Dear Asian Youth,
“I’m Chinese,” I tell him, the words flowing almost instinctively from my mouth. It’s a line that I’ve come to know intimately, and at this point, the words “I’m Chinese” in response towards “so where are you from,” or “what are you,” are practically automatic. The other boy nods politely, curiosity seemingly satisfied, and offers his own background with a matching smile on his face. “I’m Vietnamese,” he responds. I flicker my ebony eyes over his face, taking in the familiar Vietnamese features I can spy.
“Oh,” I say, interrupting him with a slight curl of the lip, “I’m Vietnamese as well!” Upon his mildly perplexed expression, I add “Half.” I clarify that my dad is from China and my mom is from Vietnam. He nods again in understanding, and we continue on with our conversation.
I don’t think I ever talked to that boy again, and I probably never will. I was ten then, a short, stubby fifth-grader with too much mulch on her shorts and too many ribbons in her hair sitting in a school that held an unusually large amount of Asians. Although in reality, most of them were just Chinese.
I am fairly certain that was the first time I had met another person of Vietnamese descent (other than my cousins) and that is likely the only reason I can remember the brief encounter even after all these years. That incident was one of the first times I had told someone I was Vietnamese.
It’s interesting, curious even, that I used to only tell people I was Chinese. Curious, because there was no logical reason behind my blatant disregard for half of my identity. I was neither embarrassed nor ashamed to be Vietnamese; I had simply not recognized myself as one. I grew up learning how to mold my tongue to the sharp accents of Chinese and how to shape my hand to smoothly fit a pair of chopsticks in between my fingers. My baba would speak to me in the tongue of a country on the other side of the world while my mom would speak to me in the curved tones of English.
I grew up hearing the sweet caress of my mother’s voice that often carried a soft Vietnamese lilt to it, but I never grew up hearing exactly where that accent came from. I attended a Chinese school every Sunday, surrounded by an entire community that came from the same place my dad did, but my mom was the only Vietnamese person I knew for years to come.
So when people asked me what I was, I’d instantly respond with “I’m Chinese,” because to the me three years ago, five years ago, and ten years ago, that was all I was. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hide the fact that I was Vietnamese; if anything, ten year old me was actually weirdly proud to be half Vietnamese. There was something rather appealing to a fifth grader about being “mixed''. Even so, almost nobody knew I was Vietnamese and that was largely because I had essentially “forgotten” about that half of me.
I have a lot of regrets, and this will always be one of them. I regret that my eight year old self never asked or whined to my mom about how I would love to hear her honeyed voice speak to me in the soft rounded curves of Vietnamese. How I’d like to learn how to twist my tongue and imprint it with the language of her childhood home. Of course, I have the opportunity to do that now, but it is regretful that I had spent such a long part of my life unable to fully appreciate every aspect of my heritage.
The fact that my mother’s culture may get lost in my ignorance and obliviousness frightens me. It is a terrifying thing to know that my mother who sacrificed her home, her country, and her family, in order to come here, may lose even more. My beautiful mom, with her tanned skin adorned with faint wrinkles like fresh laundry, with her elegant fingers that brush through my hair at night and leave affection in the wake of her caresses, I hope that she knows that I carry the few Vietnamese words I know like she carries that jade bracelet on her left hand the color of forest leaves. I hope that she knows that I carry the few memories I have of going to the temple with her as preciously as she carries that gold Buddha against her slender neck.
I hope that she knows that I will no longer forget who I am and where I come from.
Cover photo source: https://www.holidify.com/pages/vietnamese-culture-1318.html