A Heritage Grantee

I am less than a month away from moving to Vietnam through the Fulbright Program, and I am honestly overwhelmed with emotions. I’ve been bouncing around different ideas on how to stay connected with friends and families, as well as how I can best share my experiences and thoughts during my Fulbright journey, and I thought blogging would be one medium in which I could do that. For my first post, I wanted to share what motivated me to defer my job offer in San Francisco, move thousands of miles away from my immediate family and friends, and teach English to high school students in a country where I can’t even speak the language.

Why Fulbright in Vietnam?

I identify as Chinese-Vietnamese American. My maternal side of the family is ethnically Chinese, whereas my paternal side is ethnically Vietnamese. Although my maternal grandparents are from Hainan, China, they immigrated to Vietnam in the 1950’s where they gave birth to and raised my mother and her five siblings; my mother identifies as Chinese-Vietnamese. On the other hand, my father and his six brothers were born and raised in Sóc Trăng, VN, and he identifies as ethnically Vietnamese. Though my parents did not meet until after settling in Philadelphia, they share similar—though individually unique—experiences immigrating to the United States.

Both of their journeys began after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when they left behind their families, their homes, their education, and their livelihoods to flee the war-torn country as refugees. Crammed next to hundreds of other refugees, my parents risked their lives to sail across the South China Sea on rickety fishing boats. During their voyage, my parents escaped pirates and survived starvation and dehydration. They witnessed the deaths of children and seniors, who, without proper burials, were all helplessly thrown into the sea in order to free up space. After a few nights out at sea, my parents finally reached their asylum countries. They each spent a few years in re-education camps, first in Malaysia and then in the Philippines, where they learned basic English-speaking skills and American customs. My parents were finally able to immigrate to the United States in the early 1980’s.

Upon arrival, my parents received $25-50 from the US government and were sent on their way. They both resettled in Philadelphia, PA, USA. My dad never went to school. Instead, he worked several jobs before marrying my mom. He balanced between working as a Chinese delivery man, a Chinese take-out chef, a pizza delivery man, and a fish salesman; to this day, he still sells seafood at the same fish market. My mom, on the other hand, found a job working as a seamstress when she arrived, where she learned how to sew and knit with other recently immigrated Asian women. She also found a job picking various berries in the fields on the weekends. All of these jobs, my parents recounted, provided just enough money for them to get through the week.

More than three decades later, my parents have created a life for our family in Philadelphia. Despite endless trials and obstacles, my parents continue to do everything they can for me and my two brothers. Having made the courageous decision to give up everything and flee Vietnam, my parents were able to not only pave the way for themselves, but also for me to become who I am today. Because of their sacrifices, I have been fortunate to take advantage of opportunities and resources inaccessible to them. I am pursuing the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) position in Vietnam because I want to (re-)connect with my cultural roots and immerse myself in a country that was once the home and birthplace of my parents.

English is my native language, though I do spend long nights wondering whether or not there needs to be more depth to that statement…but I digress. I recall being as young as 8 or 9 years old when I first started serving as my parents’ primary language broker, understanding, translating and communicating anything and everything, from our mail, to doctor appointments, to legal matters, to monthly bills. These assumed responsibilities, combined with a number of other factors (i.e. assimilation, survival, social capital, etc.), reinforced the need to learn and perfect my English-speaking skills. I resisted learning to speak Chinese and Vietnamese because I initially didn’t find it to be tangibly useful or necessary…I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

My dad works twelve-hour shifts throughout the week at a local fish market, and my family generally sees him during the evenings and on Sundays. Through his daily interactions with customers, my dad not only learned to speak and understand English but also was able to familiarize himself with American culture. Like my mom, he also does not possess higher education. However, he still makes a difference in my life and distorts conventional standards of success. On the other hand, my mom is medically disabled and unemployed, so she used to spend most of her time making sure my brothers and I woke up in time for school, stayed off the streets, had clothes to wear, did our homework, and etc. Interestingly enough, despite possessing no higher education, my mom is fluent in four languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and a Hainan-specific dialect; she’s also conversational in English. My mom speaks in Vietnamese with my dad, which he is only fluent in, and in Cantonese with me and my brothers. Because I saw her more often than I did my dad, I became somewhat conversational in Cantonese. My parents have revealed to me the true power that lies behind language. Their multilingual skills have guided them during their resettlement period and have allowed them to rebuild their lives here in the states. Tôi muốn về nhà, về Việt Nam because I want to learn to speak Vietnamese, improve the way I communicate with my parents, and bridge multiple worlds.

Despite switching between Cantonese, Vietnamese, and some English, my parents fostered a predominantly Vietnamese household, both culturally and traditionally. My dad cooks the best thịt kho (hands down) and prepares cà phê sữa better than any hip, millennial coffee shop in your gentrified neighborhood. On Sunday mornings, when my dad is off from work, we eat bánh mì and bánh quẩy as a family. My parents used to rent Paris by Night DVDs and watch them every night before learning how to stream the concerts on their phones. I could go on and on about our Vietnamese home, but this isn’t to say that we didn’t do anything “Chinese.” We were just more of a Vietnamese household than we were a Chinese one. (And of course, this warrants further discussion, which I anticipate elaborating in another post.)

By returning to Vietnam, I imagine reconnecting with my cultural roots on a much deeper and more intimate level. I anticipate critically engaging with my identity as a first-generation, low-income Asian American and exploring the implications of someone like myself, possessing (relative) privilege, living in a country whose history has long been white-washed and ignored. I also want to be able to familiarize myself with the dynamic culture of modern Vietnam, which continues to flourish despite its strict governance. I am excited to surround myself with people who resemble me and my family: brown, tanned, and unquestionably bold and fierce. As a non-Vietnamese speaking heritage grantee of the Fulbright program, I expect to face many obstacles and challenges navigating my experience in Vietnam. I foresee many days of loneliness, confusion, and doubt, which, in hindsight, I know will help me foster a better understanding of myself. At the same time, I also expect to embrace many opportunities in order to connect with my Vietnamese heritage and promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding. This upcoming year will be eye-opening, to say the least, and I am excited. So so excited.

I am scheduled to leave the states on August 3rd, 2018. It’ll be a 24+ hour flight. Yikes.

Thanks for reading! Until my next post…

Hẹn gặp lại.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park Photo Credit: David Thai (2016)

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