Interview with a Minority Social Worker From Vietnam
By DevynA fabulous and frustrating part of life is that a single person can be so incredibly complex in all their experiences and origins which affect them and make them who they are. One such example lies in the history of Camie, a 52 year old female that had immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at the peak of the Vietnam War. Not only is she a minority still living within the United States today, but she had grown up in a patriarchal and traditional Vietnamese society, escaped the trials of a terrible war, withstood assimilation challenges with life and education in the states, but also involved herself in a social work career assisting others with social disadvantages. Camie's life even now has been a labyrinth of role conflicts, social and cultural change, and professional empathy.
Growing up in a highly patriarchal, and even chauvinistic, society in Vietnam seemed normal to Camie. Even to this day, she incorporates into her life and that of her children the same traditional ideas of intra-racial marriage, specific gender roles, and class placement. Familial gender roles were very specific: her mother was responsible for taking care of the children, making sure the house was in order; while her father ensured financial stability and the means for a comfortable lifestyle. He was one of the top generals in the Vietnam Army prior to the taking over of the Communists. Such a position placed the family in the upper class ranks; they had the power, prestige, and property which, as Max Weber declared, defined one's class in society (Henslin 172).
The imminent danger to them at the height of the Vietnam War forced the entire family's immigration into the United States in the later part of 1975. Camie and her family were abruptly faced with an entirely different society made up of more liberal ideas than they were used to, differences in gender roles, broader ideas of inter-racial marriage, and the supremely humbling effect of a lower social class status. One of the facets of the interview that was most tragic dealt with the family's radical change in class status. The way Camie described her father's transition from a highly respected and influential man to one with merely a green thumb was disheartening. The man once had a dream of becoming a lawyer, a dream which was made impossible in the face of a society which could not understand a single word and a wallet devoid of cash.
Despite having to accept their much more meager standard of living, Camie and her family still recognized the great opportunities that presented themselves to the younger generation. Though their father could no longer provide for the family as he once did, the older children threw themselves into bettering their lives by excelling in education and urging the younger ones to do the same. The idea of higher education for the boys seemed natural but for the girls, it was certainly a culture shock that, for this family, lasted but a brief moment in the face of all the opportunity that America presented. It was given that in Vietnam, the boys would continue with their education past the middle school level; the girls, unless proving exceptionally intelligent, naturally would cease education there and become house wives or assist their mothers to raise the younger children. This was the only road available for Camie's mother; to borrow from Robert Frost's poem, there were no other roads less taken from which to choose.
It was different in America, though, and Camie and her siblings knew it. Though she and the older brothers had slightly more difficulty in assimilating with American culture and language, having to go through late high school and college education knowing very limited English, they knew the much anticipated opportunities that awaited them from which a strong work ethic could lead to upward mobility on the class ladder. Her younger brothers and sisters, she had 11 siblings total, excelled in English with much greater ease as they were integrated at the elementary school levels. These challenges, however, did not hinder them for very long. Soon they were receiving university diplomas, working for top companies, and even making newspaper headlines for developing some of the first computer chips. Camie, in particular, received her degree in Social Work and pursued her career in assisting people with needs.
Focusing mostly on the elderly in the Social Services Agency, she was able to assist them with different program needs and guidance throughout her 15 years with the agency. Internally and externally, Camie witnessed discrimination by her peers and from her clients; some from pure hatred and others, undoubtedly, from frustration at not having their needs met. While her clients surely faced discrimination from their disabilities, race, and age in the face of the public, some felt that even the system in which Camie worked also engaged in institutionalized discrimination (Henslin 234). Every denial she issued upset them and, though it made her feel stuck, she knew she had to accept the limitations of the bureaucratic system and that she would not be able to assist everyone as they would like. Under the strict guidelines and standards of the Social Services Agency, each program had specific requirements and processes to be followed; an employee must follow each protocol as mandated, any deviation on the part of the client or agency employee could disqualify the client. Such a bureaucratic system is exemplary of the federal system within the United States, known for being both grandiose in its possibilities yet incorrigible in its rigidity (Henslin 124).
Working within this organization for over a decade and growing more accustomed to life in North America did little to help her feel at home. Camie never had trouble interacting with people of other ethnicities but had experienced enough ethnic discrimination in her professional career to feel that she had a need to find her cultural roots again later in life. For this she became engaged in ethnic charity work on her free time, playing a large role in the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation and Universal Virtue Buddhist Charity. Camie says her hopes for the future lie in assisting the poor and disabled people of Vietnam, and plans to execute most of this by providing financial assistance.
Though never fully recovering to her upper class position, her career allowed Camie a fair middle class life for her family. Noteworthy is the conflict between her idealized gender roles and her de facto deployment of them in her life. She constantly tells her daughter to find a wealthy husband to support her and her future family, but spent a good decade of her life in a dysfunctional marriage in which she had to play both the male financial supportive role and female housewifely duties yet still be undermined in a chauvinistic manner. Further, divorce is a shameful practice to even consider in Asian culture; studies in the Henslin text even point to Asian American culture as being the most prevalent to raise children with two parents. For Camie, it was no different - it took a few years in that abusive situation to finally let go and face the social consequences. Interestingly enough, while no longer in that failed marriage, Camie still stresses the importance of obedience to the husband, blind loyalty, and intra-racial integrity of a relationship despite the illegitimate proof of her own experiences.
The generation gap between her children and herself is no light distance; in fact, it would almost seem as though a twilight zone were impressed upon their lives. Gender roles are unclearly defined, inter-racial marriage is an idea forced upon Camie to accept (though not without great reluctance and disagreement), equality between sexes of great importance, and a haunting aversion by her daughter of traditional submissive behavior. One would expect that, under the circumstances, a person's attitude on obsolete traditions would evolve to incorporate new standards; however, the cultural diffusion seems slow, at best, for her generation.
Without doubt, Camie's life in Vietnam, her immigration to the United States, the university education and career in Social Work, and responsibilities raising first generation Vietnamese Americans created an intricate quilt into which society, culture, class, gender, and age were sewn into thick colored patterns. Her very own struggles allowed her a unique perspective on life and helped her find a calling more altruistic and rewarding to contribute to her assimilated lifestyle. Finally, passing on these experiences and ideas and allowing the next generation to fulfill their destinies with the sociological imagination allows societies to continue to flourish and grow.
 Interviewee is referred to by the pseudonym Camie. Her real name is concealed for privacy.
 Camie was actually employed with the agency for over 15 years, but moved about different units nearer present day.