The Vietnamese And Laotian Communities In The United States

From the 1960s to the present-day United States, various Southeast Asian communities such as Vietnamese and Laotians have greatly increased in population size. With the withdrawal of American troops in the cessation of the Vietnam War, countless individuals were left with only their broken communities. In a humanitarian effort, the United States allowed Southeast Asian refugees to immigrate to America. And although many Vietnamese and Laotian refugees migrated to America, this effort would become deceptive, as many refugee communities would struggle. Vietnamese and Laotian refugees were able to acculturate, but socio-economic factors in the United States caused difficulties with the process of acculturation.

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the history of Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants. It is very important to spread awareness to U. S. born citizens, non-Southeast Asians, as well as the future generations of the struggles of these immigrants. Many continue to struggle with traumas of the past that are difficult to be forgotten and healed. The United States left an ever-lasting impact on the region that is not regularly talked about in history class. This impaction caused millions of refugees from Vietnam and Laos to leave their countries and immigrate to America. In an effort to provide insight, scholarly literature will be used as evidence and analysis.

As Vietnamese refugees settled into the United States, they felt a yearning for their lost nation. This feeling of displacement led to the construction of “Little Saigons”. These were social and commercial districts built to reconstitute the broken community which were densely Vietnamese. Furthermore, the Little Saigons represented the collective goals to have a successful capitalist enterprise overseas as defiance towards the communists and to collect enough democratic power throughout the Vietnamese diaspora to bring back to Vietnam. Trauma from the war and the Communist regime would further highlight the community’s anti-communist sentiments. The Little Saigons provided Vietnamese refugees with a haven in American society to solidify their ethnic identity.

At the same time, affirming their ethnic identity was complicated. There was an interference in the economic expansion and development of Little Saigons due to the overlapping diaspora with the ethnic Chinese. It was apparent that the two ethnic groups’ tensions have carried on to America. The Chinese’s occupancy caused disarray in the Vietnamese sense of cultural nationalism, anticommunist politics and ethnic identity. This influenced the way Vietnamese refugees differentiated their identities from other ethnic refugees and American populous. They differentiated through “language, formal business practices, informal networks, and organizational afflictions. The Vietnamese communities’ anticommunist ideology was an important identification for them in the American communities, but this was indistinguishable from the other Southeast Asian refugees.

Not only did Vietnamese refugees struggle with proclaiming their ethnic identity, but also faced complications establishing a prominent space for their religion. Specifically, Vietnamese American Catholics. Vietnamese refugees recognized being Catholic as being authentically Vietnamese. Hence, creating a distinct Vietnamese parish presented controversy. Vietnamese

Catholics practiced an old-world Catholicism, which noted them as “white” Catholics, that was accepted by “traditional” Catholics. This indicated contemporary Catholic practices have not been practiced, and thus, signifies Vietnamese Catholics as an immigrant group. Aforementioned, Vietnamese Catholics struggled with their institutionalized Catholicism and minority status in the American church system.

From the collective narrative work Vietnamese American 1. 5 Generation, edited by Sucheng Chan with contributions by students at the University of California, the struggles of Vietnamese immigrants can be understood through in-depth historical context. Historically, many were confronted with exile after the devastating win of North Vietnam, which resulted in their involuntary migration to the United States. Through analysis of the individual narratives, the preservation of ethnic identity is perceptible. These individuals felt the moral and cultural importance to maintain their “Vietnameseness” but understood the need to compromise to succeed in American society. The struggle of dealing with trauma from the Vietnam war can also be seen in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, in which she states, “This - not any particular piece of Vietnamese culture - is my inheritance: the inexplicable need ad extraordinary ability to run when the shit hits the fan. My refugee reflex”. The knowledge to know when to run from danger was a trauma passed down from immigrant parents.

On the contrary to Vietnamese immigrants, very few Laotians immigrated to the United States. This is ascribable to the type of migrants they were. The overtaking of the Laos government was more serene compared to the fall of South Vietnam. Although, many Laotians fled to Thailand to seek refuge, their motivations of immigration to the United States were different. The United States viewed the Laotians as economic migrants as compared to the Vietnamese immigrants who were of political oppression. Therefore, the United States was more reluctant to take in Laotian refugees compared to the Vietnamese.

Similarly, Laotian immigrants understood the need to adapt to American society. In Laotian cultural values, certain body languages can be considered rude. This can be anywhere from body gestures to physical contact. The Laotian interpretations of these body languages had to be altered to American culture. More so, many immigrants had to change their family values. In America, family members typically worked outside the home independently of each other. But for Laotian families, working together was necessary to produce goods for a living. This was part of the economic hardship that the Laotian immigrants unfortunately faced. In fact, Laotians found themselves further below the poverty line than Americans. Compared to the 1 out of 10 Americans below the poverty line, there was 1 out of 3 Laotians.

More so, the Laotian community dealt with educational hardships. According to Lee and Southeast Asians in the Diaspora, “Lao students’ low academic performance is attributed to differences between Lao and American cultures” (269). As previously stated, Laotians had to adapt to American society to succeed. More contributing factors to their difficulty succeeding was the students’ hesitation in addressing their language and cultural needs in the classroom. Thus, their level of assistance from teachers was not focused on.

In using the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project, the present-day socio-economic status of Vietnamese populations can be presented. It is apparent through the graph of “Educational attainment of Vietnamese population in the U. S. , 2015”, there’s a considerable distinction between the educational level of a U. S. born and foreign-born Vietnamese.

The U. S. born Vietnamese who obtained a “Bachelor’s degree” is at 37% within the Vietnamese population along with 14% holding a “Postgrad degree”, whereas foreign-born Vietnamese is at 18%. The difficulty of adapting to the United States is a possible explanation for this disparity in the educational levels since those who are foreign-born have tend to have Vietnamese as their primary language. In addition, the graph of “Top 10 U. S. metropolitan areas by Vietnamese population, 2015”, presents Los Angeles as number one with an overwhelming amount of approximately 300,000. These numbers indicated the success of the most prominent Little Saigons in preserving the Vietnamese people.

As previously stated, there were very few Laotian immigrants in the United States. However, the Laotian population has steadily increased since the beginning of the 21st century. A possible reason can be due to the increased immigration rates of Laotians through the sponsoring of citizenship by their relatives in the United States. In 2000, the Laotian population was approximately at 198,000, but was recorded as 271,000 in the year 2015. Also, the rate of an obtained “Bachelor’s degree” for U. S. born Laotians are 37%, while foreign-born are 18%. This number is similar to foreign-born Vietnamese, where a language barrier can be attributed to the difficulty of getting a degree.

Overall, even though the United States provided aid to Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants, these ethnic groups had complications of acculturation, particularly, the Vietnamese. They were exiled from their country, and involuntary migrated to another country in hopes of surviving. Their struggle of keeping their ethnic identity, while trying to succeed in America was a psychological stress for most. Although the Laotians did not suffer as much as the Vietnamese, their economic troubles were worse. Their graduation rates comparable to the Vietnamese ethnic group is staggering. It is important to be aware of these cultural, economic, and historical differences as it may provide insight as to how and why certain ethnic groups in the United States function how they do.


  1. “Laotians: Data on Asian Americans. ” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, September 8, 2017. https://www. pewsocialtrends. org/fact-sheet/asian-americans-laotians-in-the-u-s/.
  2. “Vietnamese: Data on Asian Americans. ” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, September 8, 2017. https://www. pewsocialtrends. org/fact-sheet/asian-americans-vietnamese-in-the-u-s-fact-sheet/.
  3. Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  4. Bankston, Carl L. 'Laotian Americans. ' 2000, 1091-100.
  5. Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. Abrams ComicArts, 2017.
  6. Chan, Sucheng, David Palumbo-Liu, Michael Omi, K scott wong, and linda trinh vo, eds. The Vietnamese American 1. 5 Generation. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University, 2006.
  7. Lee, Jonathan H. X. , and Southeast Asians in the Diaspora. Southeast Asian Diaspora in the United States: Memories and Visions, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.
  8. Lieu, Nhi T. . 2011. American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Accessed September 16, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  9. Zong, Jie, Jeanne Batalova Jie Zong, and Jeanne Batalova. “Asian Immigrants in the United States. ” migrationpolicy. org, March 2, 2017. https://www. migrationpolicy. org/article/asian-immigrants-united-states.
31 October 2020
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