As 2010 winds down, I look back at the year as a whirlwind of exposure and enlightenment for me as a young Vietnamese American. This was the year I came to realize really who I am and to embrace my culture like never before.
To understand who I am, you have to know my roots — which I suspect aren’t different from a lot of other Vietnamese Americans my age.
I was born in 1978 into a family of Vietnamese refugees who were living in a city in stark contrast to that of Viet Nam. Although Portland, Ore., was similarly green in terrain for most of the year, a blanket of snow covered any signs of familiarity during the long winter months. My parents’ unfamiliarity with white snow somehow echoed their unfamiliarity with white people.
They longed to be near their own people and all things familiar of their proverbial home in Viet Nam. My parents ultimately decided to move further south with my brother and me, where the weather was much more reminiscent of Viet Nam and the people looked more like them and less like foreigners. We initially lived in the Canal area of San Rafael, Calif.
The area was known as the Vietnamese ghetto back then, but, in hindsight, it was a necessary stepping-stone for upward mobility for our family as well as many other Vietnamese refugee families in Northern California. We shared a small three-bedroom apartment with eight other Vietnamese people to make ends meet.
After eventually saving enough money for a down payment on a house, my parents moved to a better part of town with fewer Vietnamese people, but still within a short driving distance of their Vietnamese friends. Six Vietnamese bachelors moved in with us — three in each of the two bedrooms — so that my parents would be able to pay the monthly mortgage.
My brother and I slept in twin bunk beds in the Vietnamese makeshift bedroom that was technically the American dining room while my parents slept in the garage that was intended for cars and not people. Friends and family continued to move in and out of our home over the span of five years. We eventually moved into a bigger house much further south in a suburb of San Diego.
A little closer to Little Saigon
We officially had become Southern Californians. My family now lived about an hour south of Little Saigon in Oceanside. It was 1989 and I was finishing my last year of elementary school. Shortly after moving, we started traveling to Little Saigon as a family every weekend to stock up on Vietnamese groceries for the week.
Our day excursions during junior high eventually became weekend excursions during high school as my parents became more connected to the Vietnamese people in Little Saigon. Over time, my family developed a routine for our weekend visits. We would arrive on Saturday mornings and always commence the weekend with an inviting bowl of beef noodle soup at Pho Hoa. My brother and I had no problem finishing the pho tai xe lua, one for each of us.
Well-fed, my family would move on to do some leisurely shopping at Phuc Loc Tho before meeting up with family friends later that evening. We would spend the night at various homes after my mom and dad stayed up until to the wee hours of the morning chatting with their Vietnamese friends. Sunday mornings would involve packing up and shopping for Vietnamese groceries prior to returning south.
Little Saigon back then was a regular weekend getaway for our family. It gave my brother and me a dose of Vietnamese culture that would last us throughout the week — just enough to remember our roots and our people. Unfortunately, Little Saigon became more of a novelty when I started my undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, in 1996.
I rarely returned to Little Saigon and even less so when I started my doctoral studies north at the University of California, Davis. I instead gained increased exposure to the Vietnamese community abroad first back in Viet Nam when I spent three months improving my Vietnamese, and then later in France when I was on a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship to improve my French.