of antiblackness [sic], Orientalism, and global white supremacy” as articulated by Minju Bae and Mark Tseng-Putterman.

I am not an ally. I am not here to “help.” Black folks do not need my help. I fight with Black Lives Matter because the fight to end what bell hooks calls the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is also mine, because as the Third World Women's Alliance said, “as Third World women we have a job to do. We must recognize our power and potential in the struggle.”

That struggle comes from the pernicious construct and division of gender, class, and race – which produce and sustain capitalism’s violence, with anti-Blackness at the root. This racial capitalism functions by keeping groups of people in perpetual poverty, whom it considers “surplus” and can subjugate for profit. It functions on the premise that there is a default, superior class of humans, which is yet another fictitious notion because whiteness is a plot device invented to steal, dominate, and exploit humans and plunder the earth.

I fight with the Black liberation movement because within me lies the revolutionary fire of Viet ancestors like Nguyễn Trung Trực, a fisherman who organized and fought against French colonists in the Mekong Delta in the 1860s, who said, “Only when all the grass in Viet Nam has been pulled out, only then will there be no more Vietnamese to fight the westerners.”

I am pro-Black because anti-Blackness is anti-Indigenous sovereignty, ableist, heterosexist, classist, ageist, anti-queer, etc. Anti-Blackness runs through all systems of oppression, which are entwined, deeply destructive, and inhumane. I seek to dismantle them because I long for collective healing, and I also yearn to be free – truly free.

What I mean by free is the flourishing of life, which is presently impossible “with a reformist reform of the current system” – Ruth Wilson Gilmore asserted – “because it rests on an unspoken, or not spoken enough, foundation of colonialism, as well as an unspoken problem of the redress for slavery and displacement.”

What I mean by free is as Robin D.G. Kelley remarked in Angela Davis’ collection of essays The Meaning of Freedom: “Davis’s conception of freedom is far more expansive and radical—collective freedom; the freedom to earn a livelihood and live a healthy, fully realized life; freedom from violence; sexual freedom; social justice; abolition of all forms of bondage and incarceration; freedom from exploitation; freedom of movement; freedom as movement, as a collective striving for real democracy.”

And so, whether the model minority myth applies to Viet people and Southeast Asians isn’t the point. The model minority myth and the good refugee narrative are cousins. Both are stories someone else fabricated so that I would not know my own, so that I would be complicit in perpetuating anti-Black racism.

By definition, a model is someone who performs without speaking. The story of the “good refugee American” is one in which I had no consent or input. In understanding its construction, I can recognize it and let go of its grip on me. In releasing that script, I can narrate my own.

In the words of James Baldwin, “the victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” For those who share the same identity and history with me, I write this piece in the hope we can keep exploring our complex stories, be a threat to so-called white supremacy, and fight for Black Liberation together.  

Written by Nikki Châu on Puget Sound Coast Salish territory, August 2020. Nikki Châu is a child of the foggy hills of the K’Ho, Churu, and Maa peoples, today called Đà Lạt, a child of the waterways of Đà Nẵng, Central Việt Nam, that connect to the Puget Sound Coast Salish via the Pacific Ocean. Nikki is dedicated to the lifelong work of learning and advocating for a world without systemic, interpersonal, and internalized violence. They are an avid fan of xianxia, cats, durian, and instant noodles.

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Nikki Chau

Published 4 years ago

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