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Imagine a Vietnamese American refusing to be proud of her own culture; that’s me. As a toddler, I was able to sing Vietnamese songs with ease. Nowadays, I have a hard time differentiating the difference between ‘month’ and ‘year.’ Flashback to preschool: I am fluent in both English and Vietnamese, but my Vietnamese name, Thanh, is the only name I have ever been called. As playtime is ending, 5-year-old me is still walking around. My teacher calls me by birth name, but because I have never been called Diane at home, I have no idea she was telling me to go back inside the building.
Fast forward to elementary school: second grade; I know my name is Diane at this point. Kids can be mean and racist.
The dumbest thing I have ever believed: thinking that I had to make fun of my own culture and ethnicity to fit in with them. Yet another fast forward: now I can barely speak Vietnamese fluently and am unable to communicate with my grandmothers with ease.
I had lost sight of the importance of my culture when I was a child, and that ignorance has come back to bite me in the butt. My family says that I do not speak Vietnamese anymore; I speak Vietglish now. Preschool was a breeze after I learned to respond to my English name, but by the time I got to elementary school, I started rejecting my Vietnamese language and culture. I would want to bring Vietnamese food for lunch; meanwhile, my classmates would snicker at the appearance as they stuck their plastic sporks through their rubbery Salisbury steaks.
Anytime there would be a Vietnamese holiday, such as the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and Vietnamese New Year, I would try to bring in mooncakes for my classmates to try.
But in an attempt to share a piece of my culture, the kids would take a bite and spit it out in my face before asking me how I could eat something like that. I never brought them again. “Asians are good at math.” “You only get good grades because you’re Asian.” “Your eyes look like lines when you smile. So chinky.” “Ching ching chong, that’s what ‘Vietnuhminese’ is.” I hated the comments, but I never stood up for myself. Of course, I regret that. I should have said something, but being as shy as I was, I could not will myself to defend my culture. I was embarrassed about being Vietnamese and that shame followed me for a very long time. I didn’t want people to think I was uptight, so I laughed along with their racist jokes. Sixth grade on the bus ride home: a young, Caucasian boy I’ve never had a conversation with is sitting behind me. He rolls up a magazine and continuously hits me with it. I don’t know why; I can’t think of any reason of why he would hit me. Without thinking, I ask, “Are you racist or something?” He is. “Yeah, I hate Asian people,” he says. I stick it out because I don’t want to make a scene; I don’t want him or the other kids to think I’m weak, submissive.
People watch him hit me repeatedly. I get off at my stop, wait for the bus to drive off, and cry all the way home. When I told my parents, they were disgusted. I reported him to the vice principal and got him suspended. It didn’t make me feel any better, though. I hated him, but I hated myself more. I didn’t want to be Asian; I wished with everything I had to be white. I rejected everything Vietnamese to become as whitewashed as possible. I told my mom that I hated her food. I told my parents that I never wanted to wear an áo dài again. I didn’t want to eat mooncakes anymore. I didn’t want to go to the different temples in town to celebrate the new year anymore. I poked fun at my mom’s broken English.
I made jokes with my classmates about Vietnamese culture. But most detrimental of all, I started to speak solely English in the house instead of Vietnamese. Little by little, I started to forget my parents’ native language. I would forget how to say simple words, but the one phrase I always knew, ironically, was, “I don’t know.” Going into high school, I began to realize how foolish I was to believe being and speaking Vietnamese was embarrassing. It was silly of me to believe I had to mock my own ethnicity to fit in with racist kids. It was silly of me to refuse to speak Vietnamese at home. It was silly of me to want to be white in the first place. I needed to embrace where my ancestors came from, not reject their culture just because it was convenient for me. I started to call out racist remarks by classmates. I told my friends off in our Chinese class when they spit out mooncakes in front of my teacher’s face. I admit I should have started to recognize my ignorance a lot sooner; I should have started to defend my culture. Instead, I rejected it, and now, it’s a battle to reclaim everything I had hated about myself. I did learn in one of my classes that very little first-generation Americans primarily speak their parents’ language in their homes. I am aware that me losing Vietnamese fluency is not just an individual situation. Many other people experience this, and it can be implied that it was not solely my fault for forgetting large chunks of Vietnamese.
Of course, I feel guilty, knowing that I can barely keep a full conversation going with my grandmothers. But I know that trying to learn Vietnamese again later in life is a whole lot better than never. I started to speak more Vietnamese at home. It was and is still a large struggle. When I shifted to only speaking English, I had forgotten so much. Vietglish is not something I made up; it is a pretty broad term in which a Vietnamese individual includes English words in their vocabulary when they are not completely fluent. My parents tell me that I speak Vietglish. For instance, I add ‘-ing’ to Vietnamese verbs a lot: ‘to shower’ would be translated to ‘tắm-ing.’ Although I may not be able to communicate with my elders in an easy, fluent manner, Vietglish is still a useful way for me to communicate with them in general.
I can understand Vietnamese fully, but speaking will always be a struggle. But as long as I weave at least some Vietnamese in the conversations with my family, little by little, I will be able to reclaim the language that I stripped myself of. My family categorizes me as a twinkie, a whitewashed Asian. I don’t blame them; I know I am. Every day, I try to be better. Now, I can have semi-productive conversations with my grandmothers. I am proud to be Vietnamese, with such a rich history and culture, packed with tradition. I may not be able to speak Vietnamese with ease anymore, but I appreciate it more than ever and I will never forget how important it is for me to reconnect with the culture and language that I grew up with.
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