Nhi Lieu is such a happy and cheerful academic professor. She laughed more than any professors I’ve met before – great energy to be around. Her research is an important contribution to the understanding of the Vietnamese diasporic community in the U.S., for both scholars in the field and the community itself.
Anvi Hoang: There are a lot of interesting stories in your book. In a nutshell, what is American Dream in Vietnamese about?
Nhi T. Lieu: [Laughed]. It is about a lot of things. It is about the formation of identity of an immigrant/diasporic group. It looks at popular culture and other forms of cultural productions as sites of study. What’s new and interesting about this project is that it looks at this refugee/minority population through a different lens – it looks at everyday life and the ways in which popular culture and things in the everyday affect the social, cultural, political aspects of a community.
AH: Did you have Vietnamese audience in mind while you were writing this book? Who were they?
NTL: My parents [laughed]. I wrote the book for an academic audience and I hope that the new generation of students at the universities would learn about the experiences of their own community, and people who are part of this community – some of them are actively participating in these cultural forms not really understanding the context of how they emerged, not really understanding what it means to feel nostalgia toward the homeland. A lot of these students have no connection to Vietnam except through forms of popular culture. They’ll go to the áo dài pageant, they’ll watch Paris By Night, and listen to the music, but not really understand the context of how, for example, the music from Khanh Ly emerged, or why the diaspora has nostalgic longings for the homeland.
AH: What is the importance of the music variety shows to the Vietnamese community and their cultural identity formation?
NTL: They operate in very complicated ways but for the most part, they work by connecting to what they define as “culture.” Part of it is a move to preserve Vietnamese culture; part of it is an understanding of what “Vietnamese-ness” is about. In these videos you can learn a lot about history, language, and culture. Even the comedy skits are indicative of the issues that the community faces. And they are meaningful in those ways because they reflect but also capture what the community is experiencing as it assimilates and acculturates into the United States. And these forms are not only about cultural preservation, they’re also about engaging with U.S. popular culture. There are a lot of performances that connect and bring in aspects of American culture, which are then folded into the acts. In the book, I discuss how Paris by Night uses West Side Story, for example, as it is reinterpreted for the Vietnamese audience – it is like multiple re-appropriations of American culture that then gets rendered as Vietnamese.
AH: You mentioned in the book the overlapping diasporas between the Vietnamese and the Chinese when Little Sai Gon was built. Did you see it played out in the music variety shows?
NTL: Yes and no. I think they were not able to really compete with the sheer abundance of the films that were produced in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now Korea. So what happens in the shows themselves is that there was an effort to engage with and connect to – because there is no way they can compete with these forms of culture. So they align themselves with Korean productions, for example, instead of challenging them. What they did was team up with the people producing Korean popular culture and they went to perform in Korea. Incorporating these other forms were a way to add to the Vietnamese experience – but not the Vietnamese from Vietnam experience, the Vietnamese American experience – that is also a statement of modernity. In this sense, “We’re modernized and we want to be modern the way Korea is modernizing.” There is also a Vietnamese American-ness in these cultural productions that places a stake in diasporic Vietnamese-ness. It is not just about Vietnamese in Vietnam – it’s actually against the Vietnamese in Vietnam. It is about the diaspora and its strength in forging a diasporic identity with Vietnamese communities in the other nations that are modernizing as well.
AH: Is there a strong Chinese influence in those videos?
NTL: There is a distinction and I think the war is what distinguishes the Vietnamese experience from the Chinese experience. The war in itself really takes precedence when Vietnamese Americans are articulating their identity. The Chinese see the war as having an impact on their identity but I think I might have argued that, and I am citing Chuong Hoang Chung’s study where he says that immigrants who are of Chinese descent have travelled so much, that the Chinese have picked up and left, picked up and left, picked up and left wherever they’ve gone. This is part of their migration – you can make that argument for Vietnamese Americans, too, now given Katrina and all other recent events where they picked up and left. They’re part of this narrative of migration in recent developments. But the fact that the war is so much more meaningful for Vietnamese immigrants has a lot to do with their own identity.
It is funny with the way my mom is always separating Chinese and Vietnamese through food [laughed]. She would say that, “Vietnamese food is based more on fish sauce and Chinese food is more soy sauce based.” It is the most barebones and symbolic way of thinking about identity through this food connection. Even in something as simple as áo dài – but áo dài is totally influenced by the Chinese and the French – it is always articulated as authentically Vietnamese. It is interesting that Vietnamese have claims over these things. So the war and the meaning of the war then separate Vietnamese immigrants from Chinese immigrants because Chinese immigrants see the war as part of another process that induces their migration, whereas the Vietnamese have a real stake in their national identity that relates to the war.
AH: Could you talk about the symbolic meaning of the beauty pageants in Vietnamese communities?
NTL: [Laughed]. Beauty pageants are one of the ways in which the community engages with gender, with ideas about self and women’s place in the community. They’re also symbolic of other dynamics that occur such as the symbolic display of culture. A lot of it is symbolic for women. This is the only avenue for women to showcase their abilities to retain and navigate culture in the diaspora. This is one instant where women can be perceived as having power as cultural bearers of the lost nation, and as newly assimilated subjects in American society and throughout the diaspora. Beauty pageants are very meaningful because it allows the community to showcase what they perceive to be authentic cultural forms. It is a display of pride in the community.
AH: Could you talk about the Vietnamese cultural identity struggle involved in the building and naming of the area now called Little Sai Gon (over a Pan-Asian American village)?
NTL: My argument is that it is part of this recognition of the Vietnamese community and their struggles to forge an identity in the United States as subjects who experienced the war. The mobilization occurred because they didn’t want to disappear – they want to assert this distinctive identity as refugee subjects of a war that Americans failed to help them with. The nit-picky ways of articulating Vietnamese-ness demonstrate that there are larger issues involved here, because Vietnamese culture is something that is constructed, as is Chinese culture. These are subtle constructions but both ethnic communities are invested in their own political stakes. So it is about a political articulation of Vietnamese-ness.
AH: What is authentic about Vietnamese culture?
NTL: I don’t believe there is such a thing [laughed]. It is totally constructed and that’s why I am arguing that there is a concerted effort to make it authentically Vietnamese. I think it is important to contextualize it within history, especially of the war. This experience is unique because of the war and there are historical connections to be made. We can claim something as Vietnamese but the historical origin can never really be traced.
AH: Your study shows that Vietnamese identity in the U.S. is formed by the social political circumstances many of which are out of the control of the Vietnamese?
NTL: Yes. The Vietnamese have tried as much as they can to control it but a lot of it is out of their control. The fact that they are considered as a refugee group in need of assistance is not something they can do a lot about. They can control it in ways that are productive to their own interests. For example they mobilize against communism under those kinds of arguments.
AH: What is the future like for the Vietnamese community?
NTL: In the conclusion, I try to engage with the future and what it means for the community. I think one of the interesting aspects of what’s going on currently is there’s a lot of back and forth, the transnational exchange, that is in the realm of the private. [Laughed]. People are doing these things but they don’t want to admit to it. Because in the end, this community is still against communism to its core. Until this nation that they once called home becomes a liberal democracy, people are not going to publically recognize it as something legitimate.
AH: What is the relation of the homeland and the diaspora in terms of efforts to look for happiness?
NTL: In my new project, I am examining images of bridal photography to see how they engage with ideas about assimilation and modernity. I study how it is part of this larger process in which immigrants are looking to the homeland for authenticity. The gaze is multi-directional in that the people in the homeland are looking to the West to see how they would construct their images of happiness in marriage. At the same time, immigrants in the United States are looking back to Asia to see how they can authenticate their experiences because having been here a decade or two they are no longer in touch with their authenticity. So on their wedding day they decide, “ I think I want to go ethnic” [laughed].
This is part of how I conceive culture too – culture is always a beautiful set of ideas, that it is not something authentic. Authenticity is not ever reachable, in a sense.
Nhi T. Lieu is assistant professor of American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of The American Dream in Vietnamese (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Her other published works have appeared in Frontiers: Journal of Women Studies and Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. Her new book project tentatively titled, Beautiful Citizenship: Transnational Asian/American Embodied Practices in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism, explores how the strategies of consumption in private and personal choices in fashion and beauty reconstitute cultural and racial identities while transforming meanings of citizenship through embodied practices.
Interview in English. A version of this interview has been published by Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.