The Vietnamese French: Background information when reading The Committed

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The Committed

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen X
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 400 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2022, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
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About this Book

The Vietnamese French

This article relates to The Committed

Print Review

The exterior of a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris's Quartier AsiatiqueIn The Committed, Vo Danh immigrates to Paris in order to escape danger. As the illegitimate child born from sexual abuse between a French priest and a Vietnamese woman, Vo Danh is a metaphor for the rape of Vietnam perpetrated by French colonialism. He goes back to his fatherland to confront the post-Vietnam War legacy and how it synthesizes with this post-colonial inheritance. The longstanding relationship between France and Vietnam and its uneasy power dynamics are reflected in the nature of the Vietnamese-French community which Vo Danh joins.

Vietnamese history is one of repeated invasion and resistance. France became complicit with that history in 1887 when it colonized modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, forming a federation called Indochina. France had already been engaging in missionary exploits, spreading colonialist concepts under the sometimes well-meaning guise of Catholicism, but with the establishment of Indochina it had express governmental power over Vietnam. The exploitative colonial relationship was one of economic trade, in which labor and goods were unilaterally tapped out of Vietnam for the benefit of France, with no exchange in return. This carried on until the 1940s when the Japanese invaded and ultimately wrested control from the French, and proceeded to engage in the same predatory relationship.

Directly resulting from this colonial connection, large numbers of Vietnamese immigrated to France in the early 1900s as soldiers, workers and students. They were frequently forced into contractual labor or conscription to support France during World War I, which gave rise to pockets of strong anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist sentiments within the Vietnamese-French community.

In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, a large influx of Vietnamese refugees fled to different countries, including France, in order to escape oppression by the communist government, such as reeducation camps and violence against those suspected of being anti-communist or American sympathizers. While many of them were building fairly new communities in countries like the U.S., in France, the Vietnamese were joining an already established community that held strong communist views. Integrating the new influx of Vietnamese immigrants with anti-communist views into the established Vietnamese-French community with pro-communist views resulted in a lack of cohesion, which sometimes escalated to the point of physical violence.

It is against this complicated backdrop that Nguyen takes on the daunting task of exploring and indicting the French post-colonial and post-war legacy surrounding the Vietnamese-French as Vo Danh attempts to define his identity and community in Paris.

While France does not collect data about race and ethnicity when conducting a census, the Vietnamese population is estimated to be around 300,000. When the waves of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the 1970s, many took up residence in Paris's Quartier Asiatique as part of the larger Asian community, but the population has since dispersed more evenly throughout the city. A division between anti-communist and communist Vietnamese persists in France, but it is far less contentious than it once was.

Vietnamese restaurant Song Huong in Paris's Quartier Asiatique

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Committed. It originally ran in March 2021 and has been updated for the March 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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