The Vietnamese Experience in America

Like earlier volumes on Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans in Indiana University Press’s Minorities in Modern America series, this book goes beyond vague talk of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” to deepen our understanding of the extraordinary reality of contemporary American life. Unlike the long-established Chinese and Japanese American communities, the Vietnamese American community is of very recent origin. Only in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, did Vietnamese refugees begin to enter the United States in significant numbers. Yet by 1990, there were an estimated 875,000 Vietnamese in the United States; by comparison, Japanese Americans numbered approximately 850,000; Chinese Americans, about 1.3 million.

Paul James Rutledge’s book is one of the first to provide a broad overview of the Vietnamese American experience. Neither the virtues nor the flaws of his survey can be adequately treated in a brief review. One of the key strengths of the book is its emphasis on personal experience and everyday life. Between 1975 and 1990, Rutledge, a professor of anthropology, conducted “literally thousands of interviews” with Vietnamese Americans “in most of the fifty states,” with a focus on Vietnamese communities in Oklahoma. Rutledge quotes effectively from these interviews throughout the book; he also draws on interviews with other Americans to highlight perceptions of and attitudes toward Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. Among the most notable flaws of the book are inadequate and poorly presented statistics (the population figures above, for example, are not given by Rutledge) and an uncritical use of sociological and psychological generalizations, both in analyzing Vietnamese culture and in comparing it with American culture.

Rutledge’s survey will be of great value to anyone who wishes to learn about the Vietnamese American community.