How Ethnic Enclaves and Student Groups Have Preserved an Entire Nation

With my own experience as a second-generation Vietnamese-American, ethnic enclaves such as Eden Center and Little Saigon, and student groups such as Vietnamese-American scouting and Vietnamese Student Association, have all contributed to preserving South Vietnam, a nation lost to war. These spaces for Vietnamese-Americans to come together allow them to directly relate to and have access to culture and has become extremely important because it is the only version of Vietnam still attainable for those from South Vietnam. Without these spaces and community-run groups, South Vietnam’s culture would cease to exist anywhere in the world.

Vietnamese-American community space and organizations founded by cultural grassroots movements create a complex identity for Vietnamese-Americans and bring a very unique perspective to Asian America. Unlike Chinatowns, Vietnamese enclaves such as Little Saigon or Eden Center are not purported to create a small version of Vietnam, but rather serve to save all aspects possible to hold onto a culture that would otherwise be lost after the fall of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The Vietnamese-American community thrives under proud and persevering resistance to what they consider an infiltration of their country by the communist regime. Growing up as an American-born Vietnamese, I am taught that the Vietnam I identify with is here in America rather than back in Vietnam – that the old Vietnam is gone and our community here in America is all that is left of it. That is a very complex identity and ideology to grasp growing up within the Asian-American community at large because most of my other Asian-American peers still identify the nations of China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines, etc. as their heritage. Most of these other Asian-American communities generally do not experience an ongoing hegemonic political struggle with their home government and are not openly resistant to them, and would not describe their home nation as being “lost.”

Vietnamese-American scouting is a huge part of many Vietnamese-American youths’ lives all across the United States. It is one of the first organizations founded by our expatriate parents and grandparents when they came to this country as a means to pass their lasting heritage onto their children in light of the newly lost war. This form of scouting is an especially unique example of community organization because Vietnamese-American scouting units register under the dominant name of Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America. We pay the membership fees, we purchase the American uniforms, we recite the American scout oaths and salute the U.S. flag, sing the Star Spangled Banner, we do everything that is part of this mainstream institution and entity but still gather together as an almost exclusive Vietnamese-American group and thread in the Vietnamese language, reciting Vietnamese scout oaths alongside the American ones, saluting the South Vietnamese flag alongside the American one, singing the South Vietnamese national anthem, devote meetings to learning Vietnamese culture and history, and put on Vietnamese culture shows and performances.

The Vietnamese Scout Association was extremely active within Vietnam but was banned by the government after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and currently exists in exile within organizations such as Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America. Through this, we are able to create agency and instill our culture within a larger hegemonic foundation in the United States and in spite of dominant government prohibitions in Vietnam.

My scouting troop at a Vietnamese Scouting jamboree in Boston, Massachusetts
My scouting troop at a Vietnamese Scouting jamboree in Boston, Massachusetts

Ethnic enclaves such as Little Saigon and Eden Center are also extremely important to maintaining a political economy of Vietnamese culture within a U.S. market. They allow Vietnamese-Americans to produce their culture away from Vietnam. These ethnic enclaves are colored with demonstrations of performances and aesthetics, production of Vietnamese-American television, music, and entertainment, observance of cultural holidays, and the creation and serving of Vietnamese-American food. They also provide Vietnamese-Americans with agency to preserve their culture after leaving a changed home country.

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The inclusions of the South Vietnamese flag as a symbol for all these Vietnamese-American spaces serve as arguably the single most important indicator of a lost nation’s reconstruction and as a strong counter action to the communist government in Vietnam. It also serves as one of our main protections against the threat of being overpowered by communist Vietnamese citizens sent to the U.S. to subdue our communities – it functions as a symbolic identity and ideology of democracy that is able to surpass economic and political force.

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Through these forms of community grassroots organization, old and new generations of Vietnamese-Americans are able to hang on to and develop an identity that is banned in Vietnam. The political ideologies and culture that come with our identity threaten our agency in Vietnam, but in America we are able to preserve them and grow a new community from them.

-Serena Doan

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