Nostalgia is a quintessentially human emotion. Longing for one’s home or past is natural, and people from all cultures experience it. This is part one of a sample essay that focuses on the psychological aspect of nostalgia and how the emotion comes to have an effect on the individual.
The human psychology of nostalgia
The feeling of nostalgia is something that is experienced by all cultures who, for their own, particular reasons must relocate to a new home. This is particularly true of cultures who are forced to leave their native lands for political reasons such as war and persecution. When these cultures leave their homes, they bring with them as much of home as they can. They bring their beliefs, their eating habits, and their histories. All of which they attempt to pass on to their new generations which are born away from home.
The process of immigrating to a new land and trying to maintain their culture is almost exactly the same from culture to culture. A close examination of Korean culture and Vietnamese culture highlights these similarities well. Both cultures have had some instances of its citizens being forced to leave their countries by political turmoil. They do differ from each other; but nostalgia affects people at a very basic human level so both cultures feel the effects of nostalgia in very similar ways. In the end no matter how different two cultures are from each other they will both always experience the same effects of nostalgia and homesickness in almost identical ways.
Common nostalgic experience
Nostalgia and homesickness is something everyone experiences at some point in their lives. When a young person first moves out of their home they will undoubtedly experience homesickness brought about by the lack of things they once took comfort in. They can no longer see the people they love on a daily basis, or eat the foods they were used to eating, or even take the small pleasure of simply walking on familiar grounds.
This kind of nostalgia is felt on a personal level. But it is something everyone can relate to. Everyone goes through this. Not just on an individual level but also on an international level. The feeling of nostalgia is often compounded in certain cultures if they were forced to leave their homeland against their will. This is often true of both Koreans and Vietnamese refugees fleeing from persecution in their native countries. Freedom and civil liberties are often very restricted in some of these countries and as a result many of its citizens are forced to flee.
If a person leaves their homeland of their own free will then they can usually return to their homeland at will. This often helps curb nostalgic feelings which can make the situation easier to deal with. But when returning home is not an option then people are forced to deal with their nostalgia in other ways. This is true of both Vietnamese and Koreans. Both cultures are very family centric and hold their history and culture in high regard. In order to better understand the causes of nostalgia one must first understand what was left behind and, more importantly, why it was left behind. This applies to both Korean and Vietnamese cultures.
The Korean exodus
There are several reasons why Koreans often leave their homeland. This is especially true of North Koreans. North Korea is currently controlled by an extreme military dictatorship. This means that all of the power and laws come from one individual and self interest almost always trumps the needs of the people. The people have no voice and those who do not fall in line are often persecuted against.
This persecution often extends beyond political affiliations and into religious beliefs. Christian in particular are extremely persecuted against in North Korea. Finding employment can also be very difficult if one’s family does not have strong connection with their dictatorial government. This is true of most families in North Korea. Since most families do not have any kind of influential connections it becomes difficult for them to find employment. They must often resort to primitive ways of finding sustenance. Song Ee Han and her family provide a stark example of this all too common situation.
“Han and her family went from getting government rice rations to foraging for food like hunter-gatherers. They stripped pine trees, plucked grass and ate every part of each corn plant they could find, including the cob and the skin — which they ground into tasteless cakes” (Park).
This is the type of thing her family had to deal with before escaping North Korea and coming to America. This kind of thing happens all the time in a dictatorship like North Korea. It doesn’t mean that the people are fleeing their history and their culture. They are fleeing their country’s government. Being forced to leave their country will often make people look back on it and wish that the political situation would have allowed them to stay. It is where they were born and where their memories and relatives remain.
The Vietnamese similarity
The Vietnamese share very similar reasons for leaving their homeland that the North Koreans do. Towards the end of the Vietnam war several refugees from Vietnam were forced to leave their homeland for reasons of persecution. The difference between North Korea and Vietnam was that rather than a dictatorship North Vietnam was heavily influenced by the rise of communism.
The communists of North Vietnam heavily persecuted the South Vietnamese for similar reasons that North Koreans were persecuted against. These reasons included religious beliefs as well as political beliefs. Freedom of speech and of expression were also restrained and controlled. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war several Vietnamese fled to countries like Canada and America. But this emigration from Vietnam did not end there. Vietnamese continued to be persecuted and continued to leave Vietnam well into the mid seventies and early eighties. Again, as with the North Koreans, it was the government in their home countries that they fled and not their culture.
Another crucial contributor to the feeling of nostalgia is the process of adapting to the new host culture that an immigrant is suddenly immersed with. Fitting in to a new society presents the same challenges to all cultures. A new language barrier must be breached in order to successfully communicate with one’s new surroundings. Often going from an Asian language to a Latin based language can be difficult due to grammatical differences such as tense and subject placement.
Also other cultural aspects can be difficult to adjust to. Both Korean and Vietnamese cultures respect the “no shoes in the home” policy that is almost nonexistent in American society. America itself presents a challenge to both Korean and Vietnamese cultures in the fact that America is a conglomerate of all of the cultures of the world. Everyone tries to speak English but there are way too many cultures that make up America for there to be any sort of set standard. Feeling lost and confused is typical of newly arrived immigrants. All of these factors heavily influence the feeling of nostalgia.
New Country, New Culture
After finding themselves suddenly immerged in a completely new culture with all of the challenges involved it is not uncommon for newly arrived immigrants to feel overwhelmed. This feeling of being overwhelmed will have them longing for a familiar environment. This is true of both Koreans and Vietnamese despite the fact that they are two cultures that fled to America to escape oppression and persecution.
Even though they were being oppressed they will still miss the familiarity of their own language and their cultures. Since everyone is their country was going through similar circumstances it was easy to be able to relate to their fellow countrymen. Even though all they could do was commiserate with one another, that contact becomes something they miss almost right away.
Davis does argue that
“the past which is the object of nostalgia must in some fashion be a personally experienced past…” (Davis 9).
Which means that in order for it to be considered true nostalgia the individual must have actual memories of the events being missed. This is especially true of the adults who immigrate to a new country. They were actually there and what they remembered is real even if it is romanticized. The feeling of nostalgia is more acute in people like both Koreans and Vietnamese who were forced to leave their homes through a great historical or political event that may have been completely out of their hands.
Davis refers to this as
“…a past imbued with special qualities, which, moreover, acquires its significance from the particular way we juxtapose it to certain features of our present lives” (Davis 13).
This juxtaposition exists in the fact that they can compare their former needs to their present status. That is to say that their needs are now being met and that fact can cause them to remember a time when they were not. This particular feeling of nostalgia is not necessarily pleasant because the memories being recalled are often painful. Davis defines nostalgia as
“a painful yearning to return home” (Davis 1).
In the case of both Koreans and Vietnamese this feeling is compounded by the fact that for the most part they can’t return home.
Nostalgia for home
Duval discusses the circumstances and conditions for which and how return trips home are conducted by nostalgic immigrants. Unfortunately most of those conditions do not apply to North Korean refugees who simply cannot return home. Duval defines a return visit to one’s home country as
“sojourns made by members of diasporic communities to either their external homeland or another location in which strong social ties have been forged” (Duval 51).
While this definition is accurate it can only be applied in this case to Vietnamese immigrants and not their North Korean equivalents. He goes on to describe the visit in two ways. The first is a personal return to remember one’s old life and rediscover their old communities. The second is to learn about one’s origins and ancestry in the case of the children of said immigrants. At present it is possible for Vietnamese immigrants to visit Vietnam as it is now open to tourism.
The trip, however, is usually out of reach for most refugees and migrants financially. Still if a young Vietnamese person would like to visit their home country it is at the very least a theoretically possible option. North Korea on the other hand is currently off-limits to most people in the United States. Duval mainly deals with the return trip home from a tourist point of view which excluded countries like North Korea where such trips are impossible to begin with. Even though a return trip is technically possible for Vietnamese immigrants, the reality is that few can actually realize such a trip. In that sense they are left with the same coping mechanisms that North Korean refugees are often left with.
Psychology of human emotions
Lan Cao does a wonderful job of illustration this kind of struggle in her book titled Monkey Bridge. Monkey Bridge is a work that covers all aspects of immigrating to a new country to escape a government that oppresses its people. Through the point of view of the protagonist’s mother, Thanh, we are able to see the cultural change from the point of view of an adult. Through the point of view of the daughter, Mai, we are able to see how this displacement affects future generations.
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In this case nostalgia comes from a failure to fully adapt to a new culture in the Thanh’s situation. In Mai’s case nostalgia comes from the fact the she is in-between identities. In the early stages of her new life she identified more with her Vietnamese roots that with her new American surroundings. The difference between the two came down to how they each dealt with their sense of nostalgia.
In Thanh’s case she was unable to bear the weight that her nostalgic feelings of her homeland brought her. In the end it crushed her and not being able to deal with the loss of identity it can be argued that her nostalgic feelings contributed to her suicide. Mai on the other hand was able to eventually fully adapt to American life and survive her feelings of depression and nostalgia brought on by the loss of her homeland. But that does not mean that her nostalgia went away. Even though she is apparently fully Americanized
“The fact that Mai imaginatively inhabits the life of this Trung sister three times in the novel indicates that despite her seemingly successful integration to America, she continues to see her life in battle terms” (Long 13).
Long argues that this mentality was inherited from her mother and her ancestry which can be interpreted as a type of nostalgia in and of itself. In the absence of a means with which to deal with her nostalgia, Thanh seeks to create a new identity for her daughter by holding on to the belief shared by most people that education is a valuable asset.
“‘You can lose a country. But no one, no war can take away your education,’ my mother reassured me as we lay together in bed. ‘You will have the best education in America,’ she whispered” (Cao 31).
This type of mentality helps sooth nostalgia by highlighting one of the benefits of having left one’s country behind in the hope that the pro’s outweigh the cons.
Nostalgia and Identity
Davis and Cao both highlight the causes of nostalgia and its relation to identity. The loss of identity often leads one to desire a time and place in which one had both. This is true of both Koreans and Vietnamese. While Davis does an excellent job in explaining the causes of nostalgia he does not delve into how people deal with it on a personal level. He discusses the exploitation of nostalgia by modern media but does not explore how people deal with it at its most basic level which is related to immediate needs. Cao on the other hand does provide a glimpse into how first generation immigrants deal with nostalgia.
The first thing they do is gather in groups of the same ethnicity in their new country in order to make the transition into their new life easier with the help of their fellow countrymen who have been here longer. Once together they then try to recreate their culture in a type of microcosm of their old way of life within their new environment. And, finally, they do their best to impart upon their children their old way of life in the hope that it will live on in future generations.
In this way nostalgia becomes less acute in the sense that what is being missed is no longer really gone but rather being recreated once again. If they are successful in recreating a convincing version of their old societies then their new home takes the place of their old home and nostalgia disappears with it.
The way that most people across all cultures initially deal with nostalgia is relatively the same. Nostalgia comes as a response to a basic human need for a way of life that has been lost. Since the need is human at its core then the solutions must also be human in nature. Koreans deal with this nostalgia in much the same way that the Vietnamese do. The first and foremost way that they deal with the early onset of nostalgia is with food.
Koreans bring with them a wide variety of food from their homeland that they can recreate in their new home. Korean food is heavily based on grains such as rice and legumes. Meat also plays an important part in Korean cuisine. All of these items that make up a basic diet may not have been as plentiful in their home country as they are in America. Especially beef. Since it is a lot easier to obtain the ingredients that make up their most famous dishes in America it is easy for Koreans to appease their sense of nostalgia through food. Food is a very powerful ally to relieve homesickness because it stimulates all five senses.
The sight and smells of food bring to mind how a meal may have been shared with family members back home. Of course food can also add fuel to the flames of nostalgia by perhaps recalling how such a meal was a rarity back home.
The Vietnamese also find themselves in a similar situation when they arrive in a new country. They too immediately miss being able to relate with their fellow countrymen. And they too, like the Koreans, turn to food fist and foremost to allay the first wave of nostalgia and homesickness. The great thing about being in a plentiful country like America is how readily available the ingredients for their favorite dishes are. In this sense they can not only recreate the food that they loved back home; they can also experience dishes from their home country that were once unaffordable to them. That is ironic in the sense that to truly appreciate the cuisine of their country they first had to flee from it.
Another way that both cultures deal with nostalgia is by creating small replica’s of their old societies in their new homes. Korea towns and Little Saigon’s are prefect representations of this phenomenon. In Korea town Koreans can not only find traditional ingredients for the meals that they enjoy, they can also find the company of their fellow countrymen with whom they can relate to. The same goes for Little Saigon which is the Vietnamese equivalent of Korea town.
There people of Vietnamese descent can also find products that can recreate specific aspects of their old homeland as well as find people with common interests to socialize with. These small replicas of their homelands go a long way in dealing with the symptoms created by nostalgia. They not only replicate the selection of products these diverse cultures could only find in their homeland, they also aesthetically replicate the look and feel of the traditional market places they are trying to recreate.
Food and culture are important ways that both Koreans and Vietnamese deal with nostalgia in their new country. But perhaps one of the most important ways to deal with it has to do with their children. Both cultures have a tendency to impart upon their future generations the basic framework that makes up their cultural identity. They stress the importance of family, language, and conduct. By imparting these behavioral traits to their future generations they insure that their culture will continue even in this new world. They both have a “this is how it was done in our country” mentality which is a way of relieving nostalgia by assuring themselves of the survival of their culture.
Commonalities Between Cultures
Korean and Vietnamese cultures vary in terms of specific histories but they are both civilized human cultures so they do share commonalities. The similarities between the two from a cultural standpoint with regards to nostalgia are almost identical. The only differences are circumstantial such as the fact that North Koreans can’t return to their country for visiting purposes in the way that the Vietnamese theoretically can. Aside from these differences however they are the same when it comes to the matter of the nostalgia that displacement brings about.
They both experience it the same way and they both deal with it in the same way. This is because nostalgia is more of a human issue than it is a cultural issue. If other non-English cultures were to be compared and contrasted with regards to the issue of nostalgia as the Korean and Vietnamese cultures have been here, the results between the two would also be almost identically the same.
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Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York: Penguin Group, 1997.
Davis, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. The Free Press, London, 1979.
Duval, David T. “Conceptualizing Return Visits: A Transnational Perspective.”
Long, Lisa A. “Contemporary Women’s Roles through Hmong, Vietnamese, and American Eyes.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 29 (2008): 1-36.
Park, Madison. “In North Korea, A Brutal Choice” CNN. 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 April 2013