Karin Aguilar-San Juan is associate professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
With a comparative and race-cognizant approach, Karin Aguilar-San Juan explores how Vietnamese refugees and immigrants retain their identities in the U.S. in her new book, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. She agreed to answer a few questions with regard to her book’s content, its cover image (which was taken by her), and thoughts about Vietnamese American communities today and their popular-culture depictions (The O.C., The Real Housewives of Orange County, etc.).
Q: What’s the story behind your book’s compelling cover photo? Where was it taken and who does it feature?
I took this photo in January 1999. It was during the time of the protests in Orange County’s Little Saigon, sparked by a storeowner and a poster image of Ho Chi Minh. Many days before, the storeowner had been escorted out of his Hi-Tek video shop by a SWAT team in full riot gear. He had made several incendiary statements about “freedom” (timed with Martin Luther King Day) that did not sit well with certain groups of Vietnamese — particularly those who are ex-political prisoners. Many of those men spent up to 15 years in political detention in Viet Nam; for good reasons, their rage constantly simmers.
In addition to fully armed police from several surrounding cities, the Hi-Tek riots brought dozens or maybe hundreds of ordinary Vietnamese people to the area. They filled the parking lot with speeches, rallies, flags, banners, and exhibits. It seemed to be both angry and also festive, as any large gathering might become over time. There are two people visible in my photograph. I don’t know them. They were standing near a booth where people were making small paper versions of the South Vietnamese flag.
Q: What are the most striking differences between the Vietnamese American communities in Orange County and in Boston? You have lived in each community at some point; what were your reasons for choosing to study and compare these two locations?
I was born in Boston and I lived there for over a decade. Things there seem “normal” to me. My first impressions of Orange County were shock and morbid fascination. It was like stepping into a bad TV show. The sun always shines, the palm trees sway in the breeze, and every visible person is white and very rich. Every lawn looks like a golf course. It reminded me of the kids’ book A Wrinkle in Time, in which suburbs are terrifying for reasons no one can explain.
Sociologically, it made perfect sense [for this book] compare these two places. They are so different. But Vietnamese Americans seem to like each place well enough to call each one “home.” There was a puzzle about place and community, and that was a good impulse to follow.