Identity in high-school was this: a page long resume full of the things that you'd done, and a series of answers to an even longer series of personal essay questions written so sincerely that a board of educated strangers would see something in you––worth, a bright future, a demographic they need to fill––and let you into their college. Essays and personal statements, short or long, sincere or not, had always come easily to me. I'd been performing personhood for myself, much less for other people, my whole life.
The first thing that a counselor will tell you when it comes to putting together the perfect, competitive resume is that it has to be unique. You have to stand out. It's not good enough to be smart because there are thousands of people who are smarter. You have to be a leader among leaders because everyone is a leader. If people are playing an instrument, you have to play two instruments. If people are in one club, you need to be in three. What foreign languages do you know? How many foreign languages can you say that you know, that you hope you won't be asked to prove?
For years, I'd already been living with this mentality, because for years, I'd been living as an Asian girl in America.
If college preparations for the average white teen were about proving academic or athletic excellence, wasn't my situation much simpler? How hard could it be to get the white and elite to accept me? How much would it really take? I just wanted to be seen as a person. I wanted to be someone who had likes and dislikes, someone with hobbies, goals, and unrealistic dreams outside of being another case of mistaken identity in a middle school hallway, or another classmate for someone's child to compete with. Day-to-day life was my resume builder and I'd been trying to be seen as my own person since elementary school.
If Asian girls were supposed to be quiet, I wasn't just going to be loud, I was going to be obnoxious. If Asian girls were supposed to be kind and gentle to everyone, I was going to act my worst toward the people I didn't like and twice as bad toward the people who went out of their way to bother me.
I couldn't dress like this, I had to dress like that.
Too many people liked this kind of music, not many people were into that.
All of these thoughts and internal struggles weren't coming from an outside source. They were coming from me. By the time I'd gotten into middle school, the Asian-American landscape had moved past the tried and true forms of racism that I'd only ever seen on TV or heard from people a decade or two older than me.
There weren't kids making fun of me for what I brought to lunch. There was no eye pulling or people telling me to go back to my country. There was just the heavy realization that the only thing I'd ever be remembered for was being a good student––that I was going to be remembered for what I did for other people, for behaving, for excelling, for providing a sample of an assignment for next year's class, instead of as a person who was nice to know and nice to be around.
Because of that, almost nothing was left untouched or uncalculated. Everyone who liked or did the same things as me was a threat. Every Asian girl I met was just as much a possible friend as an inevitable source of competition. It was exhausting and rewarding when people told me that I seemed like someone who didn't care about other people's opinions, that I said or did things that surprised them. It was working. It had worked.
But that stopped being enough by the time I started freshman year of college.
Being away from home and growing into myself meant a lot of things for me, but the biggest change wasn't actually a change at all. It was more of a return to home.
Being eighteen years old and living hundreds of miles away from the people who had steadily lived their lives alongside me made missing things, missing people, so much worse. Eating egg drop soup from the school food court made my eyes burn. Listening to old Vietnamese music while doing homework at my cramped little desk made me feel like I was home again, as long as I didn't open my eyes.
In all that time, I never once worried about being unique in my sadness or unique in the things that I found nostalgic.
I was just a person who missed home.
Comfort came in the smallest and simplest forms. There was nothing more grounding to me than going to the Asian supermarket on the weekend and seeing mothers, aunts, and grandmothers shopping for food while pulling their little kids around, herding them as they yelled. They all carried the same red, plastic baskets. They all took the same amount of plastic bags to add to the same crowded drawers at home.
There was a sense of solidarity in seeing college students like my friends and I walking arm-in-arm down the snack aisle, everyone coming to the same space to do the same things before going our separate ways.
It turned out that the fishy smell of the seafood section was identical no matter where you went.
The Vietnamese restaurant just off campus, like the supermarket, was a space where I felt comfortable, where I could listen to people speaking in a language that I grew up hearing and where I could eat food that would've taken months for me to learn how to make. I liked sitting in the wooden chairs on the first floor, picking up phone calls from my mom and saying, "Dạ Má, con đang ăn ổ nhà hàng với bạn của con," liked the speaking in Vietnamese and the being heard while I was speaking in Vietnamese just as much. The staff, who were resting by the cash register and occasionally yelling into the back kitchen, were the same age as my uncles. The college-age waiters could've been my cousins.
Like it or not, the being unique had started looking a lot like loneliness. Did I need to be unique when what was really important was being around people who could understand me? Who knew me? What did being unique even amount to in a space where I wasn't competing for anything? Where I could just do the things I wanted to do, with the people I wanted to do them with? Even more than that, why obsess so much over being different when having similarities and connections with other people could do so much?
By that time, I'd grown enough to realize how much of life was spent trying to make up for what you'd already lost. The appeal of wanting to be unique was like catching water with a kitchen strainer to me.
Being Asian, and more specifically, being Vietnamese, had always been a privilege, but it had also been an experience hopelessly bound up in loss.
Whether what was lost was language, people going from fluent to barely understanding what relatives were saying when they visited, or what was lost was contact, people separated from friends and family by continents and different paths, loss was an ever present companion.
It was the permanent losses made up of the dead and the missing, though, family members and friends who would never come back, that struck me most. People had lost daughters, granddaughters, and best friends. People had lost teachers, classmates, and neighbors. People had lost relationships that they were never going to get back. But I was still here. Generations of people later, from Nha Trang, to Sài Gòn, to New York, hadn't I made it to where my ancestors, my family members, had wanted me to be?
From then on, there was no shame in being just like any other Vietnamese girl if, even for just a few seconds, I could remind someone of their daughter again. If playing an instrument in the orchestra "just like every other Asian girl" would let other Vietnamese people see someone they loved in me, that was enough. I grew into myself by growing out of myself, from one place to the next, from one version of myself to innumerable versions of myself. How could being alone in my individuality be as good as that?
My successes were sweeter when they were also other people's successes. My importance as a person didn't need to be proven through any special means. That was what it meant for me to be a part of a community. That was what it took for me to see myself again.
Tuong Vy T. Hoang is a second generation Vietnamese-American based in the Northeast, with family members originally from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. She graduated from Boston University with a BA in Art History and is currently pursuing a career in the field of publishing in the hopes of reconciling Asian creators and narratives with the sometimes inaccessible international market.