As a child growing up in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, I wasn't considered really Asian, certainly not as I would later discover it to mean. I never noticed that I was different. I thought I was just like my best friend Charlotte, who just happened to be black. I suppose I was too busy steering clear of the nasty monster dog in the alley walking home (more like skipping) from kindergarten.
As a vital investment in helping me understand my ethnic heritage, my parents moved us from Lynwood, California to Westminster, a city whose business district was growing. I found myself going to Vietnamese classes every Sunday and playing with mostly white and Asian children, yet the thought that I was also Asian never dawned on me. I was too busy trading Crayola crayons and bullying the other kids.
I later learned, in an exchange with my friend Bao (the intellect), that junior high is the most difficult time for children in their development. I pretty much breezed through those years. I was still attending language classes on weekends, and everyone at school thought something was wrong with me. "Are you crazy, you geek? Don't you get enough during the week?" I kept myself occupied devising and carrying out pranks. (Yes, I had become a little more sophisticated in the art of annoying others.) But when I had free time, I often pondered those questions. I didn't know how to respond as to why I was going to my Vietnamese classes, so I shifted the burden, "My parents make me go."
It wasn't until I was fourteen that I began to understand. I was no longer learning children's songs, the legends and folklore of Viet Nam, how much time goes into cooking pho, or how to respect the elders. Now I was learning how Vietnamese women had been raped and killed in the Asian Pacific islands while their husbands and children were held nearby to witness these atrocities. All this took place because they had searched for something most of us don't give much thought to - freedom. I had discovered Viet-namese emigrants were subject to far worse cruelties as they made desperate attempts to flee conditions that did not grant the most basic freedoms we enjoy.
This pains me even today as I recall these accounts. I was born in Lynwood. I have never known "re-education camps," refugee camps, or poverty, but nonetheless, the pain I feel is real; it comes when one can identify with his fellow ethnic beings. This vicarious pain is what I needed to understand who I am. I can't imagine what riches I would have been deprived had I not known my heritage.
When I go grocery shopping for my mom on weekends, I greet the elders. I sometimes stop and chat, and they are impressed I have retained my knowledge and language. I take much pride in these abilities and I have my parents to thank for that vital investment. My pride is different from the teens who walk around (more like swagger) shouting, "Nip power!" "Yellows!" or even "Black Power!" or "Brown Pride!" because I don't affiliate myself with a gang, as they do. I don't see it as "This is what makes me so different and tough; get out of my way." I connect with a history, people who lived thousands of years ago. My being, and understanding, Vietnamese does serve as a barrier to separate me from other ethnic groups; rather, it helps me to understand. The history of all nations may not begin and end like Viet Nam's, but all has its pains and glories. I may have been busy but never too busy for those classes on weekends. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.