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Việt Kiều: foreigner in a familiar country

It was a sweltering 96 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer of 2018 in Đà Nẵng. The 94% humidity only made the air feel heavier and the heat feel hotter. As someone born and raised in Northern California, I was ill-equipped to survive in the hot and muggy tropical climate.

Panoramic view of Đà Nẵng from Chùa Linh Ứng
Panoramic view of Đà Nẵng from Chùa Linh Ứng

I was touring the Non Nước Ngũ Hành Sơn area (The Marble Mountains) and was desperately looking for something cool to drink. I made my way through the small shops and stalls at the base of the mountain and asked a local shopkeeper, who could not have been older than 16 or 17 years old. I asked her in Vietnamese how much a bottle of cold 7up cost, and she immediately started laughing and smiling.

One of the many caves in the Marble Mountains
One of the many caves in the Marble Mountains, not pictured is me sweating profusely while taking this picture

After I gave her a slightly confused look, she excitedly exclaimed “Anh là người việt kiều!”

I laughed it off in the moment as I was dehydrated as we spoke, bought the bottle of soda, and returned to my family. Even though it was said without malice, the words việt kiều echoed in my head and made me feel ashamed of my subpar Vietnamese skills.

The word việt kiều means “Overseas Vietnamese” according to Google Translate, but the word carries so many layered connotations depending on who is saying it and who it is targeted at.

In the generation of my parents, who left Vietnam after the end of the war, calling someone việt kiều would be met with choice words. To their generation, việt kiều carries the weight of leaving their country behind with undertones of being unfaithful, unloving, and worst of all, unloyal to their country. For many people of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, they outright refuse to return, or are very skeptical about the idea of returning. They worry about how they might be treated if they were to return to Vietnam as their last memories of the country are bittersweet to say the least.

But today, what do the words việt kiều mean to people of my generation and the ones that will come afterwards? While we don’t carry all the heavy considerations that our parents did, the words still sounds like an insult, at least to me. It always feels like they are telling me,

“You’re not really Vietnamese” or “You are not Vietnamese enough.” This begs the question, what makes someone Vietnamese?

That’s a question I have spent all my life thinking about.

As a toddler, all of my babbling was in Vietnamese. But after a year of preschool, much of my productive Vietnamese language skill was gone. Of course I didn’t realize I was speaking Vietnamese. All I knew was that I spoke one language to my family and another at school.

I first truly understood that I was a Vietnamese American around 3rd or 4th grade. I understood that my parents came from Vietnam, that my grandma spoke to the family in Vietnamese, and that we celebrated holidays with copious amounts of Vietnamese food.

When I started 5th grade, we were required to visit the school library once a week and check out some books to read. The small school library had about 10 books on various Vietnamese topics: history, culture, traditions, and a dictionary. Over the course of the school year, I probably checked out each book 4 or 5 times and read them cover to cover, with the exception of the Vietnamese to English dictionary. I learned so much about the geography and some of the traditions that were special to Vietnamese people. In hindsight, I really wish I did more cultural learning during my middle and high school years.

After my maternal grandmother's passing, we had less and less family gatherings. Some of my closer relatives moved away and I would see them less and less. It felt like I was losing an important piece of what I thought was the Vietnamese experience. It also didn’t help that my older brother had left for college and my dad was working outside the state. I suppose I was mostly just concerned with keeping myself together, getting good grades, and making sure I got into a good school.

Once I got to college, I learned one of my graduation requirements was to take 3 academic courses in a foreign language. I thought I was just going to skate by with the Spanish I learned in high school, but then I found out about the Vietnamese Heritage Language class. I read more about it and learned the class was specially designed for students who have some verbal skills in Vietnamese, but little to no written/reading skills.

This just so happens to describe people like me, 1st generation Vietnamese Americans, who grew up speaking Vietnamese to their family, but never learned how to read or write.

I made an appointment with the professor, Professor Kimloan Hill, who I would later call Cô Kimloan, so that she could administer a proficiency test. The word proficiency here would be better replaced with deficiency. I had very basic Vietnamese verbal skills and absolutely no reading or writing skills. She told me not to worry since most of the other students throughout the years started in a similar place.

I enrolled in my first quarter of Vietnamese Heritage language classes that winter and I loved it. Cô Kimloan was extremely patient and kind, but also stern when we would goof around too much. A friend of mine in the class raised his hand one day, and asked Cô Kimloan a question, “Why is a train called xe lửa while a firetruck is called xe chữa lửa, when the two words for train literally mean fire and truck?” Cô Kimloan looked at my friend and immediately started going off on a tangent about why those words are the way they are when she suddenly remembered what she was originally talking about and proceeded to jokingly scold him for asking an unrelated question. She cared so much about answering a student's question and feeding his curiosity, she was willing to put her lesson on hold to make sure she answered it properly.

Cô Kimloan, her husband, and some classmates out for some boba
Cô Kimloan, her husband, some classmates and I out for some boba

Cô Kimloan provided this safe, familiar space during my college years. She told stories about her experiences in Vietnam. She taught us about important traditions and holidays. She even went as far as to bring in special Vietnamese treats for us every now and then. She taught us so much more than the Vietnamese language, and I will forever be grateful.

After leaving college, it was up to me to chase my heritage on my own again. It took a year after I graduated, but I finally returned back to Vietnam, this time on my own, without my parents to help translate. A year after leaving school, my Vietnamese was already rusty, but I managed to make it through and had a wonderful time. I ate fresh seafood on the beaches of Đà Nẵng, I watched fire spew from the famous Dragon Bridge, and I took my partner to see the majesty of Vịnh Hạ Long (Ha Long Bay). I can’t wait to be able to go back and explore new cities once the whole global pandemic starts to resolve.

My partner, aunt, uncle, and I enjoying sea snails by the beach in Đà Nẵng
My partner, aunt, uncle, and I enjoying sea snails by the beach in Đà Nẵng

This brings me back to the questions I posed earlier: what makes someone Vietnamese? Is it where they grew up? What language do they speak? The clothes they wear? The food they eat? The holidays they celebrate? The truth is, I still don’t know, and several years after that day in Đà Nẵng, I’m okay with that answer. I take pride in knowing that I belong to two different worlds and that my experience and who I am is the sum of both together.

I hope that one day, the word việt kiều no longer carries negative connotations for me. I hope that one day việt kiều doesn’t just mean overseas Vietnamese when a native sees me. Instead I hope it captures the love I have for Vietnam, for its traditions, its food, its language, and its people.

I hope that one day, việt kiều will be a term welcoming us home, and not a reminder of why we left. I hope that one day they will recognize the love and respect I have for a country I never lived in.

I hope the words are used to describe how I am doing my best to keep my heritage, so that I can pass on these traditions to those who will come after me.


Brandon Nguyễn is the second son of two Vietnamese refugees from Bạc Liêu and Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam. He currently works as a UX Researcher in San Francisco, California and has recently returned to school in pursuit of a Master's Degree. Brandon is also a 2021 Ambassador of VBP, and is humbled and honored to be part of a team with such a special and important mission.


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