“I can smell the McDonalds on you,” my aunt joked when we picked her up from Los Angeles International Airport. I am the Southern Californian stereotype — obscure slang, In-n-Out junkie, and snow jackets once the weather hits below 80 degrees. But beyond my supposed surfing persona, I am also a first-generation Vietnamese American that’s been in a constant tug-of-war between being American and being Vietnamese.
I’ve grown up conscious of this cultural difference. I started school knowing only a few English phrases which I used interchangeably, amongst which were, “Hello, teacher! I do not speak English!,” and “Where is the restroom!” (all of which were extreme vocal exclamations because of my accent). When my teacher confronted my grandma about my struggles with speaking in class, my grandmother also struggled to respond: “Yes, yes.” On the way home, my grandma turned to me and asked, “What did that lady say?”
There was a point when I tried not to bring lunch as much to school out of embarrassment when other students made comments about the smell or how the noodles looked like worms. I tried not to have friends over at my house to avoid explaining why we took our shoes off in the house or why we had a mini shrine or why my house smelled like incense. When I tried to explain the “American” way of doing things to my parents, they didn’t understand. When I tried to explain the “Vietnamese” way of doing things to my teachers and classmates, they didn’t understand either. I was struggling to bridge the gap between home and everywhere else, and more importantly, struggling to hold on to my culture. At first, I was almost ashamed of my culture, and then, I was ashamed that I was ashamed.
I want to visit my parent’s home, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to bridge this cultural gap. I want to experience the warm rain and blushing skies that my grandmother has told me about in her stories. I want to take trips to the Ben Thanh Market where my grandmother sold fish (she was one of the intense fishmarket ladies with the butcher knives!), talk to the neighborhood ladies that sell durian on the side of the street that my father used to talk with, and join the midnight gatherings for karaoke and coffee that my mother always talk fondly about. I want to live in the stories I grew up hearing, the stories that I had been embarrassed of for so long, and create my own stories in the same landscape.
But beyond connecting with my cultural history, I would also like to explore the present Vietnam. I would like to visit the different temples in the city, especially the Vĩnh Nghiêm Pagoda, the Thien Hau Temple, and Jade Emperor Pagoda. As the only Buddhist in my school with the closest temple an hour drive away, my exploration of my religion has been limited. I’ve heard about these temples from the monks here in California and to be able to see firsthand the architecture and history would be a unfathomably humbling experience. If I had time during my trip, I would also like to visit Đảo Khỉ (Monkey Island) — because when else would I be able to see so many monkeys! If I had the opportunity to travel to Ho Chi Minh City, I would also take my mother to share the experience since she’s always tried to immerse me in my culture by telling me countless stories about her childhood in Vietnam. I can only imagine how amazed and nostalgic she would be as she was forced to flee the country during the war.
It was hard for me to come to terms with my cultural mix, but I’m grateful that I have. I understand that I am a mix of the sunny skies of Southern California and the humid monsoons of Southern Vietnam, that my English might sound like Vietnamese at times and my Vietnamese might sound like English, that I can love cà phê đá or an iced coffee. I understand now that there is beauty in both cultures and that I am truly lucky to be a part of both. As an aspiring author, I would like to document my travels in a collection of short stories that both retell my family’s stories and the stories that I pick up on my trip from talking with locals. I would like to be able to compare my experience in the country with the stories that I have heard and more than anything, I would like to share the stories of my culture with other Asian American youths that are struggling with their own cultural standings. I would like to share my experience and help the struggling Asian American youth to draw not only acceptance, but confidence in their culture and background.