A Piece by Thuy Trang | May 16, 2018
Whenever someone asks me, “What is your ethnicity?” my answer is, “I am Vietnamese.” Technically speaking, I am Vietnamese-American meaning I am ethnically Vietnamese, but I was born and raised in the United States. Even though those words became second nature to me, they did not feel real or authentic because I, myself, had no idea what the words meant to me. Growing up, I viewed being Vietnamese as a simple label based on myself being a product of two Vietnamese refugees. I used to joke and say that I was only Vietnamese on the weekends because it was the only time I could spend significant amounts of time with my family doing things such as shopping for food at the local chợ Việt Nam. Identifying as Vietnamese never went beyond superficial reasons such as eating rice, having two different New Years to celebrate, or specialty food items like phở or bún riêu.
However, once I went off to college, I found myself experiencing an identity crisis. The things I thought made me Vietnamese no longer existed in my day to day life; I felt as though I was losing what it meant to be Vietnamese. I no longer came home to the strong smell of my mom’s delicious cooking. Instead, I was now on a diet of late night pizza, chicken nuggets, and TV dinners. I no longer had my dad to constantly lecture me in Vietnamese about the importance of studying hard. The only way to hear their voices was to call them, but it didn’t feel the same. These were things that I never imagined missing about being home with my family. I was missing the familiarity of home and in a sense, myself.
Hoping to find people I could connect with, I eventually found and joined an organization on campus called, Vietnamese Student Association (VSA). I made genuine lifelong friends and loved the organization, but being a part of VSA was also difficult for me because I couldn’t help but feel more estranged from my cultural identity as a Vietnamese woman. Here I was surrounded by people who have been together since childhood through Vietnamese church, laughing about shared commonalities that I couldn’t relate to. I felt like an imposter pretending to be Vietnamese because it seemed as though nothing in my life necessarily screamed, “YEAH! She’s Vietnamese!!”
Even though I did not feel feel connected with my Vietnamese identity enough, attending a predominantly white institution reminded me that I was still different. While living in the dorms, I was just the Asian girl in room N333. People would often label me Asian or Vietnamese simply based on my external appearance. Others failed to realize the complexity behind my cultural identity and how confusing it could be. Whether or not I felt like I could identify very well with what it meant to be Vietnamese, it was a label that I was reduced to by people who did not know my story or understand how I had felt about my cultural identity. While with other Vietnamese people, I didn’t feel Vietnamese enough. While surrounded by my American counterparts, I was still labeled as “other”, “oriental”, “more foreign”, or even “exotic.” This caused a lot of internal turmoil because, despite the fact that I felt that my cultural identity was lacking, it was something people still saw me as. It took awhile, but I realized that I had to define what being Vietnamese meant to me. I had to figure out how my experiences growing up Vietnamese shaped my very own definition of what it meant to be Vietnamese to myself.
I discovered defining being Vietnamese wasn’t possible if I was completely ignorant of my people’s history. The best way to learn was by listening to the stories of my parents’ journeys across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. Throughout the years, I have had small talks with my dad that have helped me piece together his story and experience coming to the United States. My dad was only 18 years old when he left Vietnam in 1979, four short years after the end of the Vietnam War. His family originally tried to remain in Vietnam after the war hoping that following the Communist regime would allow them to live in a peace. Unfortunately, regardless of how obedient his family was, the Communist regime took everything away from him and his family. The regime forced them out of their home with a ten minute warning to grab as much as they could to collect in a plastic bag or else they would be killed. My dad, along with half of his siblings, decided it was best to attempt to leave Vietnam despite the fact that death was a possible outcome because they felt like they had no other option. They escaped to Singapore by boat and remained in hiding for four months along with other refugees. Luck was on my dad’s side because the next thing he knew, he was on a plane to a foreign place called San Francisco. My dad and his siblings crossed the Pacific Ocean in hopes of finding a new opportunity to have a life that was sustainable for a future family.
Finding a way to America was only a temporary solution to his problems — he was now faced with new obstacles. Challenges included: learning how to suppress his native tongue when speaking English so people could understand him, learning how to read and write in English to find a job, and trying to fit into a society that seemed upside down from his own. My dad met my mom when she first moved to Colorado after immigrating from Vietnam. Eventually, after getting engaged, they started their family. I was the test child and three other siblings followed after me. Thuy, Phi, Huyen and Kelly. The four of us are products of two strong and resilient refugees. Starting from nothing, they were able to raise all four of their children to be (hopefully) good people. They have given us the opportunity to grow into young adults who can far exceed what they were able to. It makes me proud to know that my parents are the people who raised my generation who in turn, will raise future generations.
Another part of my growth into becoming proud to be Vietnamese was getting involved in VSA. I know that I had mentioned previously that it made me feel more isolated from my Vietnamese background, but it was also a stepping stone to help me realize that I needed to define, “I am Vietnamese” for myself. Through VSA, I joined the Collective Philanthropy Project Campaign Team my freshman year of college to work on raising money and awareness for One Body Village, a nonprofit that supports victims of sex trafficking. I found a sense of pride in being a part of an organization that could unite students from all over the continent to come together for one common goal. It was inspiring to hear everyone’s story and soak in the wisdom older members passed down to me. I felt a strong sense of community where everyone seemed to be supportive and rooting for each other. It made my sense of being Vietnamese more tangible as these were my own experiences rather than stories I heard from my mom and dad.
My understanding of what it means to be Vietnamese is ever changing and grows the more I learn as a student of life. Through what I have learned from my parents’ history and fellow members of VSA, I can be proud to be Vietnamese. I am honored to be Vietnamese because history has shown that our people can be resilient when faced with hardships, driven to create a sense of cohesiveness within families and communities, and are even people who are empathetic with a will to make small and large impacts on society. At the end of the day, even when my Vietnamese can be terrible when I say things like, “mom, the door té xuống” instead of, “mom, the door rớt xuống,” I know that I can be confident when I say, “I am Vietnamese.” And as I learn more every day, I am proud enough to recognize both the highlights as well as the pitfalls of our culture, history and people. Being critical of our culture and its people does not mean that we are not proud or are talking down on it; it simply means that we can also take the responsibility to ensure that we can continue to be proud to be Vietnamese while fixing our mistakes and owning up to our downfalls.
In this next portion, I interviewed my dad who is a part of the generation who lived through the war and immigrated to the United States, my 17 year old sister who is part of Generation X, and my 25 year old cousin who was born and raised in Vietnam but recently immigrated to the United States to pursue a Masters in Chemistry. All three people, although from the same family share very different perspectives on what it means to be Vietnamese. Even through shared experiences and lives, they all have various reasons to be proud to be Vietnamese and different extents to which they are proud to be Vietnamese. It is a reminder to myself and hopefully others that everyone has their own unique experience that shapes their realities of what “I am Vietnamese” can mean. There can be times where there is overlap between stories and experiences, but there are also times where there can be stark differences. The diversity in experiences does not invalidate one or the other definition of what it means to be Vietnamese; it only deepens the meaning and shows the beauty of how much Vietnamese culture can encompass.
Interview of Thuy’s Dad, a Vietnamese Refugee (translated from Vietnamese into English):
Q: Are you proud to be Vietnamese?
A: Not necessarily. Thinking about my country makes me bitter, angry and sad because of the regime and what they did to many people like me and our family. There is a lot of trauma and bad things that my generation has had to go through that I don’t like to think about too much.
Q: Besides the war and the struggles that you’ve had to face because of the regime, are there things that make you proud to be Vietnamese?
A: I am proud of our people. Think of your grandpa and how hard he worked. Think of your mom and look how hard she works. You should work hard like them too.
Q: So you like the hard working character of Vietnamese people?
A: Yes. There are lazy people, but for the most part we are hardworking people.
Q: Why did you fly our flag for April 30th?
A: I want to acknowledge what happened. The war is something that is important to me and I don’t want people to forget what happened or our people.
Q: So you’re saying that we shouldn’t forget our history? Is that what you are trying to say?
A: Yes, exactly. We cannot lose our history or else we lose our story.
Interview of Thuy’s Sister, a Generation-Z Vietnamese-American:
Q: What does it mean to you to be Vietnamese?
A: Honestly, it’s not something I think about too much. I don’t have Vietnamese friends at school so it’s not like I have people to talk to about it. At school, most people categorize me as Asian instead of just Vietnamese so I get grouped up with people who have different backgrounds. I do think I relate to the other Asians at school on some levels, but I would like to have something more specific to Vietnamese people. Seeing you, anh ba, and tu in VSA these past few years have helped me think about it more. I learn a lot whenever I go to your culture shows, even though it is just dances or skits, it is something that helps me be in touch with it, I guess.
Q: Are you proud to be Vietnamese?
A: Yes, there is a sense of pride. On cultural days, I take the flag we have to school. I don’t know where it stems from, but being proud of my heritage is like something I know is a part of me.
Q: Are there struggles that you face with identifying as Vietnamese?
A: Yeah, it comes with good and bad stuff. People think Asians are cool for the most part, but I also have a hard time dealing with the stereotypes and lowkey racism. Remember how last year when I won the election to be Student Body President and [name omitted] said that I only got it because I was a minority? It’s like people forget that just because I am Asian or Vietnamese does not mean that I don’t work hard for the things I earn. I hate that part. Being Asian does not mean that things naturally come to me and people forget that I have my own struggles that don’t magically disappear because I am Asian.
Q: Do you think there is anything problematic or things that you don’t like about being Vietnamese?
A: I don’t think I know enough or a big enough extent to have a true opinion. I know that you complain a lot about how your friends or people you know in VSA can be very lazy or seem to not care about what happens in the world. I mean… I don’t know these people so I can’t really say, but that would be annoying to me too. That would be something I would say Vietnamese people could work on.
Interview of Thuy’s Cousin, recent Vietnamese immigrant:
Q: What does it mean to you to be Vietnamese?
A: I don’t know how to answer that… that’s hard. I think it will be very different from what you would define as Vietnamese.
Q: Haha, true… but I would like to hear your experience since you lived in Vietnam for the majority of your life and have now only lived in Colorado for two years.
A: After moving here, I realized that I am more aware of being Asian and being Vietnamese. People always ask me, “what are you?” or, “where are you from?” It bothers me. I went from being a majority so coming here many people made me feel different or the other. I always answer with, I live in Colorado or I live in Aurora because that is a part of me too, not just being Vietnamese. It is not that I am ashamed to be Vietnamese, I just want people to see me beyond that. People recognize my accent and assume that I can’t speak English or don’t understand it without trying to speak to me first.
Q: Even though you answer to people that you live in Colorado or Aurora, are you still proud to be Vietnamese?
A: Yes, of course! I am proud to be Vietnamese even though there are so many things that I do not agree with back at home. I notice more now that Vietnamese people are very kind and polite. You don’t see that too much with Americans or Asian Americans. It is like a save yourself feeling here in America, but when I was in Vietnam, it was a community and people are very giving. Obviously, besides the corruption here and there, I am still proud to be Vietnamese. Oh, we have a strong sense of family in Vietnamese culture.
Thank you for taking the time to read this piece and I hope that through sharing my own personal exploration into my cultural identity, you too can search for your own meaning without feeling as hopeless or lost as I did!