I am Vietnamese-American.
I’m not Vietnamese. I wasn’t born in Vietnam. I speak the language, but only just. I’ve never been in the country of my ancestors for more than three months at a time. It’s been over 15 years since I’ve been there.
My papers say I am American; they say I was born and raised near Los Angeles, California, and I am a citizen of the United States of America. Despite that, I was taught nothing about meatloaf and hamburgers, about how to throw a football or catch a baseball. Much of what I know about “American life” was learned from TV or learned secondhand.
I am Vietnamese-American. Not Vietnamese. Not American. Not both. I am in-between, balancing two incomplete cultural experiences. To acknowledge both sides of that little line between my ethnicity and my nationality is to acknowledge and accept who I am. That line looks back at my past that makes me who I am and it looks forward to the experiences that shape who I will be. That line bridges the incomplete experiences and makes them whole. Without that line, I am a Vietnamese person without a home and country, or I am an American without a background and culture.
For me, America didn’t penetrate beyond the front porch – the moment I took off my shoes and stepped beyond the threshold, I stepped back into “Vietnam”. I spoke Vietnamese, and I ate Vietnamese food. Before I was taught to say “please” and “thank you”, I was taught to cross my arms and bow, and in order to thrive, I’ve had to become proficient in both.
However, my eastern values didn’t just exist within the vacuum of those four walls. My culture, my values, my upbringing didn’t match up with the outside world. I often find myself confused by elements of “typical mainstream American culture” because it was simply not how I was raised. Fortunately for myself, I grew up in diverse Southern California, where similarly minded friends were widely available. Despite that, there is always a sense of living between two worlds, floating between an insulated inner bubble of eastern culture and a western environment.
I am a Vietnamese-American in Japan. Being in Japan brings some comfort in a way, as if I were coming home to a home I’ve never known. It feels as if there is a resolution to the competing identities. For once in my life, my inside world more closely matches the outside. Stepping outside doesn’t mean having to don a different identity or personality. Just as my Asian skin blends more naturally in a Japanese crowd, my Asian self can blend more naturally in a Japanese society. The way I always felt things “should be” are just the way things are.
Funnily enough, it’s my American self that is sometimes at odds with my surroundings now. My most passive moments are still considered too forward, my tactful moments still too blunt. You expect to become a bit lonely when everybody is communicating in a different language, but no one tells you how absolutely crushing it can feel to instinctively reach out for a hug and receive a terse bow instead; Japanese isn’t the only language that doesn’t translate well.
Perhaps I’ll always be a bit too Asian for America. Perhaps I’ll always be a little too American for Asia. Perhaps there will never be a place I will be perfectly suited for. For certain, though, is that within me, just like within the word itself, exists a bridge between Vietnamese and American. That bridge, that hyphen, makes me… me.
By Michael Nguyen, a second year ALT and RA currently residing in Niihama