The Importance of Not Limiting Cultural Identity

As a Vietnamese-American, one of the most frustrating moments is eating at a Vietnamese restaurant with family and realizing how little of the language I actually remember.

While Vietnamese was once the main language in my household, English quickly took over as I began elementary school. Today, I can probably speak more of the Spanish I learned in middle and high school, than the Vietnamese I learned from my parents and grandparents growing up. Let’s not even talk about my proficiency (or lack thereof) in reading or writing.

Even though my parents always order at these restaurants, I still rehearse what I’d say in my head. Most of the time, I can barely form a coherent sentence.

The most infuriating part is that I can understand five times more Vietnamese than I can speak.  It feels like I’m permanently tongue-tied, like there’s a block between my brain and my mouth whenever I attempt to speak the language I once had full access to.

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve forgotten the word for “water” when ordering at a restaurant, but perfectly understood when my parents asked the waiter.  And when my mom speaks to my grandparents, I understand almost everything, whether they’re talking about my grandpa’s next ophthalmologist appointment or what we had for lunch. Everyone is mildly surprised when I chime in and respond in English.

Although I can still participate in these conversations, this one-way pseudo-fluency has become more isolating than I expected.

Growing up, my friends would joke that the only thing that “made me Asian” is the emphasis I placed on my education. And every so often, my family teases me (with love, of course) that I speak Vietnamese “like an American.”

I always laugh — there’s definitely some truth in both of those statements — but I’ve begun to question whether my lack of knowledge about my own cultural background dictates “how Asian” I am.

I’m proud of my heritage, but sometimes I feel caught in between the “Asian” and the “American” in “Asian-American.” And it’s not like I have an excuse — I’m 100% Vietnamese.

This question came up again after watching the video NBC Asian-America released about Asian-Americans who brought unusual lunches to school. As my friends were proclaiming its relatability on Facebook, sharing their own lunchbox moments, I realized that I was part of the minority. Nine times out of ten, my lunch consisted of a turkey sandwich and fruit. Today, I have plenty of non-Asian friends who eat pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, more often than I do.

My cultural identity was a point of extreme self-consciousness, but I’m realizing that deconstructing the term “Asian-American” into two distinct halves is exactly the problem.

To quote a friend of mixed European and Asian heritage, “it’s not like I wake up every morning and decide whether I’m feeling more Asian or more American.”

Digesting this identity into non-overlapping binaries might actually be more detrimental to the increasingly diverse community it’s intended to unify. It demerits the unique narratives of a generation of immigrants and their families.

Like almost everything else, the term “Asian-American” needs to be treated as a spectrum. While there are people like some of my parents’ friends, who relish in Vietnamese poetry, there are also people like my younger sister, who are completely oblivious to the conversations between the Vietnamese manicurists at nail salons. And there are people like me who fall somewhere in between.

Maybe one day I’ll follow through with my resolution to relearn Vietnamese, and maybe I’ll reach a point where I’m comfortable enough with my proficiency that I won’t be afraid to visit my family’s home country.

But whether I do or I don’t, my story and my experiences are mine. I’ll always be working to feel more in touch with my cultural identity, and that’s not something that can be determined by the amount of words I can speak.

Brittany Pham is a second-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at brittaqp@uci.edu.