Communication Currents

Home Is Where the Communication Is

August 1, 2010
Intercultural Communication

Today, there are over 15 million refugees worldwide. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, anywhere from 40,000 to 90,000 of them end up scattered all over the United States every year. A study with refugees shows that, in aiding their resettlement, we must take into account that their diasporic connections, or ties to their homeland and their ethnic group, are often important to them and that there are structural limitations that may prevent immigrants from communicating with the locals and adopting the host society as their new home.

Among the refugees who resettle in the United States are the Montagnards – an ethnic minority in Vietnam who became political refugees due to their assistance of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. An in-depth interview study with Montagnard men about home and identity revealed two overarching themes that are common to refugees and immigrants. First, leaving a place does not necessarily mean that it ceases to be their home. They maintain ties to their cultural home through active engagement with their native community in Vietnam as well as their ethnic community in the United States. This was the case not only for those who resettled in the last couple of years but also for those who immigrated eight or more years ago.

The native community in Vietnam continues to serve as an important anchor for the Montagnard men mainly because they still have family there and because it is where they originated and the Montagnard way of life is preserved. For some men, the community is also politically important; they actively support liberation of the Montagnards in Vietnam because they see their own freedom tied closely to the liberation. In contrast, other men avoided political activities against the Vietnamese government due to the fears of persecution that their family might suffer. Either way, the politics back home can significantly influence how immigrants identify and present themselves after resettlement.

The immigrant community serves as home away from home for most Montagnard men in the interviews. It is in this community where they can speak their native tongue, drop by freely without making appointments, and practice their faith. For many, the community is a tight network of support and trust described as “a family,” “brothers,” or “one body.” For example, one man explained that, when someone passes away, they offer help to the family of the deceased in the forms of food, money, and others regardless of kinship and tribal affiliation. This, he said, is still practiced after resettlement in the United States. In short, the Montagnard community in the United States grounded them emotionally, relationally, and culturally in their transplantation.

There were two men, however, who embraced the U.S. society as their home. They both had school age children whom they felt responsible for raising as “Americans.” Accordingly, they made a conscious choice to “not really [be] around other Montagnards” and actively sought to immerse themselves and their families into the mainstream way of life in the United States. According to them as well as sponsors who were also interviewed, many parents do not make such an effort. In sharp contrast to the views expressed by other men, they saw the Montagnard church and the ethnic socialization as barriers to adapting to their new home.

So, what was different about these two men? This question leads us to the second theme – structural limitations. At first glance, the two men's adoption of the U.S. society as their new home seems solely an individual decision. However, it was made possible by the cultural and social resources they had but other men lacked. Most notably, their educated background and high English proficiency landed them jobs in which they worked with middle-class U.S. Americans on a daily basis, which allowed them to learn about how to navigate their social world.

Other men in the study lacked such resources. Their strong connection with the native community and the immigrant community existed side by side with their relational isolation from U.S. Americans. While cultural difference and lack of English language skills came up in the interviews as obstacles, the most significant barrier to building such connections was lack of opportunities to socialize with the locals on a daily basis. They simply did not share the same social space. Their living and work arrangements encourage interactions with other immigrants and refugees but not with U.S. Americans. Moreover, the locals' general ignorance about and indifference to immigrants also added to the alienation they felt from the locals. For example, they are often mistaken as Mexicans, which they thought contributes to the locals' indifference to them because of what they perceive to be the U.S. society's pervasive prejudice against Mexicans.

While each refugee group's circumstance is unique, the two themes from the study are commonly experienced by refugees and other immigrants and challenge us in a number of ways to rethink immigrant identity and the role of the host society in creating a more inclusive community for newcomers. First, the individualist ideology that pervades the United States assumes that all immigrants are equally situated to interact with the locals freely. However, some newcomers face structural barriers that limit such interactions. We need to ask what these barriers are and how they can be removed. For example, how do our society's racial politics affect newcomers' lives? How do perceptions about immigrants create communication barriers between us and newcomers? What can we do to create more communication opportunities between us and newcomers who have less access and resources for integration?

Second, like the Montagnards, other immigrants may come from a communal orientation which is at odds with the highly autonomous and time-regulated relationships that pervade the United States. Hence, in aiding resettlement of the Montagnards and other communally oriented refugees, we need to find out what tensions exist, how immigrants deal with them, and how the host society may help them to deal with the tensions without demanding them to strip away what is fundamental to their being.

Finally, homeland is not the past that immigrants leave behind. It often continues to play an active role in shaping their identity by serving as their foundation. Particularly in the cases of refugees, the need to maintain ties to their homeland and ethnic group may be intense and enduring due to their forced resettlement and difficulty, if not impossibility, of returning to their homeland. Contrary to a common belief that sustaining communication within ethnic groups is harmful to immigrants' adaptation to their new environment, such communication may be crucial to immigrant identity and survival. In creating a more inclusive community, then, the people and the institutions of the host society must create spaces where the importance of maintaining these connections is embraced.

About the author (s)

Etsuko Kinefuchi

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Assistant Professor