Edited By Peter Rosenberg, Konstanze Jungbluth and Dagna Zinkhahn Rhobodes
Labeling difference – On discrimination and the social standing of children fathered by US soldiers during the Vietnam War
Abstract: Während des acht Jahre andauernden amerikanischen Vietnamkrieges kämpften in Vietnam rund drei Millionen US-amerikanische Soldaten. 1975 endete der Krieg mit der ersten militärischen Niederlage in der Geschichte der USA. Bereits zwei Jahre vor der Befreiung von Saigon, waren die US-amerikanischen Truppen aus Vietnam abgezogen. Was blieb, war der Krieg und die Folgen einer beispiellosen Zerstörung eines Landes. Geblieben sind auch Zehntausende von Kindern vietnamesischer Frauen und amerikanischer Männer, die aus Beziehungen, Sexarbeit, Romanzen und Vergewaltigungen hervorgingen. In der Wahrnehmung großer Teile der Gesellschaft repräsentierten diese jungen Menschen Verstöße gegen einen Komplex unterschiedlicher sozialer Normen.
Die Diskriminierung nahm unterschiedliche Ausformungen an, wobei rassistische Ausgrenzung dominierte.
Mit diesem Aufsatz skizzieren wir Dynamiken politischer sowie sozialer Systeme in Vietnam und ihre Interdependenzen zu den gesellschaftlichen Positionierungen dieser Gruppe. Als Ausgangspunkt dient ein Korpus von leitfadengestützten Interviews mit 29 Betroffenen, die in Vietnam zwischen 2012 und 2014 realisiert wurden.
Schlagworte: Vietnam Krieg, Diskriminierung, Markierung, Intersektionalität
Keywords: Vietnam War, Discrimination, Labeling, Intersectionality, Otherness
Danh1 has started a new job. He works at a parking lot in front of an English school in Ho Chi Minh City and looks after scooters. To get the job, he dyed his rather blond hair black as a precaution, because his hair color is naturally lighter than that of the majority of people in Vietnam. The dyeing of Danh’s hair was a tactical move to avoid being recognized as ›con lai Mỹ‹ – a term used to mark children of ← 113 | 114 → US soldiers and Vietnamese mothers in Vietnam. Danh never met his biological father Joseph, or Joe, who was an American nurse stationed at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Quy Nhơn between 1969 and 1971. No other group of people within Vietnamese society had a connection to the USA so visibly marked on the surface of their bodies as the con lai Mỹ, tens of thousands of children who were born as a result of relationships, prostitution, romances and rape with or by Americans. From the perspective of a large portion of society, con lai Mỹ represented offences against social norms.2 Their social exclusion, at least in its extreme form, began after the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 and the Fall of Saigon in 1975. After 30 years of war, which was a time of fundamental social and political change, social roles and images of the enemy redefined themselves anew – especially in the south of Vietnam. The sex industry was regarded as an indicator of the unsuitable behavior of women during the war, but especially stigmatized after it had ended. Poverty and the absence of (biological) fathers were regarded as a stigma, and racial discrimination evolved in different forms. Relationships across ethnic or racial boundaries were seen as a breach in the normative social structure, whereby children fathered by Black3 men were more likely to be racially discriminated against than children of White fathers.4
In this article, we wish to give a brief introduction to the different social settings and acts of discrimination against children fathered by US soldiers from the war era until today. A series of interviews conducted with con lai Mỹ between 2012 and 2014 in Vietnam form the basis of the paper.5 The overall goal of this investigation is, on the one hand, to archive perspectives of this group of people on their life, as well as their social and political surroundings; and, on the other hand, to determine historical contexts that could have led to the specific social standing of con lai Mỹ until the present day.
When Danh was interviewed in 2012, he did not speak about a current fear of discrimination, although one can assume that he was somewhat insecure about ← 114 | 115 → openly showing that he is con lai Mỹ, given that he hid his natural hair color. Many other people that were interviewed since 2012 in Đà Nẵng and Ho Chi Minh City also speak of experiences of discrimination, although the data shows that many prejudices that were prevalent in Vietnamese society after the war have lost their power considerably.
To understand the social positioning of con lai Mỹ throughout history, it is important to grasp the impacts a label such as con lai Mỹ has had on this specific collective. To highlight this form of labeling, it is necessary to describe the political, economic and social structures surrounding the group of people in question. What are the conditions by which people are marked as con lai Mỹ, and what does this name entail? What are the structures that create and reproduce these forms of exclusion that are linked to the label? Are negative attributions a result of war trauma, political enemies, ethnic and racial prejudices, or rather a question of gender and class? In the following section, we will give a brief introduction into the problems raised by the name ›con lai Mỹ‹ from a scholarly perspective, and thereby deliver attributions that people affected by the name face in their daily lives. We will then describe different forms of discrimination and structures that could have led to the specific social standings of con lai Mỹ throughout history, and highlight the categories gender, class, ethnicity and/or race as dominant modes of representation and exclusion.
The intricacies of naming
A basic translation of ›con lai Mỹ‹ is ›Child Mix America‹. It is a term that points to the different origins of both parents, where the alleged US birth parent is stressed by the word ›Mỹ‹. The adjective ›Mỹ‹ is particularly interesting, because it points to the ›Otherness‹ of the child, that part of the person which indicates that the person was not born from a relationship between two people who are defined as being ›Vietnamese‹. As we shall see in the second section, the indicators for being Vietnamese do not necessarily mean citizenship. A child born from a Việt Kiu6, or better Người Việt Hải Ngoại7, with US citizenship and a Vietnamese citizen does not trigger the labeling ›con lai Mỹ‹; rather, they are either identified through a US American parent (documents, known relationships etc.) or through racial and ethnic profiling, which leads to the usage of the name. The term does not clearly mark the historical collective of people born during the Vietnam War, because all ← 115 | 116 → people who were born in Vietnam before, during and after the war who have an American and a Vietnamese parent are included in the expression.
The most common name within academic texts on children born by US soldiers in Vietnam is ›Amerasians‹8. The notable quality of this imposed term is that it is practically non-existent as an expression in Vietnam, and therefore does not have an internal history within the socio-political sphere. To be precise, the positive quality of the term ›Amerasians‹ is that it does not have a discriminatory connotation within the context of Vietnam, and can be used as a fairly neutral term within local communication. For the same reason, the term ›Amerasians‹ does not belong to any form of self-labeling of our interviewees. From the perspective of con lai Mỹ who went to the USA, and especially for anglophone academic texts, the term ›Amerasians‹ has a certain validity. Although the term was initially introduced by US immigration offices to describe children with an Asian mother and a US military father, today a community does actually define itself with this term within the USA. Thus, ›Amerasians‹ currently includes all people who have an American and Asian parent, although in popular use the term is also employed to describe US citizens with Asian ancestry, and can therefore be used as a pejorative and essentializing label. In Trin Yarborough’s book Surviving Twice – Amerasian children of the Vietnam War9, the term is well-suited for analysis, as she traces biographies which lead from Vietnam to the USA. In the context of this paper, the adoption of the term is unsatisfactory for three reasons: First, ›Amerasians‹ is unknown to the majority of our interview partners, and can therefore not be considered as suitable for further research in this specific field. Second, the selectivity of the term is relatively small. ›Amerasians‹ is a term that can be used for large groups of people in and outside of the USA, and therefore does not refer to the particular experiences and circumstances of the con lai Mỹ in Vietnam as compared to similar and/or different stories in the Philippines, Japan or other countries. Third, the term is inevitably positioned within a discourse of so-called ›America’s children‹. Western academic literature, political and public dialogues have often used ›Amerasians‹ in relation to themes about America’s alleged ›lost children‹ in Vietnam. Considering the American hegemonic history in Vietnam, as well as discourses leading to misrepresentations of Vietnam that legitimized many adoptions, the term cannot be implemented without problematic or even offensive connotations. ← 116 | 117 →
In her book The Life We Were Given – Operation Babylift, International Adoption and the Children of War in Vietnam,10 Dana Sachs avoids any commitment to a distinct term and uses both ›Amerasians‹ as well as ›con lai‹. ›Con lai‹ implies a ›non-Vietnamese parent‹ for the people involved. While ›con lai‹ and also ›con lai Mỹ‹ were indeed regarded as discriminatory titles in the post-war era,11 the names are perceived today as neutral labels according to interviewees. When asked about her opinion on the theoretical problem of terms and definitions, the interview partner Hà recommended the use of ›con lai‹. Against her advice, we decided not to use ›con lai‹ as a concept to work with. Similar to ›Amerasian‹, ›con lai‹ is an undifferentiated term. The omitting of the adjectival ›Mỹ‹ (America/USA) here allows a distinction between con lai Mỹ and other historical groupings that are important to Vietnam’s history, such as offspring of Japanese (›con lai Nhật‹) and French (›con lai Pháp‹) soldiers. Although one can find similarities between the social positioning of ›con lai Pháp‹ in comparison to con lai Mỹ after the Vietnam War, ›con lai‹ as a stand-alone term does not entail the specific social, economic and political situations of people with foreign military fathers in Vietnam in this particular historical time frame. Speaking about con lai Mỹ who were born during US military presence in Vietnam therefore specifically encompasses the historical conditions during and immediately after the war, as well as the experiences of the massive changes in their social positioning while growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s – a time of profound economic and social changes due to Vietnam’s economic opening Đi mới.
In its literal meaning, ›con lai Mỹ‹ bundles many of the key problems people who were fathered by US soldiers face in Vietnam: they are constantly thrown back to their point of alleged ›origin‹ – their status as a child resulting from a Vietnamese mother and an American father. What the term thereby stresses are the circumstances of their birth and nothing of the life that followed thereafter. The fact that most con lai Mỹ who stayed in Vietnam have no or only poor knowledge of the English language, were educated in Vietnamese schools, grew up within a Vietnamese society and its politics, have a Vietnamese mother or more often a whole Vietnamese family which adopted them, is usually unacknowledged. ›Con lai Mỹ‹ therefore delivers a terminology with which people can possibly be essentialized as an own distinct subjectivity signified as ›Child Mix America‹, wherein the ›Other‹ within the ›mix‹ plays a dominant role. Thus, the term itself points to the discrimination and segregation that interviewees experienced in their lives. ← 117 | 118 →
So why then use the term as a scholar in the field? Two reasons indicate con lai Mỹ as being a useful term: in the course of the research, it became more and more apparent that people within the chosen field had taken on the term as a positive label of self-definition, leading to the creation of a community under the name con lai Mỹ. Not only could we find a slow but constant tendency to release the term from its pejorative and possible discriminatory impact within mainstream society, most importantly it showed that the term delivered a structure under which many people could establish solidarity networks. It is therefore noteworthy that the name con lai Mỹ has been, and is still, undergoing constant shifts in meaning, a process in which the people immediately affected by it are very engaged. This point brings us to the second reason why con lai Mỹ seems a well-suited conceptual term for the analysis of this group of people: it is a multifaceted term. Keeping con lai Mỹ as a conceptual term incorporates the self-designations of interview partners, and at the same time conveys its possible derogative meaning within Vietnamese society. So, as an analytic category, the term neither functions as a seamless cover, nor does it reproduce an entirely repressive or hurtful labeling. We consider the ambiguity of the term as strengthening the analysis, because the social realities of con lai Mỹ are no less ambiguous.
Creating difference – Family, Gender and Ethnicity
Othering mechanisms that dissociate the con lai Mỹ individually and collectively from Vietnam – and also link them to the USA – appear as dominating topics in the interviews that form the basis of this text. They are influential as tools for social exclusion and discrimination, as well as the self-identification of many interview partners. Interviewee Dũng states: »My classmates always asked me why I do not go back to my home country [the USA,]. I replied: if I go back or not is not your problem.«12 The most obvious issue of these attributions is that con lai Mỹ not only have American fathers, but also Vietnamese mothers, and it would seem no less natural to identify con lai Mỹ as Vietnamese instead of American. Whatever definition one might have of cultural identity, the interview partners are surely closer to a Vietnamese cultural identity than an American one. Only one of the interview partners speaks English, for example. The question is, therefore, which ← 118 | 119 → factors are effective in building the basis of these misrecognitions that seem to be more dominant than socio-cultural upbringing, and that hinder the identification of con lai Mỹ via their life in Vietnam or their Vietnamese mothers.
One possible approach can be made from a linguistic-cultural perspective of the family and gender: within the Confucian social structure, one can differentiate between an ›inner family‹ and an ›outer family‹. The paternal branch is the ›inner family‹, and the maternal branch is the ›outer family‹. The system of the inner and outer family reads as follows:
▪ ›ông nội‹ ›Interior – Grandfather‹ (father of father) as well as ›ba nội‹ – Interior – Grandmother (mother of father).
As well as
▪ ›ông ngoại‹ ›External – Grandfather‹ (father of mother) as well as ›ba ngoại‹ – Exterior – Grandmother (mother of mother).
This patrilineal kinship system could be a possible explanation for the precarious positioning con lai Mỹ had within many families: In all cases, the biological fathers – the ›interior-lines‹ – were absent.13 Interview partner Dũng refers to himself according to this structure and explains: »It is like this: I am only a ›ngoại‹ child, not a ›nội‹ child. That is not what I am.«14 It is likely that in some cases con lai Mỹ symbolized the sexual activities of women outside of the family or traumatic experiences via practices of sexual violence and domination by US soldiers that affected and even threatened the family constellation. Despite these perspectives, women and the maternal line were indeed always ›ngoại‹ – exterior, according to the Confucian understanding. One cannot claim that Confucianism is the only socially structuring and relevant belief system in Vietnam. Buddhism and Christianity play important roles (and sects that oscillate between them, like Cao Đài). Especially within the 20th century, secular ideologies, prominently communism, were strong and demanded equality for women. However, communist politics of the family have taken a constant contradictory position concerning gender roles. At an early stage, communists in Vietnam strengthened the position of women: in 1930, equality of genders was established in the party program, and the state guaranteed men and women the same institutional rights in the constitu ← 119 | 120 → tion of 1945. At the same time, one can trace a hesitation to question classic gender roles within the family. For decades, the ›Gia đình văn hóa‹ (English ›Culture Family‹), which has social-conservative and Confucian traditions at its core, was proclaimed as an ideal by communist government propaganda.
This heterogeneous picture is also reflected within the sample. It not only entails biographies in which the con lai Mỹ were disadvantaged and excluded, but it also predominantly shows cases in which massive problems emerge. The biography of Nhung in Đà Nẵng is an example of a low and isolated position within the hierarchy of the family: Her mother found a new partner and he brought children of his own into the marriage. Nhung, as the daughter of the mother, was the one who was not granted any position within the constellation of the family, while the man’s children became integral members of the new family. Nhung states:
My mother got married. Other children existed in this family. This is why it was said I should live with my grandfather. He [the husband] had an own family and his wife died in the war and the man already had children. This is why he gave me to the grandfather. My mother brought me to the grandfather. I stayed there until I was grown up.15
According to Nhung’s understanding of the situation, violence from her relatives was connected to the absence of her biological father:
Sascha: Why did people hit you?
Nhung: First, because I was a child without a father. Second, because I didn’t have a mother. Third, I was with my grandparents and therefore couldn’t go to school.16
Hưng, Nhung’s husband, commented on the problems with Nhung’s family in an interview as follows: »It was bad because she came from another blood line. This brings harm to the family.«17 The reference to the bloodline can be understood as the dominating line of the inner family, in which fathers of individuals seem to define the ethnic and racial categories. In addition, the terms ›blood‹ and ›race‹ are often used synonymously in Vietnamese language. The question of ›wrong blood‹ could be an answer to why the family of Hai, the child of a Black French soldier and interview partner, left him in Vietnam, while other children in the family were taken abroad with them. This example also shows that Nhung should not be regarded as a singular or unique case.
When wanting to grasp the discrimination against con lai Mỹ in their daily lives, it is therefore crucial to take ethnic or racial categorizations into account as ← 120 | 121 → well as gender issues. As our arguments shall suggest, many of the con lai Mỹ that grew up in a family without their biological fathers were regarded as incomplete according to the Confucian tradition of the family. This conservative ideal of the family put more pressure on women, who had experiences as sex-workers during the time of war, and also led to discrimination against con lai Mỹ due to alleged sexual wrongdoings by their mothers. Dũng states: »Back then, as today: people talk bad about families with con lai children. They say: ›You are con lai – fuck you. They look at your mother and think she is a prostitute.‹«18 Kien Nguyen describes the case of his mother, who was forced to speak to a public crowd in 1975: A confession of her wrongdoings against the Communist Party, the new government and the social corpus was expected of her, because her »mixed-blood children«19 were regarded as indicators for prostitution. She being forced to humiliate herself performatively via a speech-act in front of a small public crowd shows the precarious social status of former female sex workers and mothers of con lai Mỹ in post-war society.20 As one can also see in this example, it is not only a marker or a label like con lai Mỹ which entails segregation from normative society via the term ›Child Mix America‹, but also the usage of speech in the public sphere which plays a crucial role in understanding repressive forms of language within society. Kien’s mother was forced to tell the public what they already knew or at least assumed of her in an act of self-accusation and self-shaming. The indicators for her alleged unsuitable behavior were thereby her children, which were marked as ethnically different. Other cases show similar mechanisms. Con lai Mỹ were blamed for the sexual actions of their mothers, and vice versa, the mothers were socially confronted for having con lai Mỹ as children. Visual appearance and the question of ethnicity raised by public readings of people show that often simple racial profiling led to the labeling of children as con lai Mỹ, whereby lighter or darker skin color and hair were regarded as indicators of their (and their mother’s) difference.
Although the ›culture family‹ is not specifically described as ethnically ›Vietnamese‹, one can find numerous traces of racial discrimination against con lai Mỹ. An indicator for a more severe form of discrimination against children of Black soldiers is the term ›Mỹ đen‹, which translates as ›Black American‹. Interview partners and theoretical texts often distinguish between offspring of White and Black fathers, because children experienced different forms of discrimination according to their outer appearance. None of the interview partners spoke of ›con ← 121 | 122 → lai Mỹ đen‹ (Black con lai Mỹ) or ›con lai Mỹ trắng‹ (White con lai Mỹ). Instead, shorter forms like ›Mỹ đen‹ or ›Mỹ trắng‹ were common. ›Mỹ đen‹ was cited by informants to describe situations in which they experienced discrimination. As a locution, it was therefore strictly used as a form of negative appellation from the outside world. With this shorter form ›Mỹ đen‹, people addressed were stripped from their hybridity, from an identification via their mother, their place of birth, or their upbringing. Interview partner Hương states:
They shouted at me I should go away. A stone shot with a sling, with which one usually hunts birds, hit me on the head. Yet, as I became older, the discrimination stopped. As a young person, I was constantly exposed to such situations; I was again and again discriminated. […] Mỹ trắng could go about undisturbed. But when they saw Mỹ đen, they threw stones at them. […] Mỹ trắng never had problems. With white skin, one looked like everyone else. […] When I went to school, they waited for me behind the gates and shouted: ›Mỹ đen, go back to where you came from!‹21
As the quote shows, the pupils of Hương’s school approached her with racist views, in which Black skin and curled hair are read as markers of negative difference, as that which cannot be Vietnamese. With respect to interviews conducted with children of White fathers, we do not want to go as far as Hương and claim that they had no problems of their own. As Danh at the beginning of the text shows, even lighter hair color or other markers of Whiteness were regarded as negative traits within Vietnamese society. What is often true, though, is that White con lai Mỹ could pass as Vietnamese far easier than children of Black soldiers. Among 18 White interviewees, three were not aware of being con lai Mỹ until they were told by relatives when they were teenagers. However, all twelve Black con lai Mỹ were marked as Black and con lai Mỹ since childhood. As extensive interviews in the field show, ethnic or racial discrimination, as well as discrimination as children ›without biological fathers‹, are the strongest and most frequent forms of exclusion con lai Mỹ have faced in their lives. However, it must be noted that this form of discrimination was predominantly a matter of the public sphere. As the family was often a space of private exclusion for many con lai Mỹ, the sample does not deliver indicators that people of darker color were more strongly affected by discrimination within the family than White con lai Mỹ. It can be said with certainty, though, that racial profiling was a paramount factor for discriminatory actions against con lai Mỹ in public areas, such as schools or work places. Even the nicknames of some of the interviewees still end with ›đen‹ (black), which never occurs with ›trắng‹ (white). ← 122 | 123 →
Gastambide assesses the precarious social positioning of con lai Mỹ, and concludes that they were imagined as an own race within Vietnamese society:
They are outcasts of the Vietnamese society […]. We are part of the gruesome history of Vietnam. The War gave birth to us and now we are the absolute losers. We became a race within the Vietnamese race, created by the American presence in Vietnam.22
In a similar conclusion, interview partner Hương summarized her experiences of discrimination with the sentence: »They mobbed me, because another blood flows within me«23. Another typical rhetoric of the time is delivered with Nhat’s sentence: »They said I should go back to America – I had curly hair«24.
An analysis of our data in the field shows that assumed communist vocabulary was hardly used against children of US soldiers throughout the 1980s. In rare cases during the first years after the war, con lai Mỹ and their mothers were labeled political traitors or imperialists. Such vocabulary completely vanishes from the scene in the 1980’s, showing a clear and early focus on ethnic categories and labels concerning the family. The marker con lai Mỹ, as already highlighted in the first section, reduces people to an alleged ethnically mixed race. The part of themselves that could be considered ›Vietnamese‹ is mostly forgotten or simply overwritten by that which is seen as different. As the terms ›Mỹ đen‹ and ›Mỹ trắng‹ show more specifically, people are blatantly reduced to their physical appearance and discriminated against for their alleged ethnic difference to mainstream society. What can be excluded from all of the statements about con lai Mỹ is a reaction to them as unquestionably deviant from society. Stuart Hall describes this mechanism precisely:
Here, racism is particularly powerful and its imprint on popular consciousness especially deep, because in such racial characteristics as color, ethnic origin, geographical position, etc., racism discovers what other ideologies have to construct: an apparently “natural” or universal basis in nature itself.25
Also, as a scholar with a background outside of Vietnamese society, one must be constantly aware of this seemingly universal basis which has a naturalizing effect via the attributions of members of the field. Yarborough’s Surviving Twice is one of ← 123 | 124 → the best academic publications on con lai Mỹ, and delivers the most extensive and detailed existing study utilizing this mostly disregarded academic perspective on the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Yarborough’s choice of words in describing the physical appearances of con lai Mỹ, as well as her analytic evaluations, demonstrate a tendency to exotisize her interview partners, thereby reproducing colonial stereotypes and images of the Other. Even on the first pages of Yarborough’s book, the description of the skin colors of her interviewees sounds like an assortment of colonial goods: »coffee-colored«26, »chocolate-colored«27 and »cocoa-colored«28. In her further analysis, she emphasizes that ›Amerasians‹ often have an unsettled personality, and tend to have sexual relationships with both genders,29 seemingly suggesting that their ethnic and cultural hybridity is, or leads to, a natural biological state that can cause forms of sexual desire and mental conditions functioning in a similar duality.
As these examples show, when describing people and their lives as a scholar, there is often a fine line between wanting to live up to their experiences of difference and refraining from turning this difference into a reproduction of naturalizing and racist views common within societies, as well as social sciences. This is especially the case in field work, where many interview partners quite correctly describe themselves as different from society, and support this position by, for example, pointing to their physiological markings. To stress Stuart Hall once more:
The ways in which black people, black experiences, were positioned and subjected in the dominant regimes of representation were the effects of a critical exercise of cultural power and normalisation. Not only, in Said’s ‘Orientalist’ sense, were we constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes. They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other’.30
The impact of political and economic development
After Roosevelt’s insinuated promise of national independence fell short, and Vietnam was not granted independence from France after the Second World War,31 the formulation of a cultural difference to former and future hegemonic ← 124 | 125 → powers became more relevant. This encompassed a collective national identity as the ideological basis and connecting element of a liberating nationalism, first against France and then later against the USA. The rhetoric of the Việt Minh and their subsequent organization constructed ›being Vietnamese‹ in very vague terms as a negative image defined against past and present occupying forces within the country, one concerned with not being ›Chinese‹, ›Japanese‹, ›French‹ or ›US American‹. With the consolidation of governmental power across the whole country at the end of the Vietnam War, it seems like the Communist Party changed their rhetoric concerning the newly joined citizens of Vietnam. As we briefly mentioned earlier in the text, accusations focusing on being a child of an enemy, or ›Traitors to the People‹, hardly appear in our sample. After the enforcement of the primary goal of reunification, the constitution of Vietnamese nationalism via the identification of internal and especially external political enemies had lost its force within society. From the perspective of our interviewees, political rhetoric after 1975 plays a less important role in affecting discrimination against them than other factors. Even though con lai Mỹ are still faced with prejudices, one can trace clear shifts in their social standing from the mid 1980’s until today. Two factors played a crucial role in this change within society, and interestingly enough they are both economic.
In 1985, a journalist from Newsweek took notice of homeless and begging con lai Mỹ in the metropolis Ho Chi Minh City. His portrayals of their living conditions, which were quickly linked to a public dialogue on ›our children in Vietnam‹, caused a wave of public empathy in the USA and initiated the active engagement of American charitable associations in Vietnam. Following a campaign by a group of high school students, the US government decided to implement the Amerasian Homecoming Act (AHA) in 1987, and the foundation of an Amerasian Transit-Centre in Ho Chi Minh City in 1990. According to numbers from the American consulate, 21,379 con lai Mỹ emigrated to the USA between 1988 and 2013.32 The implementation of these acts marked a considerable change in the social conditions of con lai Mỹ. Formerly associated with poverty as well as social and ethnic transgressions, con lai Mỹ were suddenly regarded as valuable people who received tickets to the USA, a place that inevitably was linked to images of wealth and the possibility for a better life. This perception was magnified during the devastating economic situation in Vietnam after 1975, in which many ← 125 | 126 → citizens were struggling to overcome the negative impact of 30 years of constant warfare. Con lai Mỹ suddenly received attention from a broad surrounding, most importantly by persons who were willing to adopt them or to fake family relations to them in order to apply for immigration to the USA. Hưng, the husband of interview partner Nhung, stated in an interview: »I was very poor and the money wasn’t enough. I had the idea, that if I married her, she would go to the USA and take me with her or send me money«33. Due to this widespread misuse of the act, where alleged relatives of Amerasians tried to immigrate to the USA, the AHA was soon discredited and suspended at a preliminary stage. Of course, this sudden shift in attention and decrease in discrimination did not emerge for humanitarian reasons. Rather, con lai Mỹ had received a useful value from the American government for people willing to immigrate to the USA. As such, con lai Mỹ were again objectified; this time, not as abject or alien subjects within a ›healthy‹ Vietnamese society, but as tickets to the West. It is hardly surprising that some of the contacts con lai Mỹ had to people before the AHA had come to a halt thereafter; however, many of the informants still speak of a change and decline in social exclusionism after this phase of economic recognition. Ngọc states: »As the plan to bring con lai Mỹ from Vietnam to the USA emerged, we were not discriminated anymore«34.
The most extensive changes in social standing took place in the 1990s, when the economic reforms Đi mới initiated in 1986 started to have an effect on the economic lives of Vietnamese citizens. On a political level, Đi mới not only marked an economic opening to the West, but can also be regarded as an opening with regard to Western culture. Whereas formerly the leading dictum was a cultural shielding from ideals and topics from the imperialist West, Đi mới initiated the steps that led to the import not only of Western goods, but also of many cultural aspects, such as sports, music, food, consumer culture, valuation of status symbols, etc.. The general political discourses then started to focus on reconstructing the country by changing Vietnam’s devastated economic condition since the end of the war, stressing a common future under better circumstances instead of searching for internal enemies to denounce or blame for the past. On a smaller level, the general increase in wealth, creation of jobs and increased access to health care for the citizens of Vietnam created a less tense and offensive climate for con lai Mỹ. Even though the phase of economic recognition towards con lai Mỹ put in place by the AHA and other programs described above was a fleeting ← 126 | 127 → improvement, one can definitely trace a sustainable change in attitude towards con lai Mỹ in this time of economic growth. Two primary factors led to this considerable improvement in the environment surrounding the con lai Mỹ: First, the perception of the USA transformed from imperialist enemy to economic ally, and even began to represent a desirable way of living on a socio-political scale. Second, a general decrease of frustration within the private sphere in the form of better financial positioning among the general population. Finally, one can see that the class position of con lai Mỹ themselves also played a crucial role in easing social tensions. Of course, racial discrimination and transgressions against gender or family normativity were not solved by this economic wealth, yet it must be noted that many of the interviewees could use their improved class position as a form of capital to counter different forms of prejudices. Many interview partners state that once they managed to integrate into the social fabric via steady jobs or a family of their own, their stigmatization became less prevalent.35
A lot of interviews in the field therefore show that forms of social exclusion functioned intersectionally. Trường notes: »Because I was poor and didn’t have a father, they shouted ›Mỹ đen‹ at me«36. Trường’s attempt to explain reasons for his discrimination is exemplary for how intertwined categories of social positioning are. In this sentence, there is a mixture of class, family status and race that lie at the core of his interpretation of social exclusion. In this field of research, it is therefore important to acknowledge the intersectional and multilayered mechanisms that underlie many of con lai Mỹ’s experiences.
In this paper, we have shown that the historical collective of people pooled under the label ›con lai Mỹ‹ have faced different forms of discrimination in their daily lives. The term ›con lai Mỹ‹ itself delivers insight into key components of social and cultural exclusion, as the term ›Child Mix America‹ was used as a negative marker pointing to the Otherness of a person in the years directly following the Vietnam War. The rehabilitation of the term as positive self-labeling, as well as a constant decline in discrimination against the con lai Mỹ, might indicate that Vietnamese society increased its level of tolerance towards children of American ← 127 | 128 → soldiers within the last decades. However, as the last chapter shows, it is problematic to view their social improvements definitively as such, because a variety of external factors changed the social prestige of the con lai Mỹ. This development, therefore, does not necessarily indicate a change in social concepts within Vietnamese society. As we have argued, crucial turning points took place in the 1990s – the time of the AHA and Đi Mới. With the AHA, con lai Mỹ were suddenly associated with a chance to go to the USA, and therefore with the prospect of prosperity. Đi Mới, on the other hand, made it possible for at least some of the interviewees to escape poverty (to a certain degree), and along with that discrimination as members of a lower class. Moreover, large proportions of the con lai Mỹ emigrated to the USA with the AHA; thus, the large and publicly visible group of con lai Mỹ widely vanished from Vietnam as a whole. From this perspective, one can also argue that the historical collective of con lai Mỹ structurally changed, thereby affecting the social standing of people that stayed in Vietnam.
One of the unexpected findings of this research is that discrimination against con lai Mỹ within the family is a very important aspect to consider when trying to grasp experiences con lai Mỹ have had on a daily basis. The Confucian belief system, in which children are distinguished between ›nội‹ – interior and ›ngoại‹ – exterior, shows how our interview partners were linked to their absent fathers within their family (and henceforth socially) instead of to their mothers. One can also trace a linkage between racist views and the dominance of the paternal mindset when appearances such as the color of skin are used to mark con lai Mỹ as ›ngoại‹ within the public sphere. Interviews show that ethnicity and race are dominating categories when speaking of discrimination in Vietnam. Especially Black con lai Mỹ have faced discrimination, while children of White American soldiers could more easily pass as ›Vietnamese‹, and are thus far less often the target of social prejudices in public areas. An interesting outlook for this research could be an investigation of Vietnam’s experiences of racism and White hegemony under French and US dominance, and incorporations of such colonial ideas into Confucian concepts of the family and kinship in Vietnam. Until further research in the field can shed light on such pending questions, an interim result of the data is that – counter to widespread assumption – con lai Mỹ and their mothers are seldom confronted with accusations that label them as political traitors, imperialists or children of the enemy. Rather, intersecting categories linked to race, family, gender relations and class status lie at the core of discriminatory practices against con lai Mỹ. ← 128 | 129 →
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1 All names of interview partners have been changed in this article to ensure the anonymity of informants.
2 Cp. Yarborough, Trin: Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War. Potomac Books Inc.: Washington 2005.
3 In this text, we will use the words Black and White with capital letters to distinguish the terms from naturalizing, racial categories and to mark them as constructed, yet socially significant markings.
4 Cp. McKelvey, Robert S.: The Dust of Life. America’s Children Abandoned in Vietnam. University of Washington Press: Seattle, London 1999, p. 23–27.
5 Research underlying this text is based on a series of interviews led in Đà Nẵng and Ho Chi Minh City between 2012 and 2014 by Sascha Wölck. The sample consists of 28 con lai Mỹ: 18 women and 10 men; 10 marked as Black, 18 as White; born between 1965 and 1974.
6 Việt Kiu is a term used to refer to Vietnamese people living outside of Vietnam.
7 Người Việt Hải Ngoại is the preferred term within the Overseas Vietnamese community.
8 Cp. DeBonis, 1995; Yarborough, Trin: Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War. Potomac Books Inc.: Washington 2005.
10 Sachs, Dana: The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift. International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Beacon Press: Boston 2010.
11 Cp. DeBonis, 1995, p. 5.
12 Dũng, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012. There are also many cases, in which the linkage to the USA is an important personal reference point. Hoàng states: »The only thing I am proud of are my people. The people of my father. I dream of being in the military, like my father. If I could have stayed with my father, I would have done the same job as him in the US military.« Hoàng, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012
13 It must be noted, that there is one form of exception: The stepfather of Tính refused to acknowledge that Tính is a con lai Mỹ and not his biological son. By treating him as his biological son and demanding from every other person to see him as such, the stepfather created an interior-line of the family for Tính and himself.
14 Nghi, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.
15 Nhung, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2014.
17 Hưng, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2014.
18 Dũng, interviewed by Sascha Wölck 2012.
19 Cp. Nguyen, 2001, p. 111.
21 Hương, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.
22 Translated by authors; Gastambide, Remy: „Staub des Lebens. Die schwarzen ‚Amerasians‘ von Vietnam“. In: Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Hrsg.): Gap Viet Nam. Selbstverlag: Berlin 1999, p. 102.
23 Hương, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.
24 Nhat, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.
25 Hall, Stuart: “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance.” In: Baker, Huston A. Jr.; Diawara, Manthia; Lindeborg, Ruth H. (Ed.): Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London 1996, p. 56.
26 Yarborough, 2005, p. 4.
27 Ibid, p. 8.
28 Ibid, p. 9.
29 Ibid, p. 2, 24, 207.
30 Hall, Stuart: “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In: Rutherford, Jonathan (Ed.): Identity: Community, Culture and Difference. Lawrence and Wishart: London 1990, p. 225.
31 Cp. Maxner, Stephen: Vietnam und USA. In: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Hrsg.): APuZ Politik und Zeitgeschichte 27/2008. Sozietäts-Verlag: Berlin 2008, p. 25–32; Frey, Marc: Geschichte des Vietnamkriegs. Die Tragödie in Asien und das Ende des amerikanischen Traums. C.H. Beck: München 2004, p. 17.
33 Nhung & Hưng, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2014.
34 Ngọc, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.
35 While most of the Black con lai Mỹ interviewees still sense a certain degree of depreciation, most of the White con lai Mỹ do not feel discriminated anymore. Some of the latter, in contrast, show a certain pride of their visual features, like their skin color, a smaller nose or blonde hair.
36 Trường, interviewed by Sascha Wölck, 2012.