diaCRITICIZE: on (not) being Vietnamese

What does it mean to be Vietnamese? diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen says maybe it’s time to ask another question.

Tet passed recently, and Vietnamese holidays always make me think about what it means to be Vietnamese, or not Vietnamese. I’m less interested in the question itself, because there’s no good answer to the question, and more interested in what it implies. The question implies that there is such a thing as Vietnameseness, and that we can define it with a list of things: you’re Vietnamese if you can tell the difference between good pho and bad pho, you’re Vietnamese if you have a favorite brand of fish sauce, you’re Vietnamese if you get teary at the sound of a Khanh Ly song, you’re Vietnamese if you know who Modern Talking is, you’re Vietnamese if…the list can go on. The question of what it means to be Vietnamese is only interesting to me because of the reason why I, or we, or anyone, might ask that question.

I am always getting asked a variation of that question. I went to this Tet party last month, and chatted with a young Vietnamese scholar recently arrived from Viet Nam. We had been speaking for a minute or so, in English, when she said, “You’re not Vietnamese, are you?” This reminded me of the time I had dinner with a group of Vietnamese studies specialists and this young Vietnamese doctoral student, recently from Viet Nam, said to me after a minute of conversation (in English), “There’s not much about you that’s still Vietnamese, is there?” This reminded me of the many times I had been to Viet Nam where people would say (after a few words in Vietnamese from me), “Your Vietnamese is so good!” This means that they thought I was not Vietnamese, since no one would compliment a Vietnamese person on his Vietnamese. I thought, this is what it must be like to be a white person in Viet Nam who breaks out her or his Vietnamese. People treat you so nicely just for being able to say “Please take me to Cho Ben Thanh.”

Whenever this happened, which was at least once a week, it would always remind me of those days in San Jose when I was a kid, in the 1980s, when my parents forced me to attend Vietnamese Catholic Sunday school. I barely spoke any Vietnamese back then, and in that time, in that place, you could not be Vietnamese if you did not speak Vietnamese. It was in the Vietnamese Catholic church, and in Vietnamese language classes, that I first developed my distaste for authenticity. Perhaps it was the pressure of being outsiders, refugees, newcomers to an American life they felt to be strange and one that they had not truly chosen that drove the Vietnamese I knew to define being Vietnamese narrowly. Their Vietnamese identity and culture was like an asteroid from a foreign planet that had come crashing to the American earth, and they would do everything they could to preserve it. So they had their rituals and festivals and masses and schools, where the prescriptions for being Vietnamese were very clear. If you felt included in that world, it was home.

Home was a comforting place, where people always welcomed you, made sure you had enough to eat, knew how to say your name. Home was also the place where people knew you enough to put you in your place, dislike you, hate you, have enough of you, take out their frustrations and rage on you. My parents lived and worked in the Vietnamese world, and the people they were most afraid of were other Vietnamese people. This was the other side of authenticity, the fact that if you knew what it meant to be really Vietnamese, then you also knew where the soft spots and deep hurt were as well. No one knows how to cut you down like another Vietnamese person, who’ll do it with a smile. No surprise that in the 1980s in San Jose, the crime Vietnamese people spoke most often of was the home invasion, when Vietnamese youth invaded the homes of people who looked just like them. The youth knew what hour of the day to come, who to torture, where to find the gold and cash. Was it my imagination, or was this just a repetition of the war, these kids who did the same things the older generation did in Viet Nam. I remembered how, in the second grade, circa 1979, the Vietnamese kids of my San Jose school had already formed gangs and fought each other over territory in the schoolyard. The Vietnamese people had brought their home with them, and home was a civil war, imposed on us by white people who were happy to watch us fight each other. At least in Viet Nam, we fought white people too. Was it my imagination, or in America, did the Vietnamese go out of their way to make white people feel at home whenever they encountered them.

I was never so glad as I was on the day I finally left home. It would take me two decades before I could come back to San Jose without feeling that I was being suffocated by the closeness of those walls of home. Strange, I felt freer going to Viet Nam than I did to San Jose. Not that Viet Nam doesn’t have its own basket case of problems, but it’s not my basket case. I didn’t go to Viet Nam with any expectation that I would suddenly feel at home, 100% Vietnamese, ready to kiss the soil of the motherland. I expected to feel like a foreigner, and that was what I was. The only problem was that the Vietnamese, once they knew who I was, expected me to feel and behave like a native, except when it came to financial matters, when they expected me to behave like a foreigner.

But this was all a long time ago. Wasn’t it? Nowadays the Vietnamese are redefining authenticity, since anything a Vietnamese person does in Viet Nam must be authentically Vietnamese. The rich Vietnamese are so rich they’re doing whatever rich people are doing everywhere, finding new and creative and absurd ways to spend their money, like the $37 bowl of pho or a Lamborghini on the streets of Saigon, where you can’t drive faster than 30 miles per hour. Come to think of it, you can’t drive anywhere in Viet Nam faster than 30 miles per hour. So if this is alien and foreign behavior in Viet Nam, it’s still Vietnamese behavior. Meanwhile, in the USA, there’s a whole new generation of Vietnamese Americans. Some of them want to do culture shows and preserve Vietnamese culture. Some people need to know what their culture is and find it reassuring to rehearse the motions, or to treat culture as if it is something found in a museum, static and unchanging.

But do contemporary Americans feel the need to prove their American culture by periodically wearing powdered wigs and tricorn hats and owning slaves? We think we have moved beyond all of that as Americans and are perfectly happy to think that James Franco represents American culture to the world today. But I haven’t been to a Vietnamese culture show in ten years and I’m curious to see whether today’s American-born students are still doing fan dances and candle dances dressed in peasant clothes, which is what my generation did, most of whom had never had their bare feet in a rice paddy. When I was growing up in San Jose in the hard eighties, I had no idea what a rice paddy might really be like. My idea of Vietnamese culture was that we were a very smart and resourceful people who knew how to both work for cash under the table while collecting welfare and food stamps. I’d like to see a culture show about that.

Nowadays there are some in the new generation who don’t speak any Vietnamese, who don’t care what white people think, and who may not really care that much about being Vietnamese either. Sometimes I run across them in person or see them do their thing from a distance, like Tila Tequila, whom I wrote about for my last diaCRITICIZE post. She doesn’t proclaim her Vietnamese identity, but she is  Vietnamese (of a certain kind) in the way she behaves. I’ve seen many like her in Saigon and San Jose, eager to move on up and look good while they’re doing it. Mostly I assume there are many, many more diverse Vietnamese I will never meet because I wouldn’t have a reason to–they’re not doing anything “Vietnamese.” More power to them. They are Vietnamese and they’re not Vietnamese all at the same time. What they do is Vietnamese and not Vietnamese all at the same time. That’s what I think diaCRITICS is about too, in one of its faces, the ability to (not) be Vietnamese. The ability not to be forced by someone’s question about your authenticity into making an either/or answer–yes, I am Vietnamese, or no, I am not Vietnamese–which is to give in to the whole weight of someone else’s expectations around being “Vietnamese.” So the next time someone asks me if I’m really Vietnamese, I’m going to say “yes and no,” and then I will wait for them to ask me another question.


Viet Thanh Nguyen
is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here. Read his latest short story “Look at Me” here.

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  1. I’m way late to this game but thank you VTN for this wonderful piece – I needed to hear it!

    I’m first gen, born in San Jose and grew up in Cupertino pretty comfortably middle class in the early Noughties. Of course I never appreciated or realized this when I was younger, but tension within the family stemmed from this idea of a rootless identity: my parents had to sacrifice what was specific about their Vietnamese identities (Buddhist, from the South) in order to build a more general community and institutions (hey I went to Catholic Vietnamese Language school too!). What was left of their personal experiences of being Vietnamese they tried to preserve in our home for kids who just wanted things like Christmas, birthday presents, and cable television. I was raised rootless, though I don’t feel its immediacy like the generations before me.

    I don’t think I have any claim to authenticity, but I do feel some deep-seated estrangement that is inevitably racial. I’ve always thought about my experience of the Vietnamese identity as something Punk (in the sense of a social theory more than a genre). It is always liberating itself, always scheming and plotting, always surviving, always enduring, loud and powerful. I’m thinking lately of the fantastic story of Huỳnh Phú Sổ, the bravery of Thích Quảng Đức…

    Which is what I love about your project to be (not) Vietnamese, a practice for which, to me, could be in thinking through the moments and ways I find being Vietnamese and being myself are mutually exclusive. Said a different way: when do I experience subjecthood without consent, and is the mechanism of consent something specific to Asian-American bodies? Examples: getting a job because of affirmative action (model minority work ethic), getting “compliments” on my American accent, or assuming I exist to accommodate those ignorant of Vietnamese culture. The last one has always vexed me – am I supposed to view this as some sort of favor??

    There’s so much in this idea of a Vietnamese identity that is against or outside itself (in bad ways as well as good), particularly in the way it creates a specific Vietnamese-American experience of the Asian-American narrative. Thank you so much for sharing it, and for opening it up for discussion! I hope my comments aren’t too tedious, but this helped me put a lot of what I was thinking about into place.

    PS — that pan-Asian solidarity has always been a tough nut to crack, especially for my generation. But recently I’ve come across this meme page that does it pretty well called AsiansNeverDie.com (the critical limits of this are clearly contained in the name). They started the “This is My Voice” challenge which kind of relates to this idea of rootless: https://www.facebook.com/AsiansNeverDie/videos/809306899414293/

  2. Thanks for keeping this on the “must reads” Viet Thanh.
    Who am i? That’s the quintessential existential issue isn’t it?
    I saw a good comment on it the other day on denizenmag.com, a site for Third Culture Kids. http://www.denizenmag.com/2008/11/the-white-lies-tcks-tell/
    It seems to me that as the world becomes increasingly globalized, these questions of “isness” will grow more discordant unless we learn to just accept that it is acceptable to be multi-indentitied, to be chameleons whose skins change with our environments, but remain essentially our own individual selves.

    IF we succeed, what will happen to our definitions of “Vietnameseness”, “Chineseness”, “Indianness” then?.

  3. This article resonates with my experiences of being a Vietnamese-born, Vietnamese-American woman. I struggled with the concept, feeling neither “Vietnamese” nor “American” enough, for many years. Then I finally went to visit my aunts in Vietnam, who helped raise me, and they totally threw me for a loop when they told me that I look “Korean”! Nonetheless, the internal struggle yielded some useful inspiration towards my artwork. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  4. I think we are talking about culture, not genetics. To say “I am so-and-so” is to mean that I live in, and identify myself with that culture. For example, i might look Asian, but when i say “I am American”, that means my life is more or less intermingled with American culture, that i identify with, feel good about, am proud of American culture.

    Similarly, i might look European, but to say “I am Vietnamese” means that i live in, know a lot about, identify with, love and accept Vietnamese culture.

    So, then, WHAT is a culture? Or more specifically, what is Vietnamese culture?

    To me, culture is the following: It is Language. Food. Clothing. Music. Literature. History. Religion. And customs.

    So, Vietnamese culture is the following: it is the Vietnamese language, with all its accents. It is pho, hu tieu, goi cuon, banh xeo, com ca’ kho, canh chua and all the wonderful food. It is ao dai, ao ba ba, ao yem, khan do’ng, etc. It is My Tam, Dam Vinh Hung, etc, Trinh Cong Son, nhac tien chien, nhac va`ng, nhac tre, cai luong, hat quan ho., da`n tranh, dan bau, etc. It is truyen Kieu, Tu Luc Van Doan, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, etc. It is con Rong chau Tien, all the dynasties, the Chinese and French colonization, Ho chi minh and the communists, Viet Nam Cong Hoa, etc. And it is buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, and catholicism and Cao Dai and all the other religions in Vietnam. And it is all about nga`y Te^’t Nguyen Da’n, Tet Trung thu, Le cuoi hoi, trau cau, and of course lo`ng hieu thao voi cha me, la lanh du`m la rach, ta ve ta tam ao ta, and nhieu dieu phu lay gia guong, nguoi trong mot nuoc phai thuong nhau cung. Finally, to me, one very characteristic feature of Vietnamese culture: before you address someone else, you have to determine how you are *related* to that person (anh, chi., em, ong, ba`, chu’, ba’c, co, cau, cha’u, con etc) and call that person by that relationship. That, i believe, is unique of Vietnamese culture in the world.

    So, i think that you can say “I am Vietnamese” if and when you enjoy, identify with, feel proud of, love Vietnamese culture, which is all of the above.

    By the way, to me, Vietnamese culture when compared to many other world cultures, is not to bad. It can hold its own. It’s pretty powerful, if you think about it.

    Douglas Minh-Duc Phan
    San Jose, Calif

  5. I posted this particular post on my FB. As a mixed race Native Hawaiian/White married to a bi-racial Filipino/White person, there are a lot of discussions in our house about what constitutes “-ness” and where do we fall? I wish I could post the thread that ensued on FB, with many different mixed reactions and people surprising themselves with their thoughts on the topic – particularly people born outside the US looking at the US born children in their families.

    Just wanted to say thanks for getting discussions on this topic going!

  6. I’m a white lady and I work for a Viet language and culture club that supports kids in elementary school. The point, for me as an educator, is to these kids reading and math skills up to speed and show them how to love learning. The point of the org is to give the kids more information about -surprise- Viet language and culture.Viet folk stories and lit are the springboard for everything we do. In one class, a group of Latina kids are the outstanding scholars/participants. Some of the (Viet) kids don’t “know that they are Vietnamese.” I add the finger gesture for the quotation marks here as a result of reading the article and responses, cuz now I don’t know what the heck that means.

  7. Great read, thanks Nguyen Qui Duc for the forward. I’m white with blue eyes and speak decent Vietnamese having lived in Hanoi for ten years. I think genetics is an interesting part of the answer to your unanswerable question. I speak and write Vietnamese better than some of my overseas Vietnamese friends. I have had more servings of ‘real pho’, read more works of cotemporary Vietnamese literature, been to more weddings and so on. Comparing my “Vietnamese-ness” to theirs is like comparing a long-term Vietnamese immigrant’s “American-ness” to that of a white man who was brought up by American parents in, say, Ecuador and who has just returned to California for the first time to reconnect with the land of his people.
    Where does race fit in? It’s the elephant in the room but if prodded I’m sure it will do a fun trick.

  8. I love talking about this topic, thanks for bringing it up at Diacritics.

    I tend to use the language exclusion vs. inclusion. When people are asking “What are you? Are you Vietnamese?”, I’m always wondering, how are they going to use this information against me? Are they trying to include or exclude me? narrowing me down in their sights. This is offensive. They do NOT get to choose who I am.

    But then, what IS Vietnamese? – This question actually goes waaaaay back to the Hung Kings. Viet Nam nationalism would want us to believe that we were Vietnamese in 3000bc, that our sovereignty as VN dates back to Van Lang… but as a Vietnamese outsider w/o much nationality, I have to say that I don’t think VN was much of a cohesive identity until recently. This is almost sacrilegious, but I think of VN as the ‘minority’ group that got away from China. Tibet would LOOOOOVE to be VN right now, any of their non-Han groups would love the freedom to self-rule and identity. And even then, VN’s ancestor cultures and languages (which probably had Mon-Khmer and islander/Indonesian ties) had already been mega-changed by China, or stomped out (Cham people). Our most-referred-to-self-documented history was only written in 14c when we had just thrown off the Chinese yoke. Basically, history was rewritten as VN tried to differentiate itself from its oppressors and assert its right to self-government. And of course, the French moved in too and made their own changes.

    And now today, we have to accept communism and a divided people in a digital/airplane world where everyone is moving, hating, healing, changing, everyone is redefining themselves accordingly, communists rewriting history, refugees waving the old flag. So what is Vietnamese? There are South VN war vets who deny current day VN, there are new generations of Viet-Americans, Viet-Belgians, Viet-Cambodians, Chinese born in VN, nguoi Thuong…hapas, quapas… what are we all talking about??? It’s puzzling. Haha!

    • thanks for commenting, julie. national identities of all kinds are usually heterogeneous and contradictory, held together by a state which has done much violence to forge a unified people; we just tend to forget the violence, like how viet nam is built from the conquest of territory, the forcible assimilation of minorities, and the near-extermination of populations like the cham. so all the internal diversity of viet nam that gets suppressed is just the flip side of the vietnamese who find themselves minorities elsewhere, where they end up being the population that confuses the majority–the vietnamese americans and vietnamese belgians and so on you talk about. so the “what is vietnamese” issue isn’t specific to the vietnamese–it just emerges more visibly for minorities, for weak countries, and countries in crisis.

  9. Great post, Viet Thanh! I too have been struggling with the question of “Vietnameseness” for a long time. Born and raised in Vietnam, and educated in the US, I often find myself dreading vacation time spent in Vietnam, people in Vietnam, things in Vietnam, the way things go in Vietnam. I always feel like an outcast whenever I go home (home being Hanoi). I don’t fit in here. At all. It’s not the lifestyle or tradition problem, but the way of life, ideology and the society’s working mechanism. But at the same time I’m quite ashamed to admit that I hate it here, for people would accuse me for being too “Westernized” (which I’m totally not. “Westernized” is more like you follow the way the Westerns do. I’m just an extremely liberal mind working with different ideas, and even though most of them do come from the West thanks to my education, I make my own judgments and decisions and don’t blindly follow any other’s rule) and “mất gốc” (which I don’t think I am either. I can even make a wild guess that I actually know more about Vietnamese culture than many of them). Thus it always bothers me what it means to be a Vietnamese. Now I’m too confused to the point that I personally almost stop identifying myself as a Vietnamese or anything, just like the time I stopped identifying myself as a woman or whatever gender. But you’re right, maybe that’s out of the question. We just have to move on from authenticity, and sure, let’s look good when we’re doing it.

    Still, it gives me some pleasure to look back when I was fifteen (first time going to the US), sixteen (going to a boarding school in MA), and seventeen (applying to college), when I was very straight and clear about my identity as a Vietnamese, when Vietnam was the country where I want to work and give my contribution the most. I wrote so many essays about how I want to improve the country and change the life of the poor people here. I was passionate about Vietnam. I was with an ambition for Vietnam. I had Vietnam as the center of my plan. Now it all shifts to something within the self, and Vietnam becomes simply a place where many of my loved ones live. I’ll take this transition with fondness.

    Sorry if I talked too much about myself. I got carried away.

    • thanks, hiền nga. the term i dislike most of all is mất gốc (rootless, or having lost one’s roots). on the one hand, i wouldn’t like to think i’ve lost my roots. on the other hand, exactly where and what are those roots? and can’t we be transplanted and still flourish? my hope is that the vietnamese will be forced to confront these ideas of roots, rootlessness, and authenticity the more they have to deal with a changing viet nam. i’m not sure why i’m more rootless than a kid with his hair dyed orange and a cell phone more expensive than mine!

      i remember those days of feeling authentic, too, although in my case it was with being “asian american,” my replacement for being authentically vietnamese. authenticity is a powerful feeling but it can only get you so far.


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