As my fellow Americans know, the United States is a nation of immigrants. People have come from the four corners of the Earth to the USA. They’re still coming. It’s an important part of our national identity, and we’re proud of it.
My own ancestors came to the USA from a good chunk of Europe – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Poland and Germany. But I do not – emotionally or otherwise – identify with any of those countries. I am American.
history and status as an immigrant nation means that being American has more to do with
subscribing to a set of beliefs – freedom, democracy, the ideas contained in the Constitution – than
belonging to a certain ethnicity. I call
this “ideological nationality.” In my
ideological nationality makes the United States unique among nearly all nations of the world (exceptions might be
American ideas about ideological nationality contrast starkly with most other countries in the world. In many other countries, nationality and identity are utterly rooted in ethnicity. I call this “ethnic nationality.” This is natural and logical given that, historically, regional ethnic tribes gave rise to nations.
The ethnic nationality model predominates in Vietnam. My conversations with Vietnamese on the topic suggest that their concept of “being Vietnamese” means belonging to a certain ethnic group in addition to its history and culture. For example, they do not consider ethnic minorities here to be “really Vietnamese.” I was quite surprised to learn that it is standard practice for Vietnamese to list their ethnicity on their resumes. About 86% of the Vietnamese population are Kieu, the translation of which is “ethnic Vietnamese.” [charvey note: The proper word actually is "Kinh," not "Kieu." Thanks to D for pointing out the error.]
Both models of nationality are valid and understandable. The challenge arises when worlds collide, and people on both sides try to interpret the nationality/identity of one individual who belongs to two different groups. Many Vietnamese I’ve met simply do not comprehend the “ideological nationality” concept and instead apply the "ethnic nationality" model to the USA. To them, a “real American” is of European descent, simple as that. I’ve had Vietnamese tell me as much quite bluntly. This statement offends my American sensibilities mightily – an American is an American regardless of origin. It’s our national creed. [charvey note: I speak for myself here. I am not making claims about what all other Americans think, although I do believe a majority of Americans are far closer to the “ideological nationality” concept than the “ethnic nationality” one.]
To be honest, I had a similar blind spot. To me, once someone is an American citizen and carries a blue passport they are American and all nationalities should recognize them as such. But the Vietnamese don’t see it that way. Looking through their ethnic lens, just as a white person could *never* be considered Vietnamese, a Vietnamese-American is not considered entirely American. They might still “lay claim” to him or her, so to speak, as “Vietnamese.” At the same time, they don’t seem to consider a Vietnamese-American “entirely Vietnamese.” It’s strange. I’m still struggling to understand all the moving parts.
Ethnicity, identity and nationality are emotionally charged topics. I certainly do not consider myself an authority on the subject of Vietnamese nationality (although I do lay claim to that title on the ideals of American nationality). That doesn't keep me from expressing my evolving impressions and views, however. To those who may consider this post offensive or insensitive – please bear in mind that I wanted to begin a conversation about ethnicity and identity. I welcome thoughtful and insightful responses from all corners.