reflections of a Vietnam war refugee

This weekend’s Financial Times contains a number of ‘must read’ essays. Here is one of them, a reflection by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen on American identity and the treatment of refugees in the United States.

I came to understand that in the United States, land of the fabled American dream, it is un-American to be a refugee ….

[T]he US dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam war than it did all of Europe during the second world war. This played a role in creating refugees, and because of American guilt and anticommunist feeling, the US government took in 150,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1975. It authorised the admission of several hundred thousand more, and other Southeast Asian refugees, in the subsequent decade. ….

If I was Haitian in the 1970s and 1980s, I would not have been admitted as a refugee, because I was black and poor. If I was Central American today, I would not be admitted as a refugee, even though the US has destabilised the region in the past through supporting dictatorial regimes and creating the conditions for the drug economy and drug wars. I am a bad refugee because I insist on seeing the historical reasons that create refugees and the historical reasons for denying refugee status to certain populations. ….

[I]n the US, where 51 per cent of billion-dollar start-ups were founded by immigrants, and all of the 2016 Nobel Prize winners are immigrants, the country has periodically turned on its immigrants. Beginning in 1882, the United States banned Chinese immigrants. The excuse was that the Chinese were an economic, moral, sexual, and hygienic threat to white Americans. In retrospect, these reasons seem ridiculous, particularly given how well Chinese Americans have integrated into American society. These reasons should make us aware of how laughable contemporary fears about Muslims are — these fears are as irrational as the racism directed against the Chinese. Various other legal acts effectively ended non-white immigration to the country by 1924, and while the door would slowly creak open with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 (when 105 Chinese were permitted to enter annually), the United States would not embrace open immigration until 1965’s Immigration Act. ….

I can’t help but remember how, after we settled in San Jose, California, and my parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store in the rundown downtown, a neighbouring store put a sign up in its window: “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” But my parents did not give in to fear, even though they must have been afraid.

America and me: Viet Thanh Nguyen on his adopted homeland“, Financial Times, 4 February 2017 (gated paywall).

Viet Thanh Nguyen (born 1971) won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press/Atlantic, 2015). He arrived in the USA with his family as a refugee in 1975 and now is professor of English, American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. A collection of his short stories, The Refugees (Grove Press, 2017), will be released later this month. His website contains more information and essays.

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