Tracking the "Model Minority"

February 27, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Vietnamese immigrants to the United States are sometimes considered the "model minority" because they tend to have low rates of poverty, unemployment and crime.

vanlandingham"The assumption is that if they're okay economically, they must be doing fine," said Mark VanLandingham, associate professor of international health and development.

A lot of research has been done on how immigrants fare in the United States, but relatively little has been done with the Vietnamese, according to VanLandingham.

He recently received a demonstration grant from the National Institutes of Health to compare the health of members of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans with those who never left Vietnam, as well as those who tried to leave but were turned back.

"Health status is often different for immigrants compared to both the population in their native country and populations that are more longstanding in America," said VanLandingham. "It's hard to distinguish how much of these differences are due to the fact that America is a new place and how much is because immigrants are very different people to start off with. It takes a gutsy, unusual or maybe disaffected person to leave home and move halfway across the globe."

Large numbers of people left southern Vietnam after the end of the war. For about 15 years, from the mid-1970s until 1989, the United States opened its doors to the Vietnamese.

The U.S. government dispersed them throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest. But once they got established and saved up some money, they tended to move to California or Houston--or to southern Louisiana, which in some ways resembles southern Vietnam.

"If you left Vietnam and made it to the Philippines, Hong Kong or Malaysia before the middle of 1989, America took you almost without exception," VanLandingham said. "After 1989, the United States closed the door unless you could really prove you would be persecuted in Vietnam. So a lot of people were sent back. I'm trying to find those people."

The idea is to compare the Vietnamese community in the New Orleans area to a group that tried to leave Vietnam but was sent back and a group who never tried to immigrate.

"I've already completed my work with a sample of Vietnamese who never left and I'm in the process of interviewing Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. I'm hoping to get permission this year to interview people who were repatriated. Politically it's touchy, but the government seems willing to consider the idea."

VanLandingham hopes to have between 200 and 250 subjects in each group. Subjects are interviewed for a wide range of information about their socioeconomic status and physical health, including how much they smoke and what kinds of pollutants they're exposed to in their environment. Psychological health also is evaluated.

"We use instruments to measure depression and other affective disorders," he said. "We try to measure social connectedness. For the immigrants, we want to find out how acculturated they are to the American environment--do they speak English, how much of their diet is Vietnamese food and how much is American, how many of their friends are Vietnamese and how many are otherwise."

Researchers also take physical measurements for things such as body mass index, blood pressure, fat distribution and lung capacity. "Obesity is one problem the Vietnamese are experiencing in the American environment," VanLandingham said. New Orleans' Vietnamese community has been receptive to the study, largely thanks to students who've helped make connections with community leaders.

"They're quite interested in the idea, I think partly because Vietnam occupies a central place in their thoughts," VanLandingham said. "They're interested in the consequences of their own migration experience."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000