My Vietnamese identity

I grew up in San Francisco, a cosmopolitan city with a high proportion of minorities. But when we actually examine the Asian breakout of the minorities there, a quick conclusion you’d reach is that the city’s Asian population is primarily Chinese. What does that pretty much mean for someone like Ed or me, mixed ethnicity who identify as both Chinese and Vietnamese? It means for the most part, we’ll have friends and relatives who are Chinese and relate to us in that way, and who know and are exposed less to Vietnamese culture and people. It means that our Vietnamese side gets looked down upon or even ignored. It resulted in people making disparaging comments about Vietnamese language and culture. Because when you are a minority, it is supposedly only natural to have the “survival of the fittest” mentality, that when you are oppressed, you have to find others who are lesser in numbers than your group that you can oppress and look down on even more. Oftentimes people like to associate racism with white people looking down on every non-white person, that white people are the real oppressors, but in truth, and as I have experienced myself, a person of any background can be prejudiced towards anyone else. I had friends and even family say to me that Vietnamese sounds ugly (yes, because Mandarin, Cantonese, and Toisan are like music to the ear!), that Vietnamese women in San Jose were all slutty with their extremely tight-fitted clothing and platform heels that were too high, that Vietnamese men were all gross, gambling drunks. A Chinese ex-boyfriend once told me, “I favor your Chinese side.” What the fuck does that even mean? I asked him what he meant, and he merely responded, “It just means what I said.” I said nothing then, much to my regret now.

In my life, I’ve heard people say that Vietnamese people were the poorest Asian race in the U.S., that they leech off the government with their food stamps and welfare payments after having come over as refugees from the Vietnam War. Sometimes, when they were trying to excuse themselves or be “nice,” they’d end these insidious comments laced with racism with, “no offense.” I never knew how to respond to those comments, so generally, I shrugged them off and didn’t respond much. It also did not help that my dad’s mom was racist against anyone who was not Chinese and looked down on my mother simply because she was Vietnamese from Vietnam. She rejected my mother and didn’t respect her at all, treated her like garbage until she gave birth to my brother six years after coming to San Francisco from Vietnam. She used to scream at her and say she wanted to have her sent back to Vietnam.

The consequence of that racism within my own family resulted in my mother internalizing the bigotry against the Vietnamese, even believing it to some degree despite it being her own culture and identity. My mom also started making negative comments about Vietnamese people both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, saying they could not be trusted. My grandmother didn’t want Ed or me to learn Vietnamese, saying it would be a useless language. Chinese would be the other language we’d learn because there are plenty of Chinese people in San Francisco (granted, we learned Toisan at home because that was the only language my grandmother knew; let’s not bring up the fact that this dialect is not standard Chinese and would be a useless language by global standards to learn. And my mother agreed, sadly. “What use will this for them since they will grow up in America and speak English?” she rationalized to herself. So, we never learned. I didn’t even learn how to say “thank you” or “hello” in Vietnamese until I was in college. She didn’t teach that to me; my Vietnamese friend from Arkansas did. But given I was exposed to the sounds and intonations of the Vietnamese language occasionally hearing my mother speak to others on the phone or in person, I picked up the words and the correct tones fairly quickly.

As an adult, especially in college surrounded by Vietnamese classmates from around the country and even the world, I felt embarrassed telling people I was Vietnamese but could not speak the language at all, not even a basic hello or goodbye. Walking around Vietnam today, I recognize when people ask me if I am Vietnamese because they say I look like I am. What they reallywant to know is if I can speak the language, and they are dismayed when I shake my head or say no. At age 18 at Wellesley, I made my very first Vietnamese friend ever. So clearly, “cosmopolitan” San Francisco was severely lacking in many ethnic minorities. I understood some Cantonese, knew Toisan (actually a useless village dialect of Cantonese), and was learning Mandarin Chinese in college, to speak, read, and write. But I knew zero Vietnamese. At times with my Vietnamese friends, I felt like I wasn’t Vietnamese enough (probably because, well, I wasn’t). But the times when I did feel at home with them was when we talked about food and ate it. I knew most of the dishes, having spent a lot of time in San Jose and Orange County growing up, both areas of the state (and the world) heavily concentrated with Vietnamese populations, but my Vietnamese friends taught me that similar to Chinese culture when certain foods are eaten at certain times of the year, like Tet (Lunar New Year’s in Vietnamese culture) or Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, specific dishes are also considered sacred or special at different points of the year in the Vietnamese community. It was as though I was uncovering a part of my identity I had no idea about through my new Vietnamese friends. Food was the one part of Vietnamese culture that my mom passed onto me. And I literally ate it up one bite at a time. While my brother really only embraced mainstream Vietnamese dishes even non-Asians would be aware of, such as pho or banh mi, I embraced everything she presented on the dinner table growing up. Instead of having “kid” food pre-packed for me at Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, at a very young age, I was given a small bowl with a portion of her pho with extra noodles and squeezes of lime. I loved the traditional braised shrimp and pork dish (thit kho tep) in a caramelized sauce she made, especially with the braising liquid, over rice. I gobbled up cute little banh beo, steamed rice cake medallions originating from Hue, topped with ground shrimp and drizzled with scallion oil as a snack. I got excited when she picked up different versions of che, or Vietnamese mung bean, coconut, and jelly-based sweets for dessert after dinner time. And as a teen when, for the very first time, I had banh xeo, the sizzling and fragrant turmeric, ground rice, and coconut crispy “crepe” that is currently becoming all the rage in hip Vietnamese restaurants around New York City, all I wanted was to eat that (okay, well, that actually isn’t much different from me today).

So, it’s true. I don’t know a ton about Vietnamese culture. I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Vietnamese relatives other than my mom, who felt restricted to not expose it to Ed and me much. I didn’t celebrate Tet or traditional holidays with Vietnamese customs. I know just a few phrases and can say a lot of its dishes properly with the right tone. But Vietnamese culture through its food stays with me. My mom gave that to me. Maybe it isn’t much, but it’s what I have. I love and embrace my Vietnamese culture through eating and cooking its food, not to mention evangelizing both the cuisine to others who have been unexposed to it, and this beautiful country to those who haven’t yet visited it. I’m still reading about it, though, and still eager to learn and see more. I’m still learning about my Vietnamese side because my existence isn’t static. I’d like to think I am constantly growing and learning more… because through travel and speaking with so many different people from various backgrounds, cultures, and birthplaces, I realize more and more how very little I know. But what I’m really trying to say is, I embrace my identity and my mother’s identity even if there are others who have tried to prevent me from doing so. Being Vietnamese is a part of who I am, and I embrace what I am.

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