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Refugees and Immigrants: The Southeast Asian Experience as Depicted in Recent American Children's Books

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 23, Number 2, April 1999
pp. 219-237 | 10.1353/uni.1999.0019

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The Lion and the Unicorn 23.2 (1999) 219-237

Southeast Asians are one of the largest and most widely misunderstood immigrant groups in recent U.S. history. More accurately, they constitute a number of widely-varied ethnic groups, ranging from the Vietnamese, a significant percentage of whom came to this country well-educated and from urban backgrounds, to the Hmong, a resourceful but almost entirely unwesternized agricultural culture lacking, until recently, even a written language. It was once extremely difficult for younger children of Southeast Asian background to find books in English that reflected their personal experience and their family history, but, beginning with Trân-Khánh-Tuyêt's important picture book The Little Weaver of Thai-Yen Village (1977, rev. 1987), Mace Goldfarb's Fighters, Refugees, Immigrants (1982), and Michele Maria Surat and Vo-Dinh Mai's Angel Child, Dragon Child (1983), this began to change. Now, younger children of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Thai, and Hmong ethnicity can all find at least a few books based on their cultures, some of them folktales, others realistic portrayals in fiction or nonfiction. My purpose in this essay is to examine a selection of the picture books and beginning chapter books currently available in English that show the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees, both in their various homelands and in the United States. Several important questions will be addressed. As portrayed in these books, to what extent do the wartime and immigration experiences of the various ethnic groups differ? What specific problems do children (and adults) coming to the United States from Southeast Asia face, and what solutions do these books offer? How do the books under consideration deal with, or fail to deal with, the difficult ideological issues behind the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia? Finally, to what extent can and should these books be shared with children from other ethnic groups to help them understand the Southeast Asian experience?

Among the Vietnamese-related books that will be examined are the Tran and Surat volumes mentioned above, Rosemary Breckler's Sweet Dried Apples (1996), Sherry Garland's The Lotus Seed (1993) and My Father's Boat (1998), Kim-Lan Tran's Têt: The New Year (1992), Mary Z. Holmes's Dust of Life (1992), Karen O'Connor's Dan Thuy's New Life in America (1992), and Lawrence McKay, Jr.'s Journey Home (1998). Cambodian-related books to be considered include Sothea Chiemruom's Dara's Cambodian New Year (1994), Nancy Price Graff's Where the River Runs (1993), and Margy Burns Knight's Who Belongs Here? (1993); Hmong-related books include the Goldfarb volume, Dia Cha's Dia's Story Cloth (1996), Pegi Deitz Shea's The Whispering Cloth (1995), Brian and Heather Marchant's A Boy Named Chong (1992), Sara Gogol's A Mien Family (1996), and Ia Xiong's The Gift, The Hmong New Year (1996). Some of these books are nonfiction; others are fiction closely based on fact. Some were written by Vietnamese, Hmong, or Cambodian authors, most of whom lived through the experiences they describe. Others were written by European Americans who were involved in the events they relate, directly or indirectly, as social workers, second language teachers, or friends.

Needless to say, most of the books under consideration begin with the experience of war. For the Vietnamese, of course, war has sadly been a way of life for many decades, but immigration to the United States didn't begin in earnest until the early to mid-1970s. Most of these immigrants were well educated: university students, the wives of American servicemen, and Vietnamese government officials (Rutledge 16). The first great wave of immigration to the United States, however, occurred in 1975, immediately following the fall of Saigon. Included in this group, most of whom were airlifted, were large numbers of Vietnamese government and military personnel, others who had collaborated with the United States, and their families. A second wave of immigration occurred in the late 1970s, largely in response to the resettlement policies of the new Communist government in Vietnam. Most of these people traveled by boat, and a high percentage of them were less well-educated farmers and fishermen...


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