I am Vietnamese-American.
I often wonder what that identity marker even means. I also can’t remember exactly when I started to identify as Vietnamese-American or Asian-American.
Whenever I fill out forms, I have this internal battle with myself and wonder if I should mark myself as Asian or if I should ignore that section completely. Why? Well, I know I definitely have straight black hair, tan skin and features that broadcast ASIAN!!@@#@@ to everyone, but I wasn’t born on that continent, and have never been to my family’s home country, Vietnam. But physical appearance shouldn’t be the only trait that categorizes me as Vietnamese-American. Sadly, my appearance does affect how I navigate life, and well, the fact is I’m not White so people will assume that some part of me is not “from here.”
I was born in America, but doesn’t that make me more American than Vietnamese? I didn’t grow up in Vietnam like my parents and other relatives; I grew up and still am living in a weird limbo. At home, I speak Vietnamese with my family and interact with them “the Vietnamese way” by following the rules I seemed to have inherited at birth: respecting my elders, don’t talk about my feelings, wait until my dad or oldest person at the table starts eating before digging in etc.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of that limbo between being American (what does that even entail? I speak English, I was born here, but maybe that’s not enough?) and being Vietnamese (does that just require having Vietnamese parents? Should I have Vietnamese citizenship?).
I guess the term “Vietnamese-American” helps me ground myself in something tangible. But even then, even with this hyphenated marker, I’m still seen as a foreigner. Example number one, the “Where are you from?” conversation.
It’s a classic tale. All the Asian-Americans who are reading this, put your hands up if you’ve experienced the (usually) awkward and frustrating conversation. You know this one, the “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” questions.
For some of us, this question can elicit some internal sighing. It’s a “here we go again” sigh—one day I should record my answer to this question and just play it back to people who ask me where I’m really from. That way, I don’t have to explain my family history to everyone I meet. When asked this question, it’s almost like I have to convince the person asking that I am not foreign and that I am as American as apple pie. I don’t even like apple pie, but that’s a whole other story.
My version of the “Where are from?” conversation ranges from the generic to the surprising. I was recently asked, “Where are you from?” by a Dining Center employee named Charles. If you’re reading this, Hi Charles!
And I answered, “Do you mean where my parents are from…or…?”
And he says the greatest thing ever: “Wherever home is for you.”
I love that response. I really do. Why? Because home can be defined in so many different ways. And Charles might not have realized how much I cherished that conversation that day, but that memory will stick with me for a long time. It’s a memory that shows me that there are people who genuinely care about where you’re coming from, and not at all based on the way you look.
So why am I sharing with everyone this story? Well, I don’t really know the answer myself. I’m still figuring things out and trying to understand myself better. Not just culturally, but academically and socially. But my conversation with Charles made me realize that I shouldn’t feel too nervous or too awkward about my history. I have a complicated relationship with my multiple identities, but it’s a work in progress and I’m working on it.
This is the first article for a column called “Where are you from?” Revisited about identity, race and diversity at Haverford, written from my Asian-American experience. While I will share my own personal experiences, we want to hear your stories, responses and thoughts about identity and diversity at Haverford. Send us thoughts to share with our readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.