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Tradition and Individualism: Intergenerational Relations of Catholic Vietnamese Immigrant Families in the United States

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Catholic Vietnamese Immigrant Families in the US

Catholicism has been a crucial framework in which Vietnamese people and their diaspora view the world. Intergenerational relations of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States are analyzed through the lens of Catholicism, which serves as a medium in which intergenerational unity, as well as intergenerational conflict and tension, manifest themselves.

Through an analysis of the scholarship regarding the Vietnamese immigrants’ religious practices and habits, the changing priorities and interests between older and younger Vietnamese Americans point towards a shift in the expression of Vietnamese Catholic culture in the United States.

Catholicism’s Importance in Vietnam

Catholicism has been a prominent force of mind for the Vietnamese for several centuries, stemming from the middle of the seventeenth century through today. The Catholic religion was first introduced to Vietnam in 1658 by French missionaries, who accompanied French traders as they explored the landscape and traded with locals (Tran 27). These missionaries traveled throughout the country and the rest of Southeast Asia striving to convert and teach Vietnamese peasants.

While for the most part, Vietnamese peasants welcomed the European missionaries and incorporated Catholic teachings into their everyday lives, many of Vietnam’s ruling families felt threatened by the emergence of this foreign religion. Over the next two hundred years, Vietnamese ruling families and authorities struggled with Catholicism because as Catholicism became more and more popular among the peasantry, the French military officers in charge of protecting the missionaries grew in controlling power.

More Catholics in Vietnam meant more Europeans, many of whom were disposed to usurping authority from Vietnam’s internal leaders. This clash of authority resulted in long-term conflict between the Vietnamese rulers and the French imperialists, including violence and murder. The resulting turmoil helped in developing Vietnam’s expression of Catholicism, which stemmed from a reverence for numerous Vietnamese martyrs of the faith (Bankston 37). Following the introduction and popularization of Communism in the northern part of the country, and the corresponding Communist agenda to rid Vietnam of Catholicism and other Western religions, many of the Catholics living in northern Vietnam fled south for relief, where religious liberties were upheld to a higher degree.

As demonstrated through the origin narrative of the Catholic faith in Vietnam, Catholicism is tightly intertwined with Vietnamese politics. The Vietnamese political story, and subsequently and more importantly, the modern Vietnamese personal story and experience, cannot be ignorant of the impact of Catholicism. Catholicism in Vietnam, and particularly in southern Vietnam, has become a core aspect of Vietnamese life. The religious teachings and way of thinking of the Catholic faith inform how many Vietnamese commoners, leaders, and their diaspora view the world.

This idea of the Catholic faith permeating the worldview of the Vietnamese people is made even more apparent through an examination of the changes made to Vietnam’s indigenous religions, which have altered much of their native theology to better conform to the religious thinking of Vietnamese Catholics. Hoskins writes in “Sacralizing the Diaspora: Cosmopolitan and Originalist Indigenous Religions” that “Elements of Catholic religious rankings--a Pope, both female and male Bishops and Archbishops, a ‘Vatican’ sacred city-were fused with titles earlier used in Confucian rituals to erect an elaborate new administrative hierarchy” (Hoskins 114). Here, Hoskins is claiming that other religions in Vietnam are willing to adopt an entirely new hierarchy with new titles so that they can appear to be more similar to the Catholic faith. This demonstrates the pervasiveness of Catholic thought in the minds of the Vietnamese, and how the Catholic Church was seen largely as a symbol of a proper authority, whose teachings and structure are inherently better than those of local religions because of this profound authority.

Hoskins goes on to claim that French colonizers had a primary goal of giving “the Vietnamese people a new sense of purpose under divine leadership” (Hoskins 114). The French missionaries succeeded in this goal because many Vietnamese saw the Church as the central authority of their lives. For many Vietnamese, the Catholic Church is the symbol of authority.

The introduction and growth of Catholicism was the pivotal catalyst that informs much of the political decisions made in modern Vietnamese history and therefore has a profound impact on the worldview of the Vietnamese people living in Vietnam. In actuality, this worldview is not reserved only within Vietnam, but instead lives and moves throughout space, into each location that Vietnamese immigrants travel. The mindset of the Catholic Church being the ultimate and central authority in the lives of the Vietnamese extends outside of Vietnam, and is not limited by space, and has subsequently informed the framework in which Vietnamese Diaspora living in the United States use to understand the world.

The Importance of Catholicism for Vietnamese Immigrants

Following the ejection of numerous southern Vietnamese by Communist forces in the 1960s and 1970s, many Vietnamese people who have been displaced immigrated to the United States, most prevalently in American communities such as Southern California and New Orleans.

Of those Vietnamese families who have moved to the United States as refugees following the conflict in Vietnam, many largely strive to adhere to the traditional aspects of Vietnamese culture despite moving into a generally hostile environment for immigrants. Aspects of Vietnamese life, such as cuisine, decor, and arguably most importantly, adherence to Catholicism, were retained despite the spatial change. The general trend for Vietnamese immigrants to settle in communities with other Vietnamese immigrants aided in this adherence to traditional Vietnamese culture, as communal events, celebrations, politics, and family life bolstered cultural pride and the sense of belonging in an otherwise foreign place. This can be seen most clearly when examining Catholic churches within Vietnamese communities.

Carl Bankston points to personal parishes, the Vietnamese Catholic Congress, and the particularly devout nature in which the Vietnamese immigrants worship to be instrumental in the success of many Vietnamese Americans because it held communities together. In other words, for many first-generation Catholic Vietnamese immigrants to the United States, adherence to the Catholic faith within a personal parish meant adherence to the Vietnamese community as a whole, and the retainage of a traditional Vietnamese identity despite being displaced from home.

Dorothy Vidulich, in her article entitled “Religion Central for Vietnamese in U.S.” makes the argument that the Catholic Church is seen as a place of healing for many of Vietnam’s refugees who came to the United States. Vidulich emphasizes that while the Vietnamese expression of Catholicism is an integral aspect to Vietnamese in Vietnam, it is particularly potent in Vietnamese immigrants to the United States because of the faith and community offer relief from the harshness of their experiences. In this way, the success of many Vietnamese immigrants to reconcile tragedies experienced during the Vietnam War and the later hardships faced as immigrants is credited to their faith.

Similarly, in the documentary entitled A Village Called Versailles, director Leo Chiang strives to illustrate how the Catholic Church is central to the Vietnamese idea of community, especially within the New Orleans Vietnamese American community. Chiang demonstrates that after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, and the dispersion of members of the New Orleans Vietnamese community, the commonality in faith and devotion to the Church is a primary motivation to return rebuild, for the sake of the community’s continuance.


Different Experiences for Younger Vietnamese Americans

However, now that Vietnamese immigrants have had large, established communities for several decades inside the United States, their children and grandchildren who have been born in the United States do not have the same perspective of the Catholic Church. These younger Vietnamese Americans largely do not view the Church in the same way as their older relatives because of the difference in experiences possessed by each group.

Because Catholicism is such an integral part of the Vietnamese American identity, at least among the older community members, the younger Vietnamese Americans that do not share the same view of the Church as their older relatives have a conflicted sense of identity. The Vietnamese Catholic Church remains united because of the shared view of solace and safety found within it, yet if no solace from tragedy is sought because of an absence of tragedy, as is the case for many younger Vietnamese Americans, it is as if the Catholic Church community is not for them.

Many of the older Vietnamese Americans look to the Church for solace because they have experienced the Vietnam War in a more literal and possibly more intimate way than the Vietnamese youth who were not yet born to experience the war first-hand, and, in general, do not have the same appreciation for the Church. Vidulich continues to argue that because it appears that adhering and continuing the Catholic faith is not a priority of many young Vietnamese Americans, the congregations have acted in response through Americanizing the liturgy.

Many congregations are becoming more Americanized as seen by less and less of the Vietnamese language being used in the liturgy, and more English, as the youth have less proficiency in Vietnamese, while having greater familiarity with English, the first language for many. This, however, as Vidulich continues, is detrimental to the sense of community among Vietnamese Americans in the first place, because the older monolingual Vietnamese speakers of the community are alienated.

One aspect of the Catholic faith, as well as many other local Vietnamese religions, is the emphasis on passing on the faith to the following generation. In both Vietnam’s local religions and Catholicism, continuing on the religion to children, and ensuring that they are well-informed and responsible to perpetuate the faith is of paramount importance.

This idea of responsibility, however, is becoming less potent with the younger generations of Vietnamese. In “Globalizing Vietnamese Religions” by Hoskins and Ninh, the authors claim that “the idea that religion is ‘inherited’, as part of a family tradition that remains unchanged throughout the lifespan, has become unpopular, even among young people who perform ancestral rituals to show respect to their parents.” Younger Vietnamese, in general, do not feel a sense of obligation to continue their religion through their children.

As has been demonstrated, the changes in the perspective of the Vietnamese Catholic communities in the United States are a manifestation of the different experiences of older and younger Vietnamese Americans. Younger Vietnamese Americans are losing touch with older Vietnamese. Crucially, the transition in what the Catholic Church means to Vietnamese people living in America has changed.

For many of the older Vietnamese who experienced the Vietnam War first-hand, the Church was a place of refuge from the conflict. The Church meant solace amid danger, and calmness amid chaos. The Catholic Church continued to serve this role for the Vietnamese who immigrated to the United States in that the Church still represented a refuge of familiarity amid a foreign place filled with often hostile people who did not appreciate the Vietnamese’s company and presence.

However, this view of the Church is not the view held by many younger Vietnamese Americans. The younger Vietnamese Americans have been removed from the goriest aspects of the Vietnamese War. For the Vietnamese Americans that were born in the United States, their experience of Vietnamese conflict is largely second-hand; their participation in the conflict is contingent on their family’s and community’s experience of the war. Thus, the younger Vietnamese Americans do not see the Church as a place of refuge for themselves, and can only see it as a place of refuge for their older relatives.

Now that the Vietnam War has concluded, and numerous Vietnamese communities throughout the United States have largely been normalized as ordinary, and not different from any other generally accepted immigrant community, the Catholic Church for these younger Vietnamese no longer means solace from conflict and no longer bears nostalgia as it did for many first-generation Vietnamese. For many younger Vietnamese Americans, the Catholic Church does not have much personal importance at all, and there is a clear dissonance about how the Catholic Church is viewed within Vietnamese communities.

Younger Vietnamese Americans have responded to this conflict of identity by taken up trying to establish a new, unique identity for themselves. This identity is largely manifested through a blend of Vietnamese and American ideals, and not entirely adhering to one set of ideals over another. This is made evident in several different ways, such as straying from the rigid rules of preparing traditional Vietnamese cuisine to add American elements to appeal to a more Americanized audience.

Also, the increased prevalence of English being used within a Vietnamese American Catholic mass demonstrates a clear shift in the target audience of Vietnamese personal parishes. These parishes are tending to move away from solely using Vietnamese in the liturgy in favor of a mix of Vietnamese and English, and oftentimes only English, to appeal to the younger generations of Vietnamese Americans who are only proficient in English and lack a concrete understanding of Vietnamese. All of these changes made by and for younger Vietnamese Americans demonstrate how Vietnamese American culture is changing generationally.


The Vietnamese American experience is different with each generation, and the culture adapts to those differences. The next generation of Vietnamese Americans will certainly express their joint Vietnamese and American heritage much differently than today’s generation. It is therefore of paramount importance to analyze Vietnamese Americans within the context of time, an unignorable dimension to the Vietnamese American experience. Vietnamese American culture is not static, but rather highly dynamic, and the lens of Catholicism is useful for identifying those cultural changes.