From the first day of orientation, I was convinced that I was different. I was a fish thrown out of water, an Asian girl attending school in a predominantly Caucasian community. I did not look “American” because my Vietnamese heritage strongly manifested itself in my appearance and yet I did not want to have myself branded as Asian. I did not see myself as belonging to the stereotypical “model minority,” the meek, dark-haired girl whose life revolved solely around her ambition to succeed in school. Although I was the girl who got straight A’s and graduated valedictorian, I always had an inner drive to do more, to be more than what was expected of “studious” Asians. As much as I tried to call myself an “American” and tuck away my heritage , it was ineluctably a part of me. The contours of my face were not the same as my classmates and I did not have their prominent noses, but rather jet black hair and fairly slanted eyes. I did not come from a family of prestige and my parents were neither erudite, nor doctors or lawyers. Uncomfortable in my own skin, I felt like my American identity were a counterfeit.
My feelings, however, changed after visiting Vietnam. In going to Vietnam, I confronted the contradictions within and threw myself into the Asian jungle. There, I fell in love with the timeless beauty and charm of Vietnam. I loved cycling to church in the traditional Ao Dai dress, amongst a uniform movement of flowing dresses and cyclos. I still muse on the thought of colorful Saigon streets filled with vendors thrusting bamboo hats of rice on their shoulders and the man who never stopped playing his melancholic melody. And as my love for the people of Vietnam grew, so did my understanding of my cultural identity. I am a Viet Kieu, a Vietnamese American. My reflection shows a world of intertwining cultures; a part of me that I had been denying to others and to myself. It was this underlying close connection to Vietnam that drove me to succeed. I now can grasp the impact of the values that my parents have instilled in me, like work ethic, respect for elders, and preservation of the family.
It is people like me who redefine America. We are not just “Americans”, we each also have a heritage that we should embrace. Each culture has been woven into the fabric of American life. By sharing the unique facets of my culture, I’m able to teach others about what it means to be a first-generation Vietnamese American. Entering my house, you will inevitably find a mountain of shoes and smell the aromas of Vietnamese herbs and spices. But you will also notice a television and a music shelf full of contemporary rock. My family has adapted to American culture while still keeping our values intact. There should not be a clash of cultures because one is built off the other. I have learned that tasty ethnic dishes, like tamarind shrimp soup and mint chicken, can be combined with “all-American” tuna sandwiches and Coca-cola. I did not have to choose between my motherland and Vietnam. I am after all a Viet Kieu, a microcosm of two worlds.
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