When Home Isn't Enough: Work, Identity, and Migration

With industriousness standing as a cultural fixture of post-war Vietnam and work serving as the most immediate means of fulfilling familial obligations, it is absolutely no wonder that labor also spurs movement. In towns where unemployment and meager wages dominate the economic landscape, laborers look outward for opportunities that will allow them to reap the benefits of their long hours on the clock.

In this way, economic migration serves to directly affect the material conditions of people’s lives, by placing them in an entirely new spatial setting. The relationship people maintain with their work consequently serves to inform notions of belonging, ownership, and national identity. This process occurs both within and without Vietnam. As this section will demonstrate, migration within the country has historically occurred in conjunction with Vietnam’s urbanization process. In terms of economic emigration, work facilitates the consolidation of identity in new cultural contexts, producing notable effects in destination cities.

Migration Within Vietnam

Migration with Vietnam is characterized by a simple and incredibly consistent pattern. Movement within the country is almost always centered around urban centers, with laborers from rural or peri-urban zones moving closer to hubs of industry. This trend is not unique; across the globe, urban centers draw immigrants in due to their larger markets and access to broad economic networks. What is unique, however, is the narrative that underlies this tendency in Vietnam.

Internal economic migration in Vietnam may be explained by long-standing narratives surrounding levels of urban development. Erik Harms describes this dynamic in an analysis of Ho Chi Minh City’s urbanization, which was published in the journal Pacific Affairs.  He notes that in the Vietnamese case, the relationship between urban and rural areas is  particularly complex. “This structural relationship is conditioned,” he asserts, “historically by the paradoxical way in which Vietnamese nationalism celebrates the Vietnamese peasanty as the driving force of the revolution but also poses the peasantry as a symbol of lingering underdevelopment.” This tension directly explains internal economic migrations patterns within Vietnam. In the same breath that rural and peri-urban areas are lauded as distinctly Vietnamese, they are also condemned as relics of the past. For enterprising Vietnamese laborers, then, the future lay in places like Saigon, Hanoi, and Hue.

This rhetoric stands as a vast oversimplification and exaggeration of the differences between urban and rural life, particularly for the working class. This notion is demonstrated by the fact that several factories in Vietnam located outside of large cities are marked by complex and robust systems of operation that contradict perceptions of what business is like outside many urban zones. It is worth noting, however, that it is ultimately founded in truth; rural zones of Vietnam regularly report higher poverty rates than do cities. Harms points out in his 2008 study, for instance, that average per-capita income was 2,632,100 dong for urban zones and just 1,248,900 dong for rural areas of Saigon. While this false dichotomy is problematic, then, it does reflect genuine material differences that explain the consistency of Vietnam’s internal migration patterns.

Identity Consolidation

Although moving to an urban center may well bolster income, as was the case for almost all of the testimony examined thus far, there are many cases in which internal migration is insignificant. In cases where attempts to secure mobility in Vietnamese cities are unsuccessful, many laborers seek refuge in the global market. This has helped change the face of Vietnamese immigration. While the decades immediately following the end of the Vietnam War saw thousands of citizens flee on crowded fishing boats, subsequent waves of Vietnamese immigration have been spurred by economic ambition rather than the need for political asylum. The prevalence of economic emigration in Vietnam is a testament to the ways in which one’s relation to work can serve to drastically alter or altogether uproot notions of what it means to be Vietnamese.

There is another side to this coin, however. Research indicates that work is likewise a crucial element to the consolidation of identity and the formation of a new or altered self-concept in the economic immigrant’s new locale. For the purposes of this analysis, I will explore Vietnamese immigrant experiences in the United States only. Work can facilitate an immigrant’s comfort in their new environment in several ways. In the economic sense, it allows immigrants to secure profit for themselves, but also implicates them in complex operations of their local economy. Socially, it allows them to form connections with the residents surrounding them. Culturally, it increases their exposure to popular fixtures of American life and, most importantly, facilitates language acquisition. This notion is demonstrated by Mary’s story, in which she described her life in America as incredibly different after she was able to start working. Prior to her employment, she felt as if she solely drained her family’s resources, as she was unable to drive, speak Englishm or supplement their income. However, work allowed her to contribute economically and gain a cultural and linguistic understanding of the United States that allowed her to move through her new context with new agency. In this way, work accelerates the assimilation process for economic immigrants.

It would be incorrect to position assimilation as the goal of these immigrants, however. Just as work is a vehicle for cultural assimilation, it can also facilitate cultural preservation. In other words, immigrant groups like the Vietnamese can use their capacity for assert and celebrate their trans-national identity, as demonstrated by the economic impact they have upon their chosen destinations. Paul Watanbe presents a remarkable example of this impact in his study of Vietnamese immigrants upon the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, coincidentally the Boston neighborhood the Le family moved to after leaving Saigon. As Vietnamese immigrants poured into Fields Corner, the demographics of the neighborhood shifted so that today, Watanbe points out, “over nine out of every ten Asians in Dorchester are Vietnamese.” They account for a significant portion of the neighborhood’s business owners, specializing in food and beauty services. They impact has served to single-handedly revive a part of urban America which was experiencing a distinct decline in industry. This notion is evidenced by the laundry list of achievements Watanbe outlines, including the physical revitalization of the enclave, attraction of new customers to the area, incubation of new businesses. Thus work serves to not only facilitate the consolidation of identity for economic immigrants, but serves to actively contribute to the national identity of the immigration site.