4: Perception

Today, I went to a lecture about the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland. My Vietnamese professor was invited to Poland last summer by this professor to give a talk there, and it seems she has returned the favor.

I have been interested in the Vietnamese diaspora since I took a class about Post-Viet Nam War Literature. The class had focused on history, and we would often talk about the diaspora in Europe. I had a very narrow understanding of the Vietnamese diaspora before, assuming Vietnamese people either lived in Viet Nam or the US. Talk about ignorant, right? I felt grateful for taking this class over the summer, as it had enlightened me about the Vietnamese experience around the world. I became interested in the reasons why they had left Viet Nam, why they had settled where they did, and what it was like to deal with becoming a minority.

The lecture had a lot of political aspects to it, but what had interested me the most were when the speaker elaborated on the Vietnamese experience in Poland. Apparently there is overlap to the experience in the US, such as the perception of them being a model minority, a threat to the job market, even to things like identity and language. By language, I mean the issue of acquiring Vietnamese proficiency, and the perception from fellow locals that they do not speak the language, which, in this case, is Polish. The speaker had explained that one Vietnamese person she was speaking with at a restaurant had complained about how people would assume she was a Japanese tourist, and to top it off– the waiter had spoken to her in English. Never quite accepting that she, too, is Polish. It’s appalling that even overseas, the “perpetual foreigner” idea is prevalent. Although I admit I felt a bit relieved that it wasn’t just me experiencing such an issue.

During the Q/A section at the end of the lecture, there was a fellow Vietnamese American young woman, seemingly about my age, that had asked about the issue of identity in Poland. She went on to explain what her experiences were like here, that she and her friends identify more with being Vietnamese than being American, although they are all probably more Americanized. She had felt that she was discriminated too much to consider herself American. Something along those lines.

That is something that had me a bit frustrated. I was having a hard time listening without feeling a bit upset, and I chose to not speak out in case I would start an argument or be the cause of an awkward mood. Perhaps it was because her thinking reminded me how I used to feel in the past.

Until the summer of 2015, I had always identified myself as Vietnamese. I remember in Japanese classes since middle school, I had always chosen to call myself a ベトナム人 (Vietnamese person) even though that was technically inaccurate, it was how I had felt about myself. Many students would identify themselves the same way, not saying “American” but their ethnic background instead. It was because I felt that if I called myself “American” than that would mean renouncing my heritage, and adopting white American culture.

When I was 12, I vividly recall my teacher scolding me for something like talking out during class. While he was scolding me, I was keeping my head down, feeling guilty that I had done something wrong somewhat unintentionally. Suddenly, my teacher had gotten even more furious. He started to yell at me, “Why aren’t you making eye contact?!” I was appalled. I had no idea what he was upset about. I had been taught by my mother that I shouldn’t make eye contact with superiors because it was considered rude.
It wasn’t until I got a little older that I had realized what was happening in that moment. What I did know was, it was times like that that I had truly felt Vietnamese.

Which brings me to when I had went to Viet Nam with my sister and mother the summer of 2015 for about six weeks, the longest I had ever been to Viet Nam. I was excited since it was the second time I had gone to Viet Nam that I could remember. The first being the previous summer for about two and a half weeks. I had a really good time that summer, seeing relatives that I had not quite remembered, but remembered me, and welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I remember resisting the urge to cry when leaving them last year, so I was really happy to get a chance to see them again relatively soon.

Although, during the summer of 2015, I had encountered problems that were not present the previous summer. Or perhaps they just weren’t as blatantly evident.

I do not have confidence in my Vietnamese language skills. Growing up, I had only spoken to my mother in Vietnamese, and even that opportunity was sparse. My parents had gotten a divorce when I was about six years old, and my mother had worked from 5pm-3am until I was about 12. Although, by the time I was 12, I was at a rebellious age where talking to my mother just wasn’t on the agenda. As a result, my Vietnamese had become a very specific sort of casual dialogue that would be used at home, with my mother. I only had a few cousins in the area, but they spoke English so there was no need to force myself to speak Vietnamese with them. It’s a matter of what’s better for communication after all. It was because of this upbringing that my Vietnamese remained at a basic level, and that I never knew how to speak to anyone but my own mother, who would always know what my broken Vietnamese and strange pronunciation was referring to. It wasn’t an environment where my Vietnamese language skills could thrive. It didn’t help that I started to learn Japanese formally in school at 12. Japanese was beginning to feel like the “other language” that I thought of, sometimes confusing me.

Regardless of this inability to speak Vietnamese at a very high level, I still had identified quite a bit with being Vietnamese. To me, there was more to a culture than just language. I cared about my heritage. I think the traditional dress, ao dai, is beautiful, the food is delicious and my favorite, I cared about my relatives in the area and in Viet Nam, and possibly most of all, I had a desire to improve my Vietnamese and my understanding of Viet Nam and its people.

When I had gone to Viet Nam the summer of 2015, things were different. Of course, overall, it was a fun trip. The problem is that this year, I faced more apparent ridicule. I could understand their upset with me not speaking very much Vietnamese to them, but to me, it was something more than just “being shy” about speaking Vietnamese. Believe me, I could not enthusiastically study another language if I was afraid of making mistakes. To me, it was more about wanting to maintain a level of politeness and to avoid leaving a bad impression in case I had inadvertently said something out of line. Studying Japanese had made me more aware of the subtleties that can exist in a language, and it had made me more cautious of speaking Vietnamese.

However, I could care less about what other people think of me. What had truly festered at me was the fact that these people would blatantly badmouth me in my vicinity, or even to my face, assuming I had no idea what they were saying. It really hurt.

“Do you understand what we’re saying?” “She can’t speak Vietnamese.” “Why does she speak English all the time?” “She isn’t Vietnamese. She’s American.” These were all things people had said about me. All I could do was turn a blind eye to it all, playing the fool.

The one that hurt the most had to be when someone had said I wasn’t Vietnamese, but merely American. Up to that point, I could put up with everything that people were saying “behind my back” per se. That was something that I was sensitive about, and couldn’t quite ignore. I immediately started crying. The person started to apologize, saying she had said it in jest, and my sister had told me that I was being unfair. Even in jest, how could someone say that? It was one of the worst things I’ve been called. It felt like they were renouncing my heritage just because I was trying to be considerate of them. I had never talked back to any of these people because I didn’t want that sort of negative interaction to be the only impression they had of me. I was conflicted, and really had no one to talk to about this. Maybe this was one of the first times I truly felt like “no one could understand me.”

It was when I got back home and started my Youth in Focus photo classes again that I had decided to complete my final quarter by focusing on self-portraits. Self-portraits represent a part of me that I never felt that mere words could express, and meant a lot to me. This quarter, I had wanted to represent how I had been feeling stressed out and down about something I felt powerless to do anything about.

The photo I took with the duct tape was supposed to represent how I felt bound by expectations, with the tape over the mouth because of my particular expectation of speaking Vietnamese well. How does one deal with expectations that are not met, much less ever could be? To this day, it is one of my favorite self-portraits. Expectations are what keeps us bound, something inescapable, something I still somewhat struggle with.

I now see myself as a Vietnamese American. There is no need for me to have to choose anymore. I can firmly identify myself as both now, as I have experienced (among other things I did not mention above) what I see as a truly Vietnamese American experience.


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