Ancestry: Chinese + Vietnamese

What is your ancestry?
Both of my parents were born in Vietnam, but my maternal grandfather is Chinese, so I’m a quarter Chinese and three quarters Vietnamese.

My grandpa was born in China, but he moved to Vietnam to open a Chinese herbal store. That’s how he made his way to Vietnam, and met my grandma. My mom was born during the Vietnam war. I don’t know my dad’s background, other than he came here by himself. My parents met in America, and I was born and raised here in Minnesota.

Why did your parents come to America?
For my mom, it was the Vietnam war. They lived in South Vietnam, and, at the time, the North Vietnam Communist army was invading. They had to decide whether to stay there and risk it, or leave. My grandparents and their five kids all left together.

Whereas, my dad came by himself. He still sends money to his family and goes on extended trips to Vietnam to visit them. Some of his siblings live here now — they came for opportunity, for the “American Dream.”

When did you first hear your parents’ immigration stories?
I was 19. It was a college speaking project, and I was prompted with the question ‘Who is your hero?’ — I chose my mom. It was really my only opportunity to say, “Mom, this is for my college grade. I need to talk to you about your past.” And, you know, grades and college are hugely important to my family, so she took the time to tell me her story.

My father isn’t much of a conversationalist, so unfortunately I still haven’t heard his story firsthand. Do I want to know? Of course, but I also know that talking about it would benefit me more than my father. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding just a few months ago and I will always cherish that. He did everything that I needed and wanted him to do, and I felt like even that was a burden, and I always try to be as of little burden as possible.

What does your heritage mean to you?
It means so much more lately than it did when I was growing up. Today, I can track my heritage to a place and to people that still live in Vietnam. I’ve only been to Vietnam once (in second grade) and you know, I don’t remember everything, but the feelings stay with me — moments of panic, but also moments of joy and happiness.

My grandma passed away over 7 years ago. It was sudden, it was unexpected, it was devastating. Growing up, a lot of our summers were spent in Chicago where my grandparents and extended family lived. My grandparents had a Chinese herbal store in Chicago’s Chinatown and I spent a few of those summers working with them. I remember my grandma waking me up early in the morning; we would wait downstairs in the apartment complex where my grandpa would come pick us up, every single day. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I saw a photo of their Chinese herbal store in Vietnam. My mom and her older sister, both toddlers, were frozen in time in a photo with my grandparents—they were all so young. I have a copy of that photo at my desk at work, a reminder that, no matter how tired I am, it’s really not that bad, that I have it pretty well here, that I’m lucky.

How does your blend of culture present in your life affect the way you live?Because of all the unspoken stories and experiences (and my awareness of them), I feel deeply. There are all of these customs and cultural intricacies that weave in and out of my life. At times, it feels difficult to find a balance between not being “Asian enough” and not being “American enough.” I was born and raised here in Minnesota, and at the same time, born and raised within an Asian household.

What’s really frustrating is that there’s this expectation to “check the box” to identify what you are. And I can’t just be “American”, even though I was born and raised here. Instead, I am considered “Asian-American”. There’s always that hyphen. And so that’s why, with my last name, I decided not to put a hyphen — I wanted the blend. I chose to keep my dad’s last name and Jeff’s, so that, if we have kids, I’m connected to them, in case they don’t look like me.

It took me a long time to realize this, but I am beyond grateful for this blend. I have traditions that hold a special place in my heart and soul, ones that will continue to weave in and out of my life for as long as I live. I just hope that I don’t have to face my own kind of war, here in America.

Photo: Alex Ry

This is just one story of many in an ongoing project started by Alex Ry. Titled the ‘Immigrant Portrait Project,’ photographers and writers are on mission to recognize and make known the grand, gritty, and glorious beauty in the diverse nature of America. Together, we strive to cultivate hope and beauty in the midst of hate and fear.

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