It has officially been 1 week since I hopped off the plane and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. This week has been greater than I could have imagined. As we have explored the city and culture, I cannot help but feel incredibly blessed to be here. Blessed to see people who look like me. Talk like me. Eat like me. And experience the world like me… almost.
Before arriving in Vietnam, one of my biggest worries as a Vietnamese-American was becoming a de facto expert on all matters Vietnamese. However, despite fielding questions about food, culture, and becoming a semi-reluctant translator at times, I have honestly enjoyed the role more than I thought I would. For once in my life, I am part of a majority. I have intimate knowledge about the people, food, culture, and language. Coming from a predominantly white institution in Maine, the whitest state in America, it feels incredible to have the burden of cultural assimilation lifted off my shoulders. Furthermore, growing up in the US, I rarely felt like people were truly interested in my cultural heritage. Here, everyone seems so excited to learn about and experience the parts of Vietnam that I love.
In addition, I have been so surprised when people begin speaking Vietnamese to me – whether its in a restaurant, shopping mall, or on the street. Because of my darker skin, back in the US, people are always so surprised when I tell them I am Vietnamese – even some Vietnamese people! I grew up hearing that I looked like I was from other Southeast Asian countries. As a young Vietnamese girl so desperately proud of her heritage, it was difficult and damaging to hear that I didn’t “look Vietnamese”. So, when people ask if I am Vietnamese or just assume, it feels absolutely incredible and validating. Sometimes, after I first speak, I am even told that I speak Vietnamese well. I feel this confidence growing in me every day.
At the same time, there is an unspoken weight on my shoulders. I am Vietnamese, undoubtedly. But I am also “Việt Kiêu” – a Vietnamese person from abroad. As hard as I try, I am still a foreigner. I feel it when I am speaking with my cousin, and I can understand 3/10 words she is saying. Or when I am being asked to translate and I can only recognize 2 or 3 words. Or when I am told my accent sounds more Northern, even though my whole family is from the South. All of these instances and more reminded me that I am still a foreigner to my own culture.
Earlier this week, I experienced the rift between my Vietnamese and American identity. While hanging out with local college students in HCMC, we talked about boyfriends. Both the buddies shook their heads and said they do not have boyfriends, as their parents would not allow them. That’s when I realized how “American” I was. It’s not just that dating is a normalized experience for US college students; its that US college students claim and express a certain level of independence from their parents. While I could empathize with listening to my parents, it was a reminder that my life in the US is different in these little ways, even if I am ethnically Vietnamese.
Till next time!