At bedtime, most parents read their children fairy-tales. They immerse them in everything from the magic of Cinderella’s ball to the Big Bad Wolf’s powerful huffs and puffs to Peter Pan’s crazy adventures in Neverland. Most parents openly show their affection towards their children, swaddling them with warm hugs and soft kisses and “I love you”s around the clock. Most parents would beam over their children’s drawings and shower them with compliments when they achieve something. Most parents are present for the majority of their children’s early years. Most parents. Mine didn’t quite get the memo. Especially my dad. Instead of myths and fables, I was raised on a diet of war stories and tales of struggles I’d never be able to relate to. Instead of being thrown up into the air and carried around for piggyback rides, I was more likely to be placed in the middle of the woods and expected to find the way out. By myself. At night. Instead of exhibits of affection every day, I saw my dad mostly on weekends, but even then, he was busy and always on call; to my childhood self, it seemed to me as if his only priority was working, and because of that, I’ve always thought of him as cold and heartless. Welcome to life being raised by refugee parents. Approach with extreme caution at all times or you’ll be attacked with explosive arguments and two-hour stories describing how dangerous the world can be.
I’ve always known that the place I come from is a not-so-typical household. It’s sort of hard to miss that fact when there are twenty-one South Vietnamese war refugees in the family—my four grandparents, seven uncles, eight aunts, and both parents. However, it wasn’t until the age of four that I heard my first stories about War life.
For a long while, I’d been begging the writer and poet of the family, my aunt, Hạnh Đoàn, to tell me some stories from her works and finally, after hundreds of puppy eye displays and annoying begs, she gave in. Though her tired eyes pulsated with worry and apprehension, uncertain of what my opinion may be, she began to work through dozens of pages of short stories, poems, love letters, diary entries, and prayers, detailing some of her most intimate thoughts and ponderings. She narrated elaborate tales with incredible power, from the violent hunger she constantly felt to the chilling moments when she had hidden her nine siblings as North Vietnamese officials boarded the ship looking for escapees. I remember crying. Something about those stories touched me, and at that moment I garnered a deep fascination for my family history. “Nói nữa, Di Hạnh!,” (“Tell me more, auntie!”) pleaded my 5-year-old self. Little did I know that I would later resent those stories and how different my family was from others.
Like many Asian-Americans growing up in the United States, one of the first struggles I encountered was accepting my heritage. When my little brother and I were younger, we loved everything about being Vietnamese, from the food, the language, the festivals, and our grandparents, to all the wonderful stories my parents, aunts, and uncles told about their lives and journeys. Then, I began school, and it became clear that we were one of the only Asian families and the only Vietnamese family in town. Slowly, resentment replaced my love as I began to realize how different my cultural heritage made us. I began to notice the way it caused my brother and me to be the subjects of dozens of jokes and teases that no one with an actual sense of humor would laugh at though seemed to be a source of endless humor to our peers.
An awful aspect that comes with being Asian-American is having to face a boatload of stereotypes. Some of my peers couldn’t seem to wrap their mind around the fact that my Asian mouth speaks more than math, science, and computers. I recall a time in third grade when my classmates fought over me to be their partner in a math contest. When I asked my final partner why he wanted to work with me, he replied, “Because you’re Asian, so you’re good at math.” That statement struck me as extremely confusing, and I could hardly contain my composure at the ridiculousness of it. I remember thinking, “Jokes on him — I’m absolutely terrible at math.” Needless to say that after our performance in the competition, he never again dared to stereotype me as a “math nerd.”
Eventually, my little brother entered school, and I began noticing the same changes in his attitude towards being Vietnamese. It started with him asking my mom to make more “American” food for him at lunch and his refusal to use chopsticks in public. Then, it progressed to a point where he would refuse to speak Vietnamese at all with me whenever others were nearby. As a result, I began to change my own views of our identity in an attempt to protect him and to instill in him some pride. I didn’t want him to feel the way I had felt in my first years of school — ashamed for no reason other than the judgment of our unaccepting peers. So, when other children would pull their eyes back to the narrowest possible positions, stick out their tongues, and speak in incomprehensibly bad “Asian” accents, we’d laugh at them instead, marveling at how “they’re like crazy animals who’ve escaped from the zoo.” And I started to speak Vietnamese with him in public again, making it “our cool secret language that no one else can understand.”
Despite overcoming my own identity fears, being Vietnamese has demonstrated a whole additional layer of ignorance in America that I have had to face. Growing up, I especially dreaded introductions as peers would always turn them into games of guessing what Asian ethnicity I am.
“What are you? Chinese, right?”
“Then Korean? Japanese?”
“Oh wow, I’ve never met a Vietnamese person. Where is Vietnam even?”
Though I’ve never minded telling others that I am Vietnamese, I’m always been unnerved by the lack of knowledge many people demonstrate regarding Southeast Asian-Americans and Southeast Asia. While many are eager to walk up to me and assume that I’m Chinese or Japanese, feeling the need to show off their skills or how well they know those countries or languages, the eleven countries of Southeast Asia are very rarely mentioned. I’ve been mistaken for being Chinese so many times that it has become somewhat “impressive” to me whenever someone recognizes that I’m Vietnamese, even though my last name is the most common Vietnamese last name. It’s like being known worldwide by a nickname I didn’t come up with, an identity that is not mine. While I may have a real name and prefer it greatly, everyone immediately decides to use that nickname without even asking me if it’s real. One memory of this was in my eighth grade Spanish class when we were learning how to express our likes and dislikes. The teacher had asked the class, “Who likes Chinese food?” I raised my hand up high because Chinese food, and she responded, “So, does your mom make it well?”
Arguably, though, my most difficult battle is coming to terms with the fact that my parents are refugees, and that an experience I never shared has tremendous influence in my life. Whether I like it or not. For example, I learned recently that I have earned a fully-funded scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study Arabic abroad for six weeks. I got only two words out to my dad, “study abroad,” before he went berserk, telling me to decline it immediately. He didn’t even open an ear to hear my numerous reasons and tedious research. “Ryan, no. This is crazy! What if a war breaks out? You’d be killed. You don’t have the life experience that I have. I survived a war for God’s sake. I know how governments can be. Let me tell you a story…” I absolutely despised this type of argument, and to some extent, I still do. I hated how much control experiences entirely foreign to me have on my life. It’s like having chains on your legs, controlling which movements you’re allowed to make; the only thing, however, is that these chains are hundreds and hundreds of miles long, so long that you can’t comprehend why something so distant has you on its leash. I will never be able to completely understand my father’s perspective as a refugee from the Vietnam War. There’s no doubt about that. After hours of contemplation, arguments, and pondering though, I’ve started to see that such decisions, whether it be juggling three jobs or relaying his life story for the thousandth time, are rooted somewhere in his discreet, but existing, love and desire to protect my brother and me.
I may have wished so before, but I realize now that I would never, could never adjust the way my family runs or who we are. I have come to realize that hating something I could never change exhausts me much more than embracing it, and I have decided to welcome my family’s deep history and identity, exploring and researching them in a positive light. I’ve even begun to create short stories, poems, and a short film regarding these topics. Once again, I am finding myself intrigued by my family’s stories and culture, as much as the little five-year-old me who lived a decade ago was. This time though, I’ll welcome our uniqueness with open arms and keep them open in spite of how different it makes me from others. The ability to overcome hardship, persevere through fear, and ultimately succeed is something that one should be proud to have in their blood. My life might not have started off the usual way with fairy tales detailing Jack’s brave defeat of a giant or the way Hansel and Gretel boldly outsmarted their kidnapper, but with time, I have learned that it doesn’t matter. Why? The best and most inspiring characters I could ever imagine already live with me at home.