You’re Not Vietnamese
“Cám ơn bá nhiê,” I say to the giggling ladies. I’m not quite sure why they think I am so funny. They have been laughing at me since I first opened my mouth when I walked in through the doors and my Mom told me to say hi. But my Mom has been smiling from ear to ear so I do not think that there is anything wrong with their laughter. If she says that it is ok, then it is ok. To be fair, it is only the first time that my Mom has ever taken me to the nail salon next to where she worked to get my nails done. The nail ladies addressed my Vietnamese Mom by her full name, Phương Lan, normally people only called her by her American name, Lan.
It is my seventh birthday and my Mom gifted me with a pamperous manicure and pedicure. What do I know? Maybe the nail ladies always laugh. As the nice lady scrubs my feet and I try to hold in my giggles, a crowd of nail technicians surrounds my Mom and I, and I am questioned. In Vietnamese, they ask me, what is your favorite food? What grade are you in? How old are you? These questions are pretty easy. I answer them, in fluent Vietnamese, not thinking too much into it because I am too focused on how cool my nails look. After all, my Mom taught me Vietnamese while I was growing up and I have been speaking with her and her family members since I was very little. This was the first time I genuinely felt confused that people did not understand how I could understand Vietnamese. I did not understand that my White complexion I got from my Swedish-English Dad did not match the language I spoke. When we are leaving, I was so excited because my toes were a sparkling blue with beautiful intricately patterned flowers painted on each of them. I hope my Mom takes me there again soon, I thought to myself after being pampered for over an hour.
A few weeks later, my Dad took me to visit my Mom at work. As we leave, my Mom takes me by the nail salon to say hi to her friends. They all smile as we walk in and stop what they are working on to greet us. My Mom and the ladies talk for a little bit in Vietnamese. Coincidentally, my best friend Ally was there getting her nails done at the salon with her Mom. I walk over to say hi to her because she is just finishing up. She shows me her toes: pink, but plain. I think to myself, “That’s a pretty color but she didn’t get any designs. That’s kind of weird.” Oh well.
Later in the year, several of my Mom’s high school friends travel to our house from all around the country for a dinner. She had not seen these friends since she fled from Vietnam, almost 30 years ago. Until I grew older, I was never really able to conceptualize just how long my Mom hadn’t seen her friends. In my 4th grade mind, not seeing your friends for summer break was the longest time!
In preparation for the big reunion, my Mom harangues me and my younger brother on how we are to act when the guest come over: We must be on our best behavior, look everyone in the eyes when they are talking to us, and roll our arms and bow when greeting others. As my brother and I are being introduced, everyone is so impressed with me. Of course my brother doesn’t listen to my Mom’s directions, but I will not let her down. Cháo ông. Cháo bà, I greet all of her friends, rolling my arms, and bowing, just as she carefully instructed. My brother remains silent and bows after me. After the formalities are finished and he sneaks a couple of egg rolls, he runs upstairs to play Wii. After getting all of my favorite snacks from the gifts that people have brought, I try to run upstairs and join him, but I can’t get through all of the people. Everyone is asking me questions and laughing: “The American girl,” they call me. I just want to play Wii, but I stay downstairs because I can see that it will make my Mom happy.
Almost a year after my first trip to the nail salon, in the summer of 2008, my Mom took me back to Vietnam while my brother went with my Dad to visit Boston. Clearly, I got the better end of the deal. This trip was very important. It was the first time my Mom had been back to her home in over 33 years. She escaped as a refugee to Australia when she was 19 years old. In Australia, she worked hard and rose to a high position in a carpet manufacturing company. She later met my Dad when the same company sent him to Australia from Georgia. They fell in love and moved back to America with my older brother.
This trip to Vietnam was eye opening for me; not only in the sense that I learned more about my Mom and her culture, but also because I learned more about the world and myself. At this point, I was used to all of my Mom’s friends being genuinely impressed and shocked with me, when I spoke Vietnamese to them. I was a White girl speaking a foreign language. However, in the rural setting of my Mom’s hometown, Sóc Trȃng, I was not used to being the complete minority: a foreign White girl speaking the native language. Most people had never encountered someone with my complexion or with my nose. My nose had a bridge, something not characterized in Vietnamese, flat noses. Furthermore, I had several brown freckles, speckled across my face and nose. In comparison to the porcelain Vietnamese facial complex characterized by flawless and smooth skin, my facial features stood out. As I walked through the market, people consistently came up to me and touched my nose or my arm or my face. As a young child, I was hesitant. Why is everyone touching me? But my mom would reassure me. She would give me a nod, letting me know that it was ok. I felt like somewhat of a celebrity. Everyone would look at me everywhere we went. But why? It was in this moment that I first fully came to realize that despite being related to my Mom, feeling just like her, and even going so far as to wanting to be just like her, we did not look similar. People never put two and two together because I looked White and my Mom looked Asian. I always knew that I looked more like my Dad, mostly because people would always tell me. However, I never thought of myself as something other than a little version of my Mom.
As I got older, I became more understanding of my appearance, but there was still a disconnect between how I looked and how I wanted to be perceived. After moving districts to join middle school, I had to remake all of my friends. In an effort to join a social scene, I joined orchestra, and I ended up growing very close to all of the players. I was the only white person in my friend group. This was dissimilar to elementary school. None of my new friends would believe me when I told them that I was Asian. When I ate my rice and chicken for lunch with chopsticks, they would joke around with me, still not fully convinced. At our first orchestra concert, during intermission, all of my friends rushed into the crowd to see my Mom, not telling me that they were going to do this. When they finally asked the right lady if she was “Marybeth’s Mom,” they were shocked to see that my Mom was indeed Asian; I hadn’t lied. My Mom told me after the show, and we both sort of laughed it off. Even though I was a little sad that they would do that, my Mom told me to not look too much into it. “They just don’t understand,” she said in an effort to comfort me.
Looking back at my first trip to the nail salon, I cannot help but laugh. I was so unaware and oblivious as to why the nail technicians were so excited to talk to me, or why I got special treatment. I thought that I was just cool. I did not understand why Ally did not get an intricate design on her toes like me. Now that I am older, I realize that the nail ladies were excited because I, someone who does not look Vietnamese, could speak Vietnamese. This is also why, whenever I go back to the same nail salon, I get extra designs on my nails and nicer treatment. There was always a constant conversation taking place while I got my nails done, compared to when they would work with other customers without a single word spoken between them. In a similar manner, I understand why my Mom’s friends wouldn’t let me go upstairs. They enjoyed seeing that their language and culture was being carried down generationally to “the American girl.” Similarly, my middle school friends weren’t trying to be mean; they just didn’t understand that I could look more like my Dad, but still be Asian.
In highschool, I was again the only “white” friend in a largely Asian friend group. The majority of my classes consisted of Asian students with white students being the minority. Even with the divide, I thought that race was no longer something that people used to predominantly define themselves. I was wrong. There was still the disconnect and I found that I had a very divisional friend groups. I was able to identify with both groups of people. However, I only identified with one group at a time: I had my Asian friend group and I had my white friend group. In my white friend group, we would go to the beach together to surf, watch football games, and go out to eat. In my Asian friend group we would play soccer in the park, eat Korean BBQ, and study in the LA museums together. Though I didn’t act differently depending on which group I was in, I didn’t feel like the same person in both friend groups. My white friends saw me as white. My Asian friends saw me as Asian. There was no overlap between the two groups. I was either one or the other.
Growing up in Southern California, I lived 40 minutes away from the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam: Westminster, or as we like to call it, Little Saigon. Every weekend, my Mom and I would make the trip up to go grocery shopping and eat lunch. Everytime we went to the grocery store, and would wait in the poultry line to order meat, people always assumed that we were two separate transactions. “And for you, miss?,” they would ask me as I stood next to my Mom who was already ordering. This was something that she and I always giggled at. When we came back from our grocery trip, she would always realize that we had forgotten something and we would have to stop by the local grocery store. In line I would once again stand next to my Mom and begin to place things on the conveyor. “Miss, this line is also open,” another cashier would say to me. “Haha, no this is my Mom, and we are together,” I’d answer as we laugh. It happened wherever we went. Though it was difficult for me to understand when I was younger, I am now more aware and understanding of the mistake.
As I grew up, I became more solidified in my beliefs and understanding of the world. I know now that I am Vietnamese AND Swedish-English. All I ever wanted to be was just like my Mom: hardworking, careless about the superficial, and determined in the face of challenges. I can learn all of these things from my Mom, and I can do this without even looking like her. I can also get my Dad’s humor, strong work ethic, altruism, and stubborn inclination to do what is right no matter the consequences. I don’t have to identify as one or the other; I can have the best of both of my parents. I moved across the country this year to go to college in Boston. It is during this time that many people are insecure and still learning who they are. Granted, I am too. However, I believe that I should be the most insecure about who I am right now: I am away from my family, who are my primary influences; at least for the first 17 years of my life. Despite this, in the face of the shortfall of leadership, I have found that I know who I am more than ever; I am a Southern California native. I am laid back and more easy going than most. Things don’t get under my skin very easily. I have a strong passion for everything that I do. If I am going to do something, then I am going to do it right. I am Vietnamese. I am, also, Swedish and English. I am my Father. I am also my Mother. In October during our parents swim meet, my parents came across the country to watch me swim. Afterwards, at our team lunch with all other parents and team members, a senior comes up to me. “Marybeth what the heck?! I didn’t know you were Asian! Did anyone else know she was Asian?” she questions. My parents and I laugh. “I’m half,” I respond.
I recently went to the nail salon near campus with my swim team. We got our toes done. I talked to my friends the whole time. After realizing my nail technician was Vietnamese because she was speaking to another nail technician, I got excited. As I went to pay, I thanked her. Cám ơn bá nhiê. A huge smile rushes across her face and she laughed. She ecstatically said to the white customer next in line, “She speaks my language! She is speaking Vietnamese! How do you know Vietnamese?”
Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation. KKF | Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, 12
June 2007, khmerkrom.org/78how-soc-trang-kh-leang-province -founded-and-its-major-historical-events-1658-1953/.
“Soc Trang Travel.” Lonely Planet, 8 Sept. 2019, www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam.mek
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