Gerard from husband and wife travel blog GQ Trippin shares his experiences on growing up as Vietnamese American and how it affects him when he travels.
Like many refugees who fled Vietnam as a result of the Fall of Saigon, my parents along with my two older brothers in tow fled to the United States in the late 70’s for freedom and the pursuit of happiness. They made the journey to the States by sneaking onto a small boat headed out to sea. Two days later, they landed in Malaysia. After months in the internment camps and a short stint Hawaii, they finally got a relative to sponsor them to the mainland. My family settled in San Jose, California and we have been there ever since. This is where I was born. This is where I grew up – a first generation Vietnamese American.
Growing up, I attended a public Catholic school on Saturdays and on Sundays, Hướng Đạo, which is basically the Vietnamese Boy Scouts. My parents made me speak primarily Vietnamese in the house, although my Vietnamese is very broken compared to my English these days. Each year, we celebrated Thanksgiving and lit firecrackers for Vietnamese New Year. That’s how it’s always been, a little bit of Vietnamese and a little bit of American. It’s what I’ve always known and is the norm for many my generation: the treading between two cultures seamlessly and without differentiation.
It took me twenty years before I made my way to the motherland. I first visited Vietnam in 2007; a short 10-day stay to visit my grandmother for the very first time.
It was also the first time I was culture shocked by my own culture. The first time Vietnamese sounded like a foreign language. The first time I was profiled as a Việt Kiều or “overseas Vietnamese”. It’s a term I never quite understood but also did not take offense to being called one either. I just knew it made me different, neither good nor bad, just different. Different enough to not be treated as their own but not too different that they would rip me off or talk crap behind my back. Still, I was by all accounts a tourist in my own country. It’s a strange experience to feel in between two cultures. For the first time, my two worlds did not blend as seamlessly as it did back home growing up in San Jose. That’s because for the first time, I felt neither Vietnamese nor American but a product of both. I am Vietnamese American.
After Vietnam, I could not help but imagine what my life would have been like had my parents not immigrated to the US. They may have come for the pursuit of happiness, but what they have given me, the opportunities that comes with being an American born citizen, is much more invaluable. My citizenship and status as an American has provided me a world of opportunities I would have have otherwise been able to have, or maybe not as easily obtain, had my parents stayed in Vietnam. Especially when it comes to traveling privileges: minimum Visas and no interviews to exit/enter a certain country, I can afford to take vacation and just 4-years ago, I took one year off from work to travel around the world and have visited 30+ countries in total thus far. The list goes on and on. I would not have been able to scratch the surface otherwise if I held a Vietnamese passport, that much I know for sure.
When I travel, I consider myself an American. That’s what my passport says, that is what I tell others who ask, Where are you from? People are always curious where we are from. Within the US and parts of Europe, to simply answer Americans is accepted without question. We are Americans. But outside of these “Western” walls, places like Peru and Tanzania and India, however, more times than not, we get touted with Konichiwa! and Ni Hao! Being American is out of the question, we do not “look” American enough.
No, we are automatically Asians to majority of the world and to the majority of the world, Asians only consist of Japanese or Chinese, apparently. This is what it’s like to travel as a Vietnamese American. I have grown accustomed to this notion: some days I am American, other days I am Asian, though not always the Asian of my choosing, but most days my wife and I are a product of both — Vietnamese American – and it’s pretty awesome to say that.
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