Chicanos, Viet Kieu, Gaijin – Migration Fun!

“When you sit down to write, first open a vein” and “Write What You Know.”  This phrase is often used by writers to really get the ideas flowing and words written.  This is exactly what I’ll attempt to do with this post.

I have an idea of what I want to say, have no real point to draw and highly doubt the post will lead to any conclusion.

So, I’m just going to “open a vein and write what I know” about migration and the challenges (and fun) of so many people moving around the globe.  This is a story of my journey with so many different peoples and the complexities involved with self identification.

What I know is the Midwest, California, Japan, Mexico and Vietnam so I’ll stick to these regions.

I think it is a common fact that people migrate.  The reasons are as diverse as they are complex and include such things as: economic hardships, war, better opportunity elsewhere, just for adventure and finally, for no particular reason at all!

I have always wanted to be a “Global Citizen” and here are the challenges/interesting things I’ve learned in trying to become one.

I. Chicanos

My first experience with “migration” was with the Chicanos at Ohio State.  Chicanos are Americans of Mexican descent.  I was a major in Spanish so was heavily exposed to the Mexican community and their experiences.  Being a Spanish major, I wanted to integrate with this community as much as possible and “become like them” so as to better understand the culture and mentality.

At OSU the liberal arts school was actively promoting their “diversity” programs and I attended more than a few Latin American  meetings.  What struck me most about this was how proud the Chicanos and Mexicans were to be of Mexican descent.  Being from a mostly white community I had never really been exposed to this type of ethnic pride before.  Sure, in my community some people were of Italian stock, others Irish and so on but we didn’t exactly come to school with the individual flags wrapped around us.  I guess our ancestors had simply been in the USA for long and any connections were very weak if non-existent with the “home country.”

Yet, at OSU the “Chicanos” really wanted everyone to know how proud they were to be Chicano.  I also learned that I could only come so close in identifying myself with them because the simple fact was I was not one.  I learned about many injustices that Chicanos faced and currently face (by guess who) but then I was really shocked by the following.

I witnessed a few exchanges between “Chicanos” and Mexican students who came from Mexico.  The Mexicans looked upon Chicanos as “not really being Mexican” which infuriated the Chicanos.  There were so many classes and lectures which taught (white people) us how Chicanos were American but still wanted to retain their Mexican heritage and how that was ok.  Then, the rug really gets pulled out from under them when the Mexicans made the previous accusations.

I can tell you some of the discussions really got heated and I thought it best to just sit back and listen.

*Side Note*
At this time, it just so happened that there was a popular “swing” song called “Zuit Suit Riot” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.  I would say that 99% of listeners did not know what this song is about.  In 1943 some American Sailors and Chicanos fought each other in what came to be known as the Zuit Suit Riot.  Zuit Suits were a very popular fashion for Chicanos at the time.

Fast forward to 1997 and being from Ohio I really don’t think there was any tension between Chicanos and white people but rather had shifted to between Chicanos and Mexicans from Mexico.  (Well, at least on the OSU campus anyway).

I would like to speak about all the “Diversity” and “Sensitivity” programs that were going on at OSU at the time but it would take to long.  As for me, I was ready to get away from diversity and sensitivity so I went to the best place in the world for that.   JAPAN!!!   🙂

II. Gaijin (外人) – Foreigner

As I explained in the above point, the rivalry between Chicanos and Mexicans I found pretty interesting as I had previously believed that tensions only existed between (insert ethnicity) and white people.  Then I came to Japan.

Gaijin means “foreigner” but if we look at the Kanji it is more literally “outside person.”


As any serious language learner knows, you really have to devote yourself entirely to the culture if you ever hope to become fluent.  So, I spent my days in intensive study, joining “circles” which are the student clubs at university and spending a lot of my time with Japanese friends.

Yet, in doing so I learned there are some serious challenges for a white person to become Japanese (tongue in cheek here).  I’d like to list a few of those here.

1. Anti-Gaijin Gaijin – These are foreigners who have integrated so well with Japan that they do not want to speak to other foreigners as they view them as “invading their turf.”  These are (mostly white) people who will only speak to other foreigners in Japanese and always try to “one up” you in knowledge of Japanese culture.  I would say that most of these are Otaku (おたく) which I’m disparaging as nerds.

The fact is that there are simply not many foreigners in Japan and some want to integrate so badly that they shun all other foreigners should they come across them.  Japan is their special place and no other foreigners are allowed to come.  LOL!

2. Japanese view of a Gaijin

People often go to Japan with excitement and ready to learn as much as they can.  It is a wonderful experience but the biggest hurdle to get over is when you find out what a “Gaijin” is, which is you!  For many, this can be a turn off and they return home really dejected and not very happy with their experience.

However, what one has to realize is Japan is thousands of years old and for the most part a homogeneous culture.  This is ingrained to their very bone and a foreigner can never ever ever ever be Japanese.  Yet, take heart because one can come close!

To succeed in Japan learning the language is absolutely necessary.  The second necessity is one must be outgoing and friendly to overcome the mental barriers some people may have about you.  For the most part, Japanese are very polite and the average visitor to Japan will not notice a thing and sing Japan’s praises.

For those that have lived there for a while the “gaijin factor” is going to have to be overcome.  Confidence and friendliness are valued and with time the gaijin factor will lessen significantly.  Another point is that it can work to your advantage.  Since you are gaijin you can conveniently ignore some rules that all Japanese must follow when suitable.

The Japanese are very sensitive to the mentality of the group even when this is not advantageous.  In other words, they will often do what everyone else does.  If you decide to break ranks,  you can do so and blame it on being a gaijin.

Here are some examples:

a.) The Fax Cover Sheet

At work, I asked for a fax cover form for a personal reason.  I was going to cross out the company specific items and just use the boxes for my fax.  The Japanese staff member was adamant that I could not use it because it was only for “district four.”  I told her not to worry because I would black out any company specific items.  Yet, she was very firm in that it was a RULE that it could only be used for “district 4.”  Seeing as she was smaller than me I gave her a sly look and took the form anyway.  She realized she was on the losing end and said “Well, this time ok, but next time ONLY FOR DISTRICT FOUR!”

I’m Gaijin, and am used my gaijin powers to get what needed to be done, done.

b.) The Term Paper – At Waseda

We had to write a thesis on anything we wanted provided it was all in Japanese.  After getting a serious barrage about how bad America was I decided to write my thesis that America is the best country in the world (I’m mischievous like that) .  I forget what point my Sensei was referring to in my paper but she asked me to delete the entire paragraph.  I asked her if there was something wrong with the grammar or perhaps a few words were wrong?  She told me that the grammar was fine but she did not agree with my logic.  I asked her where and she just responded that she didn’t think it should be included.  I again asked where because I thought the logic was fine and this was a Japanese grammar class ergo either she tell me where the problem was grammatically or at least give me a reason to take it out.

She didn’t have one so I kept it in and promptly failed on that paper.

Gaijin powers FAILED on the overall but I still got my way so I guess it can still be considered sort of a WIN.  LOL

After these experiences and many many many others I believe I was classified as 頑固 (Ganko) or “stubborn.”  Yes, I can be a Ganko Gaijin and I freely admit it!

The lesson here is Japan can be challenging but on the overall it is a wonderful place.  Yet, you are different, will remain different, but eventually you can gain a toe hold into that inner circle which will be your Japanese world whether it is at work or school.  I have many wonderful friends and one wonderful Japanese wife, so even though there are challenges that will never go away, with a positive attitude and a stubborn effort to fit in, eventually you can if you wish.

3. Japanese View of Themselves

Again, the Japanese are extremely homogeneous.  If you’re not Japanese then you’re Gaijin.  This is clearly evident when you get to the airport and there are two lines, one for Japanese and one for foreigners.  For fun, lets contrast this with America.

In Japan, the sign says “Welcome to Japan.”  In Japanese it says “Welcome Home.” (Roughly translated)  The foreigners line up in the foreigner queue which looks like a rough bunch and ten miles long.  The Japanese go through their own line and zip through with no wait at all.  I don’t even believe the immigration inspectors ask any questions.  The travelers just open up their passports for the stamp and off they go.

In the foreigner line, it is also very beneficial to speak Japanese as when you finally get to the inspector, if you speak Japanese they often ask only one question and off you go.

Now, if we contrast with America it is like getting into Fort Knox.

“Where did you go?”
“Why did you go there?”
“When were you born?”

To be fair, I usually do not have any trouble.  This last time however, the inspector asked me “Where is your wife?”

Wow, pretty personal there buddy, WHERE IS YOUR WIFE?  I wanted to ask but instead played cool and gave a standard response.

But getting back on track with how Japanese view themselves they are intensely proud of being Japanese.  I was once asked by a consular buddy of mine if my wife wanted to be an American.  Surprisingly to him, the answer was no.  Most Japanese prefer to retain their citizenship to Japan and would rather opt for permanent resident cards in other countries.

Yet, one aspect I have not been able to understand is that they do not show off the Japanese flag or take pride in the national anthem like Americans do.  I suppose this stems from WW11 and while I was in Japan there was a big issue of whether school officials could make the students sing it or not as many were against.  The anthem is called “Kimigayo” and is sung “May the Emperors reign last forever.”  (I love this Anthem personally) The Japanese like their emperor and especially Princess Masako but there is something against singing this anthem which I do not understand.

So I guess, they are very proud to be Japanese, but not in a nationalist sort of way.  That is until the World Cup took place in Japan then it was a complete reversal.  For the first time in recent memory the Japan flags came out and the Japanese cheered their (very good) team on to many victories.  Yet, as soon as the World Cup ended, the flags went away.

A final example of never escaping being a gaijin is a fun story of a car ride with my wife and her mother.  They were conversing and I caught my wife say “Mukou no hito” which means “people over there” or “those other people.”  I assumed she meant foreigners so I interrupted and asked “Boku wa mukou no hito desu ka??? (Am I a “person over there??”).  They both smiled and laughed because, yes, I was indeed a “person over there.”  🙁

The Japanese are very complex, it seems once you think you understand them you realize that you have no clue.  The only thing that you can be sure of is that you’re still a gaijin.  LOL

III.  Viet Kieu

It took me some time to figure out what a “Viet Kieu” was after I had moved to Saigon.  This term refers to “overseas Vietnamese.”  During the American war and many subsequent waves after a very large portion of the South Vietnamese left the country on boats and were known as “boat people.”  They went far and wide and settled in many different countries.

Soon, I had friends who identified themselves as Veit Kieu and were from all parts of the globe.  I know Viet Kieu from Germany, France, Australia, England, America and many other countries.

Recently, the Vietnamese government waived the visa requirement for returning Vietnamese so they can bring their knowledge obtained in other countries as well as their cash to start up businesses and help the Vietnamese economy get moving.  This is a positive development but there is one sensitive point to it.  The Viet Kieu that come back often have a bit of money and this causes a little teeny bit of social tension.  Actually, it is a very sensitive topic and as I know many Vietnamese and Viet Kieu I’m not going to get into it very deeply but just imagine how you might feel towards others that all of a sudden, are allowed back in the country, have a good amount of cash and have certain privileges afforded to them by their adopted countries that you might not necessarily have.

But as I mentioned, I’m not going deeply into that but will offer a few examples of my experience not pertaining to the above.

1. Friendly Viet Kieu

The majority are very friendly and are getting back to discover their homeland.

a.)  My first encounter was at “The Underground” (which sadly no longer exists) and I met a young man who looked very very tired.  As it turned out, he had recently arrived from America and it was his first time back in Vietnam in 20 years.

“Twenty Years!” I exclaimed!!!  Wow!  His senses were overwhelmed and I was really unsure what to say.  There was a war with America which forced him out of his home country.  Then America resettled him in America.  Now he came back to learn about his homeland.  Being an American myself I don’t know what exactly to say in a situation like that other than “Whoa….”  I really couldn’t explain that I consider myself a “Global Citizen,” and wish there were not any more national boundaries and all my other theories, so I just bought him a beer and asked what he planned to do while he was there.

b.) On the “Party Boat” in Nha Trang my buddy and I met a recent returnee from France.  She didn’t speak English but my buddy (Ryan) and I both spoke French.  We were swimming in the ocean together and it was her first time seeing family members in 15 years!!  We asked about the experience and she said it was pretty overwhelming so she came to Nha Trang to relax.  Unfortunately, she was then stung by a méduses (Jellyfish) and the conversation pretty much stopped as we helped her back on the boat to tend to the sting.

c.)  Over the next two years I learned that a lot of my friends were also “Viet Kieu.”  These were wonderful people who were outgoing and friendly.  They were making their lives in Vietnam (with great success) and I still keep in contact with them today.

2. Mean Viet Kieu

Unfortunately, there are a couple of mean ones.  The reason is that returning to Vietnam is “their experience” and they do not necessarily like to see foreigners (white folks) living in Vietnam.  Again, I have many friends still in Saigon that have made it their home and they come from across the planet.

I have heard that when there are arguments between Viet Kieu and white foreigners one of the retorts is “Why don’t you go back to your own country.”  I guess it kind of goes in a chain; the Vietnamese consider Vietnam more “their country” than the Viet Kieu.  And the Viet Kieu consider Vietnam more “their country” than the foreigners who live there.  Many foreigners have lived their longer than the many of the Viet Kieu so they think this is unfair.

I guess Vietnam is just such a great place that every long term resident wants to make it their own!

Interesting isn’t it?

I had one bad experience myself with a “mean Viet Kieu.”  My friends and I were sitting outside at a bar and the table next to us were three Viet Kieu.  One of them kept giving me some pretty mean stares.  They were speaking in American English and started to say mean things about us.  I brushed it off and they eventually left but not without a big long mean stare.  The guy was wearing a wife beater so I really didn’t take much offense because who cares what guys who wear a wife beater T-shirt think.  HA!!!

But again, I have to reiterate that the majority are extremely cool and I’m very proud to have as friends.  There are mean people everywhere after all….

IV.  What is an American

I was asked this question while living abroad and at first was a little unsure about how to answer.  Finally I responded, “Anyone with an American Passport.”  Now some on the Right might disagree with that but that’s the way it is.  At first, my brain told me, grew up in America, speaks English, knows who George Washington is, etc.  But after thinking about it that is just not the case.

I thought a little harder and realized ANYONE can be an American!!!  So long as they go through the proper immigration procedures mind you.  But it simply doesn’t work the other way.  It would seem that people can become a citizen of a western country (USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy etc.)  but it doesn’t work the other way around.  What if I wanted to be Japanese or Vietnamese?  Well, it sounds silly to even ask that question doesn’t it?  But I’m serious!!

I really have no particular point to make about that, I just wanted to point it out.  Immigration currently only works one way and I believe a reason for that is there are simply not many people who are asking to become citizens of Asian countries.  The only one I can think of is “debito” who is a white guy who actually did become a Japanese citizen.  And boy is he causing a raucous so perhaps the Japanese will think twice about granting citizenship to anymore white people.  LOL

V. California

Finally, we come to the end of the story and my current location, sunny California.  The media often speaks of a “melting pot” and I can think of no better example.  To be honest, I do not think of my friends/colleagues/customers as Chicanos, Gaijin, Viet Kieu or anything else.  I just think of them for who they are.  If you asked me how many Japanese friends, or Chicano friends or Vietnamese friends/people I know it would take me a long time to answer and I would be sure to miss a few.  The reason is because I know longer think of them first as an “ethnicity” but moreso as simply a person.

The only example I can think of where I was classified was at my corner bar and speaking with “Francisco” who is a bona fide Aztec.  We were speaking in Spanish and he told me I speak “Chilango.”  This is Mexican Spanish for people in Mexico city.  This is not a compliment from mi hermano Francisco since people from the country side think people in Mexico city are “uppity.”  I could go into the divisions within Mexico but that is another post….

San Francisco is so multi-cultural that we (in the city) no longer think much along ethnic lines.  Different languages are spoken, people enjoy all types of foods, activities and so on.  Or, maybe it is just me, I don’t suppose I can speak for every single San Franciscan.  I would say though that over the next 50 years or so a good portion of the racial divide is going to disappear as the USA demographically becomes more like California.

Well, those are a few of my experiences.  It seems that being a “Global Citizen” is going to have it’s challenges but with a good attitude and being open with people it will also be a wonderful adventure.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/


  1. About your chicano/mexican observations: The same can be seen with Turks in Europe. They tend to be more Turkish than the Turks (in Turkey). The number of veiled girls here is higher here than it is down there (at least comparing to pre-Erdogan numbers).
    Like the Chicanos they have strong opinions on the superiority (if nothing then at least morally) of Turkish culture but asked to go live there they wouldn’t want to and wouldn’t fit in.

    About your gaijin-powers: I believe I was carrying some less-than-duty-free items (alcohol and meat-products) through customs at Narita when I was hauled over to a counter for inspection. Rather than act local and speak politely in Japanese like I had done at the passport check, I put on the loud-American-demeanor and began speaking quickly in English with large arm gestures. I put the suitcase on the counter and asked him to do his worst. Had he found anything I would have claimed ignorance, surprise and regret. This would almost certainly have gotten me off the hook but instead the tired customs official just waved at me defensively and let me through without opening my suitcase at all. Win.

    Gaijin status can get you special treatment but it also goes the other way. I have frequently been outright ignored in shops even though I tried my best to be quiet, polite, and speak correct Japanese.

  2. Hi, I liked your post.

    I’m Mexican and I lived in the border town of Nogales for a few years… so I’m familiarized with this Mexican-Chicano Issue, and I must say I consider it rather dumb, but don’t think Mexicans are the ones starting the fight, they both are… I’d explain but I don’t think It’s the place haha… … so anyways… the whole post was interesting.

    Take care.

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