My identity fits messily into the space of a hyphen. Increasingly as I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered if the hyphen between Asian-American* made me any less of either, or perhaps neither. Identity is a fickle matter. It shifts allegiances as it sees fit, hopscotching across lines, patching rules with mismatched cloth. The only permanence in identity is that it pervades and haunts you through all aspects of life.
My identity haunted me the second time I went to Vietnam, when I was old enough to understand what Việt Kiều meant and all the forcefully lost stories the word hid. Việt Kiều refers to Vietnamese temporarily living overseas. I wonder if temporary is the right word. Rather than temporarily out of place, Việt Kiều seem to be permanently lost in the limbo of the ocean of which our parents crossed in leaving Vietnam — the hyphen between Asian-American. That hyphen and the label, Việt Kiều, are products of a lost war, a lost generation, a lost narrative. Within this loss for me was the loss of language.
My identity haunted me when I told the waiter that I wasn’t ready to order yet and when the waiter asked me to repeat what I had said, so I did, three times, and when the waiter still could not understand my broken tones. The words, despite being monosyllabic, were bloated and clumsy as they tripped over my tongue and teeth. Speaking Vietnamese was like that one word on the tip of your tongue that you couldn’t quite remember — but all the time, and for every word. I was mute in Vietnam.
“She can understand everything,” my aunts would say to the relatives that drove hours to Sài Gòn to see us, “but she’s shy in speaking.”
Maybe that was true, but what was truer, and what I didn’t have the words for, was the embarrassment.
It wasn’t my fault, I wanted to say. It wasn’t my fault that I was born in a different country, or that there were no other Vietnamese families around my city, or that public schools demanded English, or that my parents didn’t have the time nor energy to always speak to me in Vietnamese when I was trying so hard to learn English. It wasn’t my fault, but it wasn’t anyone else’s fault either. It was just how it happened. But I didn’t have the words to say this.
But luckily, being gifted stories only requires listening. It was the stories, I found, that grounded me to this distant country. It was the stories of faces and names that I didn’t know, where the only commonality was Tran or a vague resemblance to a distant cousin, that bound me to the land and people of Vietnam. In the stories I saw myself, I saw my brother, my cousins in America, my childhood, my culture, the language I had forgotten.
It was in the moments on the moped that I can see myself in Sài Gòn. I can begin to see myself in the blurs of stories I pass on the moped. In the group of children in uniform trading buns in the back of a truck as they go to school. In the markets as aunties and grandmas begin putting out their sầu riêng and nhãn out to sell. In the family of four squeezed onto a single moped.
Speeding through the city, I can see myself in the lives of the landscape so clearly. As cognizant as I try to be about how the opportunities I’ve been given in America are a privilege, the “What if I had been born or raised here?” and “What if this had been my home?” questions begin to seem so clear.
I think I could have been a part of this world. But once the moped slows to a stop, and the riders around me can see my tight grip on the moped — as opposed to not holding it at all like the normal Saigoneer — my view of myself in the schoolchildren, in the markets, in the families, begins to blur, and then I’m looking at the visions through a frosted glass of “what ifs.”
But this trip allowed the stories that have settled into the crevices of my mind to grow veins and a heartbeat. I was able to visit the homes of my family in Sài Gòn, the temple where some of my family rests, and the beach that my father frequently went to during his childhood. I was able to listen to the stories of my great grandparents, the stories of childhood during Tết, the stories of our drift to America. I’m beyond grateful that L.A. Times and Korean Airlines allowed me this opportunity to collect the oral histories of my family and begin to navigate the ocean in the overlooked hyphen of Asian-American. I hope I can properly bear witness to my family’s narratives in the same manner in which they connect me to this country.
*Editor’s note: While AP Style recently changed the style to remove the hyphen when referring to dual heritage such as Asian American, HS Insider believes the use of Asian-American is necessary to this narrative.