According to the United States (US) Immigration Policy Institute, more than 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants live in America. Unlike other immigrant populations in the US, the Vietnamese population has reported significant levels of success, in terms of their social and economic development. For example, in terms of household income, the Vietnamese immigrant population makes $60,000 annually. This figure is $4,000 more than the household income of an average US native family. Additionally, it is $11,000 more than the average income that an immigrant family in the US makes per year.
Statistics from the Immigration Policy Institute also point out that Vietnamese immigrants are least likely to live in poverty compared to other immigrant groups in America, or Native Americans. Indeed, recent data shows that the poverty rate among Vietnamese immigrants is 14%, compared to 19% for other immigrant groups in the US, and 15% for Native Americans. These socioeconomic indicators of development show the progress that Vietnamese immigrants have made after coming to America more than three decades ago with virtually nothing to their name.
This paper argues that the Vietnamese immigrant population in the US has achieved this level of success and continues to outperform other immigrant groups in the country because of strong paternal values, availability of professional and educational role models, and a US government policy that has traditionally favored highly skilled and educated immigrants. We explain this argument in the sections below.
Like other immigrant groups from Asia, Vietnamese immigrants have strong family values that guide their children’s path throughout life. Although there is a clash between certain aspects of Vietnamese family values and American family values, many immigrant families in the US have maintained core values of cohesion, respect, and dignity in their families. Vietnamese parents also encourage their children to succeed in all aspects of life, including education and employment. According to a friend of mine who shared his personal experience with me, he acknowledged that the pressure from his parents to succeed in education was almost palpable. So far, this pressure has been productive as is demonstrated by an article by Hays, which says that in a school in Santa Ana, California, Vietnamese immigrants make up only 15% of the student population but occupy more than two-thirds of the top positions in the institution. A journal excerpt of a student from the same school read:
“Our parents were very strict. My mom and my dad said this: in this country, all you have to do is work hard and go to school. They wanted us to be successful and contribute and give back and that is what all of us did.”
Yale professor and ‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua also shares the view that Vietnamese parents exert a lot of pressure on their children to succeed. Nonetheless, when trying to comprehend how Vietnamese immigrants have succeeded in America, it is important to understand how expectations have shaped the success of this demographic in America. Like the Chinese who live in America, Vietnamese parents often have high expectations for their children, in terms of education and professional career growth. This finding explains why many people say a “B” grade in an Asian family is a fail, while an “A” is average. One Vietnamese student said that her mother could not understand why many Americans celebrate high school graduation with a lot of pomp and color. According to her, a PHD or Masters is worth celebrating and not a high school diploma. This statement shows that paternal values have contributed towards a culture of success that characterizes the lives of many Vietnamese children.
Professional and Education Role Models
Children of Vietnamese immigrants often have a huge pool of role models to base their success on. In the community, most of these role models are either in the professional field, or in the education field. Supporting this view is the stereotype of “hardworking and intelligent Asians” that often meets many Vietnamese students when they go to school. In some articles, students have reported incidents where their teachers have bumped them up to advanced classes even when their grades do not meet the qualification for doing so. This positive stereotype has not only helped Vietnamese students to succeed, but also elevated the levels of success they should meet. Tying an ethnic narrative to achievement has further compounded the success mantra that Vietnamese children grow into. Indeed, it is common to find that many Vietnamese children have a father, uncle, aunt, or brother to emulate or surpass their expectations. Anything short of that would be a failure on their part.
U.S Immigration Law
Although in this paper, we have seen that certain cultural values, norms, and practices of Vietnamese immigrant populations have contributed to their success in America, it is also important to understand the influence that environmental (legal) factors have contributed to their success and prosperity in America. More importantly, it is important to understand the contribution of the US immigration law to the success and prosperity of this immigrant group in the US. Traditionally, this law has been biased towards favoring educated and highly skilled immigrants who want to live and work in America. According to Guidi, the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants fit this profile because they mostly fled from Vietnam because of an excessively dictatorial communist regime. This first wave of immigrants came to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. They mostly comprised of some of the best-educated doctors, lawyers, and other cadres of highly skilled professionals. Although there was a second wave of immigrants that came to the US because they were fleeing poverty and a lack of opportunity, the US immigration law still favors admitting some of the best-educated people from Vietnam.
When the highly educated professionals moved to the US, they were able to create a strong socioeconomic foundation for their prosperity through a phenomenon that an economist, George Borjas, referred to as “ethnic capital.” The ethnic capital has also translated into the development of some of the best-known institutions that have helped the children of Vietnamese immigrants to flourish in America. For example, after-school tutoring programs have benefitted this population and are a common sight in many Vietnamese Neighborhoods in California, including “Little Saigon” where most Vietnamese immigrants live.
The ethnic capital enjoyed by many Vietnamese immigrants has also translated into knowledge because many of them meet in social places where they frequent and share information about the best public schools for their children to go and how to navigate different college admission guidelines for gaining access to the best higher education institutions. The high numbers of Vietnamese immigrants in Ivy League schools explain the benefits of this ethnic capital.
The story of Abby (a friend of mine) manifests the unique social support structure that helps Vietnamese immigrants to flourish because in a conversation we recently had, she told me that, “My parents are immigrants, who do not speak little English and who do not have a high school diploma. However, we were able to use the Vietnamese yellow pages given to us by my uncle, which helped me get a good college to pursue my degree. In the book, we learned important information about the best public schools in the Los Angeles area. We also learned about affordable after-school programs that would help me boost my grades and pass my SAT exams. This supplementary education paid off when I graduated at the top of my class and secured an admission at Berkeley.”
The story of Abby (above) underscores some of the privileges that other immigrant groups in the US do not have. For example, Mexican immigrants in the US are mostly uneducated and work in low-paying jobs. This phenomenon shows that they immigrated to the US under a different immigration policy and history, unlike that of Vietnamese immigrants, which favored highly skilled and educated people. If we stick to the Mexican immigrant story, we find that immigrants started streaming in the US because of the 1942 Bacero program, which allowed Mexicans to come to the US and work for low-wage labor. As a less educated immigrant group, they cannot marshal the ethnic capital seen in Vietnamese immigrant groups in the US. Consequently, Vietnamese immigrants outpace them in different aspects of socioeconomic performance.
In this paper, we have seen that Vietnamese immigrants continue to outperform other immigrant groups in America in different measures of social and economic performance. This outcome largely stems from strong paternal values, availability of professional and educational role models in the Vietnamese immigrant community, and a US government policy that has traditionally favored highly skilled and educated immigrants to come to the US. These factors would continue to dictate the future of this demographic in America.
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