Like the Hannah Montana of Orange County, I truly get the best of both worlds. On my drive home from work, I can stop for a delicious cup of chè ba màu or a perfectly glazed Krispy Kreme donut, both of which I’m always craving. I celebrate Lunar New Year with my family and July 4th with my friends. I can speak English and Vietnamese fluently, which comes in handy when I want to discreetly say something inappropriate in public.
Today, I’m proud to be Vietnamese American.
But it wasn’t always like that.
During my freshman year of college, one experience temporarily blurred that vision.
It was a Thursday night. I lightly pressed on the pedal, inching my compact car toward the spot about to open. When suddenly ahead, a tan, rumbling SUV rushed toward me at a speed much too fast for a parking lot, at an unsteady trajectory, and with an anger which did not match its surroundings. It came to a screeching halt right before my front bumper.
A frustrated middle-aged woman strode out, leaving a man behind the wheel and a small child buckled in the backseat. I could even make out the rips of their leather interior from where I sat. She glared at me from the hood of my car. Next, her mouth opened and a slew of sounds dispersed… All I heard was static. She approached the driver’s ajar window, and only then did her words registered.
“Move, Ching Chong.”
“Go back to your country!” she screamed, as the man in the SUV eased into the space I had been waiting for. Afterwards, she snickered.
I had never been purposefully disparaged for my race before that experience. I had never been denigrated by the color of my skin, the slant of eyes, or the shape of my face. For most of my academic career, I was celebrated for my victories as a minority in the American education system, but this woman, who I could not will myself to retort even one word to, possessed the ability to wield me shut.
It was then that all the other aspects of racial bias in my life culminated into an overwhelming anxiety: the unhumorous jokes about eating dogs for dinner; “What kind of Asian are you?” asked innumerably throughout my lifetime; and the final straw for me, the perception of weak Asian females and undesired advances by men.
A singular event precipitated this spiral of depression for me. A single person turned pride for my heritage inward. It only takes one.
But through many discussions and a series of self-reflective moments over the years, something has clarified for me: This is my country.
No one, but myself, gets to validate my feelings and experiences – I am fortunate to share and live out both cultures. While the ways in which I was raised may have contributed to shaping my identity, it’s also how I have decided to perceive myself. It’s not the small, material things which I take advantage of – it’s that I have actively tried to broaden my world perspective and form a duality between my Vietnamese and American sides. I’m as equally Vietnamese as I am American, but it’s the crossover of those two which sets me apart from that woman and everyone else who ever belittled me. This personal affirmation has been most empowering feeling I could ever have bestowed upon myself in this lifetime…
Tiny changes in diction leads to major changes in thought. Regardless of political party, socioeconomic status, or religion, we are all human and should be treated as such. I learned that even in the most daunting of situations, I can and will find a way to make something great out of it. And regardless of what ethnicity you are, that’s one of the qualities you need to survive anywhere: optimism. The belief that you can be a part of a chain reaction towards racial equality should propel you forward, as it has for me.
This time, my foot’s fully pressed on the pedal.
Check out Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: https://asianpacificheritage.gov/