‘War immigrants’ are the rule, not the exception. Nearly every ‘great power’ that waged war abroad over colonies, annexation, or hegemony, has seen the consequence of a sizable in-migration of refugees from those wars. Some sided with them in the fighting, and others fled intolerable conditions.
The U.S. is no exception, so here we’ll explore the influx of immigrants from Korea and Vietnam.
The U.S. is home to the largest Korean diaspora community in the world, comprising 1.8 million people.
It started slowly. Between 1904 and 1907, about 1,000 Koreans entered the mainland from Hawaii through San Francisco and dispersed along the Pacific Coast. They became farm workers or wage laborers in mining companies and section hands on the railroads. They were nearly all men. Women came later, often as ‘Picture brides’ picked from afar. This became a common diaspora practice for marriage to Korean men.
The Japanese had long viewed Korea as naturally theirs, a source of labor and wealth. In 1910, they invaded and occupied Korea. One result was emigration to anywhere except Japan came to a halt. The other result was the early formation of anti-Japanese political organizations among Koreans in the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, sometimes referred to as the Oriental Exclusion Act, also excluded Korean immigrants from the U.S.
But Koreans in America kept their focus on Japan. In 1909, the Korean National Association, formed by mergers of several groups, became the most prominent Korean immigrant organization in North America. Its leaders included An Changho, Syngman Rhee, and Park Yong-man. This organization and others would play key roles in the Korean Independence movement between 1910 and 1945. Syngman Rhee, a Presbyterian with reactionary views, would become the president of South Korea later on.
Upon annexation, Japan declared that Korea would henceforth be officially named Chōsen. The territory was administered by the Governor-General of Chōsen based in Keijō (Seoul). Japanese rule prioritized Korea’s ‘Japanization,’ which accelerated industrialization during the Gwangmu Reform era of 1897 to 1907. They built public works that included developing railroads and improving major roads and ports that supported economic development. The average annual GNP growth rate of Chōsen ranged from 2.3% to 4.2% during the 25 years preceding the Second Sino-Japanese War. By the time of the Pacific War, industrial growth and output in Chōsen approached that of the ‘naichi’ (mainland Japan).
Japanese rule ended on September 2, 1945, with its surrender in World War II. The armed forces of the U.S. and the Soviet Union subsequently occupied this region. They divided Korea along the 38th parallel into two zones of occupation. The Soviets administered the northern zone, and the Americans administered the southern zone. In 1948, due to Cold War tensions, the occupation zones became two sovereign states. A socialist state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK, was established in the north under the communist leadership of Kim Il Sung. A capitalist state, the Republic of Korea, ROK, was established in the south under the autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee. Both governments of the two new Korean states claimed to be Korea’s sole legitimate government, and neither accepted the border at the 38th parallel as permanent.
After several provocations, the North Korean military forces crossed the border and drove into South Korea on June 25, 1950. According to Wiki, the United Nations Security Council, at U.S. insistence, denounced the North Korean move as an invasion and authorized the formation of the United Nations Command and the dispatch of U.N. forces to Korea to repel it. The Soviet Union was boycotting the U.N. for recognizing Taiwan (Republic of China) as China, and the U.N. did not recognize the People’s Republic of China, so neither could support their ally North Korea at the rump Security Council meeting. Twenty-one countries of the U.N. eventually contributed to the U.N. force, with the U.S. providing around 90% of the military personnel.
The Korean War was among the most destructive conflicts of the modern era. It saw approximately 3 million war fatalities and a more significant proportional civilian death toll than World War II or the Vietnam War. Virtually all of Korea’s major cities were destroyed, with thousands massacred by both sides. This carnage included the mass killing of tens of thousands of suspected communists by the South Korean government and the alleged torture and starvation of prisoners of war by the North Koreans. North Korea became among the most heavily bombed countries in history. About 1.5 million North Koreans are estimated to have fled throughout the war.
Korean women suffered the worse, and many formed relationships with departing G.I.s to escape, popularly termed ‘war brides.’ The Korean American community in the U.S. was shaped by the presence of ‘war brides’ who immigrated to the country following the Korean War. They had a significant impact on the Korean American community in several ways:
Increased Immigration: The influx of Korean war brides significantly increased the Korean American population. Many Korean women married American service members stationed in Korea, so they immigrated to the United States as spouses. This wave of immigration contributed to the growth of the Korean American community.
Cultural Exchange: The war brides were vital in introducing Korean culture and traditions to their American families and communities. They brought their language, cuisine, customs, and practices, which helped foster cultural exchange and understanding between Koreans and Americans.
Identity Formation: The war brides and their children faced unique challenges regarding identity formation. Their children, often biracial, had to navigate the complexities of being both Korean and American. The war brides and their families were crucial in preserving and transmitting Korean heritage and values to future generations.
Community Support: War brides formed support networks and organizations within the Korean American community. These organizations provided a sense of belonging, emotional support, and assistance to other war brides and their families who faced cultural and linguistic barriers in their new homeland.
Contributions to Society: The war brides and their descendants have significantly contributed to various fields, including education, business, politics, arts, and more. They have enriched the fabric of American society and contributed to the diversity and multiculturalism of the United States.
Overall, the war brides from Korea played a vital role in shaping the community’s demographics, cultural exchange, identity formation, support networks, and contributions to American society.
Unfortunately, Korean Americans, along with other Asian Americans, have been given the label of a ‘model minority.’ This is controversial, and many individuals claim that the ‘model minority’ label derides other communities of color and dismisses the challenges that Korean Americans, and other Asian American ethnic groups, face.
For instance, 12.8% of all Korean Americans live at or below the poverty line. Eddie Wong in ‘Eastwind‘ interviews State Rep. Sam Park, who has represented Georgia’s 101st District in the State Legislature since 2016. He is one of five Asian Americans in the Georgia House and Senate, a historic first for Asian American representation in Georgia.
“I come from a low-income immigrant background where our primary focus was making sure that we could make ends meet,” Park explained. “I was raised by a single mother; where she did all she could to ensure there was food on the table and a roof over our heads. I decided to run for office after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. That hardship and experience taught me firsthand how important access to healthcare really is. In Georgia, the very same year in which my mother was diagnosed, they blocked Medicaid expansion. They blocked access to healthcare for more than 500,000 low-income Georgians. Access to healthcare is a matter of life or death. My mother’s battle against cancer inspired me to stand and fight to ensure that every Georgian has access to healthcare.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Koreans worked hard and helped each other, and became noted not only for starting small businesses such as dry cleaners or convenience stores but also for diligently planting churches. They would venture into abandoned cities and start up small shops which happened to be in predominantly African American areas.
As dramatized in movies such as Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing‘ and the Los Angeles riots of April 1992, these outposts led to customer tensions. Korean Americans also made media coverage in the 1980s for their numbers in prestigious universities and highly skilled white-collar professions.
But the 1992 violence against Korean Americans stimulated a new wave of political activism among them. But it also split them into two main camps. The ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ sought to unite with other minorities in Los Angeles, participating in ‘rainbow coalitions’ to fight against racial oppression and scapegoating. The ‘conservatives’ emphasized law and order and generally favored the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. In any case, a younger generation had been politicized and fully engaged in U.S. politics.
Georgia’s Sam Park is a good example of the broader left reaching out to the center in powerful coalitions. “Being in the South where we’ve had a history of white supremacy, folks can’t distinguish between who is Chinese versus Korean versus Vietnamese,” he summarized. “Understanding the dangers of white supremacy and xenophobia embraced by Trump and far-right Republicans helped drive Asian Americans toward the Democratic party. With the understanding that their vote matters and their vote counts – with Democrats fighting for every American’s right to participate and vote – hopefully Asian Americans will continue to support and elect candidates who are working for their best interests.”
There are approximately 2.2 million people of Vietnamese descent residing in the U.S. Many were driven here by war.
After the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, many Vietnamese citizens suspected of siding with the U.S. faced political persecution, economic hardships, and restrictions on their freedoms. As a result, thousands of Vietnamese people embarked on dangerous journeys, often on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, in search of safety and a better life elsewhere.
These were the ‘boat people,’ and the phenomenon significantly shaped Vietnamese immigration to the United States. The ‘boat people’ crisis unfolded throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, with refugees primarily heading to neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Over time, international efforts, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were mobilized to assist and resettle the boat people.
The U.S. played a significant role in accepting Vietnamese refugees during this period. In 1975, the U.S. government established the Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Program to provide assistance and resettlement opportunities for refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Hmong (mainly from Laos and Vietnam). This program and subsequent policies facilitated the entry of many Southeast Asian refugees into the United States.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1975 and 2019, over 1.6 million Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the U.S. Whatever their politics, the arrival of these refugees enriched American society and brought diverse perspectives, cultures, and contributions to various fields, including arts, sciences, business, and academia.
The ‘boat people’ experience also led to the development of refugee resettlement policies and programs in the U.S. It highlighted the importance of humanitarian efforts, refugee protection, and international collaboration in addressing global refugee crises.
Vietnamese Americans arrived in the U.S. with little or no money. They are not as academically or financially accomplished collectively as their East Asian counterparts. According to Wiki, most first-wave Vietnamese immigrants initially worked low-paying jobs in small services or industries. Due to their limited educational background and job skills, finding work was more difficult for second-wave and subsequent immigrants. They took blue-collar jobs, such as electrical engineering and machine assembling. In San Jose, California, the economic difference is visible in the Vietnamese-American neighborhoods of Santa Clara County. In downtown San Jose, many Vietnamese work as restaurant cooks, maintenance specialists, and movers. The Evergreen and Berryessa sections of the city are middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhoods with large Vietnamese-American populations, many of whom work in Silicon Valley’s computer, networking, and aerospace industries.
Many Vietnamese Americans have also established businesses in Little Saigons and Chinatowns throughout North America and have initiated the development and revitalization of older Chinatowns. Many became small business owners. According to a 2002 Census Bureau survey of Vietnamese-owned firms, more than 50 percent of the businesses are personal services or repair and maintenance. The period from 1997 to 2002 saw substantial growth in Vietnamese-owned companies. Many Vietnamese (especially first or second-generation immigrants) have opened supermarkets, restaurants, bánh mì bakeries, beauty salons, barber shops, and auto-repair businesses throughout the country. Restaurants owned by Vietnamese Americans tend to serve Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamized Chinese cuisine, or both.
Young Vietnamese-American adults today are well-educated and often provide professional services. Since older Vietnamese Americans have difficulty interacting with the non-Vietnamese professional class, many Vietnamese Americans offer specialized professional services to fellow immigrants. Vietnamese Americans are involved with the fishing industry in the Gulf Coast region, accounting for 45 to 85 percent of the region’s shrimp business.
Recent immigrants are not yet proficient in English and work in assemblies, restaurants, shops, and nail and hair salons. Eighty percent of California’s nail stylists and 43 percent nationwide are Vietnamese Americans. Nail-salon work is skilled manual labor that requires limited English-speaking ability. Some Vietnamese Americans see work as a way to accumulate wealth quickly, and many send remittances to family members in Vietnam.
Vietnamese Americans registered as Republicans outnumber registered Democrats (55 and 22 percent, respectively). According to the 2008 National Asian American Survey, 22 percent identified with the Democratic Party and 29 percent with the Republican Party.
A small but significant number of young Vietnamese sided with the U.S. antiwar movements of the 1970s. In addition to the overall slogan of ‘U.S. Troops, Out Now,’ they often added ‘Victory for Vietnam!’
Most young Vietnamese today lean toward the Democratic Party because some Vietnamese are members of labor unions. An Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) poll found that Vietnamese Americans aged 18–29 favored Democrat Barack Obama by 60 percentage points during the 2008 presidential election.
A dynamic case in point is Sheng Thao and her victorious race for mayor of Oakland, CA. Eastwind introduces her story:
“Born and raised in Stockton, CA, Thao is the seventh of ten children of Hmong refugees. Her parents fled Laos due to the “Secret War” when Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to help US soldiers during the Vietnam War.
“Growing up, like many other Southeast Asian refugees who escaped war, Thao’s family experienced poverty and difficulties adjusting to a new world. Her parents were farmers and relied on public housing, food stamps, and social services to survive. They didn’t speak English and lacked mental health care for PTSD, having fled war, traversed through the jungles of Laos by foot and crossed the Mekong river to Thai refugee camps before arriving in the US. Their journey was perilous– there was a lot of death of loved ones and others. During her escape, Thao’s mom survived being shot, and still has bullet lodged in her arm.”
“Reflecting on her identity, Thao sees Hmong people as strong and tenacious. As indigenous people to the mountains and jungles in Laos and other surrounding countries, Hmong people do not have their own country, and have long faced persecution and poverty. They live off the land. Because of the Secret War many have been displaced from their homelands and fled to places like California, not of their choosing.
“I have that refugee blood in me.” Thao says, “We will fight. We will fight to ensure we have equality. We will fight to make sure we have what we need.”