Kevin Nguyen
Dec 5, 2017 · 9 min read

Not American, Not Quite Vietnamese: a look inside the life of a Viet Kieu

Having no choice, my parents fled a war torn country, Vietnam, in the late 70’s early 80’s. Being born an American in Brooklyn, we lived in the basement of a Vietnamese couple who later became my care takers.

To me, there was no such thing as New York or America beyond the walls of the brick house on the corner of Avenue V and East 17th.

My family was insular, with the words Vietnam and Saigon passed back and forth like fruit flies around the room, a little Saigon was all I knew of until the age of Five when I was forced to enter public school.

This strange language everyone spoke to me was odd and unfamiliar; I cried every morning outside the classroom refusing to enter until someone had noticed to take me into class.

Eventually I made friends with Two Russian kids named Yon and Boris along with many other kids from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Before I knew it, I was teaching all my friends how to count from One to Ten in my language. I spoke so much Vietnamese to everyone, including the teacher that they had to put me into an ESL (English Second Language) class with all the foreign students.

So yes, I felt like an immigrant for a long time even though we pledged allegiance to the American flag every morning and sang “God Bless America”. It had been apparent around the Second and Third grades that I realized I was different from everyone else around me, that everyone had second eyelids and that I didn’t.

Kids from other classes would look at me and pull the skin on the sides of their eyes out with both their hands to mock the slanted eye features of an Asian person.

Being called Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan along with the often, “Nee Hao Ma,” which means ‘how are you,’ in Chinese. This happened often at gas stations and bodegas (convenience stores).

It got worse as I got older as I guess kids learned bad behaviour and racism from the home. “You fucking Chinese bitch!” “Ching-Chong” “Ting-Tong-Ding-Dong” “Can I get Fi Why (Fried Rice)” would be shouted at me randomly, even directly at times on the streets on my way home.

Slowly but surely after my dad got one of those black bootleg cable boxes from a friend; I found myself watching Disney Channel, Nickalodeon, and Cartoon Network and Toonami! This helped my english and ingrained American culture into my brain.

I loved Tony Hawk and Daewon Song; so much that I begged my parents for a $9.99 Skateboard from Toys’R’Us. With persistent begging, I got my first skateboard and practiced tricks with my neighborhood friend Sid.

As I became more American over the years, the resentment for my culture and heritage grew stronger. I hated that my parents couldn’t pronounce English words correctly and that there was always Vietnamese folk music playing in the background which made me sleepy.

Drifting further away from my parent’s culture, I found myself confused as I graduated Highschool. An Identity crisis emerged as I realized being an Asian guy in America was a disadvantage. I wasn’t getting any modeling gigs and I had to work twice as hard to get dates with women.

It was around the summer of 2014 or 2015 when I went on expedia to buy plane tickets to Cape town, South Africa. Being curious I checked the flights to Vietnam using expedia and Google flights.

The prices were about the same and I thought hey, it would be interesting to visit my grandparents and relatives whom I hadn’t seen since I was Eight.

This trip changed my entire life, as I touched down in Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport breathing in the humid, tropical south east asian air; I felt like such a foreigner.

My relatives picked me up in a rented Toyota “Fortuner,” which would be the equivalent to a Forunner in the U.S.

The driver drove around Saigon until we reached the highway heading south towards Can Tho, my father’s hometown.

The city’s streets were flooded with motorbikes moving in every direction. Seeing all the Vietnamese names and words on billboards and awnings amazed me as I’ve only seen them on Restaurant awnings back home.

As we approached the highway, where we’d be for another Two hours, I was mesmerized by the vast ricelands on parallel sides of the road.

There was endless greenery, a light green, a shade of green that whispered to my ears only, that I was home.

There was endless greenery, a light green, a shade of green that whispered to my ears only, that I was home.

I spoke enough Vietnamese for elders to comment on my fluency for a western Vietnamese person.

Everyone else from street vendors to friends on the football fields (Soccer) knew I was a foreigner, a “Viet Kieu,” which means “The Vietnamese Diaspora”.

There was a sense of safety and calm throughout my travels. On the surface, I looked like everyone else; there was no, “Oh, he’s an Asian guy, whats he doing here?”. I was just a Vietnamese boy on a motorbike, going about his day.

On a micro level, being a Viet Kieu was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, certain people admired the foreign aura and on the other hand, people had preconceived notions of foreigners, especially Americans; and hated them.

It might be the muted anger knowing that we foreigners didn’t have to taste the bitterness of life such as a national, that the quality of life overseas was much better.

Here comes the punchline, I’ll never be fully American. Yes, I’m grateful my parents sought refuge in America and gave me opportunities most would kill for; at the expense of what? My identity, culture, my countrymen and my pride.

I’ll never be fully American. Yes, I’m grateful my parents sought refuge in America and gave me opportunities most would kill for;

I’m pulling from opposite directions, a contradiction of sorts. I love the hardships I’ve endured here because it made me the person I am today, and I hate it at the same time because American culture and society has made me feel alienated; forever in pursuit of fitting in.

Thats me on the far left; with my friends.

On a subconscious level, there were core principles I’ve learned from living in Vietnam and talking to older brothers, sisters, aunts and Uncles which was everybody (to a certain extent).

We’d talk about the American war, how our grandparents kicked the Americans out of Vietnam as well as the French. Through osmosis I feel I’ve inherited some grit from my friends who were in the army, which is mandated for everyone.

Playing soccer and going about my days, I downloaded the dogmas and strengths from the older men in Vietnam.

The subtle ways they walked, talked to the way they treated women. It was refreshing to say the least.

Learning more about the great leaders, commanders along with Vietnam’s military history to date has changed my perspective on the country hadn’t felt much for. When I came back to the U.S. from my time abroad; I was proud to be Vietnamese.

When I came back to the U.S. from my time abroad; I was proud to be Vietnamese.

Some of the troubles are that the Vietnamese government is inconceivably corrupt and that they’re selling the country to China in exchange for monetary gain.

The leaders of Vietnam are being replaced by the Chinese and our own government is selling out.

This is whats being broadcasted back home in the U.S. to the Vietnamese diaspora. It adds another layer of hatred for the mother country.

In my late teens, it was apparent to me the differences when learning about different countries and cultures as well as the GDP of countries around the world.

As a Vietnamese person, I’d checked Vietnam and it was ranked low on the list while Japan, Korea and China was high on the list. I’d compared the few asian countries because deep inside where insecurities were present; there was always this part of me that was comparing the different asian countries, trying to obtain whatever confidence I could from being from a particular country.

While Japanese culture was huge and their products unparalleled, Korea was on top of the world with K-pop. Heck, even I was listening to Big-Bang and Hyori Lee.

China quickly became a major economic powerhouse in terms of economics, the people of Singapore spoke fluent english; and here we were. Vietnam, a developing country that seems to still be living in the 60’s.

There was nothing to be proud of, aside from winning wars; the country was left destitute and poverty stricken. Everyone seemed to be just getting by. The Men’s National Soccer Team hardly ever wins in Southeast Asia and I never have a chance to root for them on the world stage because they suck.

With my inconsistent relationship with Vietnam, the place where my ancestors reside; with the people viewing me as an outsider, I know now that my heart and mind never leaves Vietnam.

Sure, the soccer team sucks, the government is corrupt and that to most people we are seen as losers. I’m proud of that and I will forever own it. I’ve read stories about my people fighting for freedom, from Mongolia, from the French, the Americans and China.

Our land and our people constantly being destroyed, one conquerer after the other. We’re in unending states of reconstruction and building. Which defines us as the people with the strength to get up and going, to be happy and strong even when circumstances tell us that we shouldn’t be.

We’re not afraid to fight, we are the underdogs of the world and this is our journey in making our nation a great one. A nation to be respected and honored for her strength in spirit and grit to build the country from nothing.

This is why even though I was born in America, I can never fully be an American. I still feel a strong bond to Vietnam and maybe it’s because I’m the oldest child and am closer to my roots.

Knowing that Americans will continue to ask me “Where are you really from”? while Vietnamese nationals will be a bit alienated from me just because we don’t come from the same struggle.

Being honest, I’ve felt way more accepted in Vietnam than America. Being born in America and going back to Vietnam, even with just a lick of the language, makes people somehow accept you. Not in the arms open kind of way, but sort of like a long lost relative that you hate. Nonetheless, he or she is still your relative.

I am optimistic about Vietnam’s future and am periodically checking in. I will not claim to be Vietnamese only when it’s convenient for me but will stick by it forever because It’s a part of me that I can’t hide or erase.

I accept all of Vietnam’s shortcomings and losses because we’re the underdogs and it gives me hope that today I can start building myself from the ground up and still have the strength to keep fighting even after I’ve been knocked down.

So yeah, I’m not really American and not quite Vietnamese, but both are parts of me I can’t hide in which I feel I must give back to the latter once I’ve made something of myself.

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Thank you for reading; I can’t write about Vietnam without shedding a tear. It makes me feel so liberated being able to write about my feelings and thoughts. If you guys like this story please give it a few claps & subscribe.

I also write daily stories on my Instagram @Yendegreez

Kevin Nguyen

Written by

Here I share my perspectives on things I've learned and thing I like. Call it a snapshot of my heart and mind.[follow me on Insta: @Yendegreez]

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