Tôi Là Người Việt Nam—existing in between cultures

Kimmie glowing up in her áo dài, which is a form of Vietnamese traditional clothing that literally translates as “long shirt.” It is typically comprised of a gown worn over trousers.

It sounds familiar enough to be true. “You’re a Viet-American.” “You’re not really Viet though.” “Do you even speak Viet?” “What’s your Viet name though?” “Wow, your Viet is so good!” “If you were Viet…” And the one that brought me to my knees sobbing: “You don’t have a motherland.” Sometimes I feel like a broken person, like an unfinished painting, too ugly to bother completing.

I often wonder how differently the conversation about my identity would go if I had been born in Vietnam and had grown up there. Maybe I’d never question who I am.  Maybe I’d hate myself less. But I was born in and grew up in Omaha, NE, which was one hour away from the larger Viet community in Lincoln. It was too close to be detached but too far to be included. I remember my childhood home vividly: The mother-of-pearl lacquer paintings were hung directly above the dining table, all the rooms were lightly fragranced with the smell of nước mắm (fish sauce) and  Trường Vũ was always playing loudly from the basement.

My mother grew up in Sài Gòn and my father grew up in a rural village in Sóc Trăng. They met each other in a detention centre in Cambodia after they fled Vietnam. Eventually, my mother got adopted by a family in the U.S. and Canada took my father. They found their way back to each other and then they had me. Their trauma lingers on me like a birthmark. I can cover it up, but I can’t get rid of it. They know what devastation looks like. My father doesn’t know how his brother died. My mother left her mother behind.

Vietnamese was my first language and yet it’s broken. I watch home videos from before English colonized my tongue and surprise myself with my proficiency. My father had always said to me, “Con ơi, đừng bao giờ quên con là người Việt Nam.Child, don’t you ever forget that you are Vietnamese. But 12 years of away from Vietnam made me forget anyway. Eight-year-old me spread gossip all the way down Nguyễn Đình Chiểu street better than she spread butter on her toast. Twenty-year-old me just fights with her mom and says salty catchphrases.

When I feel homesick, I really do long for my home in Sài Gòn, where I spent a majority of my summers as a kid. I miss the blue gate and the tile floor. I miss the couch where I taught myself how to read. I miss standing in the doorway to watch the neighborhood pass by: the ice cream man, the kids selling lottery tickets, the motorcycles, the pedlars. Most of all, I miss my family. I remember the first time my grandmother heard my voice on the phone. I asked her if she was well and only heard labored breathing on the the other end. “Hang on, she’s crying,” my father said. I started crying too.

A lot of people ask me why I don’t feel a connection to where I was born. To be honest, Nebraska is the worst place for a Viet-American. I remember in the seventh grade when my classmate told me to go back to Vietnam where I belong. I said quietly that he massacred my people. My isolation from my peers, along with the detachment from my family, did little to make Nebraska feel like home. But I grew up there, so somehow it’s still a part of me.

But it’s also hard to call Vietnam home. I wasn’t born or raised there. I hold a U.S. passport and citizenship. My friends and family question my authenticity as a Vietnamese person at every chance they get, pick me apart like a specimen, like I don’t already do that. My white name stands out, and everyone gets confused when I say I don’t have a Viet name. I’m only half literate, I can’t spell, and I only know enough Vietnamese to be a good housewife, not a good conversationalist. My identity feels like broken eggshells, and the world feels like a wrecking ball when what I need is glue.

But in the moments I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, I remind myself of my mother. My junior year, the night before a school ceremony, my mother and I were fighting about what I should wear. I was sixteen and awkwardly shaped, and my skin hadn’t been clear since I was ten. I was convinced I was going to be ugly forever. I want- ed to wear baggy clothing to hide my awkward shape, but I begrudgingly followed my mother into her closet and watched as she unwrapped her áo dài (our traditional dress) that she’d brought all the way from Vietnam. She helped me into her dress. “Look, you are beautiful,” she said, and she was right. For the first time, I was staring into a reflection I didn’t completely hate; I saw myself for the first time.

My identity right now is my 16-year-old self: beautiful, just unrealized, trying to fit into a pair of Miss Me jeans when it should be blooming into an áo dài. I’m learning how to better push away the voices that try to alienate me because they don’t have the right to tell me who I am.

So I replace their doubts and my own with my father’s echo. “Con ơi, đừng bao giờ quên con là người Việt Nam.

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