As 2010 winds down, I look back at the year as a whirlwind of exposure and enlightenment for me as a young Vietnamese American. This was the year I came to realize really who I am and to embrace my culture like never before.
To understand who I am, you have to know my roots — which I suspect aren’t different from a lot of other Vietnamese Americans my age.
I was born in 1978 into a family of Vietnamese refugees who were living in a city in stark contrast to that of Viet Nam. Although Portland, Ore., was similarly green in terrain for most of the year, a blanket of snow covered any signs of familiarity during the long winter months. My parents’ unfamiliarity with white snow somehow echoed their unfamiliarity with white people.
They longed to be near their own people and all things familiar of their proverbial home in Viet Nam. My parents ultimately decided to move further south with my brother and me, where the weather was much more reminiscent of Viet Nam and the people looked more like them and less like foreigners. We initially lived in the Canal area of San Rafael, Calif.
The area was known as the Vietnamese ghetto back then, but, in hindsight, it was a necessary stepping-stone for upward mobility for our family as well as many other Vietnamese refugee families in Northern California. We shared a small three-bedroom apartment with eight other Vietnamese people to make ends meet.
After eventually saving enough money for a down payment on a house, my parents moved to a better part of town with fewer Vietnamese people, but still within a short driving distance of their Vietnamese friends. Six Vietnamese bachelors moved in with us — three in each of the two bedrooms — so that my parents would be able to pay the monthly mortgage.
My brother and I slept in twin bunk beds in the Vietnamese makeshift bedroom that was technically the
American dining room while my parents slept in the garage that was intended for cars and not people. Friends and family continued to move in and out of our home over the span of five years. We eventually moved into a bigger house much further south in a suburb of San Diego.
A little closer to Little Saigon
We officially had become Southern Californians. My family now lived about an hour south of Little Saigon in Oceanside. It was 1989 and I was finishing my last year of elementary school. Shortly after moving, we started traveling to Little Saigon as a family every weekend to stock up on Vietnamese groceries for the week.
Our day excursions during junior high eventually became weekend excursions during high school as my parents became more connected to the Vietnamese people in Little Saigon. Over time, my family developed a routine for our weekend visits. We would arrive on Saturday mornings and always commence the weekend with an inviting bowl of beef noodle soup at Phở Hoa. My brother and I had no problem finishing the phở taí xe lửa, one for each of us.
Well-fed, my family would move on to do some leisurely shopping at Phuốc Lọc Thọ before meeting up with family friends later that evening. We would spend the night at various homes after my mom and dad stayed up until to the wee hours of the morning chatting with their Vietnamese friends. Sunday mornings would involve packing up and shopping for Vietnamese groceries prior to returning south.
Little Saigon back then was a regular weekend getaway for our family. It gave my brother and me a dose of Vietnamese culture that would last us throughout the week — just enough to remember our roots and our people. Unfortunately, Little Saigon became more of a novelty when I started my undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, in 1996.
I rarely returned to Little Saigon and even less so when I started my doctoral studies north at the University of California, Davis. I instead gained increased exposure to the Vietnamese community abroad first back in Viet Nam when I spent three months improving my Vietnamese, and then later in France when I was on a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship to improve my French.
The Vietnamese community, for me, has expanded beyond the U.S. borders into other nations and my experiences abroad have given me a more global perspective of our Vietnamese people that transcends Little Saigon. I began to wonder about whether the Vietnamese experience in Little Saigon echoed the Vietnamese experience in other countries or if it was something particular to the United States.
These lingering questions inevitably led to my return to Little Saigon as a participant-researcher investigating a cross-national comparison of Vietnamese refugees in the United States and France. I recently stayed in Little Saigon from July to November and had arrived into town still very naïve about the Vietnamese American community.
All the books I had already read on the Vietnamese experience in the U.S. and abroad were nothing in comparison to being completely immersed into the community. Prior to arriving in Little Saigon, I was able to spout out random statistics and facts on the Vietnamese in the United States, but I never fully could explain what it was like to live in the unique ethnic environment of Little Saigon.
So I moved in, living with family friends and leaving my husband behind in Florida to pursue my doctoral research. In Little Saigon, I found out that it was much better and easier for me to speak in Vietnamese rather than English. I was more likely to be understood and more likely to get a good price on goods if I spoke in Vietnamese.
With my dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, I also looked like everyone else around me. This was most obvious when I attended a Vietnamese Catholic Church in the area for the first time. From the front of the church to the very back, I noticed a sea of black hair in the pews. The only non-black-haired person was a guest speaker from another Catholic church, who probably felt like a foreigner that day — much like I had my whole life.
There was so much for me to learn about Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon even though I am Vietnamese American. During my four-month immersion, I was wide-eyed and ready to hear from all the different voices in the community that I used to only encounter on the weekends.
I quickly discovered how surprisingly divided the Vietnamese American community could be: the first generation vs. the second generation; the educated vs. the non-educated; the Vietnamese vs. the Chinese Vietnamese; etc. There were so many different ways one could slice the community.
It was obvious after several months of living there that the Vietnamese American community was at a pivotal point in its history as the second generation was rising in influence and relations were improving between the United States and Viet Nam. Many from the second-generation were potentially lacking the anti-communist fervor imbued in their parents.
I began to question the growing generational divide among Vietnamese Americans and what it meant for the future of the community. The recent protests against Đàm Vĩnh Hưng — a famous singer from Viet Nam believed to have close ties with the communist regime — suggested that the staunchly anti-communist sentiment was still very much alive within the Vietnamese community in the United States.
However, the increasing ties offered through more recent mediums such as the OneVietnam Network — an online community connecting Vietnamese across the globe including those in Viet Nam — implied that some people were more open to links between the countries.
I was forced to think about how the Vietnamese Americans as a whole — both the first and second generation — can move toward the future while simultaneously respecting the past.
There have been increased economic ties to Viet Nam through remittances and investments from overseas Vietnamese over the years, especially after the U.S. embargo against Viet Nam was lifted in 1994. However, many are still very careful to keep it purely economic and not political in order to avoid criticism from fellow refugees.
I, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, have inherited the transnational tightrope that my parents and many other Vietnamese Americans continue to walk on a daily basis.
Currently as a participant-researcher and later as a professor, I can only hope to have enough wisdom to use the knowledge I garner over the years for the betterment and advancement of our Vietnamese community.
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