Ask Me Where I’m From

Photo from my trip to Vietnam in September 2018

Photo from my trip to Vietnam in September 2018

Someone once asked me if I had tattoos and when I had responded that I had three, he was shocked. I asked him what’s with the appalled look, to which he responded with because he didn’t expect someone like me to have any. Someone like me? Yeah, you know, because your culture doesn’t really allow it. Initially, I was overcome with a wave of immediate fury. What does “someone like me” even mean? Is it because I look too innocent or pure? My first reaction was to take it as an offense to my personal character, which was naturally perpetuated by my recurring insecurity of seeming small or weak. But in the context of the current conversation, I realized he had meant it as a passive nod to my cultural background. Someone like me pertaining to my identity as an Asian woman, and in his eyes, it was a cultural blunder for Asian women to have tattoos. I can’t tell if this was any mediation to my anger, or possibly only heightened it even more. He might as well have asked, No, where are you *really* from?

I sat with this unsettling feeling unsure what sparked this tacit tension within me but still a feeling so distinctively familiar. Suddenly, I recalled the boy from my third grade class (I think his name was Andrew) and his comment to me in front of other classmates, “Why do you have a mustache for a girl?” Both these comments (from boys, may I add) masked behind acceptable naivety yet carried undertoning shame. Whether it was the fact that they casually poked at my ethnicity with a comment they believed was warranted and came off only passively insulting, or the fact that somehow my Asian identity spoke on my behalf without my own words and communicated solely by its physical veil. My words, thoughts, opinions migrated through an ethnic stream and washed with cultural stigmas before seen by the chosen identity I had built for myself. In that moment, when I confronted this implicit uncomfortability, I realized I had work to do, not just in educating him and everyone else who held similar misnomers, but also with myself and how I identified as an Asian American woman.

“Please don’t judge me any further than what I’m already subjected to.”

26 years into my life and I’m only now beginning to understand the history of my heritage and embrace the full value of my ethnicity. It took me this long to triumphantly appreciate my Vietnamese background and proudly celebrate its beautiful phenomenon. The unruly history, the scenic landscapes, the insubmissive people, the western waves of recognition in travel, literature, Hollywood, cuisine, social media, but most importantly, my own ancestral connection. It’s quite embarrassing actually to admit that I’ve come to this wide sense of kinship mostly because so did the rest of the world when they discovered pho, banh mi, Vietnamese coffee, the translucent blue beaches, soft and sifted sand dunes, and other burgeoning discoveries of Vietnam. I find myself wading in the same current as everyone else as they catch onto this Asian wave, streaming alongside instead of lapping forward and ahead.

It really dates back to my early childhood days when I struggled with fitting in. Though I may not have been acutely aware of the minority effect at the time, I did discover the feeling of being different amongst my classroom peers, not specifically pinpointing the reason but understanding that I would be called out in certain ways others were not (like my said mustache). My name was always butchered, both first and last, and I would hold a persistent grudge towards my parents for not using my American name enough until permanence. Don’t even get me started on my school lunches—let’s just say people will immediately notice the unusual smells and steam from my bulky thermos when everyone else brought out bagged sandwiches. And it wasn’t just at school, I struggled to fit in with my own family too. My skin was noticeably darker, my hair wildly thicker and frizzy. I was also the one in the family who wasn’t “white-washed”. Who had more Asian friends and it showed. Who did not bring home the white boyfriend. These little un-Asian-like nuances didn’t offend me per say, but they did deepen my sense of outlier, neither completely one or the other but simply teetering ambiguity.

Through these small moments of humiliation, I found ways to subtly assimilate my identity as my ticket to fitting in, as any child would when confronted with this character confusion. I’d westernize the pronunciation of my last name, as if the phoneticism would somehow disguise its origin. Mai like m-y. Nguyen like new yen. I’d straighten my hair all throughout high school to achieve the sleek, long black hair so I could be undoubtedly Asian, not ambiguously so—strands of strengthened lines to my rightful origin. I changed what I physically could to inconspicuously hide behind what already distinguished the minorities of the room because it meant less blurry lines to define and less reasons to stand out. It meant, please don’t judge me any further than what I’m already subjected to.

Except none of what I did addressed the pulsating feeling of otherness or alleviate the monologues of unbelonging. It vehemently contradicted my own personal efforts in defining who I was by feigning an image I couldn’t even articulate for myself. How can I build my growing identify if I can’t understand my inherent one? Who am I if I can’t understand who I already am?

“You are not half of anything. You are twice of everything.” - Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

I once thought as first generation American children of immigrants we had the unfortunate burden of carrying two identities under our names. We had to be this balancing act of a cultural bridge, careful not to untether ourselves from either origin but also meticulous about how we represented both, equally and accurately. We were tasked with laying the groundwork for future generations so that our culture tactfully trickled through our American legacies while also helping our older generations re-establish themselves in new lands without misplacing their dignities. It’s a two-pronged responsibility that is both delicate and enormous work, and the more I think about it, the more I feel an impending pressure to do it right. This quiet weight seemingly sprinkled itself all through my life—when I joined the Vietnamese cultural dance troupe, when I competed in a Miss Vietnam pageant, when I competed in another pageant representing the Vietnamese community, when I became Vice President of the Vietnamese Student Association, when I organized an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month happy hour at work. As I write this piece.

But I also realized carrying these two identities is a special power on its own, for each of us. It’s immensely and intensely ours to build and shape in uncharted ways. We get to bring forth the married languages and freshly bound visions. We get to play an important role in our own collective history as pioneers of bridged identities—traditional and modern, old and new, there and here, theirs and ours. Because “[We] are not half of anything. [We] are twice of everything.” (Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer).

“We are enough.”

Much like my in-depth journey of self-love and personal growth, this newfound exploration of cultural roots folds itself neatly into my full-forced momentum of the all-encompassing self realization. As I learn all the ways and reasons why I am enough, I am also learning that my ethnicity is enough, too. We are enough. Our skin is enough. Our language is enough. Our history is enough. We always were more than we gave ourselves credit for, we just needed to come to that understanding on our own. And what I understand now is that I don’t have to physically and visually prove my cultural authenticity because I know I will wear my name in ways I intentionally choose to:

I am an Asian American woman. Asian first. American second. Woman entirely. I am choosing Asian. I am choosing American. I am intentionally both and powerfully each. My name is home to my undeniable ancestral land. It is a temple to my sweet yellow blood, the mother of my innate cultural birth, my godless religion of eternal sanctuary. I carry its waters within me, the same treacherous and unforgiving currents that bodied the boats my parents, and many others, boarded to find safe lands here. And that is my beautiful force to be reckoned with.

“We aren’t the meek, quiet, timid, soft-spoken ones they make us out to be.”

I think Asians are quiet forces found in the afterthoughts of the American melting pot. When I think about the mosaic facades of our western culture, I think about how pronounced other ethnicities are represented (though not always in the best light, but that’s another conversation to be had) and how Asians are now beginning to take charge of our voices, in intonations disrupting communities everywhere. There is no denying our presence anymore and I’m learning to take note of these moments when we come together. No, not just take note, but to say it out freaking loud. Yes, I will make it my mission to unabashedly say, “Wow, look at all the Asians in this room!” with the new enthusiasm and pride I’ve come to find, and not the once-whispered shameful nagging choir in the back of my mind. Because I hope to break down the miscommunicated stigmas of the Asian perception—not the meek, quiet, timid, soft-spoken ones they make us out to be. I hope to purposefully educate those around me of who we are. Where we come from. And how to actually pronounce my last name.

“My identity is not an obstacle . My identity is my superpower.” - America Ferrera, TedTalk

So ask me again where I’m from. No, really from. And I won’t skip a heartbeat when I answer “I come from enough. The country of yellow. Of sunshine. Of light. Of durian. I come from the same ground you are standing on right now. And you are standing with me.”