At my university in Scotland, people often assume that I’m American. If you’d mistaken me for an American four years ago, I would have been flattered, but now, I’m not so sure. When asked where I’m from now, I would always respond that no, I’m in fact Vietnamese, but I also follow up by saying yes, I did go to boarding school in America for four years.
I have usually daydreamed about my experience in both the United States and in Vietnam for the past few years, but I could never have imagined that constantly navigating two different environments that are half the world apart has both informed and perplexed my life.
In Vietnam, I’m known as “that kid” who goes to an American boarding school; in America, I’m known as “that girl” from Vietnam. The incongruity grows more noticeable throughout the years despite my efforts to close the gap. As my stay in America and my observations of American people’s interactions began to dominate my worldview, they also began to cloud my Vietnamese identity.
Nam Le, the Vietnamese-Australian author of the critically acclaimed book The Boat once gave a speech about his search for identity in which he joked that his grandfather was Bruce Lee. When questioned why their last names are different, Le responded that they were both boat people, and they could not take everything with them, even vowels. Like Le, each time I travel inside a metal tube going back and forth between America and Vietnam, I lose grip of the Vietnamese language. I started to forget: what was asparagus called in Vietnamese? My sentence structures became fragmented: adjectives now preceded nouns, and personal pronouns did not hold much meaning anymore. Friends and relatives back home even started to comment that I was acting less and less Vietnamese every time I came back. Was I still Vietnamese, or was I slowly becoming American?
Even though New Jersey and Hanoi are separated by an approximately eighteen-hour plane ride, to me, the two worlds are not that far apart. People may view me differently when I am in the U.S. versus in Vietnam, but I always view myself as the same person. I never did and will never fully belong in both places. I was never fully Vietnamese, for people always thought I was a different kind of breed for knowing so much English. I know I will never fully become American either, for my accent still shows itself when I have strong emotions; I still slip up using taking a shower or taking a bath when I try to express that I want to cleanse myself of the emotional burdens I carry as a de facto fresh-off-the-boat girl from Vietnam. There were always cultural gaps I could not fill no matter how hard I tried to fully become American.
In the aforementioned speech, Nam Le also talked about ventriloquism. People would always be so surprised upon hearing his voice; a voice so Australian could not have been uttered from a man with a face so Asian. He confessed to feeling like a ventriloquist and a dummy at the same time: a ventriloquist because while his face screams Vietnamese, he possesses this voice from elsewhere that sounds Australian; a dummy because that voice is uttered through his own mouth. At the end of the day, I also consider myself both a ventriloquist and a dummy. People in America always seem to think that my American accent and my Vietnamese face are somehow supposed to be mismatched.
In another short story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, Nam Le asserted, “The thing is not to write about what no one else could have written, but to write about what only you could have written.” While Asian-Australians and Asian-American writers like Nam Le tell their struggle to connect with their Vietnamese roots, my story is of a Vietnamese girl trying to find the perfect balance between her Vietnamese-ness and American-ness. Despite the jarring misalignment between my two identities, I am determined to harmonize them through the power of writing.
Thanks to my vast array of multicultural experiences, my stories will not only have characters named Katherine, Jessica, Jake, and Brandon, but also Toàn, Nghĩa, Hoa, and Phương. I will tell American and other international readers my stories about Vietnam, showing them viewpoints they do not get to see because of the government’s censored media. Many people say ethnic literature is trendy, is “in,” and they urge me to write stories about Vietnam. It’s the easy way out, they say. You can write stories that sell just by retelling your own life, life of a minority. People dig it. But I know for a fact that writing about my own life is not the easy way out.
Can I even be absolutely sure of my own life story, of my own identity, when the brain has a way of editing data input and warps my own perception of reality? After all, “only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is,” according to Annie Dillard in her essay “Sight into Insight.” And even if I had a perfect memory, would I have the courage to tell my story when Emily Dickinson, one of the pillars of American poetry, suggested that we should “tell the truth but tell it slant?” But I choose to stand my ground. It takes integrity and courage to tell the absolute truth about oneself, and I will have to force myself to examine my experiences and then adeptly fit them into a bigger picture to which people can relate. Equally as important, I will not whitewash my story to cater to American and international readers.
There are Vietnamese kids out there who study abroad like me, shuttling between Vietnam and America trying to make sense of themselves. And I will tell them the truth: it is okay to be confused for now. It is okay to be lost for the moment. It is okay to not be sure whether you are more Vietnamese or more American, for your identity is not one, but diverse and multiple. I will continue writing to let people know that they are not alone, that someone else has also felt the same feelings of uncertainty and insecurity about their identity. I hope to help many others fall into security slowly, then all at once, one story at a time. Then I might be able to reconcile the duality of my identity, and so will all the kids out there who are caught between two worlds.
So now if you ask me whether I’m Vietnamese or American, I will let you decide however you want. Because the most important thing to me, at least for now, is not to decide whether I am more Vietnamese or more American, but to be confident in loving and embracing both the cultures that have greatly shaped the person I am today.