Am I Vietnamese? Or American? I am a Vietnamese American.
I was born and raised in America, so I am not an immigrant. However, both sides of my family immigrated to America during the Vietnam War. They faced all kinds of challenges when they arrived and had to start life all over again with very few possessions. Both of my grandpas were involved with the South Vietnamese Army, and when Saigon fell, they had to escape immediately. Had they stayed behind, neither side of my family would be here today. I was fortunate that they came to America, where I was born.
From the time I was a teenager, it has been challenging at times to practice two different cultures simultaneously. My parents taught me how to speak Vietnamese as my first language, which affected how I assimilated into American society. Growing up with Vietnamese as my first language was difficult. My English was poor, so I had to take English courses in elementary school to catch up. I spent many hours each day outside school practicing reading, writing, and speaking. I took the initiative to speak English with my classmates even though my pronunciation and meaning weren’t always correct. My mistakes helped me improve. This self-discipline helped me develop into a better English speaker. I’m sure many others in the U.S. have faced similar early experiences or know friends and family who had to go through grasping the language better.
My grandma never learned English. She speaks Vietnamese and it is difficult to learn about her life and communicate with her whenever we’re together.
I ended up adopting English as my main language to speak, read, and write every day. As a result, I became a weaker Vietnamese speaker, to the point where I can no longer read or write the language. This adds a layer of alienation to my culture because I can’t read the Vietnamese newspapers, watch Vietnamese movies, or fully understand my uncles and aunts when they speak. My grandma in particular never learned English. She speaks Vietnamese and it is difficult to learn about her life and communicate with her whenever we’re together.
It has also been challenging to understand traditional Vietnamese practices. When I attend family events and meet a new person with my parents present, I’m accustomed to the American handshake. My parents tell me the proper greeting is to cross my arms, bow, and nod slightly. It’s something simple yet somewhat uncomfortable for me to do as I’m deeply immersed and assimilated in American culture, mannerisms, and practices.
Moving away from traditional Vietnamese practices, along with my inability to speak, read, and write Vietnamese, has created a barrier between me and my parents and their siblings. One way I’m addressing this is by spending thirty minutes each day learning Vietnamese online and with the language app Duolingo. I am committed to eventually becoming good enough to regain my understanding of the Vietnamese language.
Moving away from traditional Vietnamese practices, along with my inability to speak, read, and write Vietnamese, has created a barrier between me and my parents and their siblings.
Despite all these challenges, growing up in the Bay Area has made life a lot easier as an Asian American. I am generally surrounded by other Asians and we share similar traditions, struggles, and identities. While this is no doubt a comfortable environment, I now understand that this has limited my development to become a more widely cultured person. Because I am comfortable being surrounded by other Asian Americans, it is not always easy to understand and appreciate the customs, foods, practices, and perspectives of other cultures.
Starting in high school, I began taking the initiative to gain as many cultural experiences as I could. This includes making friends with people of different backgrounds to traveling around the country and the world. I often see groups of similarly cultured people associate and hang out with “their own types”. Whether it’s at school or in the corporate world, I see many others who like to stick with who they are comfortable with, which often means people of a similar culture.
I’m amazed but not surprised to see this trend continue in the workplace. I’m optimistic the future will look different as our society today is changing at an everlasting pace. I try to buck this trend as much as I can. In a few decades, people of all backgrounds will not only work but mingle with others daily. Learning about different cultures enriches my life because it allows me to view things through a different lens. I’m able to understand my acquaintances and friends better if I can place myself in their shoes. This results in closer bonds to one another and is important for me professionally and personally. Plus, it makes each day more memorable as I’m learning something new.
Being a person of color and a minority in America comes with many challenges. There are expectations and stereotypes as a result of social pressure and societal norms.
Being a person of color and a minority in America comes with many challenges. There are expectations and stereotypes as a result of social pressure and societal norms. From having to be good at math to being exceptional at everything academically, I’ve had to face a strict upbringing by my parents. It was hard being compared to my cousins and other family friends when it came to academics and extracurriculars. I have overcome this by leaning on my support group – friends, family, and especially my high school and college counselor. As a result, I was able to motivate myself rather than having my parents motivate me in a forceful manner. When I entered college, I developed a mindset of working hard and doing things for my own happiness first before anyone else. If I fell victim to pleasing my parents all the time, I would’ve felt miserable. I am starting to do what I feel is best not just for my family, but for my legacy as well.
While many of these challenges are difficult to come to terms with, I now realize that they are a blessing in disguise. There is so much more for me to discover about myself, as well as about the struggles my family members faced as immigrants. Keeping on this path of continuous growth and learning will bring me closer and closer to finding the most authentic version of myself.
One thing for sure, despite these challenges, I’m grateful to have all the experiences I have today. Without my family, I would be nowhere close to where I am. We all have someone in our family who has made personal and professional sacrifices which helped lay a foundation for us to succeed.
I find it effective for self-development to practice immense gratitude each day. Regardless of what happens in my life, it is always my attitude towards it that matters most. Although I find my cultural identity to be a struggle at times, I try to keep an open mindset – that way I can continue to grow and understand new perspectives. I have also learned throughout my life how important it is to surround myself with positive people whether it be family members or friends.
My challenge for you, the reader, is to explore new aspects of your own culture along with other cultures. You might learn a new thing or two that will completely change your views on life and the world. Simply learning more about my grandpas’ involvement, pain, and sacrifices during the Vietnam War helped inspire me to try my best at whatever I’m working on every day.
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