dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
Written for the Asian Women's Blog Carnival: #5 Who I Am When I'm (not) With You.


In elementary school, there was one day, besides my birthday, when I felt special. That day was the day when we celebrated Chinese New Year in class.

My mom always volunteered; I don't remember any other Asian students running the event. I know she wanted us to fit in, she was an involved parent who cared about her children's education, and she wanted us to be proud of who we are and where we come from. So I remember that every year she would go through the ritual of organizing the Chinese New Year celebrations for my 98% non-Asian class (there was always that one other Asian kid in class every year, the one whose mother didn't volunteer to host Chinese New Year's).

We took placemats from Chinese food restaurants with the zodiac signs and the occasional misspellings printed on them. We bought bags of fortune cookies from the Asian food mart in the next town over. We'd order lo mien noodles and chicken tenders and barbecue beef on sticks to carry in large metal pans. My mom made stacks of a photocopied picture book she borrowed from a library years ago to pass out to my classmates; I remember finding the yellow-colored pages years later buried in our attic, the Xeroxed wood cut illustrations undulled by time.  

Together with the teacher, we would read the book out-loud about all the Chinese New Year traditions. Reading this book, I wished I could celebrate Chinese New Year the way all the little village kids did in the book: with exploding firecrackers in the streets, stringing paper lanterns outside doorways, practicing calligraphy I didn't understand and watching dragons dancing in the streets. Instead of in a classroom with that kid who bullied me at recess flicking all of the veggies in his lo mien onto the floor, or my classmate next to me asking if I could write those same characters in the book, and whether I could write her name out in Chinese too. The best part were the fortune cookies, because that was the only time I could have more than the one I'd usually get at take-out restaurants.

And then I'd go to my grandparents house and celebrate Têt, the real New Year's. Têt consisted of making huge amounts of food that none of my classmates had: hot chunks of roast pig, snow-white vermicelli noodles brushed with a mix of oil and scallions; thin crispy egg rolls made with noodles and carrot and ground meat and mushrooms and fish sauce; sticky bánh chưng peeled from its banana leaf wrappings to reveal the delicious mound out glutinous rice, mung bean and fatty pork; the special new year's treats of dried coconut, ginger, sesame candies, dried mango, and papaya, and nuts. The aunts and uncles would talk and laugh about grown-up things and I'd play games with my cousins, sliding down the carpeted stairs on our butts, or playing hide and seek among the musty furniture, or play cards or our GameBoys. We had a zodiac that was similar to the one on the placemats, except that I was a Water Buffalo and not an Ox, and my aunt was a Cat not a Rabbit, and my brother was a Boar not a Pig. And during Têt was when we bowed to our ancestors and to the Buddha at the elaborate shrine my grandmother lovingly set up with sticks of incense in our hands. And Têt is when we wish our relatives "chúc mừng năm mới".

We didn't get firecrackers or lantern parades, but other stuff correlated with what I saw in the picture book: on occasion, I did get to see the lion dance on the weekend if my dad drove my siblings and me to the community Têt celebration several towns over and I did get red packets of lixi from my aunts and uncles, but somehow, that wasn't the same. Maybe because those village kids were what I missed and wanted; watching the lion dance with your siblings isn't as fun as running around with your recess buddies. And other differences bothered me in a way I couldn't explain back then when I was seven, eight, nine years old. Somehow, I thought Têt was a private word, a special word that my classmates weren't allowed to know because they were white and I was Vietnamese. But not special in a good way. Special in a way that would make it harder for me to fit in if they knew how different my Têt was from their Chinese New Year, from the special day I showed them. And I was confused myself over the difference, and over the years came to understand feelings I felt as a child but couldn't articulate until years later.

I can express my heritage, but only in a way that conforms to what others' expect my heritage to be.

I can "be Asian" but only in the way others think I am Asian.

To be "proud" of my cultural heritage, I have to always have to explain who I am to others who don't understand me whenever they dictate it.

To fit into the community's standards of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" I have to play the teacher, giving lessons of a watered-down, bland sort where the meaning has no real relevance to my experiences. I only show the experiences others want for me to accept, because it would be too hard, too draining, too.... show them who I really am.

I learned a new word today. Auto-exoticism (n.): the idea in which the minority culture accepts and internalizes perceptions of itself from the dominant culture. It is performance intended for consumption, it is a sign given to minorities to express their minority status. It is touting Chinese take-out (that isn't really Chinese) over your family's home cooking and tossing around fortune cookies (and those weren't actually Chinese either) and associating yourself with being "Chinese" (even though you aren't) because it made you more understandable, and calling your family's most important holiday Chinese New Year because it's a catch-phrase that everyone understands.

Because Têt is something others wouldn't understand or at least not in the way I understood it. Because when I mentioned I planned to celebrate Têt once to a fellow dinner companion she exclaimed, "Oh, I always thought that was the name of the battle, not a holiday!"  Because in college, when I was part several pan-Asian/Asian-American cultural orgs and activist groups, it was the Chinese Student Association who controlled the festivities for Lunar New Year's and named it China Night.

Now all of this might sound like I'm against the Chinese.

I'm not.

I'm just tired of pretending to be one.


dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)

This has made my morning.
dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
Inevitably, when I get into a conversation with someone about family and heritage, the question crops up: "Would you ever go back?"

It's funny, because how could I "go back" to a place I've never seen before? The standard answer would always be, "Oh, someday, I plan to." A simple, straightforward answer. One more drop in The Bucket List of things to do before I die--own a home, master a foreign language, publish a book, visit Vietnam.

I know cousins, Vietnamese friends, and non-Vietnamese friends who have gone over (To some, an annual pilgrimage to keep in touch with relatives left behind; to others, a somewhat-taboo-and-thus-interesting vacation spot; I even had one Chinese-American friend study abroad there when her original plans for Europe didn't work out). I know it's possible. But my family have never made the attempt. We are lucky, I was told, to be able to leave with our entire immediate families intact, so who is there to visit? It was expensive to book such a long journey for my family of six. None of us kids were interested anyway.

But that was exactly why I picked up Andrew x. Pham's Catfish and Mandala--for despite my parents' apparent disinterest, I always received the impression that "going back" was unthinkable. My father has always been a very stubborn man, who was never open to setting foot in the country he was kicked out of. And according to my mom when asked years ago: "Nothing will be same, so there's no reason. It is not like you'll be able to fit in again." For years, a psychological wall had been erected between myself and my family and our cultural homeland; if we go back, we'll be arrested, shunned, refused--or worst of all, disappointed.

Pham went back, and, settling in my traveler's armchair , I wanted to "test the waters" of visiting using his shoes. Or rather, his wheels.

Cut for spoilers )


Jul. 7th, 2009 11:57 pm
dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
Robert McNamara passed away this week, may he rest in peace. Reuter's titled this article "McNamara dies, haunted by Vietnam war." Poor man, one of the most publicly remorseful men of that era. I'm not being sarcastic. If I directly contributed to the lives of millions of people dead and gone (thousands of Americans, millions of natives), then I'd be angsting for the rest of my life too.

But part of me, as Vietnamese-American, is tired of seeing America's greatest neurosis in the media once more.

I cringe a little every time I see a Vietnam War exhibit or see another New York starving artist making a statement by using images of villagers running away into the rice paddies or hear about the tragedy of Mai Lai or see the girl who ripped her burning clothes off during the naplam attack mentioned as the perpetual victim. Because I'm reminded, again, of what my family went through, of the cost my motherland paid. But I'm also reminded that this is all most fellow Americans see of my ethnic culture -- that is, not my culture at all, but a sad history lesson. When they ask, "But where are you REALLY from?" in one of those inevitable, awkward conversations (another topic for another day), and I finally reply, "My family is from Vietnam," I can see the little "" connection, like a light switch in their faces. A little passing flinch. But it only lasts for a second, and the conversation moves on. Quickly.

Whenever it comes up, it's like the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of a repeated day, I get repeated emotions and thoughts that I can never escape because the guilt of others won't let me escape them. It was a mistake. They shouldn't have gone there. The government lied to them. And they feel bad.

I'm sorry you feel bad, but why must you always feel bad when we were in the middle of talking about something else entirely? Am I a poster child for America's failed war? Do you feel atrocities painted on your face by looking at mine? Even for a split moment, I was your object of national guilt, an earmark of historical shame, and knowing that made you feel even worse, didn't it? Well, it puts me in a bad spot too. I don't walk around moping about my family history 24/7, though I suspect I think about it more often than other people do, especially when it comes up in politico talkinghead comparisions or a certain revivial comes to Broadway.

It's like when I visited the Vietnam Memorial by myself when my family visited DC, in secret, because I was too embarrassed ask them to take me. There should be no shame in seeing a memorial for soldiers who died in war. But when you come from a family who doesn't talk about the war this memorial acknowledges (out of sight, out of mind, thinking forward, thinking about the future, not the past, that is the survivor mindset), it becomes embarrassing. When I ask to see an American monument for soldiers who failed my family's former country (and my current country too -- double-whammy there), what do I say? What do I feel when I see a monument dedicated to those who died, when other Vietnamese war dead will never be commemorated? How am I suppose to I feel staring at this monolithic black stone (American guilt, Vietnamese silence)?

Eventually, I'd like to see our own memorial in America. Athena Tacha designed a model for a Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia Memorial, representing all the war dead, Asian and American.

But for now I remain, haunted by other people's guilt.

April 2017

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