Bigotry. That’s a bitter sounding word. What comes to mind when you hear that word? Usually, people think of those who are treated unfairly, unjust, and in a demeaned manner because they are something other than the majority race. It’s usually minorities who suffer hostility because people see them as different. In The United States, racism exists. Different forms of racism exist. Right now, you may be thinking, “Hmm… how have Vietnamese people been oppressed?” That does exist to some extent, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the Vietnamese community—how have we oppressed each other? What do I mean by this? I mean, have you treated a fellow Vietnamese differently when you found out that person was unlike you in some way? Maybe they were “too Vietnamese” or “not Vietnamese enough.”
Whether they just came from Vietnam and are trying to make a successful living here, or their family has been here for a while and they just, somehow, have lost the qualities we identify as “Vietnamese”—do you treat them differently? Don’t we still use the derogatory adjective, FOB (fresh off the boat)? Come on. It’s 2011—no one comes off of boats anymore… and they haven’t done so in 35 years! Racism is an interesting thing—sometimes the only way to get away from it is to get away from people you’re “supposed” to be like. People run from stereotypes. It doesn’t just have to be a judgment against you because of the color of your skin—it may also be a judgment against you because you’re not like those who have the same color skin as you do. You’re not what you’re supposed to be.
An ex-student of mine, who will remain anonymous, told me, “I was, like, the only Asian in my school back in Chicago, so the way I am is more white I guess, but it could just be because I’m from another state and everything is just completely different but I’m having some hard times dealing with Asian drama.” I asked him what he meant by “Asian drama” and how that’s different from just teenage drama—what qualifies it to be “Asian drama?” He couldn’t describe it. I’m still curious to know… what’s “Asian drama?” He’s 16. Could he just be misclassifying “teenage drama?” Nevertheless, I felt empathetic to him in not being able to relate to anyone else with my own situation.
I was born and raised as an American, but I was reminded and taught to be Vietnamese. I was taught to be proud of being Vietnamese and have always said I was growing up simply because my father and grandfather told me, “Be proud to be Vietnamese!” It wasn’t until I reached my early twenties when I began questioning my identity and, after a personal discovery, determined that I really was proud to be Vietnamese… and not just because I was told to do so. I enjoy the stories my grandfather and my father tell me. I am proud to know that they fought for freedom to be Vietnamese and because I stem from them—I am proud to know that I have the opportunity to save my Vietnamese blood and heritage through them. HOWEVER… that’s not what people see in me whenever I am in Little Saigon. The older Vietnamese seem to understand me more than my own peers. I was born and raised here—of course, I’m a little different. Older Vietnamese understand that and usually tell me, “…at least you’re making an effort to relate.” My Vietnamese peers who were born here just as I was, however, look at me and wonder, “What is that!?” What’s what?!? I was born here just like you were; I have chopsticks in my house, too—how am I different from you? Well, I don’t eat white rice everyday. That’s not because I’m anti-Asian. It’s because white rice is fattening with absolutely zero nutritional value, and it’s with ultra-salty meats cooked in fish sauce, (thit kho, or cá kho) full of sodium. Stir-fried vegetables?—same reason. There’s just too much salt for a training athlete to be eating. I do eat a lot of vegan Vietnamese foods, though—just not rice. Is that all that makes me different? Or is it because I suck in science and math? No, I’m not that bad in those subjects, I made it all the way through for each of those—I just think they’re boring and uninteresting.
I am classified as a twinkie. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside, soft… and as for me, still in the wrapper, because I was so “sheltered,” and past my expiration date… “spoiled.” I’ve been given smirks and stares that scream, “You don’t know what hardship is! You don’t know what it’s like to be us. You’re not like us.” Excuse me, “us?” We were born in the early to mid-80s! We weren’t born into a harsh, cruel world! We were born into a world of legwarmers, parachute pants, extra-large shoulder pads and frizzy perms! Still… they were convinced that I just “didn’t know.” What else could I do but run away?
As soon as I was old enough, I ran to an all-white community where everyone surfs and has financial advisors and lawyers on retainers. I drive down a street of nannies pushing children in strollers outside their white-picket-fenced, beachfront mansions. I ran as far away as possible from the “Vietnamese minority struggles.” For once in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by Vietnamese—and that made me feel more Vietnamese. Now that I’m older trying to retrace my roots and find myself. I’ve come back to Little Saigon and the Vietnamese community, but I’m lost, and no one seems to want to help me. I haven’t been completely ostracized. People are kinder to me and more polite to me now that we’re all adults. I think they’re too polite—like I’m a tourist. When I eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, I get large fake smiles and nods that say, “Isn’t our food yummy?” Of course it’s “yummy.” I know what it is. I can cook this myself if I wanted to, but they don’t know that I know. There’s an aura I give off and because of it, I’ll never belong. My parents are Vietnamese. I know Vietnamese history. I can speak, read, write, and understand Vietnamese at an intermediate level. Though I didn’t learn these skills until I was an adult—I learned them nonetheless.
I share my culture with my white significant other and friends through stories and the food I cook. I want to stand on the top of the Lexus Daddy bought me, in my four-inch Prada pumps, Express pencil-skirt-business-suit that covers up my Newport tan, holding up my tightened fists and strong biceps acquired through working in the MMA world, blocking traffic on Bolsa in the middle of Little Saigon to scream out loud, “WHAT ABOUT ME?!? I’M VIETNAMESE TOO!”