Honestly it sounds ridiculous if I were to tell you all this, but when I was little, I literally did not know I was Asian. It wasn’t until I was about 6-8 years old that I realized I was not white.
When my parents first came to America, they lived in Chinatown, New York because there was a huge group of people who shared their identities. However, my dad landed a job in Virginia and so my parents immediately moved right before I was born. Growing up in the suburbs of Virginia (where you only see picket white fences, brick houses, animal farms, trees and more trees-- pretty much the typical American scenes you see in landscapes paintings), I rarely saw any Asians or Asian Americans during those late 1980s and early 1990s.
Therefore, it was not easy for me to embrace my identity as an Asian American, especially as a Chinese-Vietnamese American. Growing up I always felt split due to the multiple history narratives. While I heard bits and pieces of my parents being Vietnamese Boat People, I actually had no idea what that meant. More specifically, I did not realize that the Vietnamese Boat People term also includes other groups such as Chinese immigrants; it was not until alter that I learned my Chinese side of the family also escaped due to constant persecutions (their businesses were taken away and Chinese schools were shut down). In this regard, their side of the story is often removed from the discourse as well.
Seeing how there’s a platform for people to come together and hearing all these wonderful voices of people who share a similar history and journey—it makes me feel less alone and also really proud of being Chinese-Vietnamese American. I think this website’s concept creates dialogue and can be a great way to bridge different communities and the diaspora created by the war’s aftermath.
I really identified with the narratives in this website because my mom is ethnic Chinese but born and raised in Vietnam, and because of the umbrella term Vietnamese Boat People, sometimes people forget or don’t know that it actually encompasses a wide range of groups who fled because of war and/or persecution. People assume that because both my parents came from Vietnam, they had similar upbringings or even cultural beliefs and practices; that’s not true at all.
Growing up, I straddled the various spheres of my identity, sometimes very well (like being able to move fluidly between Vietnamese, Chinese, and American circles) and other times running into complex situations that made me feel different and alone. For instance, there were a lot of times when I told people I was Chinese and Vietnamese, the Vietnamese people would look at me with pity or say, “Oh,” and the same with Chinese people. If I did something strange, my “other” identity was blamed: “Your hair is so weird – must be that Vietnamese blood.”
The biggest indicator of my Otherness however is how I speak Cantonese and Vietnamese. My mom grew up in Phu Xuan, Nha Be, a district in Saigon with a big Chinese population. Her family originated from Hainan, China, and so she grew up speaking Hainanese and Vietnamese, and later Mandarin when she started school. Her family actually did not speak Cantonese until they arrived in America, where Cantonese was the more popular Chinese dialect, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite it not being her native tongue, my mother raised me to speak Cantonese, but my Cantonese is not the standard Cantonese you would expect to hear in Hong Kong or other Cantonese-speaking regions, but rather a form that is infused with Vietnamese pronunciations and jargon. Also, my Vietnamese is more like the one spoken by Vietnamese and Chinese communities in South Vietnam, making it a little strange when I visit with my dad’s family who is from Central Vietnam and speak with a Hue accent. I used to feel that I had to apologize for my weird inflections and intonations, but I finally realized that the way I spoke was what connected me to the Chinese-Vietnamese community at large, and I couldn’t be more proud.
I was so excited to come across the Narrating the Chinese Vietnamese Identity website because not only was it sharing in PYD’s goal of giving a voice to a community, but it also spoke to me on such a deep and personal level. Please check it out!
Creator: Francesca Huynh
About Us (blurb taken from the website):
This project focuses on the experiences of the Chinese Vietnamese (also known as Hoa people or ethnic Chinese in Vietnam) who settled there and how nearly one million refugees from a world away had come to call America their new home.
Having grown up on stories of escape, I was inspired by my family's story and many others whose walks of life were cut from the same fabric.
Through this project, I explored questions such as:
How do you navigate and construct what it means to belong within multiple historical narratives? In what ways have multiple narratives of history and place shaped the perceptions of how we understood identity?