Phuoc M. Duong
College students universally experience insecurities about life decisions and the uncertainties of the future. In Western and “developing” countries alike, youth are enfolded into prolonged periods of under-employment and unemployment, sinking them into a deep oblivion of change that might never come.
For a majority of students from Vietnam, the journey into adulthood is marked with great uncertainties that lead to a series of actions such as excessive studying or seeking to emigrate to a Western country to ensure one’s educational and occupational future. My ethnographic research in Da Nang City captures the anxiety, emotional and financial investments, and the fostering of social relationships that young adults and their families partake in order to secure a socially and financially sound future. My research sheds light on the urgency of urban students to win admission into state universities as the must-have criteria for constructing a socially desirable public self. This criterion is also a must-have to possess the potential to win meaningful employment in an unpredictable market economy. For those that find themselves unable to win admission into a state university, a reality of start-and-stop career opportunities becomes the norm. For example, students that do not win admission into a university will often spend the next year studying to take an exam again. In the meantime, students find work performing menial labor such as customer service or being a café server to earn some form of income. Some students also fail the second time they take the exam, thus forcing them to continue working to earn a living. For a growing population, however, a life in the United States becomes an attractive viable option to start life anew.
California Dreaming Amid Uncertainty
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises. The term “Mỹ” is the common moniker for the U.S., meaning “beautiful.” During my fieldwork, young adults often asked me about college admission in the U.S. More common than not, students expressed that if they were to come to the U.S., they would like to come to California because they have family there or have heard that there is a big Vietnamese community living there. Some also refer to California because of the Hollywood films they’ve seen, thus further amplifying its dreamlike quality.
Students from Vietnam seek entry into the U.S. through several paths. Admission into a college or university stands as the most popular legal route. However, stepping foot onto America is only the beginning of a pro-longed journey of uncertainties in the foreign social landscape. Students that come to the U.S. to study often venture on the journey alone only with limited English training back at home. Most are not equipped with any prior knowledge of the ethnic tension and political tension in the U.S. Some are shocked by the blatant racism that they experience from strangers because of their lack of command of the English language.
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises.
For college students coming from Vietnam, adaptation to American life requires the know-how to maneuver the legal apparatus like obtaining an ID, driver’s license, and a legal place of residence. These processes are handled immediately after arrival and are often facilitated by family members, friends of the family, or through the courtesy of the college campus they are attending. However, the struggles of the foreign student become more pronounced after the resettlement process when they have to eventually confront the everyday social landscape with limited language skills, lack of comrades and, most importantly, the lack of resources to be a confident social actor.
Confidence as a tool for adaptation is one of the themes that I observed most among two research informants that I have come to know, Thanh and Huy. I have known Thanh since my ethnographic research in Da Nang City, Vietnam, from 2011-2013. I have continued to stay in touch with Thanh through her different life changes since immigrating to the U.S. Our conversations were in Vietnamese with English interspersed at different points, especially since Thanh has been living in the U.S. Huy is currently an adult returning student attending California State University, Fullerton. He immigrated to the U.S. as an adult in his early thirties when he already had a decent occupation in Vietnam as a lecturer and educator. Conversations with Huy took place in English with Vietnamese interspersed.
Thanh appears in my dissertation at various points because she was one of the most active informants for my research. As a student at the high school where I was conducting fieldwork, Thanh shared her life experience as a student herself and introduced me to her friends. Thanh attended one of the highest ranked high schools in Da Nang city with aspirations of winning entry into the Polytechnic University of Da Nang, but fell short of winning admission. Her scores were indeed high enough for her to enroll into a lower-ranked three-year state college, but why settle? Thanh, like many students in her position, was apprehensive about obtaining a three-year degree because she was worried it would not be strong enough to compete with degrees from other four-year universities. Ultimately, Thanh did not choose the three-year college path. She instead enrolled into a more expensive private university specializing in Tourism Studies. Thanh and her family made the sacrifice of choosing the more expensive private university to make her more competitive in the job market.
Thanh attended the private university only for a year and we kept in contact during that time via Facebook, and I also returned to the field for follow up research. She seemed to pushing along with her studies. It was indeed a great surprise to me when she posted a picture on Facebook one day of a passport and boarding pass. The caption cryptically read, “Goodbye Vietnam, I have to try harder.” I messaged Thanh to ask about the suddenness of her departure and she replied that she had passed her interview to come to the U.S. to study. Her family arranged for her to leave immediately.
In the U.S., Thanh lived with an aunt and an uncle who had immigrated to the U.S. years prior. They lived in the American South for cheaper rent and less competition in the nails industry. Thanh worked for her aunt and uncle as a nail technician while attending a community college taking ESL classes at first with the hopes of moving up to pursue a degree in business or even nursing. It was always Thanh’s goal to obtain a degree to return to work in Vietnam or to permanently stay in the U.S. It was never her objective to come to the U.S. to purely become a manual laborer. Her American dreams exceeded this type of menial work.
As an international student without any financial assistance, Thanh became weary that her status was becoming untenable. Her parents were borrowing money from her aunt and uncle in the U.S. in order to pay for her tuition. The debt was mounting and prospects of employment remained uncertain. Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh recounted her life as a cycle of work, home, work, and church on the weekends. She often lamented her situation as nothing that she envisioned because her primary goal for coming to the U.S. was for education. She longed to attend school just like peers around her age did. Thanh expressed that she couldn’t achieve much of a social identity with her current, unmapped pattern of living. She relied on her co-workers to take her to work and back home at the end of the day. Outside of co-workers at the nail salon, she did not have many other social interactions. Due to complications regarding her paper work in August 2017, Thanh expressed to me in a conversation at the height of her disappointment. She frustratingly conveyed the following:
I keep thinking I came here to alter my future but everything that has happened has surpassed the limits of my expectations… I cannot continue to sit and be a nail technician forever like this… I would only be willing to endure this (life in the U.S.) for a few more years by going to my cousin (in Texas) to work then I will return to Vietnam and study again. I would rather do that then bury my youth (chôn vùi tuổi trẻ) at the nail salon… I have been here for almost three years and I can’t even name one friend. Increasingly, I have become a depressed individual with no voice and no laughter.
Following the peak of her frustration in Fall 2017, Thanh reached out to me to tell me that she was planning to move to Texas. I was surprised because it was such a bold move for a foreign student to be so brave to relocate. She was willing to pick up her barely stable American life and live in another state. Thanh asked for my advice on this decision and for me to help her with the process or purchasing a Greyhound bus ticket. When I asked why she was making such a drastic decision of separating from her familial base, she simply expressed that she had a cousin living in Texas and there was a much bigger Vietnamese community there. She would no longer feel isolated.
Thanh made the journey from Georgia to Texas as planned, and similar to past life changes, she writes me from time to time with updates and questions. With the passing of time, through our conversations I detected an emerging sense of joy and confidence from Thanh through the content of conversation that she expressed. Thanh was most joyous when she reached out to me to announce that she passed her nail technician exam in Texas: “Anh ơi, em đậu bằng nail rồi.” When I asked how she accomplished this task, she told me a story of the chain of connections set in motion by the local Vietnamese community in Texas that helped her.
Upon moving in with her cousin, Thanh routinely attended a Vietnamese Christian church. She met workers at a nail salon that introduced her to the owners. She expressed that the owners knew that she was in the country by herself and offered to help her with obtaining her license. The owners of the nail salon connected Thanh to a beauty school that they had social ties with. The nail salon owners assisted Thanh greatly because they allowed her to work while concurrently taking classes at the beauty school. The obtainment of a nail technician license with the aid of the community increased Thanh’s confidence. Now she was able to work without the fear of being fined.
The Vietnamese community—especially the Christian community—not only offered Thanh the help she needed to become a certified worker, but they also created social spaces for Thanh to become a realized social actor. In Georgia, her social interactions were restricted to her family members, coworkers, and patrons at the nail salon. But in Texas, Thanh now has expanded her social network by not only working openly, but also by establishing social connections through the church, of which she is also a member of the singing troupe.
From the Family Unit to Political Freedom
Thanh’s slow integration into American life began at the level of the familial unit, but then shifted to her breaking out of that unit to establish a social presence via the assistance of the Vietnamese American community. This highlights how confidence provides an impetus for discovering new political philosophies. The Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon also provides a foundation for the exploration of political freedom. This phenomenon is seen through the educational life experiences of a returning university student from Vietnam name Huy.
Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him.
Huy arrived in the United States in 2013 at the age of thirty-three via sponsorship from his father. At the time of his departure, Huy was already a legal working adult in Vietnam with a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Despite holding an advanced degree, Huy was not a contracted full-time worker, but instead found periodic work teaching and tutoring students near his home in District 11 of Ho Chi Minh City. He also taught classes at colleges and universities to make a living. Although the earnings were only enough to “make ends meet,” Huy was employed in a reputable field with a steady, decent earning. This made his living circumstances less arduous than a larger number of the young adult population living in Ho Chi Minh City.
Newly arrived to Southern California, Huy first attended Orange Coast College then later transferred to California State University, Fullerton. Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him. While living in Vietnam, Huy expressed that he was very active in choral societies and music clubs, often performing at school and political functions. However, he shared that he only participated in those activities as an avenue to express his passion for music, and not an act of support for governmental ideologies or practice of socialism in Vietnam. In fact, Huy felt stifled by the politics in Vietnam because he did not feel free: “mình không thấy tự do.” One of Huy’s main contentions is that he is a firm believer in Buddhism, but religion can only be practiced quietly in Vietnam and must not interfere in any form of politics. Huy’s family is also from the south with no connection to the northern power holders, and thus he has not personally reaped any rewards from socialism.
As an adult university student in the U.S., Huy continually seeks opportunities to put his English communicative skills to use. In our conversation about adapting to American life as a latecomer, Huy articulates that the reality of living in America is not the dreamland that he once “saw in the movies.” Huy recounted his early experience of arriving to the United States:
When I first came here, things were strange. The reality here was different from what I saw in the movies. Spoken language was difficult. It was hard for me to express my ideas. I remember I asked a man for direction to my school, and he shouted at me! These experiences made me more of introvert.”
Huy expresses great gratitude for the presence of a strong Vietnamese community in Little Saigon, especially for the many Buddhist temples that are in operation so that he can practice his faith. Most important, he feels lucky that the community has given him the support and confidence to exercise his political ambitions, a freedom that he never felt in Vietnam. Per our conversation, I discovered that Huy possessed a strong desire to be an active political actor fighting for causes of democracy. Huy expressed the following in his own words:
I urged myself to study at any cost and get more involved in the surrounding communities… I choose to give before getting. Hence, I have joined a variety of community activities. I have co-founded a club of religion and democracy called Trần Nhân Tông club, co-founded and directed a musical band to entertain nursing homes and communities, joined the direction board of a scholarship fund to support poor and diligent students in Vietnam, co-founded a Vietnamese student fellowship of Fullerton, which is joined and supported by some Vietnamese professors and officials from CSUF, and recently started participating in some programs by a Vietnamese television.
Huy’s revelation forefronts the role of the Vietnamese American community in facilitating his goals of becoming an active social actor. By participating in the Trần Nhân Tông Club, Huy aims to promote discussions and practices that link Buddhism and traditional Vietnamese philosophies of democracy cohesively. Huy, like many Vietnamese Americans living in Little Saigon, hopes for a Vietnam that one day applies more democratic values to its governance in order for the citizenry to express their agreement or displeasures with the government. For the time being, participating in the Trần Nhân Tông club allows Huy to explore the democratic teachings of the former king divorced from political ideologies that he learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese American communities throughout the United States play significant roles in not only assisting new immigrants to establish a legal presence, but also the role of equipping them with the confidence to become social and political actors. Through the stories of Thanh and Huy, attention focuses on the often-overlooked struggles of foreign-born college students to become active members of American life. By linking the building of their confidence to the labor of past Vietnamese American generations, Vietnamese American communities continue to be vital forces in ensuring that newer generations benefit from and further contribute to the accomplishments of the Vietnamese diaspora.
 Phuoc M. Duong, “Unpredictable Agency: An Analysis of Youth and Educational Practices in Times of Political and Economic Precarity in Contemporary Đà Nẵng City, Việt Nam,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, June 2017. This research conducted ethnographic research on young adults, education, agency, and governance in Da Nang City from December 2011 through March 2013. I then conducted archival research in Ha Noi City from October 2013 through January 2014. After that, I conducted archival research in Ho Chi Minh City from January to March 2014. I have returned to Da Nang City to follow up with informants in the summer of 2015, 2016, and 2017.
 Personal conversation, 6 August 2017.
 Personal conversation, 21 February 2018.
 Personal conversation, 21 February 2018.
Phuoc M. Duong holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, and teaches in Asian American Studies and Cultural Anthropology at CSU Fullerton. His current research interest focuses on the labor of young adults in promoting the economic and political “success” of Da Nang City, Vietnam. He is also concurrently researching the development of alternative philosophies of “democracy” within the Vietnamese American population in Little Saigon.
Copyright: © 2018 Phuoc M. Duong. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.