On Facebook I am registered as a member of my maternal clan, the Dinh family. But when I look into the mirror, it is hard to spot any physical likeness. I see a stubby chin, high cheekbones, twig-like arms, and a slouching posture. Once, after a fainting episode, an uncle commented disapprovingly how I was not very strong or hardy like the rest of the Dinhs.
To be part of any group, it’s generally helpful to display characteristics compatible with the members. My uncle struggled to find qualities in me that would help create a sense of connection. Finally relenting in a Christmas letter five years ago, my uncle wrote to the entire Dinh clan how “Bich” was very “hard-working.” This disappointed me. An eighth grade teacher had also described me as a “work-horse,” a generic descriptor she assigned to those students for whom she couldn’t find other qualities to prescribe. I wanted to be special and unique but in a way that was identifiable with a group that I could loudly brag about being a part of.
Tired of being that boring, hard-working people-pleaser, I decided to book a plane ticket to Sài Gòn and not tell my parents that I was visiting their ancestral land for the very first time. I was 22 years old, rebellious and, like any child of immigrants, wanted to know more about my homeland. I wanted to understand my cultural identity and to find my tribe.
I tried to keep my trip a secret, but my dad confronted me one day, mentioning a credit card bill containing a plane ticket purchase with Air Asia going to Hồ Chí Minh City.
“Would you know anything about this?!” he demanded. I had forgotten that my dad co-signed my first credit card.
Not wanting to admit any wrong-doing, I threw accusations at my mother as a diversionary tactic.
“But I don’t know anything about dad’s side of the family!” I howled back against their admonishments. “I’ll never get to meet them!”
Not in a million years did I think my mom would take these accusations seriously but when spring crawled around that year, I found myself booking a second ticket. My mom and I were both going to meet my dad’s side of the family, the Dangs. She, too, had never met them.
Who we are
Is not what we wear or eat
It’s deeper but just as transparent
-Alan Chong Lau
The Dangs lived in Bảo Lộc, a small city in the mountainous area near Đà Lạt, my father’s birthplace. He had grown up among the pine trees. After the oppressive heat of Sài Gòn, I was surprised to climb into the coolness of a more temperate climate, which I thought was not possible in tropical Vietnam. It felt like the Pacific Northwest: not too hot, not too cold.
My dad only had one brother who died a couple of years prior from a stroke, leaving behind five children, my cousins. Meeting them for the first time was a little bit like seeing my dad and myself in another dimension and in another life. The physical resemblance was spooky; I saw my father’s distinctive hairline and head shape in my male cousins. When one of my female cousins grinned, her cheekbones soared like mine. We look more alike than I do with my own sisters.
“Oooh, she’s definitely related to us,” teased one of them as she poked fun at my lanky frame. “Look at those arms!”
It was astonishing to see my features on faces 7,327 miles away. But the excitement quickly subsided once I learned how different my life was compared to theirs. It was as if I picked the winning card from the deck of fate and my cousins were dealt with cards of misfortune. I was college educated, able to travel, and had several career options to consider ahead of me. My cousins, on the other hand, lived in a simple two-room wooden house, surrounded by avocado trees and chickens. The eldest of them lived next door in a one-room shack with his wife and child. College was not a reality and one of them never made it past eighth grade, resigning to ironing clothes for a living. When one of them giggled, I could see black, rotting teeth. Worst of all, they did not have their father while I still had mine.
As much as I wanted to foster a closer relationship with my cousins, I did not anticipate our disparate conditions being such a barrier. Language was a barrier for sure, but not but our socioeconomic circumstances too? I remember lending my digital camera to Hong, my cousin’s child, so she could have something to play with in the yard. I observed Hong’s father become more irritated by the minute as his daughter played with the camera and snapped pictures around the yard. Not long after, he stood up and sharply informed his daughter that it was bath time. Quietly I took the camera away from Hong’s hands, feeling terrible. I wasn’t showing off, was I?
The trip to Bảo Lộc affected me deeply, lending itself to a series of decisions for which I had little explanation until much later. I volunteered to work with low-income Vietnamese elders, researching their needs and challenges for almost two years. I chose to room with a Vietnamese family I found on Craigslist whose family name was coincidentally also Dang. For an internship, I picked an elementary school in Rainier Valley because I knew that was where most low-income Vietnamese students were.
These were terrible decisions. I was paid little for my research work, didn’t mesh well with the Craiglist Dang family, and lost a great deal of sleep from the four-hour daily commute to that Rainier Valley elementary school.
Somewhere along the way I began to realize there were limitations to being a martyr and that, buried in the decisions I made, was a sense of guilt. I was trying to atone for all the time spent not knowing my extended family and not being able to properly care for them. This guilt distorted how I saw myself and my identity.
In the end, I simply had to concede that connecting with people, even family, isn’t always as easy as it seems and that, ultimately, my tribe might not be the Dangs.
I am more than just my family and what I look like.
Teresa is a graduate of the UW College of Education with a Master’s degree. She has done research in the non-profit sector and taught ESL in Thailand Interested in race, culture, and literary analysis, she enjoys watching melodramas with strong female characters, reading multicultural graphic novels, and drinking copious amounts of green tea.