Overview on Ethnicity

In our study of the SEA refugee youth, ethnic identity emerged as an important factor which played a role in how the youths perceived themselves, their families and their future roles in American society. In this regard, the youth are very conscious of who they are - they are not simply Asian, but are Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao or Hmong. As Chinese, or Cambodian, etc. the youth are carrying cultural baggage which exerts strong influence on their decisions regarding the future. Recognizing these differences is important when designing new programs for the SEA refugee community.

Not recognizing the distinctions among the groups can lead not only to maladaptive programs, but also to resentment among the groups themselves. For example, many of the youth complain that at school the Black students constantly lump them altogether. The Black youth call them derogatory names like “gook” or “chink”. One Hmong girl complained, we are not Chinese, we are Hmong. Why can't the Black kids recognize this difference? She said that sometimes she and her friends retaliated by calling the Blacks “Africans”. She said that they did not like this.

Consequently, the Asian youth in Philadelphia organize themselves into groups which are strongly based upon ethnicity. Many of their activities are ones which emphasize their identification. Aspirations and attitudes are strongly influenced by these groups.



Some of the groups, like the Hmong, for example, have organized more formal groups. They have their own Youth Association which is sponored by the Hmong United Association of Pennsylvania. The group elects officers, has a small budget and plans several annual activities. At the moment the group is more social in nature; for example, they organize outings, fall and spring parties. However, the current president, a 19 year old young man currently in his senior year of high school is making changes. He plans to introduce service activities aimed at helping the older members of the Hmong community.

Informally, the young Hmong in high school spend alot of time with each other. On Saturday afternoons boys and girls gather at the nearby park simply to talk and hang out, to play the guitar and volleyball.

The somewhat older Hmong youth (ages 22-24), who had already graduated from High School are no longer part of this group. Many of them are working in Philadelphia's large and bustling restaurant industry, jobs which they got through a Hmong network. They consequently report a wider circle of friends through their job association. Some of these older boys also report that they had been successful in making some Black friends while in high school and that these friendships continue today. Yet, on their days off, we noted that the majority prefer to visit Hmong friends.

We observed that the Hmong youth still participate in several traditional Hmong activities which strengthened their

ethnicity. For example, one young man in his early 20's told us that he and friends had killed about 100 pigs during the past several years for various Hmong ceremonial occasions. He said that they bought the live pigs from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Hmong New Year's was constantly talked about by many of the young people. It was an occasion they obviously enjoyed a great deal and further served to strengthen their sense of “being Hmong”. Although the youth are picking up American cultural values, such as dress and music preferences, they also express their “Hmongness” through the marriage system which is still celebrated in the traditional manner. In fact, it is their marriage system which is exerting the strongest influence on the decisions of teenage Hmong girls regarding their future (see section on marriage). In at least two houses, we observed young girls doing traditonal bandao (Hmong embroidery), an important skill for Hmong girls.

Another interesting aspect of Hmong ethnic bonding is the formation of their surname associations. Theoretically, the Hmong believe that everyone with the same surname is related (Geddes, 1976; personal communication, Bee Lor 1986), but in reality, in Laos and Thailand, the groups are too large for everyone to be biologically related or even to know one another. Yet, in America, families with the same surnames, who were formerly total strangers to one another, immediately forge friendships which are based upon bonds of kinship. This bond enables the Hmong to form networks which crosscut the entire United States, providing strength and unity for a small population.



The Vietnamese youth also tend to stick together. Like the Hmong youth, the Vietnamese groups include both boys and girls. But, unlike the Hmong, the Vietnamese do not have the more formal youth associations. This difference probably results from the greater number of Vietnamese youth. Instead, the youth interviewed talked about their informal groups of friends which were school or neighborhood based.

The Vietnamese youth groups also included Amer-Asians and some Sino-Vietnamese. The Amer-Asian youth said that they felt more comfortable with their Vietnamese friends than with Americans. In fact, they did not seem to be suffering from major discrimination by Vietnamese here. Contrary to what the Amer-Asians might have thought before they arrived in America, most Americans perceive them as Vietnamese and not American. Some may look more Western in terms of phenotype, but their language, their behavior and their general cultural affiliation binds them with the Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese boys in West Philadelphia also report that they hang out with Lao girls, but not Lao boys. It has been noted (Office of Refugee Resettlement 1986:10) that the ration of Vietnamese boys to girls between the ages of 12-21 is 2:1. Although this difference is lessening (Office of Refugee Resettlement 1987:10), we suggest any imbalance is probably sufficient to drive teenage boys interested in girls to widen their options. Other cultural factors related to the Lao may also be involved (see below, section on Lao Youth). Few of the

Vietnamese youth said that they had Cambodian friends (see below, section on Cambodian youth).

The Vietnamese youth also participate in larger group activities and lots of parties, both formal and informal. The formal parties are organized by any willing member of the Vietnamese community, frequently businessmen. For these parties, the organizer rents a hall, a band, and charges $10-15 for admission. The party usually has a live band (Vietnamese) which plays Vietnamese rock music. Youth who attend range from their teens to their 30's. Food and drink concessions sell snacks, soft drinks, and beer. We observed little drinking other than beer. The parties focus on dancing and talking. During the 1986 holiday season, these parties were the target of problems from the “gangs” (see below, Chapter V), but efforts by the Philadelphia police have eliminated their presence at these parties (at least for the present).

Although their Tet, or New Year's, coincides with Chinese New Year, they hold similar but distinct festivities from the Chinese.

The degree and kind of contact with Black teenagers varies. Some schools, for example, Furness and South Philadelphia High Schools, the contact is minimal. Harassment by Black teenagers is widespread, and SEA teenagers feel that little is done by the teachers to correct the situation. The Vietnamese students at these schools reported very little contact with American students.

Yet, as among the Hmong, one can always find individuals who

somehow transcended the hostility and formed friendships. At Kensington High School, there was a Black teenager, whose father had been in Vietnam, who took it upon himself as a personal mission to welcome the Vietnamese into his community. He served protector for a number of the smaller boys, and even showed up at English tutorial sessions at a Kensington church to help. His Vietnamese friends that we met at the tutorials were obviously very fond of him. Another boy, an Amer-Asian, told me that he was “pro-Black”. He said that Blacks liked him because he was able to tell funny stories. However, this boy's closest friends were still Vietnamese.


The Sino-Vietnamese youth form an interesting category, because their ethnic identification is more complex; the youth are basically bi-cultural. One tendency is for them to emphasize their Chinese ethnic affiliation. Based on our earlier research with the Sino-Vietnamese (Peters, Schiefflin, Sexton & Feingold 1983), this was a trend we expected. For example, one group of college age Sino-Vietnamese girls specifically reject Vietnamese association. They report that even in Vietnam, the Chinese and the Vietnamese remained separate. They admitted that in Vietnam they discriminated against Vietnamese much in the same manner that many Whites have traditionally discriminated against Blacks in the United States. As an aside, they acknowleged that Vietnamese also dislike the Chinese because they controlled so much of the economy.

These girls clearly identify with the Chinese community.

Several work at part-time jobs in Chinese restaurants which they got through parental connections. In addition, they enjoy taking trips to Resorts International at Atlantic City, not to gamble, but to enjoy the nightclub acts which the casino brought in from Hong Kong and Taiwan. This particular casino caters to the wealthy Chinese communmity from New York, Philadelphia and Washington (mostly male) who come to gamble. These young women love to watch the Chinese entertainment and keep large scrapbooks with photos of their favorite actresses, singers, etc.

Another example of this identification with the Chinese community can be seen in the Asian Cultural Week events held by Community College in Spring 1987. One of the events planned was a fashion show illustrating traditional Asian dress. Not unsurprisingly the Sino-Vietnamese girls requested a special section for themselves, separate from the Vietnamese girls.

There is also a group of Sino-Vietnamese young men studying Mandarin Chinese at Drexel University. These efforts represent a very conscious attempt to forge links with their Chinese heritage, rather than their Vietnamese background. We should be reminded that the majority of the Sino-Vietnamese in Vietnam speak Cantonese as their primary language. They would have learned Mandarin in the Chinese schools, but these were banned after 1975.

A countervailing tendency among the Sino-Vietnamese youth is to identify more with ethnic Vietnamese. Sino-Vietnamese young men, more than women, fall into this category. As noted above, our young male Vietnamese informants, all report that their circle of friends includes Sino-Vietnamese. Conversely, Sino-Vietnamese

male teenagers we interviewed seemed less conscious of the distinctions between Sino-Vietnamese and Vietnamese friends.

We suggest that the reasons for this strengthening of cross-cultural ties derives first from common language (all young Sino-Vietnamese spoke Vietnamese fluently and frequently could not speak Mandarin because Mandarin schools had been banned), second, their common experience in suffering political discrimination in Vietnam, together with the strong pull of male bonding in a new and unfriendly environment where their similarities outweighted their differences.


The Cambodian youth mix less with the other SEA ethnic groups. For the most part the Cambodians simply remain separate from the other groups. In the Southeast and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, some youth even report that hostilities have erupted between the Vietnamese and Cambodian young male groups. When asked why, the Cambodian youth respond that they don't like the Vietnamese because the Vietnamese dominate their country. International political and historical tensions apparently have filtered into daily life in far-off Philadelphia.

The Wat or Buddhist temple constitutes an important symbol of Cambodian ethnicity and plays an important role in the lives of both the young and the old, the men and the women. One young man who works closely with the Cambodian youth community noted that even when tough looking street youth entered the temple, they immediately assume a manner of respect towards the monks and the older people present.


For the male youth, the temple plays a special role in preserving ethnic identity and also strengthens the degree of separateness the Cambodian youth have. The Cambodians in Philadelphia have continued the tradition of “Temple boys”. Every Friday night boys between the ages of 11 and 15 go to the temple where they study Cambodian language, history and the Buddhist religion. They stay in the temple through Sunday. Besides studying, the boys simply have a good time there. They are with their friends, they talk, fool around and form a tight knit group. This activity provides them with a clear and distinct sense of identity with which to confront the outside world which does not understand them.

An American young man who spends alot of time with the Cambodian youth in Southeast Philadelphia, reported that stories of magic, shamans and the power they wield are held in great awe among the youth of the community. Rather than expressing embarassment over these ideas, they instead seem to regard them as things which make them different and more Cambodian. This same individual witnessed several healing ceremonies performed by a man regarded as the most powerful Shaman-healer in the Philadelphia community. The ceremony was carried out on a young 16 year old girl whose psychological distress was greatly alleviated by the shaman's powers. Thus, we can suggest that traditional concepts of psychology and healing still play an important role among the young Cambodians and not just the older people.

Cambodian New year is, of course, an important holiday which

unites the entire community. The temple and the monks play important roles; there is alot of eating; and there are performances of music and dance. Just as the researcher observed in Cambodia and in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, Cambodian classical dance has assumed the important role of symbolizing the Khmer people's struggle to preserve their culture and civilization.


The Lao boys, like the Vietnamese and Cambodian, tend to keep to themselves as well. One West Philadelphia Vietnamese teenager quite frankly said that “we hate the Lao boys”. I asked why and he responded that “their style is different. They have longer hair, wear different clothes”. He said that the Lao boys hate them as well.

On the other hand, this same boy said that many Lao girls hang around in his group. When I asked why, he said that the Lao girls hate the Lao boys just as much as he does. This somewhat unusual situation may be partially explained by the manner the Lao boys have affected. They, more than the other Southeast Asian groups, have affected a kind of street style, i.e. speech patterns, dress and outward physical behavior which is perceived by other SEA as being “Black”. The widespread distrust and fear of Blacks among the Southeast Asian youth, in general, might very well contribute to this inexplicably intense dislike of the Lao boys. It is also possible that the Vietnamese boys like the Lao girls because they are freer and more relaxed in their social relations with boys than very traditional Vietnamese girls.


Conscious Ethnic Awarness

The youth are clearly aware of who they are, but do they really understand what being Vietnamese or being Hmong means? Have any of them come to terms with what it means to belong to two cultures, i.e. SEA and American? Have any of them thought about what being a Hmong or Cambodian will mean to their children or children's children?

For the most part, we found that “being what they are” is experienced on a gut level. It is not easy for them to express in words what being Vietnamese or Cambodian is. We did encounter, however, several young adults within the different communities who were beginning to verbalize, and come to terms with what their ethnicity means.

In this regard the Hmong are very unusual. One young leader in the Hmong community was concerned with drawing up a list of traits which represented what it meant to be a Hmong. He felt that young Hmong ought to be aware of them and to abide by them. They were simple traits, such as Hmong men never have long hair, but Hmong girls should never cut theirs; and maintaining the traditional Hmong New Year.

On the other hand, we were struck by the sophistication with which several of the 14 and 15 year old Hmong girls expressed themselves. In discussing marriage (see Chapter IV) they recognized that as Hmong they must marry young, ideally before they were 18 years old, but, as new Americans they wanted to complete high school, perhaps attend college and get jobs. They were trying to resolves this conflict and asked whether married

girls with children could go to college? Would people think they were bad? They astutely recognized that their daughters would be culturally more “American” and less traditionally Hmong than themselves.

One of my interpretators, a young Cambodian man in his late 20's who has been here since 1975 and has a college degree, is also interested in the concept of ethnicity and the problems of ethnic preservation in the midst of the pressures to Americanize. He is currently reading about earlier immigrants who came to America, in order to understand the process of change in the second and third generations of American born Cambodians.

Mutual Assistance Associations and Ethnic Identity

Mutual Assistance Associations (MAA's) play an important role in ethnic preservation within the Southeast Asian communites. However, they are criticized by some Southeast Asian community leaders as being too concerned with cultural preservation at the expense of cultural adaptation.

In addition, not all members of each community are completely aware of the activities of their respective MMA. Often it is simply a matter of distance. For example, the Cambodian MAA is in the Olney section of Philadelphia (northeastern section). The Cambodian community living in Southeast Philadelphia does not go there that often. In other MAAs, such as the Vietnamese MAA, politics has created a split among its members, rendering it less effective.

Other of the MAA's, such as the Greater Philadelphia Overseas Chinese Association, is also plagued by political

factionalization. Some members of the community have criticised it saying that its activities are too directed at the older members of the community and neglect the youth.

Finally, many of the youth perceive these associations as `old fashioned'. The older members of these groups are finding it difficult to come to terms with the changes in their children. Consequently, many people question the effectiveness of the role that these groups can play with the youth.

Conclusions on the Role of Ethnic Identity Among SEA Youth

Many of the Southeast Asian youth have adapted the dress, hairstyle and manner of American teenagers, but their sense of ethnic identity remains strong. This identity, unlike the Asian American, who politically identifies with all Asians, is very group specific. The youth are Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Sino-Vietnamese or Lao. The exclusiveness of the youths' ethnic identity is reflected in the relatively few numbers of cross-group friendships. Their friendships reflect the strong bonding of shared experiences in addition to shared language and culture in a new country.

This sense of ethnic solidarity not only links people into groups of friendship, but serves to form networks which help the youth in employment. The Hmong, for example, have specialized in working in Philadelphia's more trendy restaurants. We found that access to these jobs is primarily through introduction by friends. Sino-Vietnamese girls, on the other hand, use their bonds of ethnicity to form solid groups of friends who offer strong support to one another.


We did observe however, that the exclusivity of ethnic identity is beginning to break down among the younger children (ages 7-10), which is natural. These children speak good English and are aculturating in ways which go much deeper than their older siblings. These children form much wider circles of friends.