Sarah G. Grant
Hao’s first trip to the U.S. was not what she expected. After nearly forty-eight hours of travel and two layovers with her young child in tow, she landed in New Orleans for a long drive to St. Landry Parish. She flew in after dark. The swampy physical surroundings she would come to know remained a mystery until days after her jetlag wore off. And while the eighty-five percent relative humidity smacked of Saigon, nothing else reminded her of home.
Her arrival to this relatively rural part of Louisiana marked the first time someone from her family set foot in the U.S. With a working husband, young child and no driver license (nor car) she was generally isolated and deeply homesick. Her vast network of friends and family in Saigon felt even further away since she had no wireless internet, but once she purchased a second-hand unlocked smart phone, conversations with her brothers and mother became part of her daily routine, providing some sense. Hao scheduled everything in her life around GMT +7, the daily time back in Saigon.
But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana.
Our conversations in 2013 during her first months in the U.S. were marked by a longing for her family, the ease of motorbike transportation in Vietnam, Vietnamese food, and the vegetables and herbs needed to cook her favorite dishes. This is no surprise, for food and diaspora have long been the subject of inquiries into place-making, identity, and livelihood. But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana. Given her transportation limitations and child care obligations, the Vietnamese diaspora in New Orleans might as well have been in Saigon. She was caught between places and communities all at once. Also caught between categories, Hao did not fit neatly into any of them. Her lived experiences in Vietnam, Louisiana, and eventually California all individually shed light on what it means to long for her homeland in Vietnam, but also California—a place that may serve to mitigate her homesickness and uncertainty about life in the U.S.
As Hao acclimated to Louisiana and the southern U.S., she spoke carefully and with intention about Vietnam, but she also pondered a life in California. She often asked me questions about “what it’s like in Cali?” Locating the Vietnamese diaspora in California requires locating California not in one particular place but in multiple places, simultaneously. Hao was formulating California as the nucleus of Vietnamese diaspora—as a place marked by an established Vietnamese speaking community with persistent social, cultural, and economic ties to Vietnam. Although New Orleans, just a few hours away, has a similarly significant Vietnamese diaspora, Hao knew little about the city, its size and diversity, or the community of migrants she may have identified with. As a recent migrant with an American husband and two young children growing up in the U.S., she did not fit neatly into the Vietnamese “refugee” category nor did she have the social and economic capital that some of her distant friends and acquaintances from Vietnam enjoyed as recent migrants. She more so felt disconnected from any sense of local community in Louisiana—living hours from a major city with a Vietnamese market might as well have been a world away. Yet in drafting a mental map of Vietnamese diasporic culture in California (however real or imagined) she engendered new opportunities for herself and her family.
Yên Lê Espiritu has examined the persistence of the “refugee” category in U.S. scholarship despite the existence of “multiple migrant categories, from political exiles to immigrants to transmigrants, as well as a large number of native-born” Vietnamese. However, over the past decade literature on the Vietnamese American diaspora emerged, which was a and necessary surge in critical refugee studies. This nascent but growing literature on Vietnamese socialist mobilities has opened up new possibilities for understanding the diversity of migrant communities across the spectrum and their respective lived experiences. Hao’s experience might even further an understanding of what it means to occupy multiple migrant categories at once, as well as what it means to construct California as a community despite her physical distance from it. After all, even without familial ties to the U.S., the two regions she was most familiar with prior to her arrival were Orange County and San Jose. Illuminating Hao’s experience helps us understand the complexities of new Vietnamese migrant experiences and how California is constructed as a particularly valued place for some Vietnamese migrants. Furthermore, her experience provides a reminder that despite the amount of uncertainty that encapsulates migrating to the U.S., the possibility of a better quality of life is still real.
During Hao’s first few months in Louisiana she lived vicariously through my own frequent visits to Little Saigon in Orange County and occasional trips to Vietnam where I spent late nights drinking and eating in a Saigon alleyway with her family. Years later, by the time I visited Hao in Louisiana, she had cultivated a full-fledged Vietnamese culinary garden and perfected her Vietnamese-style Cajun crawfish boil recipe long before she would see a crawfish boil spot every few blocks in Southern California. Without ready access to Vietnamese enclaves elsewhere in the U.S., where food is inextricably linked to homeland, Hao sated her nostalgia and dearth of community relations with Vietnamese herbs and creative southern/Vietnamese fusion. She was ostensibly carving out a new home with her family in Louisiana. Although, Southern California, and all that it seemed to offer by way of Vietnamese community and culture, called to her.
Hao’s perception of Little Saigon was shaped years before she left Vietnam by her working in restaurants in the urban center of Saigon, learning English through western media and later through her American husband, which all worked to produce an image and expectation of life in America. But chatting with cousins and friends who had traveled to Southern California and living next door to me in south-central Vietnam fashioned an idea of Little Saigon that she would endear herself to.
I had first met Hao and her American husband in 2010 while renting a room next door to their small house in highland south-central Vietnam. I shared my ongoing research with her, practiced Vietnamese, and exchanged life histories. We occasionally chatted about the complicated nature of Vietnamese bureaucracy but we mostly talked about regional food diversity spanning the narrow swath of country. She often asked me about California and the Vietnamese community, eventually constructing her own geography of the state with focal points on the weather, Vietnamese grocers and the best place for mì quảng. As the only English speaker in her family and the only family member with a tangible future in the U.S., she carried the precarious weight of expectation and uncertainty through her daily routine. Not long after we met, Hao moved back to a deep network of Saigon alleyways inhabited by her immediate and extended family and by other Mekong Delta migrants. Here, unlike the highlands, she did not have to worry about the chilly air. She celebrated her network of kin and easy access to the rice, vegetables, and noodles that her family brought up from the Delta and sold in the neighborhood.
When the possibility of moving to the U.S. materialized, she asked me about Louisiana as a residential possibility. All I could come up with was an analogy about Vietnamese regional accents, speculation that she might enjoy the food culture of the U.S. South, and mistakenly mentioned her proximity to a thriving Vietnamese community. Although she knew that the Vietnamese diaspora I often spoke of (Little Saigon) would not become her new home, it remained a place of pure fascination and attraction. My attempts at explaining California and its complicated strata, politics, diverse landscape, and ever-evolving food culture seemed to perpetually pique her interest, even after she joined her husband in Louisiana.
Hao first brought up the possibility of visiting California in the context of a potential job training opportunity in Little Saigon and asked if I would be willing to host her. After years living in the rural South, it was obvious that a break from Louisiana was an underlying motivation for her overall visit. Given my own recent relocation back to Southern California, it was clear that experiencing Little Saigon was paramount. Even without family ties in the U.S., Hao knew of Little Saigon and Orange County with stark detail. When I picked her up from LAX weeks later, she barely spoke as we drove south, past the port, the charbroiled hamburger and teriyaki bowl stands, fighting traffic even after midnight. When she did speak it was only to remark on how many people were out (in their cars). I narrated our journey through the South Bay and marked various arbitrary landmarks. For no particular reason I assumed she would be interested in In-N-Out and so I pointed out one and then two more from our vantage point on the 405. As we crossed the Los Angeles River and the threshold to my neighborhood, I noticed my local phở restaurant flashing “closed” in yellow neon. Hao had never really eaten phở in Saigon. I could not picture her eating it once; she opted for hủ tiếu, cơm tấm, ốc, bánh khọt, bánh mì, mực (dried and grilled), anything from the complex network of alleyways in her neighborhood and just about everything but phở. She still seemed pleased to see a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner and asked if it was any good.
But it really didn’t matter if it was any good or not.
The critical mass of restaurants with chữ Quốc ngữ was exactly what Hao expected from southern California. And her week-long visit was somehow quintessentially Southern California —a drive along the coast, walks on the beach, traffic—but also quintessentially Saigon in its own right. She spent a majority of her time in Little Saigon speaking Vietnamese and grocery shopping for our meals at home. California became the Vietnamese diasporic experience of her imagination. She managed to connect with a childhood friend who had recently moved to Little Saigon to be with extended family. He joined us for much of the week and explained what life is like in Little Saigon. We grilled ribs, okra, and squid while speaking Vietnamese and tallying empty beer bottles in a crate. These moments almost gave the illusion that we were back in her family’s alleyway in Saigon. She had been in the U.S. for a couple of years by then, but California seemed to be a sort of a bridge between her life in Louisiana and her family and friends in Saigon.
As we neared Hao’s departure back to Louisiana, we took one final trip to Little Saigon for a last-minute meal and shopping trip. She packed her bag full of her favorite brand of rice paper, tea, headache relief oil, and dried seafood, along with a separate bag for me to deliver to her family in Saigon that summer. It was not lost on me that she was purchasing made-in-Vietnam goods in a Westminster strip mall for her family in Saigon. Hao finally had the opportunity to show her family that she could potentially call the U.S. home and experience the Vietnamese community she did not yet have in Louisiana. Her family knew that commercially produced chocolate candies and toiletries were available everywhere in the U.S. but “Dầu Gió Đỏ” medicated oil came from a Vietnamese community. A proxy delivery of Hao’s California purchased Vietnamese material goods to Vietnam carried the symbolic significance of finding community, marking her wellness, and assuring herself and her family that California was everything she wanted and needed it to be. It could be a home. In our subsequent conversations, California still existed as an object of desire—a place Hao wanted to return to. Despite the limitations that come with being a recent migrant, California remains accessible. There still exists the possibility of bridging the distant space between the rural southern U.S. and Vietnam through a visit to Little Saigon.
 See Sidney Mintz, “Food and Diaspora,” Food, Culture, and Society 11.4 (2008): 509-523; Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).
 Yen Le Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1/1-2 (February/August 2006): 411.
 See Christina Schwenkel, “Socialist Mobilities: Crossing New Terrains in Vietnamese Migration Histories,” Central and Eastern European Migration Review (2015): 1-13; see also http://criticalrefugeestudies.com.
 For more on transnational migration, aspirations, and the unknown see Ivan V. Small, “‘Over There’ Imaginative Displacements in Vietnamese Remittance Gift Economies, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 7.4 (2012): 157-183. Small’s argument that “for aspiring migrants, life overseas may offer a comparatively uncertain future, but it is one that has already been tested by others who have gone ahead and, therefore, imaginatively invested with optimistic promises of social transformation” sheds light on why the uncertainty of migration holds such promise and opportunity for Hao as the first migrant in her family.
 On the importance of the migrant food culture and the relationship between food and migrant communities, see Parvathi Raman, “Me in Place, and the Place in Me: A Migrant’s Tale of Food, Home and Belonging,” Food, Culture, and Society 14.2 (2011): 165-180; see also Daniela Fargione, “Food and Imagination: An Interview with Monique Truong,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16.4 (2016): 1-8 for more on the intersections between food, loss, identity, and change.
 Hao actually would find herself hours from the nearest Vietnamese diaspora in Louisiana. The Southern Foodways Alliance has since produced a number of short films, oral histories, and podcasts on Vietnamese in the U.S. South. For example see: https://www.southernfoodways.org/okracast-sue-nguyen-of-le-bakery-in-biloxi-ms/. See also Vy Thuc Dao, “From the Ground Up: A Qualitative Analysis of Gulf Coast Vietnamese Community-Based Organizations and Community (Re)building in Post-disaster Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, 2015.
Sarah G. Grant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. Her ongoing multi-sited ethnographic research investigates the cultural, economic, and environmental politics of Vietnam’s commodity and specialty coffee industries.
Copyright: © 2018 Sarah G. Grant. 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/.