Assimilation versus Integration and the Vietnamese Youth’s Identity

Author’s note of caution: This speech is presented from an attorney’s perspective with reference to several researches, but itself is not an in-depth study of the subject under discussion.  Therefore, the opinion expressed herein could be skewed by individual experience despite the author’s awareness of possible personal biases and constant attempt to advance an objective view on relevant issues.

The future of every nation belongs to its youth.  Young people are the ones who will define tomorrow’s prospects.  But before young people can undertake this incredible task and perform it successfully, each must ascertain his or her own unique identity in a process known as ‘identity-definition.’

Identity Crisis

From the psychological perspective, life can be divided into eight segments from birth to retirement .   Youth represents the fifth stage in life where each of us begins to define the image of oneself as an unique person.   At this stage, we could face challenges (in answering some basic questions) while we are gradually crystallizing our own identity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having these challenges and trying to resolve them.  In fact, there are studies demonstrating that the more a young person is concerned about his or her own identity, a higher degree of autonomy he or she possesses in comparison with those who do not.

In the process of self-definition, as aforementioned, young people actively try to develop answers to some very basic questions such as “Who am I?” “Where am I going?”   Thirty years ago, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson referred to this active process of self-definition as  ‘identity crisis.’   The often misunderstood term ‘identity crisis’ simply means ‘a period of self-doubt and active questioning about one’s definition of self (‘Who am I?”  “Where am I going?”) during the adolescent years.’  This period is an integral part of healthy psychological development.  This period includes the years in which young persons explore alternative behaviors, interests, and ideologies . Unless and until one has established his or her identity, he or she suffers identity confusion , i.e. no consistent sense or set of internal principles for assessing his or her self-worth in the major areas of life.  If the identity crisis is successful, one has established his or her identity, i.e. having committed oneself to a set of principles, a vocational direction, an ideological perspective on the surrounding world, etc.

For young Vietnamese Canadians, the identity crisis or the self-definition period is even more interesting because, beside the normal process of experimenting diverse behaviors, interests, and ideologies, we are constantly evaluating Vietnamese values as presented by our family vis-a-vis Canadian characteristics as encouraged by society.  Young Vietnamese growing up in Canada are required consciously or unconsciously to re-examine and then select between (1) the family beliefs as conveyed by our parents and (2) the ideals popularized by colleagues at work or faculty and friends at colleges and, of course, the media.  These beliefs and ideals at times are similar in nature and at times contradict each other.

Young Vietnamese Canadians must struggle to live up to the expectations of two distinct cultures.  From the Vietnamese heritage, dedication to education, high standard of work ethics, emotional investment in family members, respect for the elders, etc., are some of the conservative requirements of the training program for oneself.  On the other hand, Canadian characteristics embrace individual freedom, assertiveness, open dialogues, daring spirits to capitalize on vocational opportunities, etc.   How are we going to define our identity in light of these complex attributes?  Can young Vietnamese Canadians avoid entirely this selection process and become simply Canadians, i.e. can we be assimilated completely?


Assimilation is the process by which one cultural group is absorbed by another.  The terminology could also mean complete disappearance into the mainstream without being recognized, i.e. complete cultural loss or cultural genocide.

The issue here is ‘Whether or not we, young Vietnamese Canadians, can be assimilated?’  I respectfully submit that there is virtually no possibility of assimilation of Vietnamese youth regardless of how long we have been in North America or even if we are born here .  The reasons are twofold objectively and subjectively. The objective reason is based on the nature of genetic development, i.e. genetically speaking, we will always look ‘Asian.’  And because of our genetic composition (or racial characteristics), we are and will always be perceived to be different even if we speak the local language fluently and live like European Canadians.

The subjective reason involves human natural prejudices.  Each of us always possesses certain personal prejudices [dislike for certain manners of driving, worship (different religions), different ways of life, customs, etc.], let alone the entire society with many different people from diverse backgrounds which become a foundation for potential gigantic misunderstandings. These personal prejudices at times could be combined by economic fiasco and misguided against a certain group of people in society.  History has taught us many sorrowful lessons about this type of ethnic discrimination; thus I shall not elaborate further beyond this point.

Therefore, unless and until all Canadians look alike and all human prejudices disappear completely, most Vietnamese Canadians cannot and will not be assimilated . Therefore, young Vietnamese Canadians must undertake the identity-definition process carefully to facilitate our integration into the North American society.

Active Integration

Integration means to bring ourselves to become part of the prevalent society.
Vietnamese Canadians, and especially the youth, are already a permanent part of the Canadian society.  A recent report by the government of Canada reveals that 33% of people from Vietnam are under age 25, and Vietnamese in Canada are more likely than any other group to apply for and receive citizenship .    We physically reside in Canada, go to school here, work here, fall in love here, start our family here, our lives are affected constantly by the changing economic and political climates of Canada, etc.  Like it or not, we are a part of Canada, i.e. we have already integrated ourselves into the North American society.  Therefore, the important issue at this point really concerns the fashion or manner of our integration.

There are many forms of integration such as economic integration, political integration, religious integration, or social integration, etc.; but concerning the fashion of our integration, in my personal opinion, there are only two ways to integrate into the mainstream: passive and active.  Passive integration requires adaptation to changes; while active integration seeks to influence changes.  Passive integration reflects acceptance of changes and the consequential impacts; while active integration endeavors to modify the course of changes in order to maximize subsequent benefits and minimize ensuing disadvantages.  Which path we take depends significantly on our identity-definition, i.e. which old and new qualities we, young Vietnamese Canadians, select to keep or abandon.

Vietnamese are known to adapt (or adjust) well to changes. Our parents as new comers had sacrificed incredibly in order to establish a root for us in North America. Due to severe language barrier and wide cultural gap, they had no choice but to take the passive path to integration.  They are the adaptable silent group, which often suffers the negative consequences of changes in economic, social and political climates.  Adaptation, however, is not necessarily equivalent to integration or assimilation.  Adaptation in terms of our parents’ view is merely adjustment to a new life; however, there is another more positive definition for adaptation which means effective function within the mainstream.  Many older Vietnamese Canadians, who are occupationally well integrated, may be poorly adapted to the wider society because they are still centered on values and symbols from our heritage.

In my respectful submission, young Vietnamese Canadians must try to effectively function within the mainstream.  We must undertake the active path to integration, i.e. we must seek to influence changes in the North American society.  In an attempt to do so, our identity-definition process must screen out or limit passive qualities and adopt positive values and attitudes.


In formalizing our identity, should young Vietnamese Canadians abandon our heritage and traditional values?  The answer is definitely not.  The negative response is not a hollow and idealistic reply, but rather is based on sound and logical reasons. Vietnamese values have a lot to offer us in our endeavor to succeed in this society; and if each of us succeeds, the entire community will benefit from our prosperity.

Are Vietnamese unique values a vague concept?  Certainly not, in my opinion. Just ask yourself a few simple questions such as ‘From where do we get idea of personal dedication to education?  From where do we get the high standard of work ethics?  From where do we get the idea of capital accumulation (savings for the future)? etc.’  Our heritage values are all there, and we just have to express them in crystal terms of daily vocabulary to enhance our understanding and that of our Canadian fellows.  These are the heritage traces that if put in use effectively will lead to spectacular successes.  The unique
Vietnamese values had helped many young Vietnamese to secure excellent achievements in the past, at present time, and will continue to do so in the future.   For those of scientific mind and empirical passion, I would like to refer to several researches and studies to support my view on the important role of our heritage on Vietnamese youth’s success in North America.

A 1992 study by Paul Rutledge entitled “The Vietnamese Experience in America”  found that Vietnamese children study and work harder than other students, even in unfavorable situation.  This conclusion strengthens the result of Nathan Caplan, John K. Whitmore and Marcella H. Choy’s 1991 research called “Children of the Boat People” published by the University of Michigan Press. This finding suggests that our Vietnamese heritage does have positive impacts on our work ethics and consequential successes .

In their 1998 study entitled  ‘Growing up American,’  Min Zhou and Bankston concluded that Vietnamese children, who speak, read and write Vietnamese, study English better and are better in general in comparison with those who lost their native language.  This study confirms the findings of Nathan Caplan, John K. Whitmore and Marcella H. Choy.’s 1991 research , and its conclusion signifies that Vietnamese culture and language in fact could lead young Vietnamese to success easier in North America.

The findings of these studies demonstrate that our Vietnamese heritage in fact can help us to succeed in this society .   Therefore, in formalizing our identity, young Vietnamese Canadians should select the best traditional values to enable us to maximize our potentials.

Furthermore, during the identity-definition process, we must also select and adopt the most positive Canadian characteristics to facilitate our endeavor to influence societal changes.  Some of the wonderful Canadian qualities, in my opinion, include open dialogue and systematic approach to problem-solving. Open dialogue demands two-way communication to facilitate understandings.  It is no longer the norm that an elder person could impose his or her opinion on younger Canadians without first justifying its rationale and supporting it with real evidence or logic.  Age becomes irrelevant in an open discussion if it does not reflect real experience and current knowledge .   Open dialogue helps the elder generation to think carefully before advancing an opinion, while the younger generation can promote its own ideas as well as to question and challenge old thoughts; and the final result is the betterment of society with ideas that have been discussed and refined thoroughly.

The systematic approach to problem-solving helps us to tackle every question in a methodical and well-organized fashion.  Logic or sound reasoning, and not emotion, is at the heart of every solution.  Family influences sometimes must give way to individual logic .  We do not undertake a task because it looks good (for family or community, etc.), but because it brings about a better outcome that could be evaluated concretely.

Young Vietnamese growing up in North America can discover and retain the aforementioned values through a process known as acculturation.  The gradual process of adopting cultural qualities can be so unconsciously natural for young people that one may not even be aware of its existence.  The concern here is how to recognize and screen out negative ideals that could poison young minds and damage the path to future.  The formula to deal with this concern, which I had learned and hereby may I – with your permission – suggest to you, is based on the definition of a failure: ‘A failure is a person who trades what he or she really wants in the long-run for what he or she wants at  the moment.’  If what you want immediately (including an attitude to adopt, etc.) is incompatible with your long-term objective, then restrain yourself.

As aforesaid, when a young person successfully establishes his or her identity, he or she would have committed himself or herself to a set of principles, a vocational direction, an ideological perspective on the surrounding world, etc.   As I have suggested, in defining our identity, young Vietnamese Canadians should select the best traditional values and adopt the most positive Canadian characteristics to enable us to maximize our potentials to influence societal changes.


Young Vietnamese Canadians cannot be passive victims of cultural influences and await for the ultimate cultural genocide.  We must actively undertake the task of self-evaluation and identity-definition.  In defining our unique identity, we ought to investigate all alternative values, and select the best qualities that would help us to advance in today’s society.

The combination of best values as suggested above is one of the various strategies that we can develop and follow to cope with the diverse, and at times conflicting, cultural qualities in defining our identity, with a view to actively integrate ourselves into the North American society . We can no longer be passive like our parents, whose language barrier and wide culture gaps prevent them from influencing the course of changes in North America. Young Vietnamese Canadians must seek to play an important role in defining Canada’s future.

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