This is the first formal interview I conducted. It was in English. A version of it has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News (Online Vietnamese version here). I could not get the English version done until now.
Hung Cam Thai is a tenured professor at Pomona College. He divides his time between Los Angeles, Saigon, and Dubrovnik.
Anvi Hoàng: What could you tell us about the current project?
Hung Cam Thai: This new book that I’m going to release titled “Insufficient Funds: Money in Vietnamese Low-Wage Transnational Families” in some way extends what I am talking about in my first book but focuses on money. It explains and describes the ways in which people send and receive money across transnational boundaries. I explain why Vietnamese people, most of them are low-wage workers, continue to send so much money back to their family back home. Then I also examine what these people back home are doing with the money. Finally I look at the social conflicts that result from the processes of sending and receiving money. In 2010, remittances were ten billion dollars compared to 1991, which was only thirty-five million. Think about this money flow: people don’t understand what is going on. The book helps people understand who is sending the money, who is receiving the money, and all the problems that exist in these families. Ultimately my argument is that there is a lot of miscommunication in what people think are proper needs for money. What I found is that most Vietnamese Americans who send money home are those who cannot afford to do so. In one of the chapters, I look deeply at how some low-wage workers borrow money from credit cards paying annual interest of 15-20% to send home. Outsiders would think these people send money home because they care for their family back there. I make the argument that it is much more complex than that.
AH: There is already a consuming trend in Vietnam created by the remittances. Did you come across it in your research?
HCT: Yes, that is exactly what the book looks at – the new consuming culture and essentially the unrealistic expectations for Việt Kiều money. But the question is why the Việt Kiều continue to send the money. I make the argument that many of the Việt Kiều who send money do it because it brings them a lot of social status. They are buying what I call “emotional credits.”
AH: What will be the emotional reaction of the Vietnamese when they read this book?
HCT: I think the people who send money will identify themselves with many of the people I talk about, but many of them will be surprised to find out that much of the money they send home is being used for purposes that they don’t intend for it to be used. I also think that many of them will see a language for talking about the reality of this money flow. Of course nobody wants to say that, “I give you money because it brings me status. I give you money because I know that I’m buying your love, your respect.” My book helps basically to confront this issue in reality for the Vietnamese community. And this is also a universal problem. In many families in the U.S., for example, not just immigrants, many men give their wives a lot of things even when they cannot afford them. They over-spend because overspending translates to what they think as love. In many ways, this remittance is some version of that.
AH: During the process of interviewing, did you see the interviewees stop and think about all this?
HCT: I interviewed many people who, either because of the misunderstanding or because they cannot handle the unreasonable expectations from their family, disown them. It is interesting because these Việt Kiều spoiled their family in the first place and that is why they [the family] keep asking. It is like a parent spoiling a child. You give the child so much the child does not know the limitation so the child keeps asking and expects that it comes regularly. What happens is that the families in Vietnam do not know how hard their family members in the U.S. have to work. They only know that their family member sends them money, so they take it. Over here, we have a culture of giving; over there they have a culture of receiving; but they don’t communicate about the limitations. It is a very sad reality in those transnational families.
AH: Did you mean to bring this reality to people from both sides?
HCT: As a sociologist, what I try to do is to make things that people take for granted, that people assume is the normal case, to be problematic and to be foreign. The task of a good sociologist is to expose problems that are not exposed because people think that it is OK. I didn’t go into this project thinking of criticizing Việt Kiều or the families in Vietnam. I began the project just trying to understand how the Vietnamese at home spend the money they receive from abroad, how their quality of life would improve because of this – I was hoping to report on that. And then I realize all these problems which I think are very interesting.
AH: What is the percentage of people who had a change of heart and disown their family?
HCT: It is about 15%. For this project I interview 140 people. After about 60 people, I already see the same pattern. This project also involves both men and women who send money home.
AH: You also have a memoir on the way. What is the difference between your memoir and those already published?
HCT: I think my memoir is very different. I teach at Pomona, a liberal arts college, which is one of the most difficult colleges to get into in the country. I am the only Vietnamese American sociologist at a liberal arts colleges. My book will detail my journey from poverty to this point. Some of it will describe what you already read about – my family history, the accomplishment, the struggles, I explain how I got to this point – a kind of tell-it-all story. A lot of the Vietnamese memoirs so far are about people who grew up in immigrant families, how they achieved something and they became successful, they achieved the American dream – very predictable. My book describes the context of how I develop a strong relationship with Vietnam and why that has become a part of my identity, not only to my professional but also my personal life. I think the interesting part is that most memoirs already published are about people who are privileged, middle class – even though they are refugees, the family holds up together and they become so successful. My book tells a different side of the story. My book says that it is not the case for some Vietnamese families. There are many dysfunctional families, like the one I grew up in, and we need to talk about those kinds of conditions in Asian American families. It is not a flattering book and will probably offend many people. It exposes my family in a negative way.
AH: You chose to teach at Pomona College. So far, have you achieved the goal of making a difference in your students’ lives?
HCT: Yes, I feel like I make a difference everyday. 80% of the students I teach come from extremely wealthy families. From the last statistics I read, 40% comes from families that make more than four hundred thousand dollars a year. Many of them will end up being powerful people, not because they work hard but because of connections. Many of them were born with luck and inherited advantages. Many of them have very little exposures to things like poverty, immigrants, third-world countries. The pure fact that I am here, I am exposing those facts to my students. I think I change the way they think and their career choices. Some come in thinking they want to become a computer scientist or a surgeon, for example. They take my class and they change to want to become a social worker or a public health administrator or a novelist. The reason they make that decision is: for the first time in their lives they learn about poverty and the disadvantages of third-world countries that without people like me, they would never learn about. My past is very different than a typical Pomona professor’s.