Column: How I lost my cultural identity, then found it again

My parents thought that teaching me Vietnamese would hinder my academic performance. And yet, by omitting it from my childhood, they had unwittingly destroyed something else: my confidence.

Vietnamese died with my parents’ assimilation in the United States — to the masses, straying from anything “American” made immigrants unintelligent and unwelcome. In many ways, that is still the case.

A confused, ethnicity-less infant, I gladly took English’s extended hand. I said “I love you, mom,” never “Con thương mẹ.” I ate Corner Bakery chicken noodle soup, not phở gà.

Learning to speak is supposed to be a beautiful thing, but in hindsight, my process was heartbreaking.

English was my childhood for a reason, though. Its vowels are soft and kind; “happy” or “love” roll off the tongue with ease. It is the scent of baking brownies wafting through the house, it is the freedom of the gas pedal on Irvine’s open roads. English is warm, as bliss and whimsical as a summer’s day.

However, the Vietnamese left my mouth bleeding with its jagged edges. I could never properly tell my grandparents to “ngủ ngon,” or sleep well, with my untrained tongue.

Vietnamese was the reminder that I was unwelcome in the very community that bore me. I coughed up the broken shards until I eventually relented, careening back to English in my distress.

As such, my parents began to patronize me. They would act surprised if I understood simple Vietnamese commands, calling me “cute” if I replied in their tongue. To them, I was just the poor little American girl, no matter how good I thought my pronunciation was.

In middle school, I had enough of feeling ignorant.

I began closely listening to my parents’ Vietnamese conversations. I paid attention to their complaints about the water bill and the terribly boring small talk at extended family dinners. Slowly, I recalled Vietnamese from deep within my memory.

I could remember how to tell someone to do their homework or that they have a doctor’s appointment. In my mind, longer phrases congregated with tiny household ones until I made sense of conversational Vietnamese.

Over time, I demonstrated an increased ability to understand the language.

My parents would address me in Vietnamese, and I would reply in English. I could listen to my parents talk to my grandparents and summarize what the conversation was about. But, I had not yet mustered the courage to speak: no one wants to be laughed at when they talk, no matter how endearing it’s supposed to be.

I enjoyed my skill level in high school. I caught my Vietnamese friends’ snarky complaints and quiet swearing. I wasn’t the most Vietnamese person on the planet, but I was acceptable. Passable. Less embarrassingly uncultured.

Then came college season, where everyone is sent into a deep existential crisis about their future. I was no exception, but for a different reason.

Upon starting your application, the Common Application asks you to identify the languages you speak as well as your proficiency in them. Just a few days ago on August 1, the portal opened for the class of 2021.

I was pretty calm at first, as the profile section was standard procedural information. Alas, I didn’t think twice when starting the language section.

English. First language, spoken at home, speak, read, write.

Spanish. Speak, read, write.

Vietnamese.

I felt the hollow pang of the word in my chest. How embarrassing.

Reluctantly, I marked: spoken at home, speak.

It felt like a complete and utter lie. It was.

Well, my parents spoke Vietglish to me at home. I could write a few Vietnamese phrases, too. However, I had yet to confidently utter a word of it.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was up until six in the morning, beating myself up. Who was I kidding? I didn’t speak Vietnamese. I felt dissociated from my culture completely. Though my understanding of the language was recognized, no one in my family knew the extent of my proficiency.

After getting a measly four hours of sleep, I called my grandparents at 10:30 in the morning. And, with the confidence I’d use for English, I spoke to them entirely in Vietnamese.

I asked them if they were healthy. I apologized for not calling sooner. I told them all about college applications, how often I’ve been going for drives. I asked if they’d eaten yet and if they were happy.

I ended the call with, “Con thương Ông Ngoại Bà Ngoại nhiều lắm.” Addressing both of my grandparents, I had said “I love you very much”.

The most beautiful part was that though they were impressed by my sudden Vietnamese, they were the most touched by the mere fact that I had called.

Vietnamese wasn’t all so jagged anymore. It felt even warmer than English.

It felt like home.

3 thoughts on “Column: How I lost my cultural identity, then found it again

  1. Sriya Sai Pushpa Datla – Sriya Datla is a Los Angeles Times High School Insider Student Advisory Board Member and a sophomore at El Camino Real Charter High School in Los Angeles, California. She is a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo and a member of her high school’s Science Bowl, Speech & Debate, Model United Nations, and Cross Country teams. As the President and Founder of her high school's Active Minds and STEM Without Boundaries chapters, she raises awareness towards mental health and is extremely passionate about empowering women in the STEM field. Being a part of her high school's UNICEF Cabinet, Sriya supports their initiative of helping children from impoverished countries to gain access to their basic medical needs. She feels passionate to raise awareness through her content, which varies from medicine to current issues. In the future, Sriya aspires to become a pediatrician.
    Sriya Sai Pushpa Datla says:

    Such a heartfelt story! I simply love all the detailed descriptions of how you felt and you really made me connect. Thank you so much for sharing! Looking forward to more of your writing! :)

    1. Brianna Pham – Arnold O. Beckman High School, California – Brianna Pham is a senior at Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine, California. She has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her personal pieces. Most notably, her essay on criticizing Asian excellence merited a gold key. Brianna mainly uses writing to forget the fact that she's stuck in the suburbs until graduation.
      Brianna Pham says:

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate that. So happy it resonated with you.

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