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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Class Relations in the Viet Community of Toleda, Ohio*

William M. Leons, University of Toledo, and Kim-Anh Nguyen, Department of Human Services, Lucas County, OH


There are several thousand Viet refugees living in the state of Ohio, this number represents but a small part of the more than 500,000 (Freeman 1989:8) in the United States as a whole. As is the case in the rest of the country, Ohio's Viet population is overwhelmingly urban as it was in Viet Nam.

Toledo's Viet community is made up of 258 individuals living in some 70 households. This small community is far from homogeneous in terms of social class and striking differences in achievement, values and life-style are evident. Social class is not only a good guide to status in the local community, and to various measures of economic and education achievement, but also plays an important role in predicting involvement in social networks which have developed over the past decade.

Much of the literature dealing with Viets in the United States focuses on large scale communities and a historical survey methodology is generally employed. The emphases on cities with large Viet populations means that the sorts of changes occurring in centers with small populations are overlooked. The lack of historical sensitivity in much of the research means that the potential for evolutionary variation inherent in Viet culture is not recognized. Much of the data contained in this paper was obtained from a survey conducted during the Spring of 1989, among Viet refugees living in Toledo, Ohio. A questionnaire was administered in Viet to one adult member of each of the community's households. Most of those interviewed were either heads of households or their spouses. In several cases adults living alone were interviewed. In addition a great deal of information concerning patron-client relations, social networks, and changing attitudes relevant to social class was obtained through participant observation and interviews carried out from 1988 to 1990.

The main focus of this paper is the continuities of and innovations in social class relations in Toledo's Viet community. Factors explaining the changes and continuities in class relation will be discussed with reference to important internal as well as external cultural and structural phenomena.

Social Class in Viet Nam and Toledo, Ohio

Vietnam's system of social stratification in the second half of the twentieth century is difficult to delineate due to dramatic changes resulting from the prolonged struggle for independence from French colonial rule and the Viet Nam War which followed. The division of Viet Nam into two parts for a generation also had important implications for differential change in social stratification. Most of the available literature dealing with Vietnam's political and economic life focuses on the countryside thus limiting our understanding of urban level phenomena. This is particularly problematic since virtually all of the refugees in Toledo have an urban background. The sole sociological study of a Viet urban center is the study by Hoskins (1965) of a poor Saigon neighborhood.

Not all of the categories of the class system which existed in South Viet Nam during the 1960s and 1970s are still relevant in contemporary Toledo and in addition important changes in content and structure have occurred. The categories of class utilized in this paper are those used by the Viet in Toledo and reflect the urban background of this population. This scheme, with one important correction, closely parallels that put forth by Shinn (1989:105-112). Our informants insisted on the addition of a class of "poor people," who lived in the major urban centers, to the scheme proposed by Shinn. We have named this class the Urban Poor and it is below the traditional Lower Class in status.

In order to determine class membership of specific households each interviewee was asked to self-assess the status of the household of which he/she had been a member both in Viet Nam and in Toledo at the present time. Interviews showed that informants utilized occupation and level of education as the primary criteria for class placement.

Table 1 indicates the class positions occupied by Toledo's Viet refugees when they were living in Viet Nam. It is evident that more than three-fourths of the households (87.1%) belonged to the Middle and Lower classes. A much smaller number (10.0%) belonged to the urban Poor Class. Only one household belonged to the Upper Class and one other family belonged to the Peasant Class.

Table 1: Social Class Membership (in Viet Nam)
of Toledo's Viet Population

Class # %
Upper 1 1.4
Middle 22 31.4
Lower 39 55.7
Urban Poor 7 10.0
Peasant 1 1.4
Totals 70 99.9








In order to clarify the meaning of social class in the Viet community we will delineate an outline of both its contents and structure as it existed in Viet Nam and as it exists in Toledo at the present time.

1. The Upper Class (Thuong-Luu)

In Viet Nam top government officials, religious leaders, high ranking members of the armed forces, bankers and big businessmen, particularly those involved in the import/export business, were members of this class. In Toledo only one household claims this background, but since arriving in the United States has been unable to maintain this position and become part of the Middle Class. Several local households maintain contacts with Upper Class political and business leaders in New York and California and Buddhist religious leaders in Paris, France.

2. The Middle Class (Trung-Luu)

In Viet Nam this class was made up of educated professionals: doctors, priests, monks, engineers, writers, and servants and teachers. Locally this class is comprised of medical doctors, engineers, civil servants, business entrepreneurs and a number of college students. This class constitutes the apex of the community's social structure. It has roughly the same number of households as belonged to it in Viet Nam, although there has been considerable change in membership as a result of social mobility.

Downward mobility has been experienced by several teachers, writers and civil servants since these have been unable to find comparable employment in Toledo. At the same time, the Middle Class has been expanded through the addition of several households of upwardly mobile business entrepreneurs and college students. The latter are either heads of households or are living independent of low status close relatives and have gained membership in this class in anticipation of their Middle Class status in the not-too- distant future.

3. The Lower Class (Ha-Luu)

Vietnam's industrial working class was minuscule and this category was largely made up of people working in the service sector of the economy as bus and cab drivers, petty tradespeople and some who were involved in the entertainment industry catering to Americans. During the Viet Nam War era this class grew as a result of the profound changes introduced in the country's economy and the movement of people from the countryside into the cities. Many members of this class thrived during the war years and approximately one-third constituted a category of "lumpen proletariat," a stigmatized rank within this class.

At present most members of this class are employed as semi-skilled and unskilled factory workers and service industry workers. Between those engaged in the relatively well paid manufacturing sector and those in the service sector, internal differentiation has come to be increasingly important. This distinction is demonstrated through the ownership of homes and automobiles and reluctance on the part of the factory workers to permit their children to court those in the service sector. This category remains the single largest class in Toledo's Viet community just as it was in its country of origin. In the larger American society, of which the Viet refugees are of course a part, most members of this class are recognized as Working Class although some of the skilled workers, in part due to suburban residence, are increasingly perceived as belonging to the Middle Class.

4. The Urban Poor (Ngheo-Nan)

In Vietnam's cities these were the street peddlers, war widows, crippled veterans, common soldiers, the unemployed and underemployed who lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a country lacking any institutionalized means of caring for the poor. This class has grown dramatically in recent years as a result of immigration and also through the addition of downwardly mobile households. In this class most households receive welfare benefits. Some individuals hold menial jobs, and others are involved in the underground economy, in order to improve the conditions while others have become part of an expanding underclass found in all American cities.

5. Peasants (Nong Dan)

In Viet Nam at least three sub-classes of farmers and fishermen were recognized, with differential access to land, labor, education, and political office. Although approximately one-third of the heads of household in our community were born in the countryside, with one exception all had been urban dwellers for at least a decade before coming to the United States and were not classified as peasants. The sole exception referred to is a fisherman and his family which, having opened a small restaurant, is now recognized as a member of the Lower Class.

Continuity and Change in Stratification

The following discussion focuses on some of the dynamic changes which the class system of Toledo's Viet community has been involved in over the past fifteen years. Table 2 shows some interesting differences in social class background when we compare the two great waves of Viet immigrants into Toledo. The first wave occurred in 1975, the second began in 1978 when the so-called "boat people" began their exodus from Viet Nam and which continues to the present time.

Table 2: Class Membership (in Viet Nam)
by Wave of Arrivals

1975 - 1977 1978 - 1989
Class # % # %
Upper 1 2.9 0 -
Middle 11 32.3 9 25.0
Lower 19 55.9 14 38.9
Urban Poor 3 8.9 12 33.3
Peasant - - 1 2.8
Totals 34 100.0 36 100.0









As has been found to be the case for Southeast Asia refugees in general (Caplan, Whitmore and Bui 1989; Zaharlick and Brainard 1987) those individuals currently living in Toledo who arrived in 1975 were economically better-off, better educated (most had some English language skills) and with more readily marketable job skills than those arriving after 1978. These differences are of course correlates of social class position in the country of origin.

Table 2 indicates differences in social class between households arriving between 1975 to 1977 and the more recent arrivals. Of those arriving in the first wave some 35.2 percent belonged to either the Upper or Middle Class as opposed to only 25.0 percent of those who arrived after 1978. At the same time only 8.9 percent of the earlier arrivals belonged to either the Urban Poor or Peasant classes while of those arriving after 1978 some 36.1 percent were members of these traditional low status categories. This difference is even greater if we take into account emigration from Toledo to other parts of the country in the past decade.

These differences in class membership between first and second wave refugees are due to several factors. In the first wave were many Middle Class and Lower Class individuals with business or military connections to the Americans in Viet Nam and several had been employees of the United States government. Individuals with ties to the Americans who did not leave Viet Nam in 1975 often wound up in re-education camps or found it very difficult to leave the country after the new government had established control of the country. The second wave was made up of individuals who were less well socially connected, many of Chinese ethnic background, who left the country because of poor economic conditions and/or recriminations against them for involvement with the previous regime or whose loyalty was questioned by the new government. These first arrivals had, for the first year or two in the United States, no knowledge of the welfare system and some, with Middle Class values, refused to benefit from it even when they learned about programs they qualified for. Also, most of these refugees were sponsored by churches and Middle Class Americans who discouraged their charges from becoming welfare clients and insisted on helping them find work, often at minimum wage.

Of those who arrived in Toledo after 1978 most had little formal education, had little or no English at their command and lacked readily marketable job skills. These Second Wave refugees were advised by some of their already established compatriots to take full advantage of the existent governmental welfare and educational programs. The more recent refugees have also generally not been sponsored by local churches or private Americans and consequently have been less strongly encouraged to achieve economic independence. This has contributed to some becoming permanent welfare clients but also enabled a number of younger individuals to attend the local University. Most in a very short time have become very sophisticated users of the various governmental aid programs for which they are eligible. Many of these programs were initially administered by a local CETA office and are at present handled by Catholic Social Services where for the past ten years a Viet Social Worker has been employed. These agencies helped the new arrivals to deal with problems in language skills and employment and introducing those eligible to welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federally supported college loans and grants. Table 3 indicates that the class system of the local Viet community has become much simplified as the top (Upper Class) and bottom (Peasants) are no longer represented. The two households of the Upper Class and Peasant Class have changed their position since arriving in the United States. The former Upper Class household is by choice socially very isolated and interacts almost exclusively with similarly placed families in other parts of the country. The sole Peasant household has become a respected and well-integrated member of the Lower Class. Except for the fact that the Viet community lacks an Upper Class its class structure superficially resembles that found in any contemporary American city. However, Viet emphases on "heritage" and the importance placed on subtle differences in occupation are important factors in the definition of class position within the local community.

It is quite clear that at present the traditional Lower Class is involved in a process of internal differentiation based on occupation. Those members of the Lower Class who are factory workers are referred to as Manual Workers or Factory Workers (Lao Dong) while those who in Viet Nam worked in the entertainment sector and are currently service sector workers are assigned lower status (Ha-Cap). Most members of the latter rank with the Lower Class are the former "lumpen proletariat" referred to above.

Table 3: Class of Viets
in Toledo, 1990

Class # %
Upper - -
Middle 21 30.0
Lower 34 48.5
Urban Poor 15 21.4
Peasant - -
Totals 70 99.9








As indicated above, the class of Viet refugees classified as Urban Poor has significantly expanded in the United States. This growth is attributable to the downward mobility of some households as well as the class background of some recent immigrants. Some of those downwardly mobile are too old to enter the job market, others with a poor command of the English language, or unsuitable job skills are having a difficult time finding work. Some are taken with the idea of obtaining GEDs and even college degrees. A few members of this class suffer psychological and social problems which appear to be the result of cultural dislocation and loss of status in their new lives.

The vast majority of these households are either welfare or Social Security recipients. There is some evidence that a "culture of poverty" is developing in this class. Those who have been welfare recipients for a number of years, and are likely to remain so, are referred to as An Bam Xa-Hoi. This is a derogatory term referring to those who are too lazy to perform manual work, unwilling to study and are satisfied to only live from public assistance. This small group is very much looked down upon by the community and are seen as people without shame.

The size of the local Middle Class is from an American perspective somewhat distorted because its number is inflated by eight households made up of very poor University students. Although poor in economic terms, they are classified as belonging to the Middle Class because of the prestige traditionally accorded students and the anticipation they will in a couple of years all find employment as engineers, doctors and computer scientists.

Not only have the number, the relative size and internal structure of each of the three social classes present in the community changed significantly over the past years, there has also been considerable upward and downward mobility. Somewhat more than one half of all the households have maintained the same social class position they occupied in Viet Nam. Table 4 indicates a significant amount (41.4%) of upward and downward mobility.

Table 4: Mobility Patterns of Viets in Toledo, 1990

Class Position # %
Same 41 58.6
Downward 19 27.1
Upward 10 14.3
Totals 70 100.0






The downwardly mobile includes the elderly, those who arrived in the United States with a low level of formal education and persons with a poor command of the English language or without job skills for which there is a market. In contrast the upwardly mobile are those who came here at a young age and profited from governmental subsidies, loans and grants to acquire college degrees and secure prestigious forms of employment.

Since the possession of a diploma from an American university is seen by most as the key to economic success and prestige in the local community, college enrollments are a useful indicator of future changes in the class structure of Toledo's Viet community. At present, as was the case in Viet Nam, all holders of college degrees are members of the Middle Class. In an impressive 85.0% of all Middle Class households one or two members hold bachelor and graduate degrees. Presently, of the thirteen Middle and Lower Class households with children over 18 years of age all are attending college. However, in the Urban Poor Class, which has five households with children over 18 years of age, only three (60.0%) of the children are attending college. This percentage is still considerably above the State of Ohio's as well as the national average. The very high overall percentage (88.9%) of households with children over the age of 18 attending college is most impressive and suggests an increasing growth in the size of the Middle Class in the near future.

The Patron-Client System

The present moribund state of what in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a pervasive patron-client system provides us with some revealing insights into some basic changes which have affected local class relations. A local Viet entrepreneur, Mr. A., played an important role as broker in the patron-client system from 1976 to 1982, when he abandoned this position for basically two reasons. First, the increasing reliance on various public welfare programs--now mediated through the local Catholic Social Services office-- by arrivals since 1980 meant a decreasing opportunity for him to play the role of broker. Secondly, as Mr. A's business grew, he became less reliant on the local Viet community and he came to perceive his expected obligations as increasingly onerous.

Many members of the community, particularly those in the Lower Class, are quite bitter at Mr. A. They see him as having profited from his position as broker for a number of years and criticize him for abandoning this role when his economic and political interests changed. One informant succinctly put it "he squeezed the lemon and threw it away." The community's decreasing reliance on a broker may be seen as evidence of the improvement in the economic condition of most local refugees and the increasing access of those less successful to governmental welfare and educational institutions.

The demise of Mr. A's patron-client network is an example of what transpires when alternative horizontal institutions (i.e. governmental agencies) become available to those formerly involved in more personal vertical patron- client ties. The general trend is for cultural brokers to loose their influence and cease being mediators as those horizontal links are created. Sydel Silverman has pointed out that the patron-client system is "a form which regularly gives way as the process of integration of the total society advances" (1965:188). Although Silverman is specifically addressing the issue of nation-state development this idea may be extended to include the changes which occur as refugees are increasingly incorporated into already well- established states.


The class system of Toledo's Viet community has in less than one generation come to resemble the one which prevails in the larger American society. Neither Vietnam's traditional Upper Class nor its Peasant Class are part of this changing system of social stratification. Over the past fifteen years the local Viet community has been marked by considerable social class mobility. Some were able to take advantage of the new situation they found themselves in and move up in class standing, while others were less successful. Some of the reasons for varying degrees of success were discussed.

Important changes have also taken place in the relationship between the various social classes within the Viet community and their place in American society. During the late 1970s and early 1980s internal class relationships were maintained through the operation of the traditional patron-client network while a Viet cultural broker mediated between the Viet and American communities. However, as a result of external institutional changes this system decreased in importance after 1982. Some of those in the Urban Poor Class and Lower Class feel betrayed by the traditional broker's unwillingness to continue his customary role. There is some evidence that at present petty patrons are developing within the Lower Class as these seek to attract a number of clients in the Urban Poor Class.

Toledo's Viet community remains characterized by a great concern with status, but now lacks the traditional institutions which enforced respect and obedience on the part of the lower ranking members of society towards the "big faces" in the Middle Class. At present many in the Lower and Urban Poor classes are embittered and angry resenting the successes of others while some remembering their past status now feel profoundly affected by their inability to cope in their new country. As the small Viet community becomes daily more incorporated into the larger more egalitarian American society old resentments are given verbal expression and new status claims are made by those who are upwardly mobile. Some of the resentment against traditional authority figures is expressed by members of the Lower Class and Urban Poor Class when they do not participate in community festivities nor present the "big faces" with the traditional Chinese New Year gifts, as was customary until the early 1980s.

At present it is not uncommon to hear Lower Class individuals, particularly upwardly mobile factory workers, expressing resentment concerning an impoverished Middle Class person's status claims with the comment, "Here in America it's you and you." This means that the personal pronoun that would indicate respect to one's superior need not be used and the claim to traditionally based superior status is effectively denied. Another common expression in the Lower Class, which much annoys members of the Middle Class is the statement, "We are all equal here." Also, when a Lower Class individual is criticized by a Middle Class person for displaying such symbols of economic success as a large automobile or a new house in the suburbs, a common retort is, "Well, it's a free market here."

The stratification system, and associated patterns of behavior and values, which the Viet carried with them to these shores were themselves much affected by the thirty years of war against the French and Americans. As the prestige system has become increasingly linked to economic success--some of which may now be obtained without the traditional college diploma--members of the Lower Class have become encouraged to make claims to equal or greater status than some less successful members of the Middle Class. It is these older individuals in the Middle Class, as well as some who have sunk into the Poor Class, who most often complain that the world has turned upside down and that the lower classes no longer pay them the respect due them.

Most of the Viets in Toledo are incorporating themselves into the American Lower Class and Middle Class and a few into the Underclass. These changes are occurring both structurally and in terms of values and behavioral patterns of the people involved. In refugee communities as small as the Viet community in Toledo, Ohio maintaining a distinct society and culture in the absence of a pervasive ideology of uniqueness or a perceived external threat is problematic.


  • Caplan, Nathan, J.K. Whitmore, and M.H. Choy. 1989. The Boat People and Achievement in America: A Study of Family Life, Hard Workd, and Cultural Values. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Freeman, James A. 1989. Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hoskins, Marilyn W. 1965. Life in a Vietnamese Urban Quarter. Center for Vietnamese Studies. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
  • Shinn, Rinn-Sup, 1989. The Society and its Environment. In: Vietnam: A Country Study. Ronald J. Cima ed.,: 81-139. Federal Research Division Library of Congress.
  • Silverman, Sydel F. 1965. Patronage and Community-National Relationships in Central Italy. Ethnology 4:172-189.
  • Zaharlick, A., and Jean Brainard. 1987. Demographic Characteristics, Ethnicity and the Resettlement of Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States. Urban Anthropology 16:327-373.


Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Human Services, Lucas County, Ohio. All personal names used are pseudonyms in order to protect the privacy of individuals.

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