Moving to Vancouver, not only did I find myself displaced from Toronto, the only city I have ever known, but also from one of the two languages that I was capable of speaking. The lengthened physical distance placed between my family and I pulled me further away from the culture I grew up with. I no longer had anyone within my daily life to speak Vietnamese to, and almost immediately, I began to feel my mother tongue atrophy from the lack of use.
This was the first time I felt the urge to retain my Vietnamese identity, a desire that previously eluded me. I grew up resenting that part of me. It felt burdensome, a hindrance to the person I wanted to be. I was forced to spend my time afterschool in language classes, and on Saturday mornings, my sister and I had to wake up at seven to be driven to weekend math and English study groups half an hour away. I was always sour about it because all I really wanted to do was watch Saturday morning cartoons, and be able to contribute to the conversation when the topic of Digimon was brought up on the following Monday at school.
I was also deeply jealous of my classmates’ Lunchables™ make-your-own nachos, and would beg my mother to purchase them for me at the grocery store. I think I offended her a bit with each request. She would often wrinkle her nose and tell me that stuff was garbage at best. She told me I should be more grateful because most kids didn’t have mothers who loved them enough to wake up every weekday at the crack of dawn to put their lunches together before heading off to work.
I asked my mother to send me some family photos, to which she replied, ‘there are too many cute ones,’ and proceeded to send me fifteen emails in a row.
In high school, I was surrounded by a number of upper-middle class white kids. I felt awfully inferior and ashamed of my family’s less prosperous financial situation, so I never invited friends over to our home. When they asked, my excuse was that my parents were uncomfortable with visitors that they did not know personally. When surrounded by my friends while on the phone with my mother, I would speak Vietnamese to her, even though she was more than capable of conversing in English, just to amuse them with the strange fluctuations in my voice. I didn’t realize how detrimental my whole high school experience was to my self-esteem till it was long over.
It took a distance of two thousand miles for me to come to realize how geographically concentrated and contained this part of me was, and how little I actually understood the culture. I grew up with customs and beliefs that had been completely taken out of their context…not that this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a strange realization, like you’ve been navigating the streets with a completely different map, and you haven’t really looked up and noticed that the streets don’t properly align till now. My family has always been heavy handed with their values, but I suppose that is just what happens when one is involuntarily displaced. They cling to the familiar as a method of survival, to avoid the culture shock of an entirely new world that reduced everything they were into a single supermarket aisle where fish sauce was wedged between jars of butter chicken sauce and sheets of nori. I think this is something very prevalent in Vietnamese cultures especially. When navigating through many North American Vietnamese pho joints, it’s common for many immigrant owners to mark the year of their arrival in the restaurants’ names (Pho 88, Saigon 75, etc.). It is a signifier of a fierce devotion to one’s roots.
My parents have told me stories of their previous lives back in Southern Vietnam, and most of them revolve around the theme of hardship: Famine, communism, people shoving gold up their rectums. These stories made up the bulk of my previous understanding of the culture from which I hailed. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing of Vietnam’s history till recently. I have only started to engage in texts pertaining to the subject and I have enjoyed every moment of it thus far. With this minimal amount of effort, I feel as if I am finally able to slowly unfold myself and figure out what makes me tick.
My father (centre) and his siblings.
Vietnam’s history has been 3,500 years in the making and is a uniquely complex one, filled with countless wars and conflicts. It is a chaotic story that has become almost impossible to read. I mean this quite literally. Previous to French colonization, the Vietnamese alphabet was written in a variant of Chinese characters. Less than hundred years ago that it was succeeded by the Roman alphabet. Today there only remains a handful of people left who can read the original script, and countless older documents remain indecipherable. Due to this incident, the people of Vietnam have looked at their past less like a layered palimpsest and more like a clean slate, which has caused great amounts of tension throughout the country over the ‘correct accounts’ of certain events. I read about things like this and wonder if my parents are just as confused as I am about the Vietnamese identity. Maybe they are also wandering blindly with obscure maps.
My mother does this thing where she’ll whip out an intense childhood story out of nowhere while you’re in a public place with her. The one story I remember most vividly was recounted to me while we were sitting in a mall food court. She somehow considered this the perfect opportunity for her to share with me the story of the first time she ever took a life. Her grandmother was a strict Buddhist and believed the act of killing, whether animal or human, to be an immoral offense; as a result, her family never did their own butchering. But my mother, at this trying time early in the war, was tasked with killing one of their pet chickens. Once she caught the animal, she put all of her weight onto the hen’s back as it writhed wildly beneath her. With one foot stamped on its wing and one shaky hand pulling its neck taut, she slit its throat in one brisk motion. And as the animal slowly bled out, my mother closed her eyes and prayed to God for forgiveness.
My mother, age 16
Despite the difficult lives they both endured in their youth, there have been very few times my parents have openly shared their experiences. My father is a man of few words and comes off as very nonchalant about most things. His journey to Canada was a harrowing one filled with multiple trips to prison, identity theft, and sinking boats. “I don’t know, it was just something we had to do,” he said, shrugging before going back to watching Wheel of Fortune. Communication can be a difficult thing in my household.
There is a language barrier that exists there. (My understanding of the Vietnamese language is purely conversational; the same goes for my parents’ English.) My mother, upon reading my last article, encouragingly said, “I didn’t understand a lot of the words you used but I thought it was really really good!” Our clashing values and ideas have also lead to many tense conversations and outrageous arguments. Our dinners together are eerily quiet without the sounds of the television in the background, but this is something we have grown accustomed to. When we eat out, the conversation is painfully forced and we all look like we are having the worst time of our lives.
My sister has a lot of anxiety about her future children. It only takes three generations of immigrants to fully assimilate into a new culture. She is scared that this integral part of her identity will be lost to her children and they won’t be able to understand the feeling of ‘otherly-ness.’ As the bridge between two contrasting generations, she is afraid of being the one to burn that already fragile link. Is it possible to successfully connect the two? Does one accomplish this through language and food, or something else entirely immaterial and implicit? As much as I would like to think so, food and language, though imperative, have not been enough for my sister and I to feel as connected as we would like to our mother and father.
My mother also refuses to learn how to use the scanner, so all of these images are photos of photos taken via her iPhone. (Thank you, mom.)
Every now and then, you read something that rings irrevocably and utterly true to your sense of self and are left feeling completely overwhelmed by its salience. For me, one of these moments came from Soleil Ho’s brilliant essay “Craving the Other.” I have spent of good chunk of my lifetime struggling to articulate the gross amount of feelings and confusion I have towards my cultural identity, and Ho does this in the most eloquent and effective way possible. Upon first reading the paragraph below, I immediately burst into tears:
“Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, often claims that to know a culture, you must eat their food. I’ve eaten Vietnamese food my whole life, but there’s still so much that I don’t understand about my family and the place we came from. I don’t know why we can be so reticent, yet so emotional; why Catholicism, the invaders’ religion, still has such a hold on us; why we laugh so hard even at times when there’s not much to laugh about. After endless plates of com bi, banh xeo, and cha gio, I still don’t know what my grandmother thinks about when she prays.”
Our strength as a family is not through verbal articulation and mutual understanding, but we love each other all the same and it shows. Every time I go home, my mother makes me put together a list of everything I would like to eat while I’m there. And every time, my list brims with a multitude of Vietnamese dishes. It has become a new tradition for her to have a freshly made bowl of bun bo hue ready for me on the kitchen counter every time I arrive from the airport. Growing up in such a family, I have come to associate the greatest type of love with food. For me, there isn’t a greater expression of love in existence than the concern for the nourishment of one’s physical body. There is a lot of cultural conflict and doubt that comes with the title of second-generation immigrant, but I have come to replace my feelings of contempt with pride when it comes to this turbulent identity. Perhaps, as a family, we will never come to understand one another, but I am trying and I know they are as well, and that is all I can really ask of them.