Viet Dinh, Anthony Lewis, and the Complexity of being Asian American in the Twentieth Century

Asian American woman in a long dress shopping in Vietnamese grocery store.

Vietnamese store [3133 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Virginia].  Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, May 31, 1977. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Asians have long been part of the United States landscape dating back to the late eighteenth century. Many more arrived during the immigration waves of the nineteenth century. However, military intervention and war served as the means by which many settled in the U.S. during the twentieth century, with the U.S. occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Vietnam War, 1961-1975, representing historical bookends in this cycle. “The ‘past’ that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past, for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement,” observes Yale American Studies expert Lisa Lowe. “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes that past.”[1]

U.S. intervention and occupation, and later the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, created pathways for immigration from Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam to the United States, but getting to the United States was accompanied by considerable hardship as evidenced by the experience of future law professor and U.S. assistant attorney general Viet D. Dinh and his family, which is recorded in the papers of New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis in the Manuscript Division.

Just over thirty years ago, in 1991, Dinh, then a Harvard Law student, had been checking citations from Lewis’s first book, Gideon’s Trumpet, a fact-based story about having the right to an attorney. He became so “engrossed that [he] stayed at the library and read the entire book” in one sitting. Lewis’s “appeal to … humanity” inspired Dinh to write a letter and personal essay to Lewis about his own family’s ordeal in fleeing Vietnam for the United States, including the plight of his sister, Van, and her son, Quan, who remained stateless and confined in a Hong Kong refugee camp.[2]

Dinh wrote that following the United States’ exit from Vietnam in 1975, the establishment of a unified communist government brought his family misery. “The totalitarian regime confiscated our property and terminated my mother’s job as a teacher. Most painful of all, the communists incarcerated my father in a ‘re-education camp’ because he was a former city councilman,” Dinh wrote in a personal essay addressed to Lewis.[3] On June 12, 1978, Dinh’s family – his mother, her six children, and one grandchild– escaped with 115 fellow Vietnamese refugees aboard a boat that encountered many obstacles, including a severe storm, which disabled their vessel, and hostile Malaysian patrols who ignored their “tattered SOS flag” and fired “machine gun bullets … into the water just five feet from our vessel,” as a means to force their ship and others away from shore and out to sea.[4]

Anthony Lewis' handwritten interview notes on yellow, lined notepaper.

Anthony Lewis, notes from interview with Viet N. Dinh, November 15, 1993, Box 554, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ten-year-old Dinh and his fellow refugees eventually sank the boat themselves, swam ashore, and were processed into a Malaysian United Nations refugee camp where they resided for the next five months.[5] Asylum came slowly. As he described it, “Love of freedom and respect for justice” proved inadequate, “we had to prove our worth as human beings to men who had the power of god in determining our lives … Everyone had jurisdiction over our action in the camps, yet no one was eager to accept us.”[6]

The Dinh family first settled in Portland, Oregon, where they worked as custodians during the fall and winter and as agricultural laborers during the summer. Dinh’s father, who had been living as a fugitive having escaped his re-education camp, finally, managed to make his way to the U.S. in 1983 after twenty-five failed attempts. The family was reunited, with the exception of Dinh’s eldest sister who remained in Vietnam with her children. She and her son eventually fled six years later in 1989, landing in a Hong Kong refugee camp. Dinh became a U.S. citizen the same year. [7]

Dinh’s story so moved Lewis that he sent it to the New York Times opinion page editors. The newspaper published a shorter version of his story in early January 1992.[8] Lewis returned to Dinh’s story nearly two years later in a column advocating for a more inclusive policy in the face of increasingly belligerent rhetoric regarding immigration, writing, “The Dinh family is doing exactly what immigrants on the Lower East Side and so many other places did in past years: struggling for themselves and making this country better.” [9]

What of Dinh’s sister, Van? When she first set out from Vietnam in 1989, the family had no clue as to her whereabouts or health. “The first year was hard – there was no communication. We didn’t know she had reached [Hong Kong],” Dinh told Lewis in 1993. Due in part to an op-ed published in the Times and picked up by other newspapers, after three years of waiting, Dinh’s sister and nephew were finally granted asylum in the United States. [10]

Around the same time, Dinh graduated from Harvard Law School and was clerking for Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and a year later for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.[11] His siblings all also found professional success, Kathleen and Leanne as computer programmers, Thu as an accountant, and Ahn running a small business. The newest arrival, Van, entered community college. Their brother, Bao, became an architect in Southern California.[12]

While the Dinh family story that is told in the Anthony Lewis Papers ended on a fairly triumphant note, caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions from it.  Asian American identity is often bounded by stereotypes regarding foreignness and upward mobility that gloss over long-standing racism, xenophobia, and violence. Asian American communities endured nineteenth-century West Coast massacres; persistent immigration restrictions that intentionally targeted them and shaped future restrictions on other immigrant groups; alien land laws that prevented the accumulation of generational wealth; forced relocation and internment during World War II; and more recently, an outbreak of terrorizing harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peace shrine with three arches made of red brick and a statue of the Virgin Mary under another arch in background.

The Queen of Peace Shrine and Gardens in a largely Vietnamese neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, February 27, 2015. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Model minority” tropes which became so dominant first in the 1950s and again later in the 1980s and 1990s, are of little help and often serve to conceal not only the discrimination endured by Asian Americans, but also the poverty that continues to plague large portions of the community. The model minority identity “masks persistent inequalities and disparities among Asian Americans and relies on a new and divisive language of racism,” writes historian Erika Lee.  It also fails to capture the “unstable place of Asian Americans” in U.S. culture. “Depending on domestic economic and global political conditions, some Asian Americans are accepted as full and equal citizens … while others find themselves marginalized as dangerous outsiders.” Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, the trope has been used as a means to denigrate the efforts of other ethnic and racial groups attempting to achieve racial equality.[13] Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, expresses another aspect of this complex experience, “We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any color…”[14]

Perhaps it goes without saying that the category of “Asian American and Pacific Islander,” which encompasses people whose roots span from the Indian subcontinent to the islands of the Pacific, obscures more than it reveals. In reality, the term functions as a political project under which a large group of Americans hailing from different nations, with differing traditions, histories, and languages might organize. It remains an imperfect solution to political representation. Experiencing both the possibilities of the American Dream but also its racialized limits, Asian Americans have and continue to contribute to the history and present of this nation.  Tens of millions of Asian Americans, hailing from dozens of nations and ethnicities have made the U.S. their home and subsequently, a better home for us all as a result.

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[1] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 29.

[2] Viet D. Dinh to Anthony Lewis, December 21, 1991, Box 515, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Viet D. Dinh, “A Personal Essay,” December 1991, Box 515, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Dinh, “A Personal Essay.”

[5] Anthony Lewis, interview notes with Viet Dinh, November 15, 1993, Box 554, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Dinh, “A Personal Essay.”

[7] Dinh, “A Personal Essay.”

[8] Viet D. Dinh, “Drifting to Freedom: A Survivor’s Story,” New York Times, January 8, 1992.

[9] Anthony Lewis, “An American Story,” New York Times, November 26, 1993, A35.

[10] Anthony Lewis, “An American Story,” New York Times, November 26, 1993, A35; Anthony Lewis, interview notes with Viet Dinh, November 15, 1993, Box 554, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] Anthony Lewis, “An American Story,” New York Times, November 26, 1993, A35.

[12] Viet Dinh to Anthony Lewis, October 25, 1993, Box 554, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 374.

[14] Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 117.

Flying Manuscripts

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division holds the papers of aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, which include correspondence between Chanute, George Spratt, and the Wright Brothers. These letters provide insights into their aeronautical experiments as they share ideas on wing design, lift, drag and other problems facing early experimenters.