Becoming Refugee American

The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon

How gratitude and longing forged a new kind of American

Vietnamese refugees fleeing the fall of South Vietnam faced a paradox. The same guilt-ridden America that only reluctantly accepted them expected, and rewarded, expressions of gratitude for their rescue. Meanwhile, their status as refugees—as opposed to willing immigrants—profoundly influenced their cultural identity.

Phuong Tran Nguyen examines the phenomenon of refugee nationalism among Vietnamese Americans in Southern California. Here, the residents of Little Saigon keep alive nostalgia for the old regime and, by extension, their claim to a lost statehood. Their refugee nationalism is less a refusal to assimilate than a mode of becoming, in essence, a distinct group of refugee Americans. Nguyen examines the factors that encouraged them to adopt this identity. His analysis also moves beyond the familiar rescue narrative to chart the intimate yet contentious relationship these Vietnamese Americans have with their adopted homeland. Nguyen sets their plight within the context of the Cold War, an era when Americans sought to atone for broken promises but also saw themselves as providing a sanctuary for people everywhere fleeing communism.

"This is the history that Vietnamese Americans and those who study them have been waiting for, a terrific account of how Vietnamese refugees came to the United States and founded their own Little Saigon. Phuong Nguyen's clarifying, enjoyable account provides a persuasive framework of 'refugee nationalism' for understanding how these newcomers turned themselves into Americans."--Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

“The refugee world of Little Saigon now has its historian. Phuong Tran Nguyen’s brave and highly original book tells the intriguing story of how tens of thousands of Vietnamese became American; and anyone interested in the domestic legacy of America’s war in Indochina or its recent wars and military engagements in the Middle East should be listening.”--Lon Kurashige, author of Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990


Phuong Tran Nguyen was born in Vietnam and migrated to the United States a few years after the Vietnam War. He is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Monterey Bay.

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