When my wife asks me, "How do you say (insert phrase here) in Vietnamese?” I often respond, “I think it’s (insert educated guess here), but I’m not sure.”
Then she’ll ask again, “Okay, well then what about (insert another phrase here)? How would you say that in Vietnamese?” And again I’d say, “I’m not sure about that one either. ”
Yet, had she asked me 28 years ago, I would have been able to answer her without hesitation. I was born in Saigon, and Vietnamese was my first language. It wasn’t until I was almost three years old, when my parents and I arrived in Canada in 1982, that I began interacting regularly with English speakers. Even then, I spent most of my time around my Vietnamese speaking parents.
But like a lot of kids growing up in a place where very few others looked like me or spoke like me, I tried to fit in. As I grew older, I spoke more English and less Vietnamese. I brought sandwiches and granola bars to school instead of rice and thịt kho. I pretended to dislike the music of Khánh Ly even though it was a warm and comforting thing to hear. In 1986, by my parents’ suggestion, I legally changed my name from Duy Hoang to Brian Hoang.
I spent most of my childhood all the way into my late 20’s trying to bury my Vietnamese background because I was embarrassed by it and language was the main way I did this. I spoke Vietnamese naturally and fluently until about the age of 13. Then one day, I simply stopped. My parents would speak to me in Vietnamese, and I would reply in English. “Còn muốn ăn gì?” my parents would ask. And instead of replying, “Còn muốn gà chiên,” like I used to, I said, “I want fried chicken.” Regrettably, I didn’t know then that if you don’t use it, you really will lose it. I can still speak a tiny bit and understand the Southern Vietnamese dialect for the most part, but I’ve certainly lost the ability to carry on a deep conversation.
In 2001, I was accepted into an art college in Canada. It was in the third year of the illustration program that I met a wonderful girl who is now my wife. At one point in our relationship, she started taking an interest in my cultural background. She tried some of the food such as phó and bún thịt nướng (that part I never gave up), read about the history of Vietnam, and started asking me how to say certain things in Vietnamese. Through her interest, I slowly started seeing for myself how important it was to not hide from my culture. The reason I even had the luxury of denying my roots in the first place is because of the unbelievable hardships and harrowing experiences that my family and hundreds of thousands of other refugees went through, and this was no way to show my gratitude.
Eventually, we made it to the Galang refugee camp in Indonesia where we spent the next 6 or so months. While there, I fell ill, and with limited access to medical supplies, my parents prayed for a sponsorship to come soon. In the spring of 1982, their prayers were answered and we were sponsored to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada, by the wonderful people at Regents Park United Church (now St. Mary’s Road United Church). The rest of my family was eventually sponsored to the United States, specifically to Ohio, Texas and California. My uncle, who was shot the night we escaped Saigon, survived and was eventually sponsored ten years later by my aunt to Ohio where he was reunited with her and their three daughters.
Now as an adult, I’m able to comprehend the risks and dangers endured during the escape. I also understand the continued struggles my parents faced when we made it to Canada. They had to learn a new language in a new country with no family or friends from their home land. They had no money and a child to raise. Even long after we had settled and become stable, my parents continued to make immense sacrifices to ensure I would not experience the hardships that they went through. And they did the same for my brother when he was born in 1987. For this, I will always be grateful to them.
Unfortunately, just as I’ve come to understand and appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in starting over in a new place, I’ve become more aware of anti-Asian sentiment that has been amplified since the start of the pandemic. Though I tried to fit in with the majority as a child, I am lucky to have friends and family who treat me kindly as they would anyone else, regardless of our differences. Though we don’t look alike and have different histories, I rarely feel like an outsider around them. While I've experienced racist microaggressions, they are few and far in between. Only once in my life have I felt my actual safety was at risk. I was at a gas station across from a mechanic shop where I was clearly the only visible minority in the area and the way I was looked at made me feel really unwelcomed. Aside from this instance, the microaggressions never came from anyone close in my life and I didn't dwell on them. But in light of movements such as MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the struggles of the LBGTQ community and the rise in violence against the Asian community, I realized, it's time that I do dwell on these experiences, no matter how small I initially perceived them to be. I now know how important it is to call out microaggressions, and for me, taking action starts with knowing who I am and embracing my Vietnamese identity.
A couple of years ago, my wife booked a trip for us to visit Vietnam. It was one of the most life changing experiences I had in a very long time. As an illustrator, I felt a creative re-awakening. The trip granted me access to an untapped well of inspiration that I’ve been drawing from ever since. Almost all of my recent pieces have been inspired by Vietnam and are the most fulfilling pieces I’ve ever done. On a continual journey of learning about my background and the place my family is from, I’m still exploring Vietnam's history, past and present, the people who cultivate the land and construct its cities, and the diaspora across the globe. Now when my wife asks me, “How do you say, 'I’m proud to be Vietnamese?'”, I can reply “Anh tự hào là người việt.”
For more of Brian's artwork, check out his website www.brianhoangart.com or Instagram @brihoangdraws.