When I first visited Vietnam in 2007, I arrived with more than just a lot of luggage. Packed alongside all the clothes and gifts was a deep worry of whether I was “Vietnamese” enough. Nervous and apprehensive, I convinced myself that I was content to stay distant from the experience. I did not want o go through this test even though I had been raised in a household where Vietnamese culture was fully present. I even spoke Vietnamese fluently, as it was my first language. The problem was more on the outside: I don’t look like a typical Vietnamese.
Growing up, I was regularly confronted with questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” At restaurants, people always looked in amazement and asked about my identity when I ordered using perfect Vietnamese. With a scripted, monotone response, I would explain that I am half-Vietnamese, a quarter Caucasian, and a quarter African-American. More often than not, I would also have to explain that both my parents are con lai, the Vietnamese term for those who are of mixed race. Since the Vietnam War, that term has been specifically used to designate Vietnamese children of American soldiers.
As a result of the constant interrogation into my identity, I also began to ask myself where I truly belonged. The question has only gotten more complicated now that I am in college, learning about the Vietnam War and how most con lai were stigmatized and treated as outcasts in Vietnam. Coming to Vietnam was both exciting and terrifying.
Exiting the airport, I was surprised at the number of family members who had come to welcome my family and me. Cameras flashed everywhere and our names were yelled out repeatedly as if we were celebrities walking the red carpet. They were happy to see me and hugged me like they had known me their entire lives. Initially, it was all every overwhelming and extremely uncomfortable but then I remembered that these strangers were my relatives. Still, I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see that I had so many family members in Vietnam but I, again, recognized that I did not resemble anyone there and felt like I was treated differently because of it.
Arriving in Tuy Hoà, where my father’s side of the family reside, I was mesmerized at the beautiful country landscape, plants, rice and vegetables fields, livestock, and even the houses people lived in. when we walked through the village, everyone knew who we were, asking me if I was Lai’s son. My fear of how con lai were treated subsided as I witnessed how close the village people were with my father. Every day, crowds of people, sometimes 30 at a time, were at my grandmother’s house waiting for us. I recognized some from pictures my parents showed me back in the U.S. but many others I had never seen before. I was never quite sure who I was related to and how.
We passed out gifts and lì xì (red envelopes) to everyone who visited, catching up on the years that separated us. I was surprised to find that I did not feel any way excluded. Rather, I felt accepted. My aunties and uncles fed me all sorts of delicious food, the kids taught me games that they played, and I event tended to the cattle. These interactions gave me such delight that I finally felt a sense of belonging, like I was truly Vietnamese.
As I saw and experienced the lifestyle that my father grew up with – the bamboo beds, outhouses, and wooden patios – I gained new insights into who I am. Coming back to our lives in the U.S., I felt blessed to be of more than one culture. I am proud that I speak fluent Vietnamese. I am proud to embrace my Vietnamese culture. I am proud to tell others about my unique background.
My trip to Vietnam was the catalyst for the recognition and strengthening of my identity. Now, when anyone asks, I hold my head high and proudly say that I am Vietnamese.
Huy Huynh was born in Worcester, MA and is currently attending Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, WA. he is pursuing his Biology degree and is passionate about helping others. In his free time, he loves to be active and enjoys hiking.