How long does it take to belong?
Ireland is attempting to cope with unprecedented levels of immigration. Mark Maguire asks if the experience of the Vietnamese 'boat people' can offer any lessons
In the 1950s, Father John O'Brien persuaded many of Ireland's leading intellectuals to reflect on the topic of emigration. The resulting publication, The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World, included an essay by Samuel Beckett, which argued that the nation had achieved the impossible: it was a European country with a declining population, and this "without even the meanest contraceptive". Today, the emigrant nursery of The Vanishing Irish has been consigned to a bygone era, and with much traffic going the other way, issues ranging from multiculturalism to racism now excite public debate. Doubtless, transformation in Irish migration patterns has been extraordinary. For example, only 39 people applied to Ireland for asylum in 1992, while in 2000 that figure had reached 10,381. Asylum seekers formed only a tiny fraction of the overall inmigration flow, the bulk of which was comprised of Irish emigrants returning to take advantage of the Celtic Tiger.
The challenges presented by such transformations could be met by exploring anew the history of the Irish diaspora. Rather than thinking of racism as new to Ireland, for example, one might consider the ways in which Irish people faced discrimination in a variety of 19th century contexts from descriptions of 'negroes turned inside out' in the USA to Mr Punch's attempts to warn Englishmen of an invasion of 'wingless vermin' from Ireland. However, meeting these challenges must also include cognisance of Ireland's older ethnic minorities. And, here, the cultural history of the VietnameseIrish might suggest some lessons.
In 1975 the UNHCR requested that the Irish Government resettle three Vietnamese families. This request was refused on economic grounds, as was a similar request made in 1976. The rationale was economic: as the author Tim Pat Coogan put it, the Irish government seemed to believe that the economy consisted of the Guinness brewery and a large farm. Moreover, in the 1950s, Ireland had a disastrous experience resettling refugees from Hungary. They were quarantined in a disused army barracks in County Clare, and 371 refugees eventually went on hunger strike and demanded to be sent to Canada or America. However, in late 1978 the plight of the Vietnamese 'boat people' began to receive considerable international media attention, and by May 1979 the Irish Government, which held the EEC presidency, relented and offered resettlement places. Two hundred and twelve Vietnamese refugees eventually arrived in Ireland. They were initially housed in a Dublin hospital and in a school. The reception phase was problematic, as the refugees attempted to exert an influence over their daily lives. The Irish Red Cross however, was happy to report that: "because we had got to know them and their devious methods, control was maintained".
They were later dispersed around Ireland to, as one NGO representative put it, "strong provincial areas". Soon difficulties were apparent; as one VietnameseIrish man noted: "There were 17 people with us in that town. There was a problem with the language: some people went to the west, but the people could not talk to them. The people couldn't get a job they were lonely and after a while some of our people started working on the mobile [Chinese takeaway] food vans. I was one of the first to move to Dublin."
The education system was also letting many children down. Many were illiterate in their own language, and there was no special education provision. Instead, children were simply held back in classes with pupils many years their junior, through what has been described as a "sink or swim policy". By the early 1980s, the majority of VietnameseIrish people had remigrated to Dublin and were living in rented accommodation in poor housing estates while earning a living in the ethnic food business.
Today there are over 1,500 VietnameseIrish people in Ireland. Most live their lives in and through large familial networks that often stretch into the transnational world of the Vietnamese diaspora. For the older generation, Vietnam and the diaspora loom large on their horizons. This is particularly true for women and for those who have not acquired a functional level of English. One VietnameseIrish woman, now in her late 60s, explained: "My only friends are Vietnamese, and I don't have much to do with Irish people or understand them. But, I try to go back to Vietnam as much as possible, every year." For many younger persons who were born in Vietnam but raised in Ireland, their identity is perceived to be marginal in both countries. When reflecting on his frequent trips back to Vietnam, one man commented: "You have different reactions from the local people there. The way you speak Vietnamese to them is out of tune, and they recognise you easily. You look as normal as them, but they still recognise you as a foreigner."
When asked about his position in Ireland, the same man remarked: "In my generation it's two different cultures." This contrasts with the second generation, who see themselves as Irish and often do not speak Vietnamese outside of their homes, if at all. The majority of the second generation are in fulltime education, and many work parttime in family takeaway businesses. Yet, while the second generation see themselves as Irish, the population at large often does not. Frequently, they are challenged on their identity with, "Yes, but where are you really from?"
One of Ireland's greatest AngloIrish writers, Elizabeth Bowen, offers us a particular glimpse of minority life in Ireland: "It was not until after the end of those seven winters that I understood that we Protestants were a minority, and that the unquestioned rules of our being came, in fact, from the closeness of a minority world. I took the existence of Roman Catholics for granted but met few and was not interested in them. They were, simply 'the others,' whose world lay alongside ours but never touched." The image of worlds that rest alongside each other but do not touch is an evocative one, with obvious resonance for Irish communities in the US and Britain. The most interesting aspect to this issue is the question of how people generate a sense of belonging. For Elizabeth Bowen the question was simple: "How long, after all, does it take to belong somewhere, without apology? Surely, 300 years is enough?"
For VietnameseIrish people, one might understand belonging as a process that is active in everyday life and differently realised depending on age, gender, ethnicity or social status. Though fractured and variable, the process of belonging does, nonetheless, congeal, particularly within people's homes. VietnameseIrish homes are to be found amid the uniformity of Dublin's residential estates places that Australian poet Vincent Buckley described as looking "at once unfinished and used up". One older man put it well: "Through the door of my house," he said, "is a piece of my country," a place comprised of enormous refrigerators, stereos and televisions, signifying material success. His back garden on a hot day could well be in a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, with its bamboo, lychee, grape vines and images of monkeys. Inside, in the front room of the house, opposite the large television, one finds his sense of belonging most obviously enshrined: from the floor to the ceiling is an ancestor's altar with a panoply of demons, deities and photographs of dead relatives. There one might find a half drunk bottle of whiskey and a cigarette burned to the end from a recent ngày giô, or remembrance ceremony, in which the ancestor was ritually invited to drink and smoke. The boundary is also a linguistic one: "At home we speak Vietnamese all the time. For the home, for the family, they talk in Vietnamese, for the old people. But to go outside they have to talk in English because outside it is English. That is outside culture."
When describing VietnameseIrish family life one must recognise the changes that this minority has gone through and will go through. While home life is suggestive of the practices through which people belong, structural economic and social forces also play their part. Many VietnameseIrish people have described their relative success in the ethnic food business in ways that hint at the fact that few other employment niches were available to them. The emphasis on family is often attributed to a lack of integration with wider society one might even argue that seeing oneself as inhabiting a diaspora is not necessarily a matter of choice. This is a dynamic and fast changing minority, with varying degrees of engagement with Irish society, Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. This is most apparent in the lives of the second generation. Education, perhaps more than anything else, is indicative of cultural change and issues of integration. It is a commodity prized above all and, alongside ancestral memorials, most homes include far more contemporary shrines: clusters of photographs that record the achievements of the young. Most second generation VietnameseIrish have, on the 'advice' of parents, embarked on pragmatic courses of study. At thirdlevel, this is manifest in the numbers studying the sciences, engineering, computer technology and accountancy, for example. The pattern is not fully articulated, as many have yet to graduate, but for those who have careers, lifestyles and notions of belonging different from those of their parents' beckon them. However, many who have graduated have failed to secure work, despite their qualifications and in the context of an economy with nearly full employment. For them, work in family takeaways or chain migration within the Vietnamese diaspora is likely.
New versions of Irishness are emerging in a context of rapid change. The VietnameseIrish are but one illustrative example that may throw light on these changes, while, at the same time, suggesting how some very old problems are resurfacing.
Over the past 15 years the speed of change has been dramatic: some estimates suggest that from 1995 to 2000 over 200,000 people migrated to Ireland. And, within this migration flow, refugees and asylum seekers have been overrepresented in public debates and in the media. Ireland must urgently seek to respond to the issues raised by migration in an open and reasoned manner, because there is already mounting evidence of a serious disconnection between mainstream society and new ethnic minorities. When thinking of future patterns one might use the example of economic migration: the number of work permits issued to nonEEA nationals increased by over 700 per cent from 1999 to 2003, and there are already calls for the families of economic migrants to be allowed to migrate to Ireland, to work and to attend schools. How might the competing forces of transnationalism and movement be squared with the necessity for reasonable levels of access to services and institutions? Thinking about education, as far back as 1916 John Dewey found this to be a core question: how might a diverse society balance the need for unity while promoting tolerance of diversity?
Lessons may be learned, however. There are many versions of Irishness, and Catholic and Protestant versions often found ways through which to meet and mingle. For example, a number of Educate Together schools emerged in the 1970s with a curriculum that delivered education in religion rather than in a religion. I would argue that the VietnameseIrish example points to an even more significant lesson. VietnameseIrish people have put a shape on the pattern of their lives over the past 25 years, through work, education, family life and diaspora, and at times their lives have intersected with broader societal issues. By paying attention to the pattern of their lives, one begins to see how people themselves are producers of their worlds, and that they are active and not passive in those worlds. All too often migrants, particularly refugees, are portrayed by the liberalminded as simply victims, and on the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion one finds Irish newspaper headlines such as "Floodgates open as a new army of poor swamps the country". By paying attention to the voices of those concerned and by seeing life through their eyes one gets closer to seeing both the problems and possibilities behind the contemporary version of John Dewey's question: how might a diverse Irish society balance the need for unity while promoting tolerance of diversity?
Mark Maguire is the author of Differently Irish: a Cultural History Exploring 25 Years of VietnameseIrish Identity