Laugh a little — A biography
“It’s going to be hot.” My mother warned me about Vietnam’s fatal heat, but even she could not prepare me for what was about to happen. My parents had decided that the summer before my senior year was the perfect time to take a month-long vacation to Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Meanwhile, I was drowning in college applications and scholarship essays. I was less than thrilled about the trip, but for the weeks leading up to it, that was all my parents could talk about.
I got there, and it was nothing like I thought it would be. It was INCREDIBLY hot. Everyone rode mopeds at ridiculous speeds on any side of the road they damn well pleased. There are little to now traffic laws, but somehow there are minimal auto accidents. It was dangerous to just be walking on the sidewalks.
For most of my life I was sheltered in my humble suburban home, and seeing how people lived in Phu Quoc was the biggest culture shock of my life. Everything was raggedy and sad; everything except the people. Everyone that walked by had smiles on their faces that reached from ear to ear, exposing teeth that had seen plenty of wear and tear. I had no idea what these people had to be happy about. Time passed, and I filled my days with exploring the small island. I sat in coffee shops and watched the people walk by. I went to the ocean and took in the freshest air I’d ever felt. I listened to the night life of the city and sat with drool coming out of my mouth smelling the fresh food that was sold on the streets. This was such a strange version of paradise.
Growing up, my family was always a little different. My parents worked more than most. We always travelled in large groups because of my extensive extended family. But most notably, I felt like my childhood was a place where two cultures collided. We were Vietnamese, but we were also American. We couldn’t align with just one so we were somewhere in the middle, and that always bothered me. Why weren’t we like everyone else? Why did we have to be different? Growing up, this was a sensitive spot for me and thus I always tried a little harder than most to fit into the picture of what I thought life was supposed to be like. At my predominantly white schools, I would be ashamed of my Vietnamese roots, and eventually this transferred over to my home life.
Being in Vietnam for a month allowed me to see the different aspects of my culture that my parents had spent seventeen years trying to put into words. I never understood and thus could never be proud of what I represented. Seeing their words come to life was beyond exciting. I fell in love with the life that the islanders lived. I wanted to spend the rest of my days breathing in the ocean and the pork kabobs sold on the streets. I wanted to surround myself with friendly faces and warm hugs (everyone in Vietnam is a hugger). Sadly, my time there was coming to an end.
Three connecting flights later, I was home, welcomed by my grandmother and aunt in Hartsfield-Jackson. They asked how the trip went and noted how different we all looked. I gave credit to the little to no sleep I had gotten on the plane, but they knew it was more than that. We were happy and refreshed. We had gotten to know a very different and exciting part of the world. For the first time in my life, I was proudly Vietnamese. This moment was when I began to accept myself as what I was — A hybrid culture bearer.
From this moment forward, I found it impossible to feel connected to either world — Western or Vietnamese. I knew that I couldn’t pick a side, and I was forever stuck in the middle. However, I didn’t see this as a bad thing anymore. I was lucky to have not one, but two cultures to belong to. I felt that both cultures had their ups and downs but deserved to be celebrated equally. I hope that this Roots and Routes project did that. It would have been easy to focus on the fact that both of my parents are Vietnamese, and that their culture is so different than mine. It wouldn’t have been honest to give that message, instead this is what is real. The truth is, my parents couldn’t conserve all of their Vietnamese traditions in the United States, but they have happily picked up new ones. We as a family can’t belong to either world solely, but, as I’ve discovered, we’ll always belong to each other.