When you see me for the first time, you will notice that my skin is tan, my face is round, my nose is flat, and my eyes are brown.
You will immediately identify me as such: Asian.
If we strike up a conversation, you may or may not ask me, “Where are you from?” And if you do, I will answer, “Los Angeles.” But chances are that that will not be the answer you were expecting (and we both will know it), so you will ask for a different one, an expected one, and I will go on to share my family’s entire immigration story with you.
If you had instead asked me, “what brings you here today?” and we had been in line for the Mexican food truck, you would have learned that carne asada burritos were a family favorite that I was craving. Or if we had been at a jazz club, you would have learned that I once knew how to play the bass guitar. Or if we had been somewhere on Penn’s campus, you would have learned that my dream career is in health policy research—because I believe in easily accessible, quality healthcare for all Americans.
If you had instead spoken a language that was color-neutral, then you would have accepted that I am of a certain race, a race different from yours, and not denied that I have had experiences unique to people of the same race as me. You would not have subconsciously made assumptions about the cultural foundations that make me who I am. You would have given me the time and space to articulate my thoughts on my culture to you and give my experiences their own shade.
But because I will have spent most of our short conversation on only what you wanted to hear, you will not have learned about what I am doing today or what my dreams are for the future. For every time that I will have tried to explain, in my own words, what my culture means to me, I will have seen a look of disbelief on your face.
So before you even try to ask me anything about my race or culture, let me try to convince you of the roles they have played in my life:
I was born in Los Angeles. One family living next door was black, the other white, and across the street Latinx. I attended a large public high school that, by today’s standards, was racially diverse. That said, self-segregation on the basis of race was the norm. I do not know why it had to be that way.
I sought change for my life after graduation. I found a college, my beloved Haverford, on the opposite coast that sees itself as a community, and whose members are self-selected and strive to uphold the values of “trust, concern, and respect.” The implementation of the Honor Code is by no means perfect, but it is as good as it gets.
What I failed to expect was the “culture shock” I would experience outside my college’s bubble, on the streets of our nation’s first capital, soon after my arrival. If Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, it has a weird way of showing it.
“Do you speak English?”
“Where are you really from?”
Folded hands. Bow.
“Do you ever go back?”
The bombardment of unsolicited questions, remarks, and gestures has become an almost daily occurrence. I am walking on the sidewalk, when I hear the name of someone’s hometown or a modern-day hero be turned into a racial epithet and shouted at me. Or it is in a conversation with someone I think could be a new friend, when I realize that to them, my whole being amounts to their perception of my race—rather, my ability to provide the expected answers to their questions about it.
And when I answer that yes, I speak English, I am asked what my first language was, or what I speak at home. When I answer that I’m really from Los Angeles, I am asked where my parents are from. When I say that I don’t ever “go back” to Vietnam, because I don’t even come from Vietnam, I am told, “you know what I mean,” because apparently, I don’t look “American enough.” Or I am told that I have an attitude, for not giving the answers that I had been expected to give.
Let me be clear: In not providing the expected answers to those prying questions, I am not expressing shame over my family’s background. I am not trying to shed my identity of all traces of my roots.
I am proud—unbelievably proud—of my family. In 1975, at the very end of the Vietnam War, my parents and their families fled as refugees—boat people—to the U.S. They had lost relatives and friends who had bled and drowned to death because of a senseless war of political ideology. What had once been home to them had been completely destroyed. What lay ahead were the horror of weeks at sea and months at a refugee camp and an inkling of hope that the future might get a little better. And it did.
Their story is the prologue to my own story. That said, I was not there when they immigrated 20 years before I was born. I did not overcome the adversities that they did in order to survive. Their story of success, in making it out alive and then adapting to life in the U.S., is theirs alone, not mine. And how they choose to define their culture is up to them, not me.
My own story begins in Los Angeles, my hometown, when I was born. My parents’ culture, however they define it, is a prelude to my own culture, but I myself never had direct contact with the culture from over 40 years ago that existed in pre-war or wartime Vietnam. I wasn’t alive then. What I have had is contact with Vietnamese-American culture and the cultures of other first- and second-generation Asian Americans: those whose parents or grandparents immigrated from somewhere in Asia, who were born and raised here, who may or may not identify with the cultures that their parents grew up with, and who probably have to deal with the same nonsense like this, every day that I do; the cultures of first- and second-generation Americans whose parents had immigrated from other places other than Asia; and finally, the cultures of those who say that their families have been here “forever.”
My culture, as I define it, is a blend: the food I eat, the music I listen to, and the things I read come from different places and communities of people living in the U.S. that I have encountered since I was born.
Now, let me ask you: what brings you here today?