Uncontained Rants...

Monday, April 04, 2005

Reflections (April 30)

“When I was your age, I was washing clothes for my entire family…by hand!”

“When I was your age, I was already cooking meals for everyone…”

“When I was your age…”

“When I was your age…”

This was the mantra of my childhood if there ever was one. Peering into my messy room, my mom would begin her monologue as her voice penetrated my inner being. On those occasions, if not sitting in stony silence imagining myself far away from the conversation at hand, I was wondering what it was like scrubbing a basketful of clothes with a bar of soap or dunking a chicken into scalding hot water. These practices in empathy were few and far between, of course, and would diminish as quickly as it took for my mom to whip up a 5-course meal every night after work. Growing up, I really didn’t think I could ever understand her childhood or where she was coming from. And that was just at home.

At school, I continued to live out my hyphenated identity as a Vietnamese-American. Living in a low-income community, I went to school and rubbed elbows with a predominantly Black and Latino student population. Thus, my Vietnamese counterparts were always ‘the other”. At the time, it was never a conscious effort on my part, but I found I never wanted to associate myself with “those Vietnamese kids”, my only reason being that I didn’t have anything in common with them. Moreover, I could speak and understand the language, but I never spoke Vietnamese to anyone other then my parents and god forbid in public! Those “Vietnamese kids” were always chattering about something, and always too loudly. They assumed I didn’t understand and so I always had this lingering suspicion that they looked down on me because I was too “Americanized”. Thus, to combat this insecurity, I simply turned my shoulder and prided myself on my accent-less English.

Every weekend also meant a trip down the 405 to Little Saigon. As a kid, these outings weren’t so bad as I simply went along for the ride and found the Asian Garden Mall to be a cool place to score Sanrio stationary. But as I got older, I began to further disassociate myself with this bustling epicenter of the Vietnamese community and what it represented, finding every reason not to go.

It was not until years later in college, with a new consciousness about my ethnic identity and some time spent in Vietnam that I began to understand. In reality, the divide that I always thought existed between myself as an American-born Vietnamese girl and those true and blue Vietnamese people wasn’t as wide as I always assumed. As if a veil had been lifted, I began to take pride in the distinctive gifts of the Vietnamese culture and people—the hospitality, the honesty, and the sacrifices.

Given, there are still things about Little Saigon that I’m still learning to embrace. A microcosm of the Vietnamese-American experience, Little Saigon is in constant expansion, with new strip malls and structures being erected every week. Luxury vehicles share parking spaces with the good ‘ol Honda Civics as women strut their stuff on the catwalks of Bolsa, flossing their brand name handbags (whether real or fake, who knows) and cell phones. In this Saigon Nho, the glare of material wealth wrestles for attention with the Southern California sunshine.

Yet, with the approaching 30-year anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I’ve come to understand how far I’ve come as a Vietnamese-American woman and how much further I have yet to grow and learn. As for my mother’s mantras, they were nothing compared to the real sacrifices she made to give me the freedom to do what I do, write what I write, and live out my dreams.

On April 30, 1975, her family had already fled their home in Tuy Hoa to head to Saigon, only to return years later to find their house already seized and converted into government office space. Life from then on out changed drastically, and it was in 1979 that she escaped by boat with her younger brother. In the small fishing boat packed 60 deep, they were at sea for 8 days. Reaching Hong Kong, she lived in the refugee camps for a year and worked in an assembly line making zippers and silk flowers before arriving in Orange County. With meager beginnings and a far cry from home, she wrote letters to her family and cried herself to sleep every night. She was only 14 years old.

Her story, as compelling as it is, mirrors that of countless others. Yet it is these stories that have laid the foundations in bustling Little Saigon and in the lives of many second generation Vietnamese-Americans. It took me some time to fully recognize those truths, and so, as challenging as it is, they are also the reasons I choose to reconnect with my community, to strengthen our voices by telling our stories. With 30 years behind us, there’s no telling how far we’ll go from here, for the depth of our future accomplishments is immeasurable.

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