To this day, I still like calculus, even though my last official calculus class was in 1989. It has always been on my bucket list to teach Calculus class on the college level hopefully at my Alma mater. Calculus has always made sense to me. Calculus is beautiful and expressive. But, what does Calculus have to do with being Vietnamese/Asian-American (VAA)? Calculus is the study of change and transitions. Being VAA for me is about change and transition.
Being the oldest child in the family and who was born in Vietnam, it seems that I was always the translator in the family…whether it was as a 2nd grader for the staff and newly arrived immigrants in the 70’s, or for my parents and my siblings or between my parents and their employees or a collegiate foreign study trip between the students and the culture. I have stood at the nexus of cultures and languages, sometimes of my choosing, sometimes out of obligation, sometimes out of necessity.
Physicality of being Vietnamese didn’t dawn on me until I played basketball in school. As I was growing up, I played a lot of basketball at our Vietnamese church. For a VAA of my generation, I was big, I am 5’ 8” around 160 lbs at the time, so I played center and had nicknames like “Genghis Khan” or “gorilla”. When I played with my regular school friends, I would play as a point or shooting guard, which are totally opposite positions and have different skillsets on the basketball court. Transitioning between these positions proved difficult and thus, my “Khanh-sanity” journey died quickly in high school.
When I first returned to Vietnam in early 2001, I had this incredible sense of home coming. Even though the climate was unbearable and noise was overwhelming, I had a sense that I had arrived home. I left when I was five and don’t have any clear distinct memory of Vietnam. When Vietnamese met me, they would assume that I was either Chinese or Korean either because I was bigger than your typical Vietnamese or that they saw me as a tourist (which I was) or both. Back then, Americans did not visit Vietnam in the numbers that they do today. I was not quite Vietnamese enough for the Vietnamese, yet never seen as “fully” American.
Even to this day, people would complement me on how well I speak English. Even though I have been a citizen since 1976, have represented the State of Colorado at national programs or defended/explained the US Constitution in front of judges, congressmen and congresswomen, I will be seen by some as a perpetual foreigner. As many immigrants have experienced, I have been called “gook”, “chink”, “go home to your country”, etc. On some level, I will always be a foreigner, someone who has not been fully accepted and is seen in perpetual transition.
Change is not easy and not always successful. One of the most sad and difficult changes that I personally witness, was when I picked up our local newspaper and saw the mugshots of the captured local Asian gang members. I recognized two of the faces in the lineup. They were students of mine from Sunday school. I am still saddened that our community (I included) could not help these young folks adapt to their new environment and transition successfully.
If I had to sum my life up in a Calculus equation (a very crude approximation), it would involve an integration of a natural log because even as I integrate different life experiences, I have re-occurring themes of family, culture and community transitioning back and forth from one culture to the other. As I integrate these experiences, they just add on top of each other to make my life richer and more expansive. At least with Calculus, I don’t have to defend it, only to explain in a beautiful way as it theoretically should be as a Vietnamese/Asian American.
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