A Second Disaster Tests Vietnamese American Resilience on the Gulf Coast

Photo: Fiona Stewart / Oceans 8 FilmsMin Zhou and Carl Bankston’s now classic 1998 book Growing Up American portrayed Vietnamese Americans as the quintessential model minority.1 As both authors were based in Louisiana at the time (Bankston now heads the Department of Sociology at my home institution, and Zhou is professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA), they focused their attention on New Orleans’ substantial Vietnamese community. Their central question was: how could it be that such a disadvantaged minority was able to nurture such a culture of success among their children?

Their answer: resilience, rooted in the retention of traditional Vietnamese cultural attributes and the selective incorporation of American ones. This was a bold assertion given the prevailing ideas inside and outside the social sciences that success or failure stems primarily from “rational choices” made by individual actors. To the extent that structure is acknowledged at all, it is the implications of economic disadvantage within families or communities that are typically emphasized. Zhou and Bankston theorized that the resilience of the Vietnamese in New Orleans stemmed from a special form of adaptation to American culture, which they—and Portes and Zhou before2—described as “segmented assimilation.” Segmented assimilation describes an immigrant group’s selective adaptation to their host society, taking what is conducive for success in the new environment (for example, English language skills) and rejecting what is conducive for failure (for example, lax parental control).

Vietnamese Americans are indeed a resilient group. Fortified by a millennium of subjugation by the Chinese, nearly a century of domination by the French, and decades of civil war surely worsened by American intervention, nearly a million Vietnamese came to the United States in the years following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. With few resources available to them other than a rich store of cultural capital emphasizing community, family, discipline, and thrift, they have evolved into an economic and political force in the New Orleans area during their decades of residence here. The first Vietnamese American member of Congress hails not from Southern California or southeast Texas, where the greatest concentrations of Vietnamese Americans live, but from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where the Vietnamese community has been one of the bright lights in the city’s spotty recovery.

My colleagues and I have been following this community since just before Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005.3 The main Vietnamese enclave in New Orleans East and smaller communities closer to the Gulf in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish were hit particularly hard by the Katrina disaster. Average property losses among Vietnamese New Orleanians were in the mid-five figures; nearly a third suffered losses of $100,000 or more.4 This degree of devastation was ubiquitous throughout New Orleans East and is a principal reason why this part of the city has been so slow to rebound.

Except for the Vietnamese community. Less than half of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population had returned by around the first anniversary of the disaster,5 and the rate of return in New Orleans East was far lower. In contrast, by this one-year milestone, over two-thirds of New Orleans’ Vietnamese population had returned, a rate about 50% higher than that of other groups.6 Indeed, the Vietnamese enclave in the East was and remains a veritable island of activity within a sea of devastation.

Southeast Louisiana’s Vietnamese community is likely to face its most severe test from the BP oil spill.

Just as remarkably, while estimates of post-traumatic stress within the affected area run about 30%,7 only about 5% of the Vietnamese there give indications of having been similarly traumatized.8 There is clearly something about being Vietnamese that is protective against environmental insults, whether the insult is residence in a social environment mired in poverty and crime or taking a one-two punch from Mother Nature and a negligent Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for designing and maintaining the levee system that failed the city during Katrina.

But as impressive as these earlier manifestations of resilience are, southeast Louisiana’s Vietnamese community is likely to face its most severe test from the BP oil spill. Much of the initial economic success of this community has been based on fishing and shrimping, niches that were well suited to a willingness to engage in hard labor for long hours and an initial lack of English skills that closed off many other avenues for economic advancement. While the community’s economic base has diversified in recent years, the Gulf and the Mississippi River estuary remain a principal source of livelihood, one that is now suffering a devastating blow from the BP oil disaster.

We know from our post-Katrina research that while the Vietnamese community overall fared well, some sub-groups fared worse than others. Those whose cultural orientation remains essentially Vietnamese fared substantially worse than those who are able to function well in both Vietnamese and American societies.9 We also know that among the Vietnamese—as well as among more mainstream populations—the middle-aged fared worse than other age groups,10 presumably because of the family responsibilities that they shoulder alone. Finally, we know from our post-Katrina research focusing on the Vietnamese and other groups that those suffering substantial economic losses and those with the most prolonged post-war experience in transition camps fared the worst.11

The fishermen are among the most linguistically and culturally isolated Vietnamese in America.

These findings belie simplistic generalizations about the ubiquity of impacts and simplistic presumptions linking resilience to suffering. More important, these findings can help us to anticipate the impacts of the BP oil disaster on the Vietnamese population and what one might do to mitigate them. First, we should not expect the rapid rebound of the Vietnamese fishermen affected by the BP catastrophe that we witnessed among the urban Vietnamese community post-Katrina. This is because the fishermen are among the most linguistically and culturally isolated Vietnamese in America, and we know that individuals with these characteristics are much more vulnerable to negative mental health impacts than are those who are better grounded and more functional in both American and Vietnamese cultures. Second, the concentration of affected boat owners in the vulnerable middle-aged group is worrisome. Intuitively, we might expect this age group to have the most to worry about, and our empirical evidence from Katrina suggests that this is indeed the case. A third principal reason for increased concern is the large and lasting impacts upon mental health that resulted from large economic losses from the Katrina disaster.

The loss of livelihood within this population resulting from the BP disaster will be very large, and prospects for viable long-term alternatives are grim, especially given the relative lack of alternative job skills and English language ability among many of those affected, relative to the Vietnamese community at large. One benefit that Vietnamese Americans working outside the fishing industry enjoyed post-Katrina was the plethora of economic opportunities that were available for those with sufficient entrepreneurial skills, fortitude, and capital to exploit them during the immediate post-Katrina period. There will be no comparable post-disaster boom for the fishermen to participate in. The petrochemical industry—especially offshore work—was perhaps once a viable alternative for employment for this sub-population, but this industry has also been crippled by the oil disaster, an injury exacerbated by the suspension of deep-water drilling implemented by President Obama in late May. Recruitment of Vietnamese and other fishermen into the cleanup effort—however well-intended—may turn out to be a cruel and ironic fate since it involves the mitigation of a catastrophe that destroyed their livelihoods, since there is an utter lack of alternatives, and since these Vietnamese with the least understanding of English and of American society may be the most vulnerable to an underestimation of health and other risks that the cleanup work entails.

There are several practical implications of the research summarized above. First, a watchful eye needs to be kept on the physical and mental health challenges to the middle-aged, a sub-population often overlooked by practitioners who may be more focused on groups that are conventionally perceived to be more vulnerable. Second, special efforts at screening should be directed at those with limited English ability and limited contacts with non-Vietnamese social networks and institutions. Third, a wide array of special services need to be developed and put into place right away, including culturally relevant mental health screening; financial support to mitigate short-term economic losses; assistance with re-location for those wishing to move; and English and job training to help mitigate long-term economic consequences.

Mark J. VanLandingham, PhD, is Thomas C. Keller Professor at Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
  1. 1. Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III, Growing up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (New York: Sage, 1998). []
  2. 2. Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530, no. 1 (1993): 74–96. []
  3. 3. More information is available at the project Web site: Katrina’s Impacts on Vietnamese Americans Living in New Orleans, LA (KATIVA-NOLA). []
  4. 4. Lung Vu, Mark J. VanLandingham, Mai Do, and Carl L. Bankston III, “Evacuation and Return of Vietnamese New Orleanians Affected by Hurricane Katrina,” Organization and Environment 22, no. 4 (2009): 422–36. []
  5. 5. U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Special Processing Procedures for the Areas Affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” manuscript, 2007. []
  6. 6. Vu et al., “Evacuation and Return.” []
  7. 7. Sandro Galea et al., “Exposure to Hurricane-Related Stressors and Mental Illness After Hurricane Katrina,” Archives of General Psychiatry 64, no. 12 (2007): 1427–34. []
  8. 8. Fran H. Norris, Mark J. VanLandingham, and Lung Vu, “PTSD in Vietnamese Americans Following Hurricane Katrina: Prevalence, Patterns, and Predictors,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 22, no. 2 (2009): 91–101. []
  9. 9. Norris, VanLandingham, and Vu, “PTSD in Vietnamese Americans”; and Mark VanLandingham, Lung Vu, Hongyun Fu, Fran Norris, and Janet Rice, “Katrina-related Health Impacts on Vietnamese New Orleanians: A Longitudinal Analysis,” International Health and Development Working Paper No. 2009-03 (New Orleans: Tulane University, 2009). []
  10. 10. Norris, VanLandingham, and Vu, “PTSD in Vietnamese Americans”; and Narayan Sastry and Mark VanLandingham, “One Year Later: Mental Illness Prevalence and Disparities Among New Orleans Residents Displaced by Hurricane Katrina,” American Journal of Public Health 99, no. S3 (2009): 725–31. []
  11. 11. Vu et al., “Evacuation and Return”; and Sastry and VanLandingham,“One Year Later.” []
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