Nina Pham & Vietnamese Postwar Resettlement

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/27/2014 01:30:00 AM
Vietnamese-Americans in focus.
The cruel thing about the Ebola virus is that it infects those who care. Medical professionals, including nurses, are often most susceptible to infection for this very reason. When I first read that the nurse infected in Dallas, Texas was named Nina Pham, I immediately knew she was of Vietnamese descent. Fortunately, state-of-the-art facilities Stateside enabled her to fully recover and even meet President Obama. By now the image above has been beamed around the world. In part, it is of course propaganda to show the American public that the Ebola virus is something which need not debilitate society. After all, of the president could safely hug someone who was infected...

Visiting the White House and being hugged by the president shows part of the journey of Vietnamese-Americans in the US from being "boat people" to full-fledged members of American society. The story of resettlement in Texas is a particularly poignant one. After the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese ultimately wound up in Galveston Bay and other parts of Texas, ostensibly because the warm, humid weather is reminiscent of Vietnam and coastal areas offered livelihoods in fishing they were familiar with. In part, such livelihoods offset the first-generation immigrants' lack of English comprehension:
Between 1975 and 1983, thousands of Vietnamese refugees crowded into unseaworthy boats bound for Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Phillipines, and faced storms, starvation, disease, and piracy in the South China Sea. Statistical data suggest that half of the Vietnamese "boat people" died at sea. At a June 1979 United Nations conference on the growing humanitarian crisis, the United States, Australia, Canada and France agreed to resettle a total of nearly 700,000 [South] Vietnamese refugees. 

In the United States, immigration agents asked Congress to scatter the incoming refugees across the country in order to prevent "ghettoism." This resettlement policy led to the creation of Vietnamese communities in states such as Texas that had relatively little previous experience with Asian Americans. In Texas, many of the new arrivals, facing language barriers and having little capital, found opportunity in the Gulf Coast shrimping industry. "We like the weather, we like the shrimping, we like a chance to start our own businesses," one immigrant explained. Vietnamese fishermen and their families pooled their savings and began to buy their own boats. 

Many white fishermen in the area tried to ward off the competitive threat. Vietnamese shrimpers found that they could purchase their boats only at a considerable premium. "They got hustled pretty good," said an American shrimper. The American fishermen pressured most of the local bait shops to boycott the Vietnamese shrimpers. They also successfully lobbied in the state legislature for restrictions on new shrimp boat licenses. 
The white natives did not take kindly to the arrival of the Vietnamese. As chronicled in Bruce Springsteen's "Galveston Bay," resentful Ku Klux Klan sympathizers set Vietnamese fishing boats on fire as falling prices for catch and competition drove the white natives to violence:
The changing economics of shrimping made the competition even fiercer. The increase in fishing activity in Galveston Bay reduced the available catch, while a rise in imports kept wholesale prices low. Faced with this profit squeeze, many longtime shrimpers went out of business. Others tried to compete by streamlining and cutting costs. Some, however, took more drastic measures. 

Between 1979 and 1981, several Vietnamese-owned shrimp boats were burned in the Galveston Bay area - fires that arson investigators later determined had been intentionally set. There were also reports of snipers firing shots across the bows of Vietnamese boats. On the night of August 3, 1979, in the town of Seadrift, several Vietnamese boats were burned and a vacant Vietnamese house was firebombed, and a fistfight between white and Vietnamese fishermen ended with the fatal shooting of a white crabber. Two Vietnamese were tried for murder and acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Nina Pham, then, is a second-generation Vietnamese-American who has lesser experience of the discrimination which befell immigrants of her parents' generation as they struggled to escape the persecution of both the Communist ideologues and small-minded American racists:
Lifted from the seas by Chinese merchant ships and foreign navies, many who were children still remember the terror and relief of resting on the decks of Australian and Indonesian war vessels, while their parents wondered if they would be processed and transferred to safety, or returned to Vietnam to risk their lives another day.

Some in their late twenties are old enough to remember leaving Vietnam in this way, as the world referred to the refugees as "Boat People," but many of college age have experienced a different world most of their lives. Born in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s, they are sometimes embarrassed by the customs and traditions of their parents and grandparents.

Unbeknownst to many of their children, following the American dream did not come easy for the immigrants. Uncertainty, resentment, and even violent and bitter conflict greeted many of them in Texas, long after they left the aftermath of war in Vietnam behind. In many cases, living in fear of their neighbors characterized their daily lives.

Little is said of the hardships most faced after arriving in resettlement camps and establishing new lives in American cities. Anglo and African Americans talked of the "Asian Invasion" on radio dials and some took drastic measures to reject the newest Americans.
Time moves on and this represents progress, I suppose, from earlier times. 

Billy sat in front of his TV as the South fell
And the communists rolled into Saigon
He and his friends watched as the refugees came
Settled on the same streets and worked the coast they'd grew up on
Soon in the bars around the harbor was talk
Of America for Americans
Someone said "You want 'em out, you got to burn 'em out."
And brought in the Texas Klan