Dr. Janet Hoskins will undertake research on the relationship between immigrant resilience and religious practices. Her focus will be a case study of renewed interest in three distinct religions born in Vietnam: the syncretistic and hierarchical Caodaism, the ascetic and egalitarian Hoa Hao Buddhism, and the spirit possession performances of Dao Mau or "Mother Goddess Religion." These religions were practiced by 15-25 percent of the people of South Vietnam before 1975. Recently, Vietnamese immigrants have been re-establishing these religions in California, and they also are re-emerging on the public stage in Vietnam where there has been a resurgence of religious activity in the post-1995 renovation era.

Hoskins will investigate (1) how followers of indigenous religions situate themselves as moral actors in their home country and in the United States; (2) how their religions are institutionalized in two such different contexts; and (3) how religious practices relate to the ways in which people who are first seen as refugees and exiles come eventually to be defined as immigrants and members of ethnic groups. The researcher will employ a combination of ethnographic methodologies. She will collect and analyze individual life histories and family histories; delineate and analyze institutional networks; compare religious publications in English and Vietnamese; and observe religious centers and ceremonies in California and Vietnam. These data will allow her to explore the possibility that cross-generational persistence supports immigrants and ideas of ethnic resilience, even in situations where modes of worship are reinvented and revitalized, and immigration is an impetus for religious innovation.

This research will contribute to theory that realigns the analysis of religion in home and destination countries, and to better understanding of the subtle dimensions of successful immigration. The project also supports the education of a graduate student.

Project Report

This study was designed to examine the dynamic relationship between the struggle of Vietnamese "indigenous religions" to establish themselves in the US and the politics of ethnic enclaves, "faith-based" resettlement assistance, "model minority" stereotypes, and the re-establishment of ties with Vietnam for many overseas congregations separated from religious centers in the homeland for over 20 years. It also addressed the significance of religious belief, "conversion" and "re-conversion" during the transitional refugee years, and debates about whether new immigrants are "assimilated" into the American mainstream or develop new strategies to conserve their distinctive values within the framework of a "successful adaptation" in this new socio-economic context. It combined fieldwork in California, the home of roughly half of all Vietnamese Americans, with three fieldtrips to Vietnam, where we joined overseas Vietnamese on pilgrimages to sacred temples and festivals. The first objective of this research project was to provide a more complete ethnographic documentation of Vietnamese indigenous religions. As noted in our original proposal, although these religions have now established congregations in California, they are still largely unknown to the general public. We have managed to identify a number of emergent religious organizations that are part of the process of institutionalizing these new faiths in the American context. The significance of indigenous religion has been confirmed as important to the process of ethnic resilience. The cultural dimension of forming a new ethnic identity in the host land is often delegated to temples and churches, which hold classes in Vietnamese to make American born children literate in their ancestral language. Funerals and the veneration of ancestors are all specifically tasks allocated to religious specialists. Our research has also allowed us to suggest modifications to current theoretical models of globalization and transnationalism by showing the creative and dynamic role that religion plays in forming identities that cross national boundaries. It has revealed the importance of international cultural organizations, especially UNESCO, in "certifying" popular religious practices, and making them more respectable in academic and popular settings. It has also documented the economic significance of funds sent through religious channels to rebuild temples, support charitable activities, and even to purchase altar decorations, votive paper offerings and the costumes used in religious rituals. Vietnamese today speak of entering a "post secular age", when government constraints on religion are being lifted and congregations have become transnational organizations. This has allowed some religious practitioners to redraw the traditional boundaries of identity, making faith the primary indicator of citizenship in order to create an imagined global community of faith.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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University of Southern California
Los Angeles
United States
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