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  • Eileen Nguyen

Where Do I Belong?


Vietnamese?

What’s that?

Can I speak the language?

Is that supposed to be something I should know?


These were questions that I asked myself growing up.




My parents came over to the states during the Vietnam War. My mom was lucky enough to make the journey by plane while my father was a refugee and left Vietnam on a boat. They met after arriving in the states, got married, and had me, their only child. With a fresh start, my parents wanted me to have the ultimate experience and become successful as an American citizen. By opening up a nail salon together, they were living the American Dream and building a home for us. Part of this American Dream was being able to speak English. Speaking English fluently meant being successful in America, according to my parents. If I was able to become fluent in the language, I could go far in their eyes. But while the English part came easily to me, my curiosity drifted towards being able to speak Vietnamese. When I ask my parents why they never taught me Vietnamese, they say they tried, but I refused to learn. I started thinking, maybe they’re right and I was stubborn as a child. But I also started questioning, maybe they didn’t want me to learn.

Here's a photo of me as a child.

I thought that being able to speak Vietnamese would allow me to be more connected to my culture, to my family. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I was one of the few Asians and the only Vietnamese kid. Confused, I wanted to fit in somewhere. I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. My parents never immersed me in Vietnamese culture beyond the food on our dinner table. So instead, I tried hard to fit in with the main crowd. Whatever they liked, I liked. Whatever they ate, I ate, at least at lunch. It seemed like I had to live two different lives in order to satisfy each world. At school I was the Asian who didn’t like Asian-related things, like rice. At home, I was the Vietnamese-American girl who liked pho and ga kho.


It wasn’t until I moved to a new school that I had an awakening. Though I was still the only Vietnamese kid in my year, I saw a lot more people who were Asian. It was amazing to me. But at the same time, I still found myself trying to fit in with the majority. I was that disconnected from my ethnicity, and even my race. The awakening started in seventh grade science class, when another student asked me, “what are you?” My initial response was, I am a girl. But then he proceeded to ask, “what are you actually?.” I finally understood that he was referring to my ethnicity. I told him that I was Vietnamese, and he responded with an answer that completely broke my heart. “You know we killed all of your people in the Vietnam War right?”


Killed all Vietnamese people in the war? My heart sank when I heard that. That would mean that my parents were already dead and I wouldn’t even be here. In shock, I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself and defend my very being. Not just as an Asian, but as someone who is Vietnamese.


Since then, I’ve tried to connect more with my ethnicity. Unfortunately, my parents and the rest of my family haven’t been much help. After the seventh grade science class incident, they told me to ignore the student and just continue striving for success, for the American Dream. They didn’t tell me anything about Vietnam or our roots. I’ve had to learn on my own.


In my senior year of college, I was still lost. That was until a friend messaged me and said that Anna, the student community lead at Vietnamese Boat People, wanted to meet me. Having never really connected with the school’s sparse Vietnamese population, I was excited to connect with Anna. When we met, she told me about getting involved with VBP through the Ambassador Program, and I was immediately intrigued. Finally, I would be able to connect with more Vietnamese people and learn about those who came here from Vietnam.


Being a part of the VBP team means a lot to me, since I will be able to learn more about the stories of Vietnamese in America. It’s not everyday that I get to hear those stories, as my parents are very timid about sharing their experiences with me. I hope to help spread awareness of this amazing organization and encourage other Vietnamese-Americans, who are struggling to find their own identity, to be proud of who we are and to learn more about the stories behind how our families came here.


Thinking back to my parents’ idea of success, that concept has completely transformed, leading up to who I am today. While I am able to speak English well, as my parents hoped for, it’s not something I would use to define success. Finally being happy with who I am as a person, as a Vietnamese-American woman, is my success. To be able to be happy with who I am, I would say, is a huge leap forward to a blissful future.


Thinking back to my parents’ idea of success, that concept has completely transformed, leading up to who I am today. While I am able to speak English well, as my parents hoped for, it’s not something I would use to define success. Finally being happy with who I am as a person, as a Vietnamese-American woman, is my success. To be able to be happy with who I am, I would say, is a huge leap forward to a blissful future.









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