Cultural Misunderstanding

 

Efrain Martinez

Former CRS Mediator, Houston Office


[Full Interview]

Answer:
The issue with the Vietnamese was after the war in 1975. They came to this country, not knowing the culture, not knowing the language, and with very little resources. They were settled in Texas and other states, but they eventually migrated on their own, especially to the Texas coast. When they got there, they saw that the best way of making a living at that time was to go into the crabbing or shrimping business. The investment was very low, all you needed was a boat. So they bought these boats and after a few years, once they saw how they were made, they started making the boats themselves. They were beginning to put a lot of pressure on the local fishermen because they were disturbing their way of life. Tensions began to build.

. . .

The town is a small community of about a thousand people. It had about a hundred, to a hundred and fifty Vietnamese. A seafood processor had brought them from Louisiana. His buddy had told him that if he was to bring Vietnamese, they were good workers and the women were excellent at picking the meat off the crabs. They came as a group and were living in some trailers away from the main part of town. After a while, they did rent some homes. The Vietnamese are known to be very frugal, very industrious, and they saved their money that the women were making at the plant and got some boats and they themselves went into crabbing.

They came from Vietnam where there are no rules or regulations about fishing. You can fish as much as you want and keep whatever you catch. Well in Texas, to preserve the industry, you can't fish at night and you have to return some stuff. Also, there are open waters and closed waters, and some bays are closed entirely. You also have state regulations and federal regulations, as well as a two hundred-mile limit into the Gulf of Mexico. The Vietnamese didn't pay too much attention to all those laws and customs and what have you. So they began getting in trouble with both the authorities and with the local fishermen.

A lot of it was culture, the fact they couldn't speak the language. But they could shrimp and fish without knowing the language, so they were out there from sunup to sundown. Only hurricanes would keep them in. The long time fishermen had customs and they had been there forever. The local, long time fishermen would be there until two or three in the afternoon, then sell their catch and drink some beer and get ready for the next day. The Vietnamese wouldn't come out until sunset and they would keep almost everything, and they would eat the stuff they couldn't sell. So that caused problems.

We have to understand the environment we work in, the lay of the land in a sense. The Vietnamese were very group orientated, so if one would find a good shrimp spot they would call in all the other Vietnamese, or as many as could come over, and share in the bounty as a group. The local longtime fishermen took a different philosophy. It was: you're independent, so if you found a good fishing or shrimping spot, you'd be left alone so you could benefit and be rewarded for your skill. So it would be one person benefiting whereas the Vietnamese were a group benefiting. The problem with that is that the Vietnamese were accused of disrupting the water so much that the shrimp would leave and wouldn't come back for days. So that was another source of friction.

. . .

The other part was the Vietnamese/American custom barrier. That caused more problems. For example, when a shrimper or crabber is out in the bay if they have problems with their boat, such as mechanical problems, anybody at sea is supposed to come and help them. The long-time fisherman were complaining that their boats would have trouble and they would signal, but the Vietnamese would just laugh at them. This would make them more angry. "Not only are they taking our way of life, but they're mocking us." But the Vietnamese said they thought they were waving at them, so they were waving back and smiling at them because they wanted to be very friendly. They couldn't understand what the signal was, because they'd never seen the signal. Through these training programs they taught each other.

Question:
Did that group have any other issues with language?

Answer:
Well customs, like cutting in line at the food store, that irritated a lot of people. The Vietnamese supposedly saw all the options, and the best option for them was to cut in line.

Question:
When they understood how their behavior was influencing the wrong kind of population, were they willing to change?

Answer:
Yes. Through education and law enforcement. Because law enforcement was ticketing them and costing them thousands of dollars in fines, and confiscating whole boatloads of shrimp that were caught illegally.