Exploring ethnic identity and self-esteem in Vietnam

Vietnam Pic 4

Notre Dame senior Tony Do didn’t know what to expect when he landed in Vietnam for the first time. His uncle would pick him up first thing in the morning to drive him to the gravesites of his ancestors. It would be an unexpected introduction to an unfamiliar world. He’d never been to Vietnam before, let alone met any of his relatives. 

He soon found himself standing at the graves of his great-grandfather, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The first thing his uncle said was, “Hello, Dad. We’re here. Your grandson Tony finally came home.”

Do had not considered Vietnam his home. He was born in the United States, growing up in Syracuse, New York. He always identified as Vietnamese-American. Both of his parents grew up in Vietnam, but fled the country after his father fought in the Vietnam War. His mother returned many times over the years to stay connected to family and friends, but his father never did. Do often wondered whether he would ever make the trip himself. 

And now, here he was, standing at his ancestors’ grave sites, exploring an identity that he wanted to understand.

“At the moment, I felt very conflicted,” says Do. “As I spent more time in Vietnam, I started to feel very connected to the people."

Quest to understand identity

Do’s quest to understand his ethnic identity was part of a research grant through Notre Dame International and the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies. He was under the guidance of Anré Venter, director of undergraduate studies in psychology, who applied for the grant through The Insider Project in January 2018. 

The proposal titled “Ethnic Identity Minority versus Majority Ethnic Identity Development: A Cross Cultural Examination” was intended to provide three Vietnamese-American undergraduate research assistants an opportunity to explore their identity. All three have family in Vietnam, but unlike Do, the two other undergraduate research assistants had visited before.

“My interest is in American ethnic minority kids who are caught between two cultures. I think we’re dealing with a third culture and we need to understand the effect of this,” says Venter. 

While research has been conducted in the area of ethnic identity development in minority groups, Venter believes little has been done to compare the process of ethnic identity development within particular ethnic groups. 
Venter identified two separate research topics to prepare for the trip to Vietnam. Prior to leaving, he worked with the three students to collect data from two groups of college students: American (non-minority) students and Vietnamese-American students.

Once the group arrived in Vietnam for the week-long trip, they worked with the dean at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities at Ho Chi Minh City University to finalize the data collection, as well as connect with local Vietnamese college students. They also connected with their own family members there.

Among the project’s projected outcomes, Venter wanted the three Vietnamese-American student research assistants to have unique personal experiences and clarify their own understanding of their ethnic identities. 

Defining self-esteem

The project also addresses the cultural differences in self-concept and self-esteem between Vietnamese-American students and Vietnamese students in Vietnam. An integral part of this examines the process of ethnic identity development in between these two groups — how members of these two populations identify themselves and their feelings associated with that identity.  

Venter notes that the concept of self-esteem is still fairly new in Vietnam. In fact, there is no corresponding word for “self-esteem” in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese measures of self-esteem differ from Western versions in that the Vietnamese concepts focus on the respondent’s perspective on how their family views them. This fits with the traditional East-West distinction in self-concept, with the Western sense of self being more individualistic and the Eastern more collectivistic in nature.

Extending the project 

Venter and the three students spent a lot of time gathering data in Vietnam last semester, but their work isn’t done just yet. They are back in the U.S., but will continue their research and work through the data this semester. They hope to visit northern Vietnam to further their research in more rural areas.

“We don’t want a one-dimensional view of what life is like in Vietnam,” says Do. “We want to see a broader range of the population and the country, not just people from an urban setting.”

Do always assumed his first visit to Vietnam would be with his parents and siblings, but he says this trip allowed him to focus on his own personal identity exploration.

“Being able to visit Vietnam without my parents was a good thing because I wouldn’t be influenced by my parents’ experiences there,” says Do. “I felt that I accomplished a lot and was able to gain my own perspective of Vietnam.”

The Insider Project is open to all faculty and supports research abroad. For more information, visit ntrda.me/insiderproject