Updated: 7 days ago
Dear Asian Youth,
I’m Vietnamese-Canadian. Bicultural, if you wish. Co-existence has not always been the case for my identities as a Vietnamese family member, but as a Canadian student. The battles of my plurality during my early years—questions of religion, food, appearances, and language, of general “differentness”—brought more shame than a child should have to bear.
I’m seventeen years old now, a senior in high school, and I don’t feel this way anymore. I bear it proudly. But this is what it was like trying to come to terms with all parts of me at much too young of an age: ashamed.
Ashamed. In kindergarten, a girl asked me what “religion [my family was]”. I was five years old and all the religion I saw on TV was Christianity, if at all. I knew we weren’t Christian. I didn’t know what our religion was called! All I knew was that my parents and my grandmother went to an Asian temple every Sunday; they prayed, offered, and came home with vegetarian spring rolls. At our house, we lit incense and I would clasp my hands together, staring at the statue of Buddha and chanting, but not understanding a single word from the prayers that came out of my mouth. In Vietnamese, we call this “đạo Phật”—what I now know as Buddhism: a religion that aims to eliminate suffering, bringing peace to oneself and the world. But at the time, I didn’t know...and that made me ashamed. How was I supposed to explain Sunday spring rolls and bowing compared to Christianity? It was so different. So I shrugged and told her we weren’t religious. “No!” she laughed. “Everyone has a religion.” Everyone has a religion? So why didn’t I believe in mine? Hell, at the time, I didn’t even understand mine. When I fell silent, she stared me up and down and said finally, “There’s only two religions. You’re either Christian or Muslim.” I remember being beyond confused. I had never even heard the word Muslim at that point, so I smiled and lied: “I guess I’m Christian” and that’s what I let her believe until high school. I went to a predominantly white elementary school; I was one out of maybe five Asian people in my graduating class. No white kid knew what Buddhism is. Ashamed.
Ashamed. Second grade was the first time I noticed my food was different. It looked different, it was packed different, it tasted different, and most importantly, it smelled different. Vietnamese people like their soups. Their noodles. And, we like our sauces. My parents had packed me phở one day (something I would kill to have as lunch now); the broth and meat sat in my bright red thermos, the noodles in a blue plastic container, and the soy sauce on the side. When I opened it for lunch, a boy sitting next to me glanced scornfully at my thermos then back to his friends. “What’s that smell?” he asked, nose upturned, obviously knowing what the smell was. Then, he took a large bite out of his pearly white, unscented sandwich. That, my friend, is the proud scent of cinnamon sticks, coriander, cloves and a bunch of other spices that start with ‘c’ that go into the broth. And you, if only you knew, would grow up to love my country’s food. He probably doesn’t even remember this, but I do. I quickly shut the thermos, embarrassed, and shoved it deep into my backpack. Good thing I hadn’t opened the soy sauce yet, I thought. I didn’t have lunch. I stole a few bites from my friend’s milky white tortellini and that was it. When I got home that day, I told my family I did not want any more Vietnamese food in my lunches. “Nothing smelly, no soups, no noodles, no sauces, no fish,” I specified. “And no weird fruits either. I want sandwiches.” Let me clear something up: I hated sandwiches and I hated ham even more. But still, I ate sandwiches and grapes for lunch every day that year. In fourth grade, my school held an annual potluck. “Let’s make fried rice,” my aunt suggested. “No!” I immediately cried. “Let’s just bring rice krispies.” Everybody brought a desert. It was supposed to be a lunch, but I was so obsessed with keeping my culture apart from my school that I had said no. And my family’s fried rice is God damn delicious. Ashamed.
Ashamed. The second Mr. B taught me how to read in English, I was off. I loved books. I read obsessively, finishing almost several books each week. When Halloween of 2013 rolled around, I wanted to be someone from Divergent. No one looked like me. I wanted to be someone from The Hunger Games. No one looked like me. I wanted to be someone from The Selection. No one looked like me. Finally...Harry Potter. While my friends got to decide between being Ginny, Hermione and Luna, I got to be the token Asian character, Cho Chang. “She’s the perfect character for you,” my friend commented. Her finger lifted and she awkwardly pointed to her eyes. What did she mean by that? The Asian girl in her white little school? The one with a difficult last name? A studious nerd who fit perfectly into the description of ‘Ravenclaw’, whose only personality trait was studying? All of it? At the time, I was proud to even find a character who looked and was like me. But after that, I felt reduced only to my race. I know the word for this now: tokenism. Stereotypes. Ashamed.
Ashamed. My aunt used to volunteer as one of those parent supervisors on field trips. She’d speak to me in Vietnamese because, frankly, that was just easier for both of us. When she did that, other parents would look our way. Perhaps it was out of curiosity, but I always took it as disgust. What didn’t help was the fact that a little four year old (and it should be noted that four year olds don’t have filters) had looked up at us and asked her mom, “Why does she speak like that?” Horrified, I turned to my own guardian. “Speak in English,” I hissed. “And stop pointing at people.” Vietnamese adults have a habit of pointing at people. It’s not a rude thing in their minds, but when I went to daycare with my Western teachers, it became a rude thing in mine. It was disrespectful. Dirty. Impolite to point at people. She spoke to me in English. It was weird and unfamiliar, and even though we were both uncomfortable, a twisted part of me felt better. More accepted. Even though this happened many years ago, she still speaks in English when my friends are around and she rarely lifts a finger in public. Ashamed.
I wasted too many years worrying that the things that make me special were the things that made me weird. It’s rare that I feel shame about race nowadays, but the thoughts ingrained in my head since childhood will sometimes grow into blooming trees and consume my mind—just for a moment, and then I’ll look to my friends who look like me, TV shows where I identify, and remember that progress is being made. It’s a slow and conscious and continuous process, but to be a part of it is what keeps me going and decimates the feeling.