Up next: the “motherland”. Supposedly. This will be my first time visiting Vietnam. It has been at the top of my destination list for a long time, but now that I’m almost there, I don’t know what to expect or what I want to get out of visiting it.
I have always had a tenuous relationship with my racial identity. In the literal sense, I am fully Vietnamese; both of my parents are refugees from the Vietnam War. But I was born and raised in Longmont, a decidedly homogeneous population where there were only a handful of other Asian-Americans while I was growing up (my brother and Raymond). I do not speak Vietnamese; my parents didn’t teach it to us for fear that it would impede our English. They did their best at integrating us into American culture to the detriment of any link I had to my racial heritage.
I grew up not really understanding how I was different from the other kids (I just checked a different box than everyone else did), but as I got older, the culture clash became very apparent and, at times, painful. I make jokes about being “white-washed” or a “banana” or “twinkie” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside. NO, WHITE FRIENDS, YOU MAY NOT USE THOSE PHRASES), but I’ve always been acutely aware of how my appearance has set me apart from those I consider my own.
While I feel like and include myself as an American (I sometimes refer to myself as American-Asian instead of Asian-American to emphasize that point), there are still other Americans who meet me and are surprised at how well I speak English (here’s a hilarious take on this common occurrence to Asian-Americans — yes, this happens a lot, and yes, it is offensive). Even if other white Americans consider me one of them, my experience as a minority will always be distinctly different from theirs on account of skin color. I don’t see this as good or bad — it’s just the way things are. We all play the various cards that we are dealt.
In terms of morals and values, I was raised pretty “Asian” or Eastern: socially conservative, stoic, obedient, studious, quiet & demure females, heavy emphasis on education, family-oriented (as opposed to the individual). Many of these are in direct opposition to American culture, and none describe present-day Lisa well. Perhaps the only stereotype that fits me is that of the crazy Vietnamese girl with homicidal rage bottled up just under the surface that could unexpectedly explode on you. That wild Viet temper is inextricably in my blood.
I am unmistakably Asian in physical appearance (see below) but retain little in terms of culture. I know nothing of Vietnamese traditions or customs. Embarrassingly, I can’t even use chopsticks well — other Asians cringe when they see my technique! So, I am an outsider to both cultures — the exotic American or the lost Viet girl. I am neither here nor there. I have never fit neatly into any category.
Many people have asked me if I am really excited to visit Vietnam since that’s where I’m “from,” but to me, it isn’t much different than any other Asian nation we’re visiting. I will resemble the people there, but their language, customs, and traditions will be foreign and strange to me. I am not aware of any remaining relatives in Vietnam and have no roots to pursue. Sad? Perhaps. But our roots can only tell us so much about ourselves, and this nut fell pretty far from the tree. How much can I expect to learn from a place where I am connected by only a very thin, fraying thread?
I don’t know what to expect from our trip in Vietnam. It seems to be a traveler favorite (with a few vehement exceptions), and I am certainly excited to explore it more than other countries based on that reputation, but I don’t know if or how our visit will change how I feel about being Vietnamese-American.
the generic asian
Apparently, I look like every type of Asian except for Vietnamese. In the US, I am used to people doing the rounds: “Chinese! No? Japanese! No? uhh Korean! No? ummm what else is there?” (here’s your second chance to watch a hilarious re-enactment of a common Asian-American experience).
I have also been guessed as Singaporean, Thai, Malay, and Laotian. I always chalked it up to white people just not being able to tell the difference, but whenever I travel abroad, people are still confused by me. The difference is that they all want to claim me as their own.
In India, people asked if I was from their northeastern region, close to China. Here, several people have asked if I am at least half-Filipino, though most have guessed full Filipino. One guy even spoke to me in Tagalog, assuming I knew it (I didn’t even realize he was talking to me, oops). The Japanese guessed Japanese, perhaps out of politeness, but I could tell they didn’t believe it and knew something was off.
Often, when traveling, I use this to my advantage. If I’m traveling with white people, I’m much less of a target than they are, and I can easily swim away from touts or pretend that I don’t speak English. It is much easier for me to blend into the background than it is for Matt.
The real test will be in Vietnam: my relatives always told me while I was growing up that I don’t look Vietnamese, and that I more closely resemble Chinese people. Let’s see what the people of Vietnam think.
Recap: people don’t really know what to do with me.
- So, you’re 100% Vietnamese but born in the US…? But you don’t speak any Vietnamese? and you’re traveling with this white guy… for a year… and you’re NOT dating…?