A Vietnamese Village in America… Called Versailles
By S. Leo Chiang
Although San Francisco is the city I call home, I’ve spent a lot of my time in New Orleans during the past few years. Not the New Orleans of French Quarter, Mardi Gras, and Jazz Festival found in tour books, however. I’ve been making a documentary film, A Village Called Versailles, about the ethnic Vietnamese enclave in the far eastern edge of town, just before the city fades into the Louisiana marshes, in a neighborhood that the residents called “Versailles.”
It’s disorienting to arrive in Versailles unprepared. Instead of typical American Southern images of old plantations with mossy oaks and crocodiles roaming Cajun swamps, I encounter Vietnamese women wearing conical straw hats tending vegetable gardens by the bayou. I hear roosters calling and people haggling in Vietnamese at an outdoor wet market–the kind so common in Asia but so rare in the US. The sight and the sound, along with the humid air scented with mint and lemongrass, immediately transport me from the Mississippi Delta to the Mekong Delta.
For those not familiar with the history of the Vietnamese in the United States, several hundred thousand refugees were resettled in the US after the Vietnamese Communist government came to power in 1975. Most ended up in major metropolitan areas such as Orange County, California and Houston, Texas, but several relatively small groups settled on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where they carved out a living in the then-thriving fishing industry. The residents in these enclaves, including Versailles in Eastern New Orleans, have quietly built a life for themselves but also stayed largely isolated from mainstream society. These folks held on dearly to their customs and traditions from their homeland, and they tried their hardest to recreate an old way of life—a life that could no longer exist back in Vietnam–halfway around the world. They were grateful to find in the American South a refuge from the war and calamity back home, but they also chose not to assimilate. Regardless of their citizenship status, they were the Vietnamese, and they referred to the whites and blacks in the area as the “Americans”.
As years went by, these Vietnamese refugees bought cars, built homes, and raised children. But unlike their parents and grandparents, the younger American-born generation struggle with their identity. They are outsiders to the “Americans” from other parts of the city, but they are also foreigners to the Vietnamese elders since they barely speak the native language and know little of the traditional culture. At the same time, the younger generation looks at their elders as relics, totally out of step with the American society that they are supposed to be a part of and clueless to what’s happening outside of their little isolated village. Neither generation feels they particularly belong to this land that they have now lived in for nearly 30 years.
All of this changed with Hurricane Katrina. Like countless others from New Orleans, Versailles residents evacuated and saw their homes decimated by the flood. Forced into exile once more, the Vietnamese from Versailles were determined not to be permanently displaced again. They returned to New Orleans at the earliest possible opportunity and rebuilt their homes before most other neighborhoods. Shortly after, when the government carelessly decided to dump the debris from cleaning up the flooded city in a new landfill adjacent Versailles without first consulting the neighborhood, the Vietnamese residents spoke up. They took the government to court. They demanded justice from the mayor. They blocked the landfill in protest. The young and the old worked together to fight for the future of their homes.
The irony is, of course, that up until then many of the elders had not considered the United States their home because, in their heart of hearts, home was still Vietnam. It took a catastrophe for them to recognize that their homes are now indeed in the US—in New Orleans, where they have invested 30 years of their sweat and tears into the land that used to be foreign to them but now is an integral part of them. They are not just Vietnamese; they are also Americans.
As an immigrant to the US, I find the story of the Versailles community powerfully resonant. For many years after I arrived in the US, I never felt that sense of belonging–the sense of complete ease, of truly being “at home”. To see the Versailles Vietnamese claiming their home, their place in the society, and their unique brand of American identity, was incredibly moving to me.