The Vietnamese American Identity, by Nghia Le

Identity

If you have talked to me in the last 2-3 years you may have noticed that I have been in 1) an identity development overload and 2) a continuous reflective state. I guess they go hand in hand a bit. The VIA-1 theme “Bridging Identities” and this past UNAVSA-12 staff retreat has got me thinking about my Vietnamese American identity and why it has been important for me to continue to reflect on all pieces of that identity and why I think it is important for all of us to as well.

When I think about bridging identities I think about being both Vietnamese and American. We Vietnamese American millennials are that bridge between these two identities. Most of our parents immigrated to the US as war refugees and most of our parents spent their childhood in a land much different than ours. We are unique in the Vietnamese community as we are some of the firsts to be born and raised here in the US. That means that the experiences we had going to schools where the students and teachers didn’t look like us or having friends that didn’t look like us were the first of our families. You could say we are pioneers of the Vietnamese community.

This is why it is so important for us to think about our identity and what it meant to grow up Vietnamese American with Black, White, Latino, and non-Vietnamese Asian peers.  My parents did not know that sending me to school with a tupperware container of ca kho would get me outcasted in my very own classroom and lead me to resent one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes and ultimately my entire cultural heritage. My parents didn’t know that they would need to prepare me to face the harsh prejudices and bullying of classmates in high school. My parents did not know the penis stereotype, they did not know that a teacher would joke about me having SARS, they did not know neighbors would yell “ching chong” as I walked by, they did not know I would be told that my family eats dog, they, luckily, did not have to experience these growing up in their homeland. We have had the experience, we know how it felt, so then how will we help prepare future Vietnamese Americans for that same experience?

We cannot prepare future generations without reflecting on these experiences and understanding its impact on ourselves. I consistently examine how these experiences have been internalized in my personality and how they manifest themselves in my actions. I ask myself what values and pieces of my identity are truly me and what pieces have been created by what others tell me I should be or assume I am. It has been surprising how much has been the latter. Those pieces that I believed were me have impacted how I interact with others in friendships and particularly with romantic relationships. Everyone is different and those that are stronger may be truly themselves even through the racism, but it is important to know which you are. (this might even be me internalizing this as weakness when everyone actually just deals differently :-/)

But really, it is important for us to have conversations about the identity and the Vietnamese American experience. When some really messed up racist shit happens to you or your friend, don’t just get pissed and talk about how fucked up it was-let yourself be vulnerable for a minute and say damn that made me think this ___ about myself, you may be surprised how long that will stick with you if it is kept inside. Better yet you may be surprised by how many of your friends felt the same way. (But yes, still recognize its fucked up)

Or when you get called out on something that is deemed racist/prejudice/insensitive take a second and think about why it is you think that way rather than immediately going on the defense. You may again be surprised by where it comes from or that you actually have no idea why you have that value or viewpoint.

These are the conversations that will help dismantle the racism before they are internalized and damage us. They will not only allow us to understand ourselves more but allow us to be more open and understanding to the experience of others. In turn making us greater mentors for the future of our community by being the bridge between these identities.

Oh and I like to write haikus so here is one:

The real me is in
Here somewhere, behind all that
I’ve internalized.”

By Nghia Le – http://kneeuhlay.tumblr.com/

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