Saigon Stories – Viet Kieu

Most recently there have been so many Viet Kieu or “Overseas Vietnamese” coming back to Vietnam. For the Tet holiday I think was the biggest single time of returning Vietnamese coming to visit their birthplace. I met so many of them going out and seeing people I know with Vietnamese I had never seen before (You get to know the faces in the ex-pat bars). I would introduce myself and upon hearing their accent would know they are American.

They told would tell me that it was the first time back for them in 30 or so odd years!! Also, about how the place changed so much and how it was strange to see so many foreigners now living in HCMC. I was talking with one who I became good friends with and she told me that Arizona was home now but she felt guilty because Vietnam should feel more like home. I answered that in this day and age, there is no reason that we should only have to pick one home. For me, I feel comfortable and at home just as much in Tokyo, HCMC and Madrid as I do in Columbus.

But it got me thinking. What exactly defines a nationality? When I was a child I thought an American was either white or black and spoke the English perfectly. As I got a little older, I began to think it was anyone who spoke American English flawlessly. But now, I know it is anyone who holds an American passport. Restrictions aside, it is possible for anyone to go to American and call themselves American if they can get a passport. However, it is only a one way street.

With the ease of air travel, the popularity of studying languages abroad, and less governmental restriction there is a large amount of people leaving their native lands and taking on new nationalities in Europe and America. But this has not happened the other way around. I can never be a Vietnamese or Japanese no matter how well I learn the language or adapt to the culture. I also read an article in “Let’s Go Vietnam entitled Going Home.

Excerpt from Let’s Go Vietnam’s “Coming Home” by Quang Tran a Vietnamese American
A few years ago, while watching television I was struck by images of a marketplace in Vietnam crowded with vendors selling live crabs and colorful fruits, part of a documentary about an American woman’s backpacking journey through the country. Watching that documentary was disorientating in the extreme, not because it was about a foreign place outside of my reality, but because it was in fact all too familiar. As a young Vietnamese immigrant growing up in America, I had learned to separate out a public “American” life and a private “Vietnamese” life at home. Seeing a Vietnamese market on American television blurred this distinction. I was both fascinated by the beautiful images and confused by how public they were. I thought that Vietnamese immigrants were the only people in the U.S. who knew about Vietnam. How could this American woman have seen more of my country than I have?

(further on)

Indeed, I used to wonder at international travelers who romanticized and exoticized Vietnam; where did they get such silly ideas? I resented that some came for adventure and left with souvenirs and believed that they understood Vietnamese culture or could talk about Vietnam as if they were now the experts. I wanted them to understand that their fascination with Vietnamese crafts as so much more beautiful than “dull” modern life is so incongruous when juxtaposed with millions of Vietnamese children’s dreams to have a house with a concrete floor.


Reflecting on that TV documentary, I realize that if that American woman saw more of my country that I did, it was a threat to my belief that I could still claim Vietnam to be my country, and with it, the idea that Vietnam can belong to anyone at all.
This is a dilemma that people like myself face. I have been abroad now for about 6 years and have found that I can fit into society quite easily in Spain, France and even Mexico, but the Asian countries will always see me as a foreigner. I try very hard to adapt their local customs and learn the langauge which is my passion but will always be treated as an outsider, or if I speak the language than a novelty. As the website “Japan – A Primer of Newcomers” states, when a white person speaks the asian language fluently, it is often perceived in a “look mom the horse can do math problems” sort of way. But I believe over time and as more foreigners come to live in Asia than this perception might have a chance to change.

Here in Vietnam, the returning Vietnamese often make comments just like the Japanese which convey their surprise that a white person can use chopsticks, enjoy Vietnamese food and have made the city their home (or one of their homes). But in America it would be extremely rude to tell an Asian person that they use a fork and knife very well.

So my point is, people of any nationality can call themselves American with a passport, but will it ever work the other way? It’s always interesting when I meet a Viet Kieu and they ask me where I’m from to which my reply is “Ohio.” But then I turn the question on them and they say they “Well, I’m Vietnamese but I live in California.” regardless of if they were born in Vietnam or not. Would it not be the same if I said “Well, I’m Irish, Celtic, Polish with perhaps a few barbarian, nomad clans thrown in, but I now live in Ohio.” Therefore, the question of how to define a nationality or better yet, the person we define ourselves to be, becomes a more difficult question.

It would be very interesting to be able to define one’s self as an “International.” For me, I sometimes catch myself slightly bowing when I meet myself which is a characterisitic of the Japanese. I adore the Spanish siesta and their relaxed attitudes. My favorite foods are Japanese and Vietnamese. I prefer that people take their shoes off when coming in my house. I speak moderate Japanese, Spanish and French, but when I’m asked what I am, the answer that comes out is always “American,” to which they will think I’m incapable of speaking another language or using chopsticks. Unfortunately, it seems that only in the west do we give the passport instead of skin color more of a priority when determining what or who someone is.

Will Asia ever be the same way?

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/


  1. just a note:
    in the US, police only raid criminal venues. Police raiding any place with out a judges warrant
    would cause an open revolt here. for a much travel man, you are revealing a naive side.
    Department of Immigration and Naturalization is
    responsible for matters pertaining to overstays.
    They have been known to raid business establishments not homes.
    surely you know the reason the raids are conducted
    ,checking for proper papers would be at the bottom of the list.
    i enjoy checking out your site from time to time.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jerry. I really appreciate any and all comments, especially if they give me something to think about.
    You are also right that the raids here are conducted mainly for another reason but it’s not in my best interests to mention that if ya know what I mean.
    I usually pick on the USA for my own interets. It’s where I grew up, but as I examine it from the outside, and listen to opinions from outside the USA I’m able to get a completely different picture. I still think the USA has the best police department in the world and there are plenty of safeguards to protect citizens from any abuse of power that might arise. However, my interest was aroused listening to a civil rights lawyer recently and also re-examining some of my personal experiences with police in the USA. So just for the sake of debate I’d like to address some issues.
    I grew up in a nice neighborhood and am a white male. So needless to say I never had any problems with the police. But I was also not a minority. I remember speaking with a few Latino friends in the USA and they told me that being pulled over was not uncommon. There was also a big issue in Columbus recently about Racial Profiling among the police. I think it’s great that in the USA this can be addressed openly unlike in other parts of the world. But my point is that just because it didn’t happen to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur.
    As for police only raiding criminal venues and the need for a warrant, I think the warrant is a good safeguard if the system works as it should. But in places like the South, in the “Good Old Boy” networks, this is very easily obtained especially in the case of minorities and people without power. The civil rights lawyer had told me that the “police” from any department weather it be from the FBI, Local police, or dept of Immigration did conduct raids most often on minority neighborhoods looking for those who overstayed their visas. If I compare that statement with here, the same could be said. It would be very easy to obtain a “warrant” or whatever they use to raid foreigner houses for the same reasons the police raid minority places in the USA. But then again, I’m not very knowlegable about this subject and am relying on the information the civil rights lawyer told me. So I’m not really aware if it is a big or small problem in the USA. I do think however, that we might not know how big a problem it may or may not be since I don’t think it would make a big splash in the newspapers.
    Anyway, if I compare my personal experiences with police in the USA in Vietnam, then the raids here in Vietnam seem less strange (except for them coming to my house). When I was a student in college in Ohio, I remember the police raiding the bars in packs of three looking for underage drinkers. They would barge in unexpectedly, check identification and lead people out in handcuffs. Here in Vietnam they raid bars not looking for underage but supposedly looking for the proper licences to sell alcohol (but most likely for other reasons….)
    Anyway, I know I cannot win this argument, but just trying anyway, gives me something to think about and that there can be problems anywhere so I really shouldn’t gripe too much about the problems here.
    Thanks again for the comment.

  3. I’d say it isn’t as big of a problem as you might think. As you know, I live in DC, right smack in the middle of a very liberal, international area. Also, aside from the politicians, most everyone from this area hates the current administration and takes every chance they can to generate bad press for them. However, I don’t hear anything about these raids, which leads me to the following conclusions:
    1 – The raids aren’t happening. The most likely of the scenarios.
    2 – The raids are, but since they’re actually catching people, they’re being done legally. Probably not true, or at least, they’re not happening with any frequency whatsoever, as I’d expect to hear good or bad press on the subject and I’m not hearing anything.
    3 – The raids are happening, but the government is killing, deporting, or otherwise covering everything up. And I wear a tin-foil hat. Also highly unlikely – considering all of the bad press on other items, I doubt there is the ability for a good coverup on something like this.

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