History of Vietnamese-American Women
Vietnamese American Women
The flow of refugees from Vietnam to the United States began in 1975, the year that marked the end of the long war and the reunification of the country under communist forces. As part of the evacuation effort designed to aid South Vietnamese associated with the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, about 130,000 Vietnamese were flown to the United States. Since then, thousands of other Vietnamese have fled Vietnam to escape political and economic persecution by the new government. From 1975 to 1985, nearly half a million Vietnamese settled in the United States.
For Vietnamese American women, the process of migration has been accompanied by important life changes. Vietnamese women in the United States are of course not a monolithic group, but one that is differentiated by such variables as social class and age, each of which shapes the form and extent of the change caused by migration in women's lives.
Although migration to the United States has resulted in greater gender equality, it has also involved important gender-role changes for Vietnamese American men and women. The ideal traditional Vietnamese family, modeled on Confucian principles, is one in which women are subordinate to men in all phases and aspects of their lives. According to Confucian teachings, women are expected to obey their fathers when they are young, their husbands when they are married, and their sons when they are widowed. The ideology of male dominance is expressed in sayings such as "A hundred girls aren't worth a single testicle."
The reality of traditional Vietnamese gender relations deviated from this normative model in many ways. Despite all appearances, women in traditional Vietnamese society had not been bereft of power and respect. One of the most famous historical Vietnamese revolts against Chinese domination (in A.D. 40) was led by women—the Trung sisters—who are widely revered by the Vietnamese as national heroines. Certain systematic avenues of authority and power for women existed in traditional Vietnamese life. Older women tended to have considerable power in the household. As part of their domestic caretaking role, women often controlled the family budget and exerted influence over the family economy. Although men controlled key economic institutions, Vietnamese women did have access to economic resources through their extensive involvement in small business and trading.
A recent ethnographic study of low-income, newly arrived Vietnamese refugees suggests a movement toward greater equality in the relations of men and women who migrated to the United States. The rise in women's power resulted from the complex interaction of many factors. Perhaps most importantly, the income of women had become more critical to the survival of their families. Unlike the situation in pre-1975 Vietnam, the Vietnamese men were unable to find jobs that paid enough to comfortably support their families. Families were thus more dependent on the income generated by women through their employment, which usually consisted of low-paying and unstable jobs such as housecleaning, waitressing, and assembling garments.
Besides economic conditions, changes in Vietnamese American gender relations reflected the male-dominated sex ratio of the Vietnamese American population. Young unmarried women in particular experienced greater power in their sexual relationships with men because of the "shortage" of Vietnamese women in the United States. Migration to the United States had also expanded the Vietnamese immigrant women's homemaking activities beyond such traditional work as child care and housework to include negotiation with social institutions located outside the household, such as schools, hospitals, and welfare agencies. Despite the fact that negotiating with bureaucratic institutions on behalf of the household was onerous work, it was a process that ultimately equipped women with valuable skills that were a resource in women's efforts to exert control over household affairs.
One arena in which Vietnamese American women collectively and actively used the resources that they had gained in the migration process was in situations of domestic violence against women. Women often used informal networks of women friends and kin to intervene on behalf of other women who were the victims of domestic violence. Using such mechanisms of social control as gossip and ostracism, the women's networks were sometimes able to influence positively men's behavior toward women in the family.
Along with these gains, Vietnamese American women also associated migration to the United States with important losses, including the decline in their authority as mothers over children. Many Vietnamese American women felt that U.S. society impinged on their rights as parents, and they were ambivalent about the protection from domestic violence offered to them by the U.S. legal system. The women were extremely concerned that the intervention of the law into family life detracted from the authority and rights of parents to discipline their children as they chose. These attitudes highlight the complexity of women's position within the patriarchal family order, which assigned women to a position of subordination to men but also gave power and authority to women in their relations with children.
Besides a decline in their authority as mothers, Vietnamese American women also associated migration to the United States with a general deterioration in the quality of family life and relations. That is, what had been lost or at least threatened by the move to the United States were the traditions of obligation, cooperation, and caring that had marked their family life in Vietnam.
Nazli Kibria, Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).
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