The Success Story of Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East

December 8, 2007

The Success Story of Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East

It’s been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. While the major focus has been on the failure of the government to provide support to the majority African American community in the 9th Ward, the resilience of the Vietnamese American population in New Orleans East – a suburban community 15 miles northeast of downtown New Orleans – has been getting a great deal of attention. Both academic research and mainstream media seem to point to the idea of a hard-working community whose been through much worse than Katrina’s destruction.


Dateline NBC’s Stone Phillips picked up as camera himself – with the shaky shots it’s very much Corporate Media meets Youtube – and spent Tet with this community earlier this year. His Postcard from New Orleans was produced by Vietnamese American Tommy Nguyen, who gives us a little insider knowledge here about the experience.

It’s a good (though slightly saccharine) piece that highlights the strength of the Vietnamese American community surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church (MQVN). In fact, I learned that this community has a 90 percent return rate – way more than the rest of the city. My favorite part is when Phillips is interviewing Father Vien Nguyen about all the work they did to find the Katrina refugees, offer them services and bring them home and the father says: “We asked the government not to get in our way!” The Dateline piece talks extensively about how the Vietnamese community was used to upheaval and flooding due to their history – and how this made the destruction of Katrina old hat to them. I got this picture in my head of a Vietnamese family sitting down to dinner in a house filling up with floodwater after the levies broke and the old grandmother saying: “This is nothing, when I was your age on the Mekong Delta, we learned to breathe underwater!”

The Vietnamese American population of New Orleans East was also the subject of a working research paper published by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. The paper, authored by Emily Chamlee-Wight and Virgil Henry Storr, hits on the same ideas as Dateline and talks about the concept of a “cultural toolkit” – or how “this community was able to make use of an array of cultural tools that aided their swift return.” I suggest reading the whole paper because it’s fascinating, but I can give a few highlights here – like the amazing reality of the return rate of this community:

On October 9th, 2005, just five weeks after the storm, Father Vien Nguyen of MQVN held Mass for 300 parishoners, most of whom were residents of the MQVN neighborhood. Given the ghost-town feel of most New Orleans neighborhoods at this stage, this was an outstanding turnout. The following Sunday, 500 residents had returned for services. On October 23rd more than 2,000 members of the Vietnamese community attended Mass at MQVN. By April of 2006, 1,200 or the 4,000 residents who lived within a one-mile radius of the church has returned. By the summer of 2007, approximately 90 percent of the residents were back and 70 of the 75 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the neighborhood were up and running.

But the main argument of this paper is that “the stories that are told and retold in this community have served as effective tools – for both individuals and the community as a whole – in the rebuilding process.” The paper also argues that for as fucked up the Model Minority Myth is, that’s what the community believes brought them back and made their rebuilding so successful. The authors of the paper argue that they did this research because the Vietnamese American community “is often left out of the discussion of race and ethnicity in relation to Katrina.”

I felt an underlying sense in both the Dateline piece and the paper that this success story was being compared to the African American communities in New Orleans and what they went through. I was left wondering how much cross-cultural work was being done over the past two years. There were a few examples in the Dateline piece of other minorities looking to th Vietnamese community as leaders, but not really of coalition-building. Any Katrina experts want to weigh in on this?

Posted by neela at August 28, 20

2 Responses to “The Success Story of Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East”

  1. I come in contact with the Vietnamese community here in Houston on a regular basis, and we are still dealing with victims from Katrina here, helping them further into our city, but I am no expert on the other hand. What I do see in this community though is something that is common in many immigrant groups: a shared bond with a willingness to help each other succeed. Once the next generations start thriving in this new culture, we see those bonds straining. The term model is applied, because we realize that our society does not have that type of ethic, but to be honest those ties might not have been as strong in the country of origin. It is setting your culture into the new one that makes the immigrant look for stronger connections to his own cultural ties. As for the African American community, I think Tony Brown has highlighted the fact that this group has not shared this bond to help others in the group to rise up. It is there to a degree, but their arrival on this continent did not encourage such community strength.

    We forget that we all need a network to help us in our lives. At times that may be a cultural one, or it could take the form of a religious community or business group. Shared experiences are important to the development of any social matrix, like that of a city. It would be in the interest of the mayor of New Orleans to create the means for such experience.

  2. […] Mary Queen of Vietnam (MQVN) Church’s Community Development Corporation.  MQVN has earned a strong reputation for community development work in the aftermath of the hurricane.  Its leader characterized the […]

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