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Ethnic Origins

The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities

Jeremy Hein

Publication Year: 2006

Immigration studies have increasingly focused on how immigrant adaptation to their new homelands is influenced by the social structures in the sending society, particularly its economy. Less scholarly research has focused on the ways that the cultural make-up of immigrant homelands influences their adaptation to life in a new country. In Ethnic Origins, Jeremy Hein investigates the role of religion, family, and other cultural factors on immigrant incorporation into American society by comparing the experiences of two little-known immigrant groups living in four different American cities not commonly regarded as immigrant gateways. Ethnic Origins provides an in-depth look at Hmong and Khmer refugees—people who left Asia as a result of failed U.S. foreign policy in their countries. These groups share low socio-economic status, but are vastly different in their norms, values, and histories. Hein compares their experience in two small towns—Rochester, Minnesota and Eau Claire, Wisconsin—and in two big cities—Chicago and Milwaukee—and examines how each group adjusted to these different settings. The two groups encountered both community hospitality and narrow-minded hatred in the small towns, contrasting sharply with the cold anonymity of the urban pecking order in the larger cities. Hein finds that for each group, their ethnic background was more important in shaping adaptation patterns than the place in which they settled. Hein shows how, in both the cities and towns, the Hmong’s sharply drawn ethnic boundaries and minority status in their native land left them with less affinity for U.S. citizenship or “Asian American” panethnicity than the Khmer, whose ethnic boundary is more porous. Their differing ethnic backgrounds also influenced their reactions to prejudice and discrimination. The Hmong, with a strong group identity, perceived greater social inequality and supported collective political action to redress wrongs more than the individualistic Khmer, who tended to view personal hardship as a solitary misfortune, rather than part of a larger-scale injustice. Examining two unique immigrant groups in communities where immigrants have not traditionally settled, Ethnic Origins vividly illustrates the factors that shape immigrants’ response to American society and suggests a need to refine prevailing theories of immigration. Hein’s book is at once a novel look at a little-known segment of America’s melting pot and a significant contribution to research on Asian immigration to the United States.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: American Sociological Association Rose Series

Title Page

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pp. xiii-xiv

About the Author

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p. xv

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pp. xvii-xxiii

In 1997 President Clinton announced his intention to create a national dialogue about race. No American president had ever voluntarily confronted this social problem. Clinton unveiled his ambitious Initiative on Race in a commencement address at the University of California—San Diego. ...


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pp. xxv-xxvi

Part I: Ideas

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1. Immigrants and Culture

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pp. 3-24

The colonization by France of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the mid-nineteenth century initiated the historical forces that would bring Southeast Asian refugees to the United States in the late twentieth century. During the intervening years the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the...

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2. Ethnic Origins

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pp. 25-41

The sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s (1994, 60) influential theory of racial formation is based on the idea that “everybody learns some combination, some version of the rules of racial classification.” This socialization occurs very differently for natives and immigrants, however. ...

Part II: Peoples

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3. Khmer

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pp. 45-59

Cambodian refugees come from a “hybrid culture” (Chandler 1996, 80) and thus arrive in the United States thinking that ethnic boundaries are porous and that ethnic identities are liminal. A well-known origin story symbolizes their worldview. It concerns an Indian prince named Kambu,...

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4. Hmong

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pp. 60-75

Only 350 miles separate Angkor Wat from the Plain of Jars, the area of Laos where the Hmong once claimed autonomy (see figure 3.1). Yet the Hmong and the Khmer have opposite ethnic origins. A well-known story about Hmong origins illustrates this difference. A brother and sister...

Part III: Places

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5. Small-Town Hospitality and Hate

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pp. 79-100

Whites accounted for nearly 100 percent of residents in Eau Claire and Rochester when refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began arriving in the mid-1970s. The first arrivals came directly from Southeast Asia via the federal resettlement program organized by the U.S....

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6. Ethnic Succession in the Urban Pecking Order

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pp. 101-124

In small midwestern cities Southeast Asian refugees brought a new kind of diversity, but in Chicago and Milwaukee they were just the latest installment in a century of ethnic succession. Southern blacks began arriving in Chicago and Milwaukee during World War I, followed by...

Part IV: Identities

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7. Asian American

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pp. 127-143

"ASIAN” is commonly used by government officials, the media, and social scientists to name people. It appears on all documents that ask about a person’s race, from birth certificates and college admission forms to surveys by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and sociologists. “Asian”...

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8. American Citizen

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pp. 144-161

Many policy makers think of U.S. citizenship as one of the last identities that can foster a sense of unity in our increasingly diverse society. President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race recommended developing programs “for both immigrants and those born in the United States,...

Part V: Inequalities

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9. Societal Racism

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pp. 165-183

“The American dilemma” is one of the most enduring phrases to emerge from twentieth-century social-science research. Gunnar Myrdal (1944/1962) coined this term in his landmark study of African Americans’ inequality in the United States. His book quickly became “an epoch-making...

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10. Group Stereotypes

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pp. 184-196

In everyday life, inequality often manifests itself as prejudice, a pre-judging of individuals on the basis of their group membership. Stereotyping is one of the central mechanisms in prejudice (Fiske 1998). People with prejudices have preexisting negative beliefs about particular groups,...

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11. Institutional Discrimination

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pp. 197-207

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are among the vilest manifestations of social inequality, but the actual deprivation of rights results from discrimination, which means unequal treatment. Discrimination often involves the abuse of power by individuals whose positions in institutions...

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12. Political Mobilization

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pp. 208-224

Severe prejudice and discrimination against a people transform them into a minority group because they are more likely than other people in the society to repeatedly experience social inequality. In the first social science definition of the concept minority, the sociologist Louis Wirth...

Part VI: Implications

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13. Conclusion

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pp. 227-246

Policy makers, journalists, and social scientists often attribute the new challenges of diversity in the United States to the fact that blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are becoming a larger proportion of the population in major cities, populous states, and American society as a whole. ...

Appendix A: Overview of Methodologies

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pp. 247-252

Appendix B: Details of Methodologies

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pp. 253-263


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pp. 265-274


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pp. 275-296


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pp. 297-309

E-ISBN-13: 9781610442831
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871543363
Print-ISBN-10: 0871543362

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: American Sociological Association Rose Series
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OCLC Number: 607606546
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ethnic Origins

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Hmong Americans -- Cultural assimilation -- Case studies.
  • Sociology, Urban -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Assimilation (Sociology) -- Case studies.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations -- Case studies.
  • Cambodian Americans -- Cultural assimilation -- Case studies.
  • Cambodian Americans -- Social conditions -- Case studies.
  • Refugees -- United States -- Social conditions -- Case studies.
  • Hmong Americans -- Ethnic identity -- Case studies.
  • Cambodian Americans -- Ethnic identity -- Case studies.
  • Hmong Americans -- Social conditions -- Case studies.
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