Book Review – Family Tightrope, by Nazli Kibria

Nazli Kibria. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993,184 pp. $37.95 hardcover.

Many Vietnamese refugees sought asylum in the United States. Not only did Vietnamese immigrants experienced issues with racial discrimination, downward economic mobility, and gender inequality, but also issues related to immigration regulations and ethnic identity. Never the less, Vietnamese family units were still central to the social and economic well being of Vietnamese Americans in the U.S. In Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans, Nazli Kibria argues the history of Vietnamese culture and life prior to emigration to the U.S., as well as life in America contributed to the success of Vietnamese Americans.

In the late 1970s many Vietnamese refugees were forced into Resettlement Camps, these camps were programs provided by the United States government to help the assimilation of refugees in America. Refugees were then relocated to urban cities, where there was a competitive job market, and racism. Nazli Kibria studied a small group of refugees and their families who were relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Many Vietnamese immigrant women during the late 1970s used traditional family systems but struggled with reconciling and incorporating new ideas into the framework. ‘They walked an ideological tightrope’, as Nazli Kibria states, they valued traditional Vietnamese family system for its ethics on collectivism and cooperation. Women felt that the traditional American system of family life lacked ties of obligation and authority of parents.

As for the younger generation of Vietnamese immigrants, Kibria notes that family traditions entered into this generations efforts to come to terms with what it meant to be a Vietnamese in America. These people strived for cultural pride and self-esteem in their efforts in redefining the family life. Vietnamese Americans placed a lot of value on traditional systems and its relationship to the economic practices of the Vietnamese Americans. How these people survived and reached the attainment of middle class status was through these traditional beliefs Kibria argues. By studying the history of Vietnamese culture, Nazli Kibria states that Vietnamese immigrants relied on a collectivist household economy, individual resources were shared and pooled to cope with the demands of the economic environment in the U.S. at the time. Thus Vietnamese Americans strove to preserve traditional beliefs.

When the Chinese invade Vietnam in 111 B.C. the people adopted Confucianism Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. The three teachings combined with older indigenous beliefs and practices form the core of the Vietnamese religious-cultural tradition. The hierarchical model of society prescribed by Confucianism, is a relationship of inequality between ruler and subject, i.e. father son. Kibria is trying to point out how these beliefs tied into the every day life of a Vietnamese person. Communal temples marked villages throughout Vietnam serving as a meeting place for the Council of Notables, or the traditional bond of leadership. Ties of kinship connected households, and much of the daily social life revolved around the informal kin-centered networks. Kibria notes that the Vietnamese family system has been shaped by a variety of cultural traditions through Confucianism and Ancestors. Before the urbanization of people pre-Communist years, there was a tremendous importance of familial ties and loyalties in the lives of these people. Kibria studied these family ties, and how they remained the most important source of community, providing support for coping with the turmoil’s of the era. Kinship ties functioned not only as an economic safety net but also as a source of loans and business capital.

Nazli Kibria also studied the oppression of women in Vietnamese society and how it was firmly embedded across kinship, political, legal, and economic institutions. These ideals legitimated the subordination of women by upholding passivity and submission to male authority. Traditional Vietnamese legal codes were heavily influenced by Confucian ideas and so served to institutionalize further the subservience of women. By studying this Kibria understands the role women took when first immigrating to America. In rural life women had less economic power, due to their responsibility at home.

Throughout the Vietnam War migration to urban cities was due to the threats of the Viet Minh, and for better economic opportunities. But, when Saigon fell under North Vietnamese Communist control in April of 1975 many lives of urbanized people shifted. Of the subjects that Nazli Kibria studied, each of which had first hand accounts of life in Vietnam after the taking over of the Communist government commented on the cruelty and dominance there was throughout the country. By the late 1980s, many Vietnamese people were motivated to join relatives who had left the country. Leaving Vietnam meant a separation of kin though, and as Nazli Kibria noted this was uncommon.

Not only was escaping difficult, but the resettlement of these refugees took time. Although due to the social and political changes of the late 1970s early 1980s refugees had access to welfare systems; Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps, Refugee Cash Assistance, Refugee Medical Assistance. But as Nazli Kibria points out, the resettlement of Southeast Asians occurred at a time of wide spread hostility towards racial ethnic groups. Vietnamese Americans were viewed as new unwelcome competitors for scarce jobs and public resources. Nazli Kibria brings up the ideas of assimilation, and Americanization. Assimilationist model suggest a gradual movement toward a more modern family life. Kibria brings up the ideas from the scholar; William Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (1963), he argues that industrialization set in the motion process that replaced extended and structurally complex family systems. Immigrants put in to an industrial world, forcing them to assimilate to the changes. Kibria suggests that immigrants draw on premigration family experiences and ideologies in their efforts of constructing families within a new society.

Nazli Kibria argues that values to Vietnamese tradition and culture are the reasons for these people success in America. These traditional beliefs did help in the transition from an agrarian world to a modern industrial one. I believe the respect and value the Vietnamese people have towards their culture and past is also how they were able to create these networks in America. Confusion ideas were not made out to be the same in America. Kibria describes the transition of traditional beliefs to modern as a reconstructive process. Which is true, these people were literally reconstructing their lives to become apart of a completely unfamiliar society. The facts that these peoples traditional beliefs cemented a network that was nearly unbreakable helped these people survive. Not only through her primary sources, but also by studying the history of these people and understanding it is how she was able to prove her argument. Scholars in the field of history, immigration history, sociology, religion would benefit from reading this book because of the differing unique focuses. Kabria’s study was thorough and could be supplemented by further research on these people impact on differing markets.



Danielle Brown

University of Mary Washington