- Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States
Children of Vietnamese refugees are members of the “new second generation,” that is, U.S. or foreign-born children of contemporary immigrants growing up in the United States. Their parents came to America hoping for a better life; they look to the second generation to either realize or frustrate those hopes. (p. 2) Growing Up American is a study of the adaptation of one such group of second-generation Vietnamese Americans to life in the United States.
Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston, III argue that the new (post-1965) immigrants to the United States face a very different situation than that faced by earlier-arriving European immigrants. The American economy today is highly segmented. One segment requires a college education and sophisticated technical or interpersonal skills. The other is comprised of low-skilled, labor-intensive service jobs which hold little hope for advancement or long-term security. The American employment market is, in effect, an “hourglass” economy in which there are few possibilities in the middle and a great distance between top and bottom.
The great majority of Vietnamese refugees arrived in this country with few economic resources and low educational backgrounds. Most settled in poor, urban, minority neighborhoods. Zhou and Bankston’s study depicts first-generation immigrant parents as engaged in a desperate race to give their children sufficient social and economic support to succeed in school before they are absorbed into the disadvantaged minority subculture that surrounds them. Children are pushed toward educational success by their parents, and at the same time pulled by oppositional youth culture of their poor, urban neighborhoods.
This study confirms the findings of previous studies; Vietnamese children for the most part do exceptionally well in school. Their success suggests that doing well depends less on the social capital that parents arrive with than on something else. Zhou and Bankston argue that the something else is their ethnicity, “a group’s distinctive cultural and social-organizational traits.” (p. 5) “Specifically, we perceived the ethnic factor as a social context that influenced children’s adaptation through support as well as control.” (p. 10) Their study focuses particular attention on the influence of Vietnamese community organization on socioeconomic adaptation.
The authors’ research was conducted in Versailles Village, a low-income, [End Page 111] urban minority community in New Orleans and the second largest Vietnamese community outside of California. Between 1993 and 1995, the authors engaged in participant observation in the community, conducted numerous in-depth interviews, and administered two surveys of high school aged youth. They also drew extensively on U.S. Census data and other statistical indices. The authors describe their methodology as multivariate, linking ethnographic case studies with quantitative census data, survey data, and archival records. Their primary concern is to determine how Vietnamese American children have overcome class and economic disadvantages to adapt to American schools.
In framing their study, the authors note the paradoxical relationship between cultural assimilation and educational achievement. Whereas conventional sociological theories argue that longer residence in the United States leads to higher academic achievement, more recent ethnographic studies have indicated that the longer immigrants are in the country, the more maladaptive the outcomes can be in terms of school performance, aspirations, and behaviors. John Ogbu, The Next Generation: An Ethnography of Education in an Urban Neighborhood (1974), and more recently Signithia Fordham, Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High (1996), have both argued that for “caste-like minorities,” including African Americans, ethnicity may be of limited advantage. If a socially defined racial minority finds normal paths of integration and upward mobility are blocked because of race, they may cope with racial barriers by falling back on alternate survival strategies inimical to school success. They may react to racial oppression by constructing identities in the form of avoidance or resistance to the values of mainstream society; this may include resistance to school sanctioned norms of achievement.