March 23, 2008

Cultural Symbols, Assimilation, and Freedom of Expression

author_cn By C.N. Le

One of the main themes in my research as a scholar in Sociology and Asian American Studies is the process of assimilation. As I've written about in various posts on this blog, assimilation can take many different forms.

One form that I've recently started to follow more closely concerns anti-communist political activism among Vietnamese Americans. In fact, I've just completed a chapter entitled "'Better Dead Than Red': Anti-Communist Politics Among Vietnamese Americans" in a book titled Anti-Communist Minorities in the US: The Political Activism of Ethnic Refugees, edited by Ieva Zake (Palgrave-MacMillan Publishing) that will be published early next year.

In that chapter, I write that while the forces of assimilation are likely to result in a moderation of fervent anti-communist sentiment among younger Vietnamese Americans, there is still a strong level of ethnic solidarity within the Vietnamese American community. Combined with continuing incidents of human rights abuses in Viet Nam, I conclude that anti-communist activism among Vietnamese Americans may evolve into different forms but is unlikely to be eliminated or even notably lessened any time soon.

Recent examples illustrate the power of symbols and visual images to illuminate the legacy of the Viet Nam War.

The first incident, as the Orange County Register reports, involves a community college in Irvine, California (located only a few miles from Little Saigon) that recently decided to remove the Vietnamese flag from public display after local Vietnamese Americans threatened to demonstrate:

The 144 miniature flags have hung from the second-floor atrium for many years without controversy, in a gesture designed to symbolize the diversity of the college's student body. On Thursday, college officials removed the display in the wake of threats that busloads of protesters could arrive to disrupt the campus if the Vietnamese flag were not removed. 

Westminster Councilman Andy Quash and Garden Grove Councilwoman Dina Nguyen said they met with college officials Wednesday after receiving calls from numerous constituents about the flag display. "We reminded them that in 1999, in the city of Westminster, that flag hung in a video store led to a 49-day protest peaking at 50,000 people," Quash said. . . . "It's offensive because this flag represents a regime that is very dictatorial and does not respect human rights," Nguyen said.

The second incident, described by the San Mateo County Times, involves artwork created by a young Vietnamese American that was intended to pay tribute to the refugee experience of Vietnamese Americans but instead has been interpreted by many as pro-communist.viet-artwork2

The offending photo was of a piece of art by a University of California, Davis, graduate student and Vietnamese immigrant who saw the creation — a yellow-and-red foot-spa tub — as a salute to Vietnamese refugees like her mother-in-law who toiled in a nail salon after the family came to America.

But the protesters saw something far more menacing.

The tub was yellow with three red stripes, which the protesters said must be a reference to the flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam. And the spa's yellow power cord was plugged into a red outlet, which seemed to resemble the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, now under communist rule.

"Why is the South Vietnamese flag on a thing that people wash their dirty feet in?" asked Uc Van Nguyen, 70, who attended some of the rallies, which began in late January. . . .

Meanwhile, the artist said she had no intention of offending anyone when she bought a foot spa from a nail shop, painted it yellow and red. . . . She saw the art creation as a way to honor Vietnamese women who have "toiled and sacrificed enormously for the future of their children and family," she wrote.

It would be easy for many Americans to criticize the Vietnamese American protesters and to say things like, "You may find the images offensive, but as Americans, you should respect the right of people to freely express themselves however they want. If you don't, you're just replicating the same kind of authoritarianism that you blast the communists for committing."

While there is some truth to this particular argument, I would point out that first, in the same way that the artist or school has the freedom to express themselves however they want, so too do others have the right to criticize such expressions. In other words, freedom of expression is a two-way street -- express yourself however you want, but be prepared to receive potentially critical expressions in return.

This is not to say that I always agree with the protesters. In fact, I do not share their interpretation that the "foot tub" artwork shown above is offensive and viet-protest2 an insult to the Vietnamese refugee experience. There are other instances in which I disagree with many anti-communist opinions. At the same time, though, I respect and defend their right to express their interpretations that may be counter to mine. 

In fact, it is this right that allows historically marginalized groups to criticize recent media portrayals that many of us find offensive, including a college newspaper column meant as "satire" or the anti-Filipino Desperate Housewives episode.

Secondly, when people (particularly non-Vietnamese people) criticize such protests, in many cases they have little or no connection whatsoever to the refugee experiences that form the basis of such strong anti-communist sentiments. In other words, it is easy for others to say, "Come on, that was 30 years ago -- just let it go already" without truly understanding the level of suffering that many Vietnamese endured and still endure in the form of friends and family who have been killed or made into refugees.

In the same way we need to acknowledge and respect the historical impact of past experiences of injustice and suffering experienced by other racial/ethnic minority groups, so too should Americans be careful not to minimize the impact of the Viet Nam War and the forced exit of the Vietnamese people from heir ancestral.

At the same time, Vietnamese Americans should understand that there is a limit to their protests. Verbal criticisms and mass demonstrations are perfectly legitimate expressions of dissent, but threats and acts of violence are not. In those cases, the laws of this country are clear and there are no exceptions, regardless of how angry one feels or how much one has suffered in the past.

Political activists have the right to freedom of expression. We have broad opportunities to express our experiences, our grief, and our anger, but there are limits that we need to keep in mind. This is ultimately part of what it means to become assimilated, to become Vietnamese American.

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