Vietnamese Americans' income and social class levels are quite diverse. Many Vietnamese Americans are middle class professionals who fled from the increasing power of the Communist Party after the Vietnam War, while others work primarily in blue-collar jobs. In San Jose, California, for example, this diversity in income levels can be seen in the different Vietnamese American neighborhoods scattered across Santa Clara County. In the Downtown San Jose area, many Vietnamese are working-class and are employed in many blue-collar positions such as restaurant cooks, repairmen, and movers, while the Evergreen and Berryessa sections of the city are middle- to upper–middle-class neighborhoods with large Vietnamese American populations—many of whom work in Silicon Valley's computer, networking, and aerospace industries. In Little Saigon of Orange County, there are significant socioeconomic disparities between the established and successful Vietnamese Americans who arrived in the first wave and the later arrivals of low-income refugees.
Vietnamese Americans have come to America primarily as refugees, with little or no money. While (on a collective basis) not as academically or financially accomplished as their East Asian counterparts, (who generally have been in the US longer, and did not come as war or political refugees but for economic reasons), census shows that Vietnamese Americans are an upwardly mobile group. Although clear challenges remain for the community, their economic status improved dramatically between 1989 and 1999. In 1989, 34 percent of Vietnamese Americans lived under the poverty line, but this number was reduced to 16 percent in 1999, compared with just over 12 percent of the U.S. population overall.
Many Vietnamese Americans have established businesses in Little Saigons and Chinatowns throughout North America. Indeed, some Vietnamese immigrants, have been highly instrumental in initiating the development and redevelopment of once declining older Chinatowns, as they tend to find themselves attracted to such areas. Like many other immigrant groups, the majority of Vietnamese Americans are small business owners. Throughout the United States, many Vietnamese—especially first or second-generation immigrants—open supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries specializing in bánh mì, beauty salons and barber shops, and auto repair businesses. Restaurants owned by Vietnamese Americans tend to serve ethnic Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamized Chinese cuisine, or both, popularizing phở and chả giò in the United States.
The younger generations of the Vietnamese-American population are well educated and often find themselves providing professional services. As the older generations tend to find difficulty in interacting with the non-Vietnamese professional class, there are many Vietnamese-Americans that provide specialized professional services to fellow Vietnamese immigrants. Of these, a small number are owned by Vietnamese Americans of Hoa ethnicity. In the Gulf Coast region—such as Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama—some Vietnamese Americans are involved with the fish and shrimp industries. In California's Silicon Valley, many work in the valley's computer and networking businesses and industries, although many were laid off in the aftermath of the closure of many high-technology companies.
Many Vietnamese parents pressure their children to excel in school and to enter professional fields such as science, medicine, or engineering because the parents feel insecurity stemming from their chaotic past and view education as the only ticket to a better life. Vietnam's traditionally Confucianist society values education and learning, contributing to success among Vietnamese Americans. Many have worked their way up from menial labor to have their second-generation children attend universities and become successful.
Recent immigrants who do not speak English well tend to work in menial labor jobs like assembly, restaurant/shop workers, nail and hair salons. As much as 80% of nail technicians in California and 43% nationwide are Vietnamese Americans. The work involved in nail salons takes skilled manual labor, but requires only limited English speaking ability. Some Vietnamese Americans see working in nail salons as a fast way to build wealth and many will send earnings back to Vietnam to help family members abroad. This concept and economic niche has proven so successful that visiting overseas Vietnamese entrepreneurs from Britain and Canada have also adopted the Vietnamese American model and opened several nail salons in the United Kingdom, where few previously existed.
In the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Vietnamese Americans have accounted for between 45-85% of the shrimping business in the region. However, the dumping of imported shrimp, ironically from Vietnam, has affected their source of livelihood.
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