Understanding Vietnamese Refugee Women's Identity Development from a Sociopolitical and Historical Perspective

By Phan, Loan T.; Rivera, Edil Torres et al. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Understanding Vietnamese Refugee Women's Identity Development from a Sociopolitical and Historical Perspective


Phan, Loan T., Rivera, Edil Torres, Roberts-Wilbur, Janice, Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


As the U.S. population diversifies, it behooves all professional counselors to increase their knowledge and understanding of multicultural populations. One population that has received little attention has been Vietnamese refugee women. Since 1975, over 1.5 million Southeast Asian refugees have arrived in the United States, more than 600,000 of whom are Vietnamese (Chung, Bemak, Okazaki, 1997; U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1976-1990). Refugees differ from immigrants in that their exodus from their home countries was a forced migration. On the other hand, immigrants have more time to prepare for their arrival to the United States (Chung et al., 1997). As a result, refugees have little choice about and control of their own fate and experience unique issues of culture shock, homesickness, depression, distress, stress-related illnesses, posttraumatic stress disorder, exit and post-entry trauma, and acculturation stress (Chun, Eastman, Wang, & Sue, 1998; Chung, Bemak, & Wong, 2000; Portes & Rumbaut, 1990; D. W. Sue & Sue, 2003). Although each of the four waves of Vietnamese refugees experienced various difficulties from the exodus to the arrival to the United States, all waves endured the challenges of rapidly adjusting to an unknown American culture (Dana, 1998). Certain waves of refugees, particularly the second wave, that escaped by small boats suffered extremely harsh experiences including starvation, pirate attacks, torture, sexual violence, and witnessing family members die along the journey (Cheung, 1984). The literature and research on postmigration psychosocial adjustment of Vietnamese refugees have been sparse, and questions, such as how has forced migration and colonization affected Vietnamese identity development and, specifically, the identity development of Vietnamese refugee women, have been left unanswered. This area needs to be investigated and can no longer be ignored.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2000c), the total U.S. population is 281,421,906, and 3.6%, or 10,242,998 of the total population are Asians. From 1980 to 1990, the Vietnamese population increased 150.8%, and it increased 89.23% from 1990 to 2000. The Asian population is projected to increase to 14,436,000 by the year 2010 and to 18,527,000 by the year 2020. Out of the 1,122,528 Vietnamese people living in the U.S., 406,809 are Vietnamese women 18 years and older (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000a). These numbers may actually be higher given that Asian Americans have previously been undercounted by 2.3% nationwide, in contrast to 1.6% for the national average (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). In other words, 173,699 Asian Americans were not accounted for in the 1990 census.

The five U.S. states with the highest Vietnamese population are California with 447,032, Texas with 134,961, Washington with 46,149, Virginia with 37,309, and Massachusetts with 33,962. Nearly all Asian Americans (95%) live in metropolitan areas, with the majority (51.1%) living in the West. The five metropolitan areas with the highest population of Vietnamese people are Los Angeles--Riverside--Orange County, California, with 233,573; San Francisco--Oakland--San Jose, California, with 146,613; Houston--Galveston--Brazoria, Texas, with 63,924; Dallas--Fort Worth, Texas, with 47,090; and Washington, DC--Virginia--Maryland--West Virginia, with 43,709. Regarding self-identification on the U.S. Census, the Vietnamese were the least likely out of all other Asian groups to choose an additional category for race or another Asian group. Ninety-two percent chose the category of "Vietnamese alone," whereas 8% selected "Vietnamese in combination with one or more other races and/or detailed Asian groups" (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000b).

These statistics indicate that counselors may well encounter a Vietnamese female client in their practice, if they have not already. Also, the high percentage of Vietnamese identifying themselves exclusively as Vietnamese shows that a strong ethnic identity exists in the majority of Vietnamese American people. …

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