I’m excited to run this post by Mary, who runs the wonderful blog The Ruby Ronin. Her mother was a refugee of the Vietnam War and her father a white American veteran; she writes about her experience growing up biracial in a small town in America — and how she came to appreciate her mother after growing up (and especially after her trip to Vietnam). Thanks for sharing Mary!
If you have a story you’d like to share on Speaking of China, we’re always looking for great guest posts. Visit the submit a post page to learn how your words could be published here.
I didn’t realize that I was “different” until I hit the second grade. That’s when the kids started calling me “Chinese.”
“Am I Chinese, mom?” I asked my mother one day after school.
She exploded in laughter and replied, “Why do you think you’re Chinese?”
“Because everyone at school calls me Chinese.”
Her smiling expression soon turned to concern, “No, Mary, you’re not Chinese.” She replied sternly, “You’re Vietnamese.”
I cocked my head in confusion.
“What’s a Vietnanese?”
My mother was a refugee from the Vietnam War, my American father a veteran of that war. After the war my mother and father relocated to rural, coal mining America where I was the only “Asian” (half, really) in my elementary school. For most of my childhood and adolescent life, I was labeled as “Chinese” and my social identity revolved around my Asian ethnicity.
“Why does your mom talk funny?” my friends once asked me in third grade after meeting my mother for the first time.
It wasn’t until that moment I realized that, indeed, my mother was different. She was unable to pronounce certain words correctly and her grammar was off. Every now and then I heard her ramble off on the phone in a language I didn’t know, and which I could only assume was this newly discovered “Vietnanese.”
My mom used to drive us two hours north for the sole purpose of going to one of the rare Asian markets in our state and stocking up on Vietnamese food for the long winter. I remember those market visits vividly, because every time I set foot into that store all of my senses went into overload. The sound of live fish flapping in the seafood isle, the overpowering stench of freshly cut durian, the colors of all the exotic fruits in the produce section (dragon fruit!)—it was like being in another world.
Although I knew that somehow this culture was associated with me, it all felt so strangely foreign.
I used to cuddle up with my mom and watch Vietnamese movies together as a child. I couldn’t understand a word, although I desperately wanted to. I asked my mother to teach me Vietnamese multiple times, but she always refused. She laughed and said that teaching me Vietnamese was too much work, but I think deep down she wanted to give me a life that had nothing to do with the harsh, war-torn country she had just left. While she was still very Vietnamese at heart, she wanted her daughter to be nothing but American.
My mother and I could never communicate. I always wondered if it was culture, or language, or a little bit of both. When I told her I didn’t want fruit or another helping of food, she still cut up fresh apples or scooped an extra bowl of rice for me. When I tried to talk to her about my inner feelings and insecurities, she turned a deaf ear and seemed more concerned about the warmth of my coat or the food in my stomach. At times I felt like she didn’t care about who I was as a person, but it wasn’t until I moved to Asia later in life that I realized all of her so-called “minor” concerns was her way of showing love.
Growing up biracial, especially in a small town like we did, was extremely difficult. There were times I wanted nothing more than to be fully Asian so that I could finally blend in with my Asian relatives, and there were other times I longed to be completely American so that I could fit in with the kids at school.
It wasn’t until I moved to Asia later in life that I realized it wasn’t me that struggled the most—it was my mother and the hardships she endured living in America. Like many of us that move abroad, my mother coped with challenges such as living in a new language and trying to fit into a foreign society—but unlike most modern travelers today, she didn’t have the option that many of us have: to go home. Her country was torn by war and her Vietnamese passport revoked—even to this day, she has never returned to Vietnam.
My mother was completely isolated as the only Vietnamese person in our town, her only connection to home being interspersed phone calls with distant family and the Vietnamese movies I used to watch with her as a child.
I screamed at my mother a lot, because I didn’t understand. I wondered why she had to be so strange, why she couldn’t understand me, why our family had to be so different — yet she never yelled back. She only smiled.
Years later, I traveled to Vietnam alone to learn about a very important part of me—the history of my mother. I went to her old neighborhood in Saigon and to the markets she used to frequent as a child. Although my mother raised me to be the best American girl I could be, deep down I was still Vietnamese.
On the bus ride from Saigon to Hanoi, a song played on the radio. I recognized it as the famous melody from the movies my mother and I used to watch together, and I was helpless in holding back the tears.
Thank you, mom, for making me who I am today. I’m proud to be biracial, and I’m proud to say that yes—I am Vietnamese.
Mary writes about life in China and Japan, dating in Asia, world travel and everyday inspirations at The Ruby Ronin.