Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia

Article excerpt

Suburbs, where most Americans live, are rarely regarded as refuges of American pluralism, and the vast literature on them is largely silent about immigration and ethnicity (Li 1995, 1996; Allen and Turner 1996). Conventional models of immigration and urban geography duster immigrants in central cities, in response to housing and employment opportunities. William Burgess's 1920s-era concentric-ring model of urban social morphology makes dear the geography that immigrants are said to have shaped. But more recent immigrants are making their own places in the suburbs of America. Los Angeles epitomizes a metropolitan area-wide, multiethnic reworking of suburban landscapes and geographies. Suburban Northern Virginia is also experiencing vibrant ethnic place making. Here immigrants write fresh chapters in the biography of the American suburb, even as they recast their own values, beliefs, norms, and behavior.

Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia have undertaken their place making through subtle and not-so-subtle acts of appropriation and accommodation. The landscapes they are shaping reflect their perceptions of suburban opportunities within inherited geographies. They are assuredly not constructing ethnic homelands or culture regions in conventional cultural geographical terms--usually an original shaping of place said to occur with "first effective settlement" (Zelinsky 1973; Conzen 1993).

Instead, Vietnamese Americans are imbuing suburbs with their own novel meanings. Passersby may notice a cluster of Vietnamese stores in a shopping plaza, a zone of Southeast Asian cuisine, a Buddhist temple or Vietnamese Catholic church announced with a distinctive script, or a reserved section of a cemetery. Vietnamese Americans see a vibrant community center, economic enterprise, reflections of tradition, contested interests, and complex social and economic geographies. Place making involves a continual process of shaping identity and expressing social relationships. The Vietnamese American community is itself evolving; nowhere are pieces of Vietnam merely relocating wholesale (Hein 1995, 50). In making places Vietnamese Americans are enjoying and directing suburban geographical change.


Vietnamese have come to the United States in a series of distinctive waves, their refugee status distinguishing them and other Indochinese from the larger category of Asian immigrants. The original 1975 refugee wave included highly educated, professional and elite members of the former U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government who fled after the fall of Saigon. Some 40 percent of these immigrants were Catholic--from a base population in Vietnam that was only 10 percent Catholic--and some 20 percent had a university-level education.

"Boat people" were refugees of more modest means who escaped in late 1970S and early 1980s. This second wave was composed especially of Viet Hoa, a highly entrepreneurial, Chinese ethnic minority. In general, more of the second-wave immigrants were males, Buddhists, less affluent, and less educated (Dunning 1989). Still, they maintained strong family ties and kinship networks and adapted quickly to their new American setting, even if they did not necessarily assimilate as quickly as many of the first-wave immigrants did (Desbarats 1986; Yu and Liu 1986; Dunning 1989,77).

In the 1980s the immigration cohorts began to mirror the demographic characteristics of Vietnam itself (Allen and Turner 1988, 191). By this time, too, many Amerasians were contributing to the immigration stream, though they faced much the same prejudice among Vietnamese Americans as they had faced in Vietnam. Most recently, former political prisoners or reeducation detainees have been arriving. All are participating in place making in Northern Virginia.

Particular historical reasons led Vietnamese to the United States and certain Vietnamese to Northern Virginia (Andrews and Stopp 1985; Desbarats 1985). …

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