One of my earliest memories is writing a love note to a girl in my Kindergarten class named Lynn. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but knowing my tendency for grand romantic gestures, it probably said, “I really like you,” with little hand-drawn red and pink hearts and scratch-and-sniff stickers all over.
Carefully choosing the perfect time, I walked over to her and her friends, nervously gave her the note and immediately turned around to run away and hide. As the group of little girls passed the note around giggling, my teacher noticed the commotion, walked over and took the piece of paper out of my crush’s hands. She read the note and took me out of the classroom. I just knew, I had done something wrong.
“Don’t do this again. Girls are supposed to like boys, and boys are supposed to like girls. Do you understand?” she asked.
I slowly nodded, confused and afraid that I was in trouble and had disappointed my teacher. I knew that I could never do something like this ever again.
My parents are both Vietnamese Boat People. They escaped war-torn Vietnam to find peace and success in Wichita, Kansas, where I was born and raised. Contrary to what people believe, Wichita is the largest city in Kansas and the Air Capital of the World. It's home to a number of airplane factories and a very large, close-knit Vietnamese community where everyone knows everyone. It may be hard to believe, but I never felt out of place in Kansas. There were more Trans and Nguyens in my classrooms than Smiths and Browns. But growing up, I knew I was different, and this difference needed to be kept a secret.
My parents owned a travel agency before the Internet made everyone their own travel agent. The walls at their business featured a large world map and clocks that showed major time zones all across the globe. Posters of white families at Disneyland and young heterosexual couples laughing and sipping on fruity cocktails at Sandals resorts hung on the walls, but they never sold a single one of those vacation packages. They specialized in travel to and from Vietnam, which meant they knew every single Vietnamese person in the city. We couldn’t go grocery shopping or to the mall without my parents being stopped and asked, “What’s the latest price to Saigon?”
Because our family was well-known in the community and due to my parents model minority mentality, growing up, I felt an immense pressure to be the ideal, perfect, oldest daughter. I had to get straight A’s, be thin, be pretty, wear make-up, play the violin, cello and piano, be well-liked, get into college, go to medical school, get married to a nice, handsome man, have kids and move next door to my parents so the life cycle can begin again.
As I went through the motions of adolescence and started exploring my identities, I struggled so deeply knowing within myself that I would never achieve this “perfect life” and, worst of all, I would disappoint my parents. At times the pressure was just too much, and I went through a dark depression that I couldn’t explain to my family. It’s a lot of work hiding your authentic self from everyone you love.
College offered me the opportunity to start fresh and become the person I wanted to be. I sought out new experiences and cultures, learned, grew and met the best people who loved and accepted me for who I was. After graduation, I decided it was time to try living openly and freely, so I booked a one-way ticket to New York and never looked back.
Two years in New York turned into five. Five, turned into eight. And each year, as I settled into my new home, it became harder and harder to continue lying to my parents about who I truly was. I wanted to share my up and downs with them. I wanted to introduce them to the people I loved. But I dodged their frequent questions about dating, responding with, “Work is just so busy. I'm working on my next promotion. I don’t have time to date.”
Every National Coming Out Day (October 11), I would think, “Maybe this year…” I imagined every scenario possible: my parents disowning me and saying, “You are not my daughter,” my parents embracing me and asking, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” I even called my cousin to ask if I could crash at her place in case my parents kicked me out of the house.
About a dozen trips back home passed before I gathered the courage to sit down with my parents over the winter holiday, at the age of 29 and say the words, “I’m gay.”
Telling the two people who mean the most to me the truth was one of the most difficult and relieving moments of my life. There were a lot of tears, questions, silence and tension. My dad, being the engineer and problem-solver he is, asked, “How can we fix this? Is there a doctor you can see? Is there medication you can take?” My mom, in a state of denial, refused to talk to me. But even through all of this hardship and their difficult reactions, I’m so glad I did it.
With time, they’ve come to accept who I am, and they know that no matter who I love, I will always be their daughter - their stubborn, outgoing, confident, risk-aversive, inquisitive daughter. It’s a continual learning process for both my parents and me to navigate this part of my life, but I’m so proud of them for trying. They’ve been supportive, loving and genuine. They've welcomed my partner into their home, fed her heaping bowls of Phở and plates of Cơm Tấm, and even gifted her with a li xi packet for Tết. The coming out process has brought my parents and me closer together, closer than I ever imagined we would be. I can finally live a life that is truly authentic and open, and the best part is that my parents can be a part of it.
There is so much work to be done within the Vietnamese community around LGBTQ+ acceptance. Part of this model minority mentality is assimilating to societal ideals, including the normalization of heterosexuality as the only acceptable way to live. As I continue to explore my identity as a gay Vietnamese American and build my community, I hope that I can work with my fellow LGBTQ+ Viet folx to open up the minds and hearts of the traditional and conservative thinking Vietnamese community by using my voice to educate and advocate.
Please be gentle and kind to each other. Everyone has a story to share, but in their own time. After 30 years in this world, I finally feel like I can start telling mine.