It was July 2002 when I stepped out of Tan Son Nhat International Airport, and into the streets of Saigon, revisiting my homeland and my past. The heavy humid air bore on me and my skin began forming beads of sweat. Here it was, the Vietnam that I had so missed when I first came to America in 1992 — the noisy crowded streets, the musty air, and the people who spoke my native tongue. As a child, I dreamt about coming back. And here I was, 10 years later, a teenager who had grown up in America.
Back at the hotel that night and sitting next to the windowsill, I peered out my window as the faint voice of a food peddler announced last rounds before she retreated for the night. I observed the scene with the fond heart of a native and the detached mind of a foreigner. The next morning, I awoke to the hustle and bustle of Saigon traffic and looked out my window to see what daylight revealed that the darkness of night could not.
I scanned the horizon and glanced past the streets congested with people on their mopeds and bikes to see a pinkish building jump out at me, apparently a relic of Vietnam’s French colonial past. Girls’ uniform ao dai’s flowed wistfully in the wind as they made their way to school, reminding me of the paintings that people sometimes brought back from Vietnamese tourist traps. Along the edge of the road right beneath my vision, a young man in his dress shirt and slacks rode his bicycle.
As I gazed out at them, it made me wonder what their lives were like. Where were they heading off to? Was she a good student? Was he going to study abroad? What will become of them? These were things that usually escaped my mind when observing people in a place where I lived daily.
People’s faces in the streets were a stark contrast to the metallic shields of cars and reflections from windshields that I saw everyday in America. Being able to see people as living bodies out in the streets instead of just getting glimpses of anonymous beings in their metallic pods lent a faint feeling of familiarity to them. It brought back memories and reminded me of the things I loved most about Vietnam.
I loved the circumambient air, the aesthetic beauty of girls in ao dai, the live faces I got to see on the streets, the fresh innocence of unworldly children, and mangosteens, rambutans, sapodillas, waterapples, and jackfruits. But despite my headiness at re-experiencing my exotic homeland, I couldn’t help being bothered as I recalled the way airport authorities tried to extract money from us as we checked out of the airport upon arrival.
I remembered the officer yelling at me and questioning me repeatedly on my intentions of visiting Vietnam—all because he had not seen any dollar bills slipped into my passport when he opened it. Really? Yes, a petite teenage girl such as myself really held a threat to national security and needed to be questioned over and over again as to why I was visiting. (Dude, that usually happens when you come to a rich country from a poor one, not the other way around!) We finally made our way out, but that incident still stuck with me.
How could anyone be loyal to a place like this? How can I be proud to come from a place where coercive government and domestic abuse still run rampant? Those were the defining questions that guided my identity formation in my teenage and college years.
The truth was, I was never quite sure that I should be proud of my heritage. Although I was fortunate enough to retain my fluency in Vietnamese and enjoyed Paris by Night and Vietnamese food, I wasn’t wholly sure that my heritage was something worth being proud of.
How could I be when I’ve seen what my motherland allowed? The beating and oppression of women bothered me the most since I am a woman. And having grown up in a traditional household where I was expected to do chores while my brothers were not, this kind of subject really spoke to me. How can a woman be proud of coming from a place that treated women as being lesser than men?
As I grew older, my philosophy gained more coherency from its previously fragmented state. Just as I was still an American despite hamburgers, widespread violence in the media, imperialistic foreign policy, and school bullying, I was still Vietnamese whether I liked it or not. My heritage has influenced who I am as a person and how people chose to treat me.
No matter how American my philosophies are, the outside world will always see me as an Asian girl at first glance, and treat me as they have been conditioned to treat an Asian woman. So to me, the importance of knowing where I came from was intertwined with the necessity of learning to navigate the stereotypes that people bestowed upon me. Understanding the source of that stereotype opened up my empathy for Vietnamese women, and for myself. Then I understood that my Vietnameseness ran deeper than the color of my skin or my black hair.
My heritage was to me like a baby is to its mother, and a mother is to her baby. You cannot choose certain things; you are stuck with its idiosyncrasies. But to nurture that which is close to you, you need to see what’s ugly about it to help you rectify the problem or at the very least, not make it an even bigger one. Denying that there’s a problem will not help, yet denying that which is a part of you is to lose the totality of who you are. And so I chose to cultivate my Vietnamese-American identity the same way a great mother cultivates her baby: to accept wholeheartedly what is hers, to nurture that which is beautiful and good, and to call out for rectification the bad behavior.
[This piece started out as a piece on why a lot of Vietnamese-American kids don’t like to speak Vietnamese because they think it is ugly, but my writing took on a different path as I recalled my own shame of Vietnamese culture. There are a lot of factors involved in this shame: peers making fun of Asians, not seeing enough positive representations of Asians in the public eye, not seeing good role models around, not having positive experiences with Vietnamese culture as a child, etc.
But the sources of this shame have been discussed before, and it still hasn’t done enough to encourage Vietnamese American kids to embrace their roots. What is needed now isn’t more dissection of the problem, but more good examples of Vietnamese Americans successfully navigating the two worlds while embracing and leveraging their Vietnamese heritage to live a meaningful life and ways in which we can encourage our youth to do the same. More to come in future posts as I formulate my thinking more on these topics. I encourage you to post your suggested solutions to this problem. Hopefully, as a community, we can help Vietnamese-American kids overcome this hurdle in forming a strong core.]