Volume 13, No. 2, Art. 19 – May 2012

"Home Tonight? What? Where?" An Exploratory Study of the Meanings of House, Home and Family Among the Former Vietnamese Refugees in a Canadian City

Huyen Dam & John Eyles

Abstract: This article explores the meaning of place and home among Vietnamese refugees now settled in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: a situation shared by the first author. We begin with a review of the meaning of place and home and their possible implications for this group. Initially designed as a case study, the research process was influenced by the conventional paradigm assumptions of an emerging design and was later transformed into an autoethnography as the first author journeyed to Vietnam and reflected on her experience, as well as that of her 12 respondents. The first author's own journey to understand home played a critical part in this investigation. Her tacit knowledge together with the stories of these 12 refugees reflect a co-created understanding of home—a definition that is characterized by a process of being uprooted, relocated and embedded into place. Yet at the core of home, its comprehension and value is grounded in culture and family, and as this article suggests, these two factors enable home to remain fluid for these migrants.

Key words: refugees; culture; identity; place; autoethnography

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Boat People as Refugees and Settlers

1.1 Place: Attachment, meaning and identity

1.2 Identity, belonging and a sense of home

2. Methods

3. The Findings—Stories of Journey, Settlement, Home, and Place through Time

3.1 Reflections on home in Hamilton

3.2 Home as family: Places and journeys

3.3 Understanding home in Vietnamese

3.4 Reflective account: Tacit knowledge and co-created meanings of home and identity

4. Discussion and Conclusion





1. Introduction: The Boat People as Refugees and Settlers

Place, especially its psychological or emotional connotations, often involves and evokes home and its meanings. In this article, we explore place, especially sense of place, among the Vietnamese refugees of the Boat People crisis in an industrial city in Ontario, Canada. The first author is a Boat Person, a child refugee, who came from the Hong Kong camps to urban Canada. We therefore moved from a case study approach and adopted an autoethnographic approach after her first visit to Vietnam since departing as a child refugee in order to incorporate the effect of this experience on the study. [1]

There were, in fact, two waves of refugees after the Vietnam War. The first was derived from the war itself. The second wave of refugees after 1978 is more indicative of the real Boat People. This wave was instigated by the political upheaval between Vietnam and China, which led to the country's expulsion of the 745,000 ethnic Chinese residents (BEISER, 1999). Unlike the first cohort that left before and after the fall of Saigon in 1975—the supporters of the Unites States and elite members of the Southern populace—the second wave of refugees left Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s because they felt they could no longer live in their country (BEISER, 1999). This cohort mainly consisted of ethnic-Vietnamese of modest means as well as the highly entrepreneurial ethnic-Chinese residents (see WOOD, 1997; BEISER, 1999). Other asylum seekers who fell under the label of "Boat People" included Laotian and Cambodian refugees. [2]

As a result of the increasing number of the Boat People that continued to grow well into the 1980s and 1990s, the countries of first asylum and the United Nations relied heavily on the United States, Australia, and Canada to resettle the refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (see UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES, 2000). The political situation in Southeast Asia and the exodus of the Boat People occurred at a critical time in Canadian history. According to BEISER (1999), Canada's 40 transformation from an overtly racist society to a pluralistic one culminated in 1972 with the adoption of an official policy of multiculturalism. The Immigration Act of 1976—the cornerstone of the present day immigration policy—broke new ground by laying out fundamental principles, objectives, guidelines, and procedures. KNOWLES (1997) states that the Immigration Act highlighted several critical components that related to the promotion of Canada's demographic, economic, cultural, and social goals. For the first time, the Immigration Act incorporated the family reunification program; the fulfillment of Canada's international obligations to the United Nations with regards to the 1951 and 1967 Conventions and the Protocols relating to refugees assistance, which Canada signed in 1969; the obligations and plans for achieving a non-discriminatory immigration policy; and the stipulation for cooperation between all levels of government and the voluntary/private sector in the settlement of immigrants in Canadian society (KNOWLES, 1997). Canada's humanitarian response to the Boat People crisis was also the result of the dramatic surge in the media coverage that was met by the growing public interest in the political affairs in Southeast Asia, which was girded by an effective and supportive immigration policy (ADELMAN, 1982). As indicated by KNOWLES (1997), the effective immigration policy is evident in the country's sponsorship rate during the second wave of Boat People between 1979 and 1980, when Canada admitted some 60,000 refugees. Similar procedures have been more recently successful in Manitoba (see CARTER, MORRISH & AMOYAW, 2008). Although this was not the largest single refugee group to enter Canada since the Second World War, this figure was the highest number of Boat People admitted per capita by any country during this time. [3]

The 1976 Immigration Act contained a unique provision that allowed for the private sponsorship of refugees to be utilized during the Boat People crisis. The policy stated that charities, non-profit organizations, or a group of five individual adult citizens could sponsor a refugee family by providing them with a place to stay, assisting them in finding employment, or enrolling them in studies (KNOWLES, 1997). Essentially, the sponsoring group would be financially responsible for meeting the needs of the refugee for up to one year (BEISER, 1999). In Hamilton, a small group of people responded to this international problem. In 1979, John SMITH, an alderman for the City of Hamilton, established a charitable group called "The Mountain Fund to Save the Boat People." He and a small group of community members set out to sponsor Vietnamese refugees from refugee camps in Southeast Asia to resettle them in the local area. The mandate of the organization was to help as many Vietnamese refugees as possible and to remain in operation for as long as the funds were available. The organization operated for a total of 14 years (from 1979 to 1994) and assisted over 3,000 refugees in Hamilton and the surrounding area. In 2006, approximately 4,100 Vietnamese people resided in Hamilton, which represented 0.8 percent of the total population in 2006 (STATISTICS CANADA, 2006). Hamilton continues to be a secondary city for immigrants and refugees. At present, over two-thirds of foreign-born Ontarians live in the Greater Toronto Area. Ottawa and Hamilton are home to some five percent each (ElDAKIKY & SHIELDS, 2009). There is growing understanding of diversity and adjustment issues in smaller cities (see FRIDERES, 2006). There is also a strong migration effect shaped by economic opportunities and cultural similarities (AKBARI & HARRINGTON, 2007). Currently, Hamilton remains a relatively poor community with fewer migrants from Asia than Ontario as a whole (ONTARIO TRILLIUM FOUNDATION, 2010). [4]

1.1 Place: Attachment, meaning and identity

As we shall explore, Hamilton remains an important locale for the Vietnamese Boat People and their children. Most migrants need a place to call home to assist in psychological and economic settlement (see SIMICH, HAMILTON & BAYA, 2006; SIMICH, 2010). We shall see that sense of place often becomes a nuanced sense of home and belonging among the Boat People. As MANZO (2003) notes, relationships to places encompass a range of settings and emotions. TUAN (1975) sees place as essential for human existence and well-being. There are many possibilities with respect to the settings to which meanings are attached and those meanings do not always have to be positive (MANZO, 2003). There may also be places to which we are averse as well as attracted (RELPH, 1976). Furthermore, sense of place is not a static phenomenon—our identity with places and our attachment to them is linked to self-making and that inevitable messiness (see TWIGGER-ROSS & UZZELL, 1996) may lead to different senses of the same place (see EYLES 1985). In this article, we want to explore changes in individual senses of place over time and differences between individuals at different stages in their life trajectories. It seems necessary in any migrant and refugee group (see CUBA & HUMMON, 1993; McHUGH, 2000; SMITH, 2001; GIELIS, 2009) to search for this messy, positive and negative sense of place and the identification of "home." Strange places may become familiar ones and they may also become a basis for "home." Despite this messiness, home remains an idea—an inner geography where the pain to belong finally disappears (see ZANDY, 1990; ROBERTSON, 2007). How do such people as these Vietnamese refugees think about these things over time to remove the challenges of settlement and forge a sense of belonging? Is the conscious decision to settle necessary to assert their sense of home? We explore these dimensions of place and home through the experiences, beliefs, and aspirations of our small sample to provide at least some insight to how these refugees settled in an industrial city as revealed by, and from the shared experience of, the first author. [5]

There may then be differences in sense of place within the Vietnamese group and between this group and the host community. Differences in senses of place across the life cycle have been in fact noted by HAY (1998) in his study of Banks Peninsula populations in New Zealand. He also highlights differences between ethnic groupings in their sense of place. Yet sense of place develops as part of identity and is dependent upon distinctiveness of a place, continuity in a place, self-esteem based on association with a place, and self-efficacy with a belief in carrying out chosen activities in a specific place (see TWIGGER-ROSS & UZZELL, 1996). It is also dependent on the phenomena which attach us to a place—ecological, environmental, psychological, and sociocultural forces (see ALTMAN & LOW, 1992). The first author has experienced these changes as well, particularly after her "return" to Vietnam. [6]

As HAY (1998) further notes, our lives must "take place" somewhere. Thus the locational and physical characteristics of a place are important. Noted perhaps best in studies of wilderness, nature, and recreation, place has a physical setting (see WILLIAMS & McINTYRE, 2001). While there may be important physical dimensions, these often require social or symbolic meaning for identity and attachment. STEADMAN's (2003) attempt to find direct effects of the physical in sense of place was not successful yet we assert that reaction to new environments for migrant groups may be important, albeit mediated by sociocultural characteristics. A strange land may not be easily seen as homeland and the reaction to this new place may be negative. Yet if sense of place is fluid and changeable depending on context, this negative element may be important in self-making and potentially for the reinforcement of ethnic identity and a sense of difference. [7]

1.2 Identity, belonging and a sense of home

Taking place somewhere is meaningful for social belonging. While social networks are vital for a sense of belonging (see VANDEMARK, 2007), its spatiality cannot be overlooked. Belonging is discovered and experienced in places (see ROWE & WOLCH, 1990). If there are no such places to which we feel we belong, a physical and psychological burden may be added as KEARNS and SMITH (1994) note in their study of homelessness. KEARNS and SMITH (p.421) argue that "my sense of being is not my capacity to see the outside world ... it is rather my capacity to see myself as being in the world, to know myself as the being we can do these things." As VANDEMARK (2007) comments, to be and do in the world—and these are place-based—can assist the homeless in promoting their identities. The same may be true of any displaced and separated group, from urban redevelopment or migration. With respect to migration—the case of the Vietnamese Boat People—it has been shown that spatial scale of mobility matters (see GUSTAFSON, 2008). Furthermore, FELDMAN (1990) shows that experience of psychological bonds with surroundings may function transpatially (i.e. it may move with individuals). Yet for some migrant groups sense of place is not fixed. As CHAITIN, LINSTROTH and HILLER (2009) note, the meanings of "home" largely depend on the ways that individuals and groups construct them and the attributes they associate with them in a given context. In this sense, home must not be taken for granted as a pre-defined notion. Furthermore, home and belonging have pragmatic and emotional/cultural attributes that are constantly changing and reinterpreted (CHAITIN et al., 2009). It may be fluid with several meanings as among Arab-Americans (STAEHELI & NAGEL, 2006) or be of a different scale—large for Israelis, small for Japanese settlers in Canada (MAGAT, 1999). And in many of these cases, place is construed as home. Is there belonging? Is there home or a home? Is there a conflation of sense of place, home and meaning in the world for the Vietnamese in Hamilton? Or is the meaning of these dimensions of belonging nuanced and closely related to cultural values and ties? We will explore these questions through the accounts of experience and feelings of home in this migrant group. [8]

Home has been examined in the qualitative literature and is a value-laden term as MORLEY (2000) points out. PUTNAM points out that the same basic terms are used about home—privacy, security, family, intimacy, comfort and control (quoted by MORLEY, 2000). MORLEY (p.228) also uses the work of SARUP who shows the burden carried by the word as in "homecoming," "home-made," "make yourself at home," "home truths" and "home is where the heart is." MORLEY goes on to comment that the moral economy of domestic and residential living is grounded in home and its creation. The absence of home is seen as an absence of a moral framework with home and house being conjoined. House gives home a physical structure—a real phenomenon to which we become attached. There are however many different types of home and meanings of home as well (see SIXSMITH, 1986). But home is, in WISE's (2000) terms, space that has been marked and shaped physically with objects forming borders which create borders or fences. These provide a physical characterization of home—ordering and staking a claim. But what is regarded as home may be larger than house. DELEUZE and GUATTARI (1987) suggest that each accretion bends and reshapes home or home territory with the effects being expressive rather than functional. Indeed CLOUTIER-FISHER and HARVEY (2009) show how seniors in a retirement community create home beyond the house with permeable and flexible boundaries resulting in place attachments centered on but greater than house. Is the experience of the Vietnamese Boat People similar to this more settled group? Is their sense of attachment, place, and home also beyond borders and fences? If place is or has been fluid through migration, what does it mean for the importance and meaning of home? [9]

This desire for a home as the core of a (usually idealized) neighborly life is quite common in Western societies (see MORLEY, 2001). Home is secure, self-centered and provides a peaceful, controlled environment. Home is haven—but not for all as it may be workplace or place of violence for some, especially women (see AHRENTZEN, 1992; MANZO, 2003). These searches for home are however important for most in a globalized, media-saturated world according to BAUMAN (1995) in which the realm of the near (of ontological security) is invaded by the realm of the far (strange and often troubling phenomena). As SIBLEY (1995, p.90) puts it, "the nation and locality invade the home." As MORLEY (2001) comments, the intersections of the near and far are tied together by the media, the real estate market, immigration policies, and the global economy. Home has to be created in this apparently destabilized setting. Many do this by an appeal to the past and nostalgia (see WHEELER, 1994). But what of migrants? Do they create home anew or look back to their origins? What places do they use to reformulate their identities? When there has been a decision to migrate and settle, can an individual have several homes? [10]

We must recall that home is not a static place—it is movement (WISE, 2000). And are there different responses by migrants to this and their movement? It would appear so. CHAITIN et al. (2009) found in their study with Cuban, Haitian and Guatemalan immigrants to Florida that the notion of home is dynamic and fluid, and cannot always be tied to a specific territory or place. For these immigrants home is simultaneously imagined and real, nostalgic and concrete, clear, yet contradictory. Anglo-Indians in Britain use nationality and home to continue to forge their identities (BLUNT, 2002). Those in the banlieues around Paris feel no identity to France as home or their places of origin, and create a "Cités of Darkness" around the "City of Light" (DALRYMPLE, 2002). The migrants may be in limbo being away from their countries of origin and do not feel secure in their new land (see AMIT-TALAI's [1997] study of Cayman Islanders). This loss with no apparent chance of a positive change is emphasized too by CURTIS and PAJACZKOWSKA (1994) who comment that tourists travel, for the most part, backwards in time, while immigrants and exiles travel forward with no promise of a restored home. There may be no promise but there are different possible outcomes. In fact SUSSMAN (2000) has developed a model to understand the relationships identity and cultural transitions depending on awareness and importance of initial identity, adaptation, and complexity of self-concept. In all this, culture matters. "The process of homemaking is a cultural one" (WISE, 2000, p.299). And while culture is a problematic concept, it exists:

"Cultures are held together by their rhythms, the collection of resonances, the aggregate of meanings, texts, and practices that they make resonant to that particular rhythm or frequency ... The adaptation of migrant populations to new locales creat(es) hybrids ... The challenge of these populations is to make themselves 'at home'. Home then becomes a series of cultural trades and hybrids ..." (p.306). [11]

Such a hybrid has been created by Iranian Baha'i refugees as shown by WILLIAMS (2009) in their local displacement but global community in Australia. A similar set of circumstances was found by LE ESPIRITU (2003) among Filipinos in San Diego for whom home meant a transnational existence, bound by intergenerational relations, community and racism with strong ties to the Philippines. Nevertheless the importance of homeland must be a central reference point which must be incorporated into new home places. KÜVER's (2009, §16-17) findings are also consistent with the postcolonial concepts which state that "socio-cultural affiliation is not corrupted by diverse migration routes and incorporation of elements from multiple life spheres." In his study of Sierra Leonean immigrants, KÜVER (2009) found that migrants exhibited tensions as they are incorporated into their new homes places developing new, and retaining old, identities. KÜVER (§17) reflects on previous work that suggest that this is "a necessary biographical effort to balance this piece of [their] history with [their] new life—an integrating of roots and route." Are the Vietnamese-Canadians similar? We will explore this mobility of senses of place and home in this population for whom, to anticipate, community and intergenerational relations seem more important than structural ones, such as racism and economic power. [12]

2. Methods

This article investigates the journey and lived-experience of the Vietnamese refugees in Hamilton. Conceptualized as a case study at the onset, the intention to explore issue(s) within the bounded system identified both the setting and object of study (see STAKE, 1995). The setting was restricted by a geographical boundary to interview former Boat People who currently lived in the City of Hamilton at the time of recruitment. The study was also bounded by time to select participants who have lived in Hamilton for at least 15 years. The purpose of this was to examine the nature of embeddedness in place through time. The case study approach seemed appropriated to explore the bounded system (the case) over time through the process of detailed, in-depth data collection (CRESWELL, 2007). In adhering to the constructivist tradition, the study also integrated the conventional paradigm assumptions of an emerging design, a context-dependent inquiry, and an inductive data analysis to meet the aim of the study. [13]

The researchers' insight into this community are enhanced by the first author having lived her entire life within it, attending family gatherings, church, and social events. As the study unfolded, and after a journey to Vietnam by the first author (at the encouragement and almost insistence of the second author), the role of the first author became more integral to the project as it became part of her life. This journey back enabled the first author to engage with her own history, encounter new experiences (especially on a journey "home" to Vietnam which changed her life), and it enabled her to develop skills in the Vietnamese language that encouraged important ways of describing and analyzing these shared experiences with her respondents. When the first author recognized that this was her story as well as that of the 12 people that were interviewed, it became an epiphany to the authors that the incorporation of an autoethnography could better reflect the co-created meaning of home between the researcher and respondents, while disclosing the first author as the research instrument. [14]

Within this case of migrant-refugee home and place experience the first author became an autoethnographer, seeking to describe and analyze personal experience from a distinctive insider and shared perspective to understand cultural experience (see ELLIS, ADAMS & BOCHNER, 2010). Because of these characteristics, this account has used interactive interviews to produce not only a narrative ethnography but also a reflexive one (see ELLIS et al., 2010). In this regard, the autoethnography troubles the self, questioning its authority as the constructed nature of experience and subjectivity are questioned (see BRITZMAN, 1995). The first author began to wonder who she was and where she belonged in terms of "home." Thus, as we have shown with respect to sense of place, theory remains a vital ingredient in autoethnography (GANNON, 2006). Thus "texts foreground the dialogic relationship between the self and his or her tenuous and particular social/cultural/historical locations" (p.477). We must ensure that we represent others respectfully and honestly, especially in troubling or challenging circumstances (see TAMAS, 2008). But in this shared realm of the Boat People experience, autoethnography is ethnography and ethnography is autoethnography. In this regard, the first author explored and interpreted the life journeys of the respondents in light of her own social experiences with the aim of transparency in the midst of the process. [15]

Several purposive sampling techniques were utilized to recruit the respondents (see CRESWELL, 2007, p.127). Maximum variation sampling obtained and documented a range of participants that reflect gender and generational viewpoints. Criterion sampling (see COYNE, 1997) ensured that all respondents met the requirement of the bounded research question. Criterion sampling also restricted participation only to Boat People who had lived in Hamilton for 15 years or more to capture the settlement experience through time. Finally, a snowballing technique was later incorporated as a result of the unanticipated challenge that arose during recruitment. [16]

Recruitment was conducted by the first author and spanned from August 2008 to December 2008. As part of the recruitment strategy, contacts were made with Vietnamese leaders in the community. Letters of information outlining the purpose and details of the study were distributed at religious and organizational institutions. In the end, a total of 12 conversations took place with Vietnamese-Canadian in Hamilton, which was ethically approved by the McMaster Research Ethics Board prior to data collection. The in-depth, semi-structured interviews (see CRABTREE & MILLER, 1999, pp.93-94) narrated the respondent's life from their place of origin in Vietnam, their temporary home in the refugee camp, and finally to their current home in Canada. The interviews were conducted in English and Vietnamese and audio-taped by the first author. Both authors engaged in discussion about the content of the conversations which reinforced the first author's autobiographical inclusion in interpretation. [17]

For the purpose of anonymity, pseudonyms were given to each respondent at the start of the study. In total, six males and six females were interviewed. Table 1 summarizes some additional information about the respondents (i.e. year and age of arrival in Canada) to provide context for the research findings. The goal of each interview was to obtain as accurately as possible, the fullest, most complete description of the case by using life history and narratives as the means of collecting data.


Place of Birth


Year Departed from Vietnam

Time Spent in Refugee Camp

Location of

Refugee Camp

Year Arrived in Canada

Age at Arrival

in Canada


South Vietnam


6 months

Kalong Island




North Vietnam


6 months

Hong Kong




South Vietnam


18 months





North Vietnam


2 years

Hong Kong




North Vietnam


3 years

Hong Kong




North Vietnam


5 years

Hong Kong




North Vietnam


5 years

Hong Kong




North Vietnam


7 years

Hong Kong




Hong Kong


2 years

Hong Kong




Hong Kong


4 years

Hong Kong




Hong Kong


5 years

Hong Kong




Hong Kong


5 years

Hong Kong



Table 1: Study respondents [18]

Difficulties encountered during recruitment kept the sample small but the sample attained in the end was information-rich, and embedded in the experience of each respondent is the journey from refugee status to settlement. As indicated in Table 1, the sample reflects a diverse group of respondents including those from the northern and southern region of Vietnam. In addition, children of refugees who were born in the Hong Kong camps (four in total) are also represented. The sample also captured the different year of arrival to Canada during the height of the crisis in the 1980s, which ranged from 1982 to 1991. Finally, generational experience through time was also captured by the range in respondents' age at arrival, from two to 32 years of age. All conversations captured the dimensions of home, belonging and place in their journeys. Conservation topics included: life in and journey from Vietnam to the country of first asylum; life in and journey from the refugee camp to the country of resettlement; perception of life in Canada before arrival; on arrival life and challenges during and after settlement; employment and educational experience; sense of home and community through time; and the sense of identity through time. [19]

The Vietnamese interviews were translated and transcribed verbatim by the first author. The transcripts were also read by the second author, who not only has mentored the first author during this time in the study, but has also engaged with her in her own lived experiences. The analysis of data employed two of the three prototypical styles—editing/organizing style and immersion/crystallization—as outlined by CRABTREE and MILLER (1999, pp.21-24), which they suggest are inherent in most traditional strategies of qualitative inquiry. In the editing style, the researcher enters the text much like an editor, searching for the meaning of text by cutting, pasting and rearranging segments until the condensed summary reveals a helpful interpretation. The researcher using this style identifies meaningful segments of text that both stand on their own and relate to the purpose of the study. When these segments have been identified, the researcher sorts and organizes each segment into categories or codes. In immersion/crystallization, CRABTREE and MILLER (1999) suggest that undergoing prolonged immersion into the transcripts will result in the emergence of meaning from the data only after concerned reflection have been made. The cycle of immersion/crystallization is repeated until the reported interpretation is reached (CRABTREE & MILLER, 1999). These two prototypical styles are highly reflective of the hermeneutic process overall and were critical the analysis of these findings. [20]

The transcripts were coded manually and categorized into themes that emerged from the analytical process prescribed by CRABTREE and MILLER (1999). The process of categorizing, cutting and pasting, and splitting and splicing of data enabled the first author to first select and then organize the segments of text that illuminated the phenomenon under investigation. By using the editing style, the first author was able to sift and sort the text to identify codes and categories through direct interaction with the text at the micro level, reliving her interactions with respondents and her own journey. The process of immersions/crystallization allowed connections to be made between codes and categories across respondents to further distill the data with the creation of themes for further interpretation. The process of analysis was dynamic, creative, and iterative, and resulted in the fusing of horizons between respondent and researcher, which achieved an inter-subjective communication and understanding. In the end, this produced a shared and co-created meaning and understanding of home. [21]

3. The Findings—Stories of Journey, Settlement, Home, and Place through Time

To examine the issues of sense of place and home, the respondents' accounts are retold in a rough chronology starting with settlement into the new environment, and the role of place and family in this process. [22]

For many of them, Hamilton has been their only place of residence since leaving the refugee camp in South East Asia. Several reasons drew the respondents to settle in Hamilton. For some of the respondents, their resettlement to Hamilton after arrival was determined by the federal agencies responsible for resettling refugees in various cities and towns across Canada. For those who came through the private sponsorship program (the circumstance of many respondents in this study), their resettlement and decision to remain in Hamilton was influenced by their need for assistance from their sponsors who were legally responsible for them for up to one year. Others chose to relocate to Hamilton as a result of the growing Vietnamese community here and found this network of family and friends helpful in their transition after leaving the refugee camp. [23]

Vinh recalls this initial re-settlement period as being sad because she was not in her homeland. Things were different, foreign, and difficult:

First Author: How did you feel when you first came to Canada?

Vinh: It was sad.

First Author: Why were you sad?

Vinh: Because it wasn't my homeland ... When we first came, we didn't know English, we didn't know where to go, or how to drive a car, and that's why we were sad. [24]

While the initial re-settlement proved to be a challenging process for the respondents, with time all of the respondents had adapted and integrated into their new surroundings. For example, Anh states that the number of years spent living in Canada has allowed him to adapt to his new life in Hamilton:

"Hamilton is just like ... I grew up here ... you stay here for so long ... 26 years of your life and I guess this is your life and you adapt to the everything here, the culture and everything ... ." [25]

The passing of time was critical for the refugees in Hamilton. Time was needed in order for the respondents to make the transition from being newcomers and refugees to becoming Canadian citizens with a sense of belonging and a place to call home. Many of the respondents also alluded to the amount of time spent living in Hamilton/Canada as a critical measure for home:

"My home is where I'm happiest. Like my native land or hometown. I would call this my home, my second home. I came here and I had my youngest son so this is his hometown because he was born here. And I've lived here for a long time as well. Where I was born I only lived there for 18 years, but I've lived here for 23 years so doesn't that mean that I've lived on this piece of land for a longer period of time? So I've lived here longer than any other place I've previously lived in ... This place is my home" (Hung). [26]

3.1 Reflections on home in Hamilton

The positive attributes of Hamilton as described by the respondents include its location, size, and relative peacefulness in comparison to the larger City of Toronto. These factors were important for the refugees in Hamilton who spoke of violence and the troublesome time in the refugee camps. Other reasons for living in Hamilton encompassed a set of meanings relating to community and social inclusion:

"I like living in Hamilton because it's not that lonely like some other places. And you get used to the place you live in. So after living here for so long I don't want to depart from it" (Hung). [27]

With time, the achievements and progress of these refugees substantiate the sentiments they attribute to this place—partly felt in the physical conditions of the city:

"It's intimate. It's personal. You can go anywhere on foot...You can walk outside, maybe the area outside [isn't so great] but in comparison to Toronto, you feel safer. You know where to go if you need help. You know people that will take you in. Whereas in Toronto, it's so cold and lonely, I just can't deal with it. And I think Hamilton was where all our big milestones were for our family—first car, first house, first university graduation in the family...like I literally feel it's my home. Because the thing is, for me it holds a lot of value. Like a lot of family move around here and there, but for me, it signifies a stepping stone for my family. Like we went from nothing literally to our first car on Catherine Street, to our first apartment rental when we were able to afford rent on Sanford [from government subsidized housing], and to then now, our first house on Birch. It's not loyalty, it's out of love" (Lien). [28]

All of the respondents stated that the only thing they did not like about living in Hamilton was the pollution from the steel mill. Von was the only respondent who expressed he did not like living in Hamilton and would rather live somewhere else. Despite this wish to move, Von acknowledges that he felt that the overall Vietnamese community in Hamilton was like his family:

"Yeah like I feel like even though I don't like it, I do feel like I have a family here. The only reason why that is [so is because] the Vietnamese community in Hamilton is large and everyone knows each other. So I feel that in a sense that it is like a family, like just knowing people. But at the same time, that's what makes it special for me." [29]

The relations to place and family are complex. Several places and family in different places are implicated. There are scales of home and family relationships and experience. [30]

3.2 Home as family: Places and journeys

Von's previous comment illustrates this relationship between place, family and home. Others when asked, "What places make you feel at home?" directly spoke of family as giving meaning to home. For Tung, home is an emotion that he feels when he is surrounded by his family:

"I guess the only place is where you stay with your family, where all of your family is around you and you're there. That's when you feel home." [31]

Some respondents also linked home to place and structures. This suggests that home exists at various scales. Vinh references home to her country and region of residence, but more importantly, she identifies family as the reason why country, region and house is home:

First Author: If we are talking about home, which place is your home?

Vinh: At the moment, it is Canada—Stoney Creek Mountain. That's my house. That's my home.

First Author: Why is it your home?

Vinh: I have a husband. I have kids. I have grandchildren. That is why it's my home. [32]

Trang also speaks of her house as her home. She explains that the familiarity of the city was an important factor in making a place her home. Trang also attributes this familiarity to having family and friends around her, which is integral to her not feeling alone:

"I just can't imagine living anywhere else because I've been here all of my life and my actual home, like my house, is here. My family is here and it's not strange to me. If I were to go to another city, who would I know there, what do I know there, places I know? But here it's like, I kind of know the city inside out and I know where things are, I know where my friends are, I know where my family is and ... You don't feel alone." [33]

Several respondents made reference to their homeland as their home. While some were unsure about returning to Vietnam in the future, others expressed that they wanted to return to their homeland. Tung stated that he wanted to go back to his homeland and hometown, the place where his extended family still lives:

"I'm always dreaming that one day when I retire that I go back to my homeland where my aunts and uncles and my relatives who lives in Vietnam and I live there...I hope that I will go back to my country and retire because it's my hometown; it's my homeland." [34]

Inherent in the meaning of home is a geographical feature. The respondents' view of home is related to delineated spaces: 1. their house, 2. their current place of residence, and 3. their homeland. This classification of home encompassed more than simple measurements of physical boundaries; it illustrates the relationship between space and place and links home to family (kin and community), identity (ethnicity and nationality), and roots (old roots and new roots). As a result, this perception produces a dynamic social dimension to the meaning of home. [35]

These places and experiences interact with family and this in turn produces social meaning, which is mediated through the cultural lens of ethnicity. Yet there is also a role for boundaries and physical entities in helping shape these experiences and definitions of family and home. Place matters and family takes place somewhere with the embeddedness potentially having a concrete impact after its relevance is determined by family and culture. [36]

3.3 Understanding home in Vietnamese

The respondents' comprehension of the word "home"—what home is and where home is, was influenced by culture and dialect. In Vietnamese, the meaning for the word "home" is captured in the word về, which is more commonly used as a preposition word as seen in Table 2. The translation for the word về is to return to and be back in. Although it can be used to express a forward motion, it is often used to express a backward motion or retreat. This retreat can be towards a place such a current house, the place of one's origin, or the region where one currently resides.

Definition of "home" is về

Về: to return; be back in; go back to; go to; concerned with; towards; be in; at; about; concerning

Uses for về

giỏi về = good at (preposition)

về phia nam = towards the south (preposition)

lui về = retreat (preposition)

trở về = to go back to (preposition)

về mua đông = in the winter (preposition)

nói về = speak about (preposition)

thuộc về = belong to (preposition)

tôi đi về = I go home (noun/place)


Idioms for home

House/place of residence

(nhà/chỗ ở)

To have neither hearth nor home (không cửa không nhà)

To be at home (ở nhà)

No home (không có chỗ ở)


(gia đình/tổ ấm)

There's no place like home (không đâu bằng tổ ấm)

Happy home (hạnh phúc gia đình)

The pleasures of home (thú vui gia đình)

Homeland/national origin

(quê hương/nguồn gốc quốc gia)

Exiled from home (một người bị đày xa quê hương)

Far from home (xa quê hương)

Home is a cluster of sweet star fruit (quê hương là chùm khế ngọt)

Table 2: Socio-cultural meaning of home (adapted from NGUYEN, 1966 p.534) [37]

Về is also used in the context "of being in relation" to something else, as in being about something, or even belonging to something such as an object, a person, or a place. The only time về corroborates with the Western word "home," and stands on its own as a noun rather than a preposition, is when a person uses the phrase, tôi đi về. This sentence translates, "I'm going home," where tôi is "I," đi is "go," and về is "home." The various meanings of home in the Vietnamese language can be illustrated in the following discussion. The following excerpt is taken from an interview that took place at the respondent's place of work. The open discussion illustrates a conversation between the first author, the respondent, and a co-worker around the meaning of home:

First Author: So let me ask you, when you say, tôi đi về, which places do you think of?

Respondent: Go home where?

First Author: Just go home.

Respondent: Go back home? When you're dead?

Co-worker: Go back where?

Respondent: Heaven?

First Author: Okay, both.

Respondent: I go to heaven. After when I die I go to heaven.

First Author: Okay, is there any other place?

Respondent: There's no other place. There's only heaven. What other places would there be?

First Author: Okay, đi về [go back to] Vietnam?

Respondent: If I go back to Vietnam, then I'd go back to Hai Phong [hometown].

First Author: And if you đi về [go to your] house.

Respondent: Go back home to my house on the mountain to sleep and continue back to work.

Co-Worker: To see your husband and your children. The questions you ask have no meaning.

Respondent: Where else would you go to?

Co-Worker: What you are asking has no meaning. What are you trying to ask? If you're going to Vietnam, you'd go there later on when you're old. Or right now, when you finish work in the evening? You'll go back to your house. What do you mean?

First Author: Okay, đi về [go home], đi về [go home]? Where is home?

Co-Worker: Home tonight? What? Where?

First Author: Okay, if I'm only asking you about where you go when you đi về [go home], you think of all of these things, right?

Respondent: Go home. You have to ask where you go at the end of the day!

First Author: No, I don't want to ask you about the specific places because I want to know about which places you consider home.

Respondent: My home? To see my husband and kids.

First Author: So those places, what meanings do they have?

Co-Worker: To see your husband and children is the most meaningful.

First Author: Okay. That is the most important?

Co-worker: Yeah.

First Author: Anywhere else?

Respondent: Which other place? What other places are there?

Co-Worker: You go back to your house [in Vietnam] to visit your parents and when they die, who will you visit? That's it.

First Author: So Vietnam is a place you can go back to but?

Co-Worker: It's the place where you were born and where you grow up, okay. [38]

As this dialogue indicates, for many Vietnamese-Canadians home is obvious but fluid, somewhat different from Western meanings. Home is where you are and where your family is, which is often located in more than one place. Its spirit and relevance is where it has been, where it is, and where it may go to, which is some case is a return to a homeland. [39]

3.4 Reflective account: Tacit knowledge and co-created meanings of home and identity

The concept of tacit knowledge, introduced by POLANYI (1966), suggests that tacit knowledge is embedded in the behavior, culture, and experience of individuals and communities. This way of knowing is inherently difficult to communicate and cannot be presented as a formulated way of understanding. Tacit knowledge is a way of knowing that deals with knowledge as cognitive repertoires, or "truths" we know (RAVN, 2004). Acknowledging the importance of tacit knowledge postulates a horizontal boundary within any knowledge field because it moves beyond the explicit to investigate epistemological truths. [40]

In qualitative research, the role of the researcher necessitates the researcher as the "key research instrument" (POGGENPOEL & MYBURGH, 2003). In this study, the researcher is instrumental in translating and interpreting the respondents' data into meaningful information in order to co-construct the meaning of experiences through the process of fusing her own experience with the narratives of the respondents to co-create meaning of home and settlement. The notion of co-created meanings is also reflected in the tenets of social geography as noted by ENTRIKIN (1991, p.58), who states:

"The geographer as narrator translate his or her stories into a new form and, with interest somewhat different from those of the participants in a place or region, abstracts from the experience of a group. While the participant uses such narratives for the direction of present and future actions and is part of the ongoing events of the place, the geographer constructs a narrative aimed at the different concern of objective representation and truth." [41]

Therefore, transparency of the researcher's experience is critical not only because it assesses the researcher's ability to follow and apply methodologies, but at the same time, it provides the reader with an audit trail of the researcher's interpretation techniques—a criterion for evaluating the confirmability of the research as suggested by BAXTER and EYLES (1997). In general, this demonstrates the objective reasoning of the research instrument and illustrates how the instrument affects subsequent interpretations. With that said, the following is an excerpt taken from the first author's Master's Thesis (DAM, 2009, pp.68-70). It illustrates the tacit knowledge and the process of sense making about her understanding as she reflects on the co-created meanings of home:

"Before taking my trip to Vietnam, I viewed myself as being not quite Vietnamese and at the same time, not exactly a true Canadian, either. Overall, I had little understanding about the meanings of home, belonging and identity. I had come to the conclusion that having spent the majority of my life in Canada, this place was my home. This was where I felt I belonged; where my identity had solidified through time. I felt there was no place for Vietnam in this equation. My definition of being a Vietnamese person was fashioned by my distinct lived-experience and cultural upbringing in my family. My understanding and characterization of a Vietnamese person made sense to me and this definition did not require an attachment to a distant homeland.

My course of travel to Vietnam was long and this allowed me much time to engage in introspection. Flying over the coastline before landing at the Hong Kong International Airport was special. The unanticipated experience of seeing the landscape below made me reflect on my family's journey of crossing the South China Sea from Vietnam to Hong Kong. I tried to imagine their experience during the crossing, which took fifteen days. From above, I tried to imagine their thoughts as I approached the very coastline they had approached twenty-five years earlier. The experience was an emotional one. Themes of sacrifice, danger and death in hopes of both a better life and future, were in my mind as I mentally mapped out their route to Hong Kong while contrasting it with my present voyage back.

After landing, I had a stopover at the Hong Kong International Airport for a couple of hours before taking a final flight to Vietnam. This wait made me anxious and nervous with the passing of time. My mind slipped into a state of panic and fear as the reality of going to Vietnam and spending an entire month with relatives, whom I have never met before, settled in. This made me question the authenticity of my identity as a Vietnamese person and my ability to live comfortably with unfamiliar people in a strange setting. Some of my time at the departure gate was spent pacing back and forth as thoughts of purchasing a ticket back to Canada entered my mind. Other times were spent glued to a seat at the back of the terminal, as I tried to rid myself of such apprehension by remaining calm through reading and journaling.

My trip back to Vietnam was an eye opening and life changing experience. Not only did it allow me to connect with my cultural roots and family in my homeland, it also widened my own definition and concept of 'home.' Somehow being in Vietnam and living with family grounded and authenticated my Vietnamese identity. The thirty-day long trip allowed me to: converse solely in Vietnamese; experience the Vietnamese way of life through daily activities and consumption of food; be embedded in Vietnamese culture through observation and taking part in traditional customs; learn about my ancestral origins and family history; and see the biological resemblance between family members in Canada and Vietnam. Even though this experience lasted only a short period of time, it confronted and challenged my own understanding about home and self-identification. I was beginning to perceive that my ideas of home were fluid and that my comprehension of identity was multi-layered. My horizon of home had expanded and I can now profess to the claim that one's horizon is mobile and not rigid, and that one's horizon can be subject to change when prejudgments have been examined and recognized as such.

On the morning of my departure from Vietnam, the two hour ride on a mini bus with my family to the airport in Hanoi made me feel good. The surroundings and scenery of a once strange homeland had become visually familiar and psychologically comfortable to be in, and the gathering of a once estranged group of relatives, now embedded the knowledge and experience of family in tangible relationships. By noon, I was back in the Hong Kong International Airport, waiting for my flight back to Canada. I went back to the departure gate and sat in the very seat I had sat in some thirty days prior. Being there initially made me uncomfortable. As I sat there reminiscing, I was reminded of the overwhelming sense of fear I had had before arriving in Vietnam. The fear eventually went away as my mind eased its way back to the recollection of fond memories shared with family. Having gone through these motions and emotions, I was finally able to reflect on my experience, making sense of my trip in hindsight.

I felt that my trip back to Vietnam revealed to me an aspect of my identity. I felt that by sitting again in that same spot signified a completed journey of home and in the act and process of being in this place, I was symbolically crossing a threshold. My journey back to Vietnam, demarcated by a physical passageway, came full circle. It brought me back to the point of origin and I had completed a cycle of transition. I felt whole in my sense of home and identity. There was something about being in Vietnam—living among the people of the same ethnic origin and speaking the native language—that ascribed meaning to the authenticity of my identity as a Vietnamese person through this rite of passage. I somehow knew that this journey brought to the surface and brought into consciousness a tacit knowledge of home and identity, one shared by my respondents in Hamilton. The trip enabled me to understand the meaning of identity as roots and made personal the meaning of 'home' as homeland. The interaction in place and relationship with people and family in Vietnam enlarged and expanded my concept of 'home.' My views regarding self-identity were not so black and white, and my delineation of home boundaries was less finite.

Throughout this process, my view on 'home' and 'identity' continued to undergo transformation as I immersed myself in the stories of the respondents. Their stories helped me to construct—with greater depth and clarity—as clear of a picture as possible, the meaning of being a Vietnamese-Canadian and grasp the role of 'home' in movement. Although I believe that I now know more about my overall identity, my only definite conclusion for the meaning of a Vietnamese-Canadian is someone who is aware of their history and culture. Even now, home and identity remain contingent; however, I recognize that that my objective to categorize and classify myself and others at the onset of this study had become less relevant and less important." [42]

4. Discussion and Conclusion

We have examined what home is and the journeying from home to home is narrated as family, linking people and places. These specific narratives about one, albeit central, dimension of people's lives cohere around journey—sometimes difficult, painful or resilient and reassuring—experienced by all 12 respondents and the first author. Similar events have been experienced (see TULLIS OWEN, McRAE, ADAMS & VITALE, 2009) in and between shared places (see ELLIS et al., 2010), made more understandable by the stories and their real and theoretical locations. [43]

On one level, the narratives of the respondents speak to the theme of "home as house." This home is the physical dwelling to which people retreated to and from work at the end of the day. Much of the literature on home speaks of physical structure or dwelling place (see GIDDENS, 1984; BOWLBY, GREGORY & McKIE, 1997). This relationship between house and home is so strong that the terms have been used interchangeably (MOORE, 2000). WRIGHT's (1991) and CHAPMAN and HOCKEY's (1999) perspectives on house and home point to the physical structure as a means for obtaining a social ideal. Yet MALLETT (2004) suggests that these studies reflect and reinforce a narrow view of the Anglo-American, British, and Australian ideals of what home is. But the desire for a house among the first generation of Boat People allows an observation of shadow places—or shadow time-space—in the refugee camps and the first few months in Canada. [44]

Our respondents spoke of home as being mediated by cultural values. In this, the narratives of the Boat People are no different from most groups in Western cities. Yet an autoethnographic approach adds personal and community salience to the stories. Home is culturally bounded and should be placed within a specific social and cultural context. The challenge for this approach would be to empirically engage a multifaceted complex concept without losing sight of the many layers of home in order to comprehend home as a holistic entity, grasping the interrelated-qualities of people, place, and time. [45]

The socio-cultural understandings of home are similar to early writings on home, which conflates the concept of home with the notion of family. These scholars suggest that the significance and relationship between home and family is so pertinent that the meanings of home and family are synonymous (see MALLETT, 2004). Others have disagreed (see SAUNDERS & WILLIAMS, 1988). They suggest that the home is the crucible of the social system, disputing the relevance of the nuclear family within contemporary Western societies while questioning its place in the discussion of home (SAUNDERS & WILLIAMS, 1988). This conceptualization is completely foreign to the Vietnamese cultural consideration of family. As NGUYEN (1985, p.410) explains:

"Because American culture stresses individualism, Americans find it difficult to fully understand the power of kinship for Vietnamese. The family is the fundamental social unit—that is, the primary source of cohesion and continuity—in traditional Vietnamese society. Differing profoundly from the American nuclear family, the Vietnamese family should be perceived as a superorganic unit existing across generations past and future." [46]

The Vietnamese perspective and understanding of the meaning of family are critical to the discussion of home, suggesting that the discussion of home cannot be understood apart from the concept of family. The ideas of family for the respondents in the study are profoundly different from the Western concept of family and home. Such narratives resonate with, and are reflected in, the first author's sense of place and home. This sense of place and home was mediated and modified by her journey to Vietnam in which her understanding of self, place, and context were redefined. They are ethnographic, emphasizing commonality with others, rather than abstraction of the self. We have tried to write the voice of others in ethical ways (see ROTH, 2008). [47]

Family was what gave meaning to "home as house" and to past homes where extended family may still reside. In this study, family remains the very essence of home for these former Vietnamese refugees. And, like the Filipinos (LE ESPIRITU, 2003), for Vietnamese-Canadians, especially second generation ones, home is in Canada and Vietnam—a transnational existence but with little anxiety or concern (see SMITH, 2001). Home is experienced as an emotion and is less concerned with the physical structure, coinciding with SOMERVILLE'S (1992) notion of home as heart, which speaks of an emotional security that comes with a stable home that is based on relationships of mutual affection and support. Where, as ZANDY(1990) would put it, there is no sense of "otherness." GILMAN (2002) notes that the home is "only a house" when it exists without the family. Family is what gives a house, and home, its meaning. So our narratives locate and identify home as being where the family resides and felt that "this [i.e. family] was the most meaningful." But family is extremely important in Vietnamese culture which may limit the ability to transfer these findings to other refugee groups. Yet the family's role in cultural adjustment has been found amongst many recent groups, for example, the Chinese (MASSOOD, OKAZAKI & TAKEUCHI, 2009), Bosnians (SOSSOU, CRAIG, OGREN & SCHNAK, 2008) and Sudanese (LIM, 2009). We have, with these narratives, showed their similarity with others in different cultural settings (see ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000) through showing the role of family and place in this journeying to create home in a refugee group in a relatively poor, second-tier city. Similar notions have been found in Halifax, Nova Scotia (see ABDUL-RAZZAQ, 2008). [48]

Family is identifiable at every dimension of home and plays a critical role in its meaning. If sense of place speaks of belonging and home, then for the former Vietnamese refugees their sense of belonging does derive in part from place but it is mediated by family, resettlement, and memories of past places. Home for our respondents and for the first author is embodied in shared experiences which are authored and "authorized" by self and others journeying through place and time. [49]


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Huyen DAM, MA is a former Vietnamese Boat Person, who came to Canada in 1988 at the age of four. She completed her BA and MA at McMaster University.


Huyen Dam

School of Geography and Earth Sciences
McMaster University
1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, ON, Canada L8S 4K1

Tel.: 1-905-525-9140 ext. 20441
Fax: 1-905-546-0463

E-mail: huyen.d.dam@gmail.com


John EYLES, PhD is a Distinguished University Professor at McMaster University. He is a Professor of Geography and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.


John Eyles

School of Geography and Earth Sciences
McMaster University
1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, ON, Canada L8S 4K1

Tel.: 1-905-525-9140 ext. 23152
Fax: 1-905-546-0463

E-mail: eyles@mcmaster.ca


Dam, Huyen & Eyles, John (2012). "Home Tonight? What? Where?" An Exploratory Study of the Meanings of House, Home and Family Among the Former Vietnamese Refugees in a Canadian City [49 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13(2), Art. 19,

Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS)

ISSN 1438-5627

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