Thuy Thi Nguyen wrote this piece when she was in college in the 90s, and it was published by Yale's English Department in one of its journals.
“You’re going to Viet Nam with your who?...mayor?!...Wow, for free?! Wow! How did you know the Mayor of Oakland?” These were the typical responses from every Yale student.
Being at Yale, knowing the Mayor of Oakland possibly meant connections either inherited from parents or acquired by political manipulation. (As a joke, my Yale suitemate once told everyone that she was Fidel Castro’s granddaughter, and they believed her.) I was neither; my parents were poor Vietnamese immigrants, and I was never able to manipulate well enough to meet anyone of great prominence.
Actually, before the trip to Viet Nam that fall of my freshmen year, Mayor Elihu and I never met each other. I knew who he was since he was the Mayor, and he knew of me since I was the Student Director. But no Yalie really knew that, so I felt important.
“You are not going to Viet Nam! You will not miss classes your first year at Yale to go to Viet Nam — even if it’s for free. Why do you want to go anyway? My mother is there, and I can’t even go. What do you have in Viet Nam?” Dad’s response was heartbreaking. The only real opportunity to go “home” was in jeopardy. Tears poured; frustration overcame. Then my dad’s questions, however piercing, became my own.
Why did I want to go to Viet Nam so much? What’s so special about that particular third world country?
Maybe because I was born on April 30, 1975, in Saigon—the day Saigon fell to the communists. (A friend from Yale once called me a “Midnight Child”.) But I left Viet Nam at the age of two and had no memories of events and people there — not even of my father’s mother.
Maybe because my birth cord was buried there along with my little brother’s. And thus somehow, I was manifestly connected to the land.
Maybe because I am Vietnamese, and Viet Nam is my original home. My parents are Vietnamese, so I must be Vietnamese. Ba and Ma love and miss Viet Nam, their homeland. I love my parents and took on their beliefs. I love Viet Nam because I love my parents; I internalized their struggles and passion.
Dad, my biggest opponent, turned out to be the proudest — I guess he figured out my purpose for going. He called relatives in Viet Nam and meticulously wrote down directions on how to go about visiting Grandma — he even wrote down exactly what to say on the telephone. Mom gave me a bag full of fabric. “My child, our Viet country is very poor,” she said as she instructed me to give out everything I owned before I left the country. My little sisters gave me bags of Halloween candies to eat and give away. The family gave me a video recorder; I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see Viet Nam, everyone did.
“Mot dem anh mo minh diu dit dua nhau ve
Tham que sua voi vuon cau the…
Tau dua ta di tau se don ta hoi huong.
Tay Do se song lai yeu thuong.”
[One night I dreamt of us holding each other as we walked home to visit the old countryside and the field where we made our vows...The boat that took us away will take us back home. The capitol will rejuvenate with love.]
Ms NGUYEN Thuy
Leave San Francisco 12:20 AM (20 minutes after midnight) on Singapore Airlines.
Arrive Hong Kong 7:20 AM local time
Leave Hong Kong 7:00 PM (Cathay Pacific/ Vietnam Airlines #765)
Arrive Ho Chi Minh City 8:30 PM
November 22 (Change to go home w/ Mayor)
Leave Ho Chi Minh City 2:30 PM (Cathay Pacific/Vietnam Airlines #764)
Arrive Hong Kong 6:00 PM
Leave Hong Kong 9:45 PM (Singapore Airlines #2)
Arrive San Francisco 5:25 PM same day
Please note: your return flights can be changed in any way you want without penalty. Simply contact the Cathay Pacific or Vietnam Airlines office in Ho Chi Minh City to make all arrangements
The boat that took my mother, my father, my brother, and me sixteen years ago did not take me back home: a plane did. The Viet Nam Airline flight attendant welcomed me to Viet Nam — instead of welcoming me back home. Once we arrive in Saigon City, we were greeted by a group of Ho Chi Minh City officials and the local news station. (Saigon and Ho Chi Minh are two separate entities).
Everyone on the plane looked on with awe. No, I am not important; I am just going home. Even though I brought a video camera to record everything seen and a diary to note everything felt, I am not really a tourist. I am just going home to my motherland. I am a native. I am Vietnamese.
Ghe, hoi co cay, co cay khoc, goi than van
Ke tu khi mat que huong
Gio ra khoi dua nguoi vuot bien
[Stopped to ask grass and tree, grass and tree cried, wind complained. Ever since the country was lost, wind has gone to the ocean to push the boat people away.]
As I sat on the front steps of the Rex Hotel my first night there, men asked me whether I needed a ride in their “xich lo” (a human pushed carriage). Having someone sweat as they carried me around while I sit back, relax, and enjoy the view was repulsive to me. An old lady asked me to buy bubble gum. I didn’t need candies; Halloween candies were enough. A boy asked me whether he could shine my shoes. My Payless shoes were not worth shining; they might even ruin his brush. Viet Nam was a poor country, and I identified with her: I was poor too. So I simply shook my head, thankfully smiled, and quietly declined all offerings.
I sat on the steps silently observing the night scene. The old “xich lo” men started to gossip about me. “Do you think she’s Vietnamese? She’s Vietnamese! From where? Vietnamese-French? Vietnamese-Hong Kongians? No, Vietnamese-American! (They saw my blue jeans.) Another one, doesn’t know how to speak Vietnamese. Didn’t her parents teach her anything? Look at her: Vietnamese but doesn’t know how to speak.” (Did I mention that they also cursed at me?)
I went back to my room to get the Halloween M&M’s and passed it out to the children. “Nay, cho em do. Em nho phai ngoan nha. Em phai noi cai gi?” (Here, for you little one. You must be good, okay? And what are you suppose to say?) They finally heard me speak in Vietnamese — even the “xich lo” men. They were all shocked and some embarrassed; I was proud of myself and for my parents. I am Vietnamese.
Me cho thu ve ngoi them cuong mieng chau cay
Tre tho lang thang vi con doi suot bao ngay
Vo tro tin chong, ngay ve qua sa song
Bao nam gia phong nhu the nay phai khon anh?
[Mother waits for a letter as she sits and drools for betel nuts. Children fluttering in the streets due to hunger spells all day. Wife waits for her husband’s news, his return will not be for quite a while. All those years of liberation, is this what we get?]
Exactly following my father’s written instructions, I called my aunt to come pick me up at the hotel and take me to go see my grandmother. She came earlier than scheduled and scanned the elegant hotel restaurant with amazed eyes as I finished lunch. She was shocked when I gave the waiters a large tip — more than I usually do in the States. (I hope she doesn’t think I’m rich.) “I’ve never been here before, and I’d never imagined it was this classy,” she commented. (She was considered one of the few well-off people in Viet Nam.)
As we were about to leave, an old lady escorted by a younger one came into the restaurant. I did not know who they were. (They couldn’t be hotel guests: they looked Vietnamese and poor.) But as they came closer, I recognized one of the faces; it was the same face in the picture hanging in Dad’s room. It was her — old and fragile. Instead of waiting for me to come meet her, she was too anxious and demanded that Co Bich take her to the hotel.
We sat down face-to-face and surveyed each other. Her face was full of wrinkles, her few strands of hair tied back. She caressed my face with her rough scaly hands as she turned to my aunt and said, “Nhom y het giong bo Dien.” She then looked at me again and repeated those same words. But this time, tears burst from her weary eyes. “She looks like that boy Dien (my father).”
Initially, I did not respond to her emotional outpouring. But as she repeated those words and inundated us with her memories of me, I saw more than just an old lady. I saw a woman who lived through the exploitation of French colonialism, the brutality of the Japanese invasion, the harshness of the civil war, and the hardship of communist rule. I saw a woman whose husband died early and whose only son abandoned her. I saw a woman whom I departed from when I was too young to remember. I saw a woman I knew only through my parents’ conversation whenever they received letters asking for money. I saw a woman whom I was related to by blood but disconnected from by distance. I saw my Grandmother.
I saw Viet Nam in my Grandmother. To me, she represented everything about Viet Nam; she was someone I was related to in blood and heritage but disconnected from in distance and memories. Tears dropped from my eyes as I embraced her in celebration of our small family reunion. She later told Dad that her meeting with her first granddaughter made her three years younger. If only I was my Dad; the celebration would be more festive, and she would feel ten years younger.
My meeting with Grandma and the entire trip to Viet Nam made me many times more mature. I realized that in spite of all those years of thinking I was purely Vietnamese, I was not. I was welcomed into the country as a tourist — not a native. Market vendors overcharged my bought goods while they gave special “fellow-countryman” deals to my cousin and aunt on two separate occasions. Khuc Truong Duy, the waiter from the hotel restaurant, was not allowed to take me on an exploration of the city because hotel policy prohibited him from interacting with a “guest.” I threw up during a dinner meeting because of the well water my aunt served me earlier that day; I was not used to their natural water. I had to be excessively careful when talking to the natives, especially about political issues such as communism and POW/MIAs; my foreign thoughts might infect their minds. I had to calculate every move I made and every word I said; they spied our delegation of foreigners — including me. The reporter from Bao Tuoi Tre Newspaper interviewed me as a young Vietnamese-American; he was impressed by my proficiency in the language but nevertheless, considered me American. When I was at church and went up for communion, I did not dare leave my video camera at my seat; someone might steal it. (My mother had always cautioned me about trusting people too much).
The Vietnamese government could not find any files on me, and this was the greatest factor that made me realize I was not truly Vietnamese. I was born during a time of great turmoil and thus, my birth record was somehow lost. My only documentation is a birth certificate signed by an American notary. I never attended school in Viet Nam, and thus had no school records. All my school records were filed in Wichita, Kansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Lake Charles, Louisiana; and Oakland, California. Although I was conceived and born in Viet Nam, my memorable experiences were in the United States.
Unlike many Vietnamese people of my generation, I never questioned why I had to attend Vietnamese classes and speak Vietnamese; I was just being myself — Vietnamese. But I realize now that I am not completely Vietnamese for I, against my will, do not completely embrace the meaning of being Vietnamese.
I may speak Vietnamese without an accent. I may know many Vietnamese folksongs and folktales. I may be able to sing Vietnamese karaoke. I may be able to dance Vietnamese Cha-Chas. But I am not one hundred percent Vietnamese. I only knew those things because someone taught it to me; I never lived it.
Vietnamese people in Viet Nam do not consider me one hundred percent Vietnamese. Americans do not consider me one hundred percent American. Recently arrived Vietnamese people in the United States do not consider me one hundred percent Vietnamese. And almost every Vietnamese person realizes that young people like myself may lose our Vietnamese culture because we are not one hundred percent Vietnamese in the first place.
When I tell people I am Vietnamese-American instead of Vietnamese, I allude to a whole different set of experience and outlooks. I do not wish to let definitions confine me, but I must admit to its practical role in describing myself in America. My grandma is Vietnamese; my mother is Vietnamese in America; I am Vietnamese-American; and my daughter will be an American with a Vietnamese background.
How was I able to go to Viet Nam with the Mayor of Oakland? Because I was an active Vietnamese-American student who was given an opportunity.
Viet Nam cultured my soul; America educated my mind and fed my body. I owe my love to both; I identify with both; I am a Vietnamese-American.