The Americanization of a Reluctant Vietnamese-American: Third of a Series

Last of the series, Hoai Huong walks us through her journey and how she comes to define who she is from Vietnamese to Vietnamese American to just American.

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“My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there.At least that’s what I would choose to believe.” Barack Obama

In life, I am certain of one thing: I am Vietnamese. My identity as a Vietnamese, to borrow President Obama’s words, began “with the fact of my race.” I was born in Vietnam—to Vietnamese parents—and lived in Vietnam for the first eight years of my life. As soon as I could speak, I learned Quốc Ngữ, the Vietnamese national language, and was inculcated to the Vietnamese culture.

My parents taught me to use chopsticks when I was two or three years old, when I started to sample Vietnamese fare such as Phở (Vietnamese noodle soup), Chả giò (egg rolls), and Bún Thịt Nướng (vermicelli with grilled pork and vegetables). As good Vietnamese parents, they instructed me on Vietnamese etiquette, such as bowing to my elders as a sign of respect. My parents impressed upon me the virtue of emotional restraint—to never raise my voice or speak with too many gestures. I learned early in life that my behavior is a reflection not only of myself but also of my family and lineage.

Born and raised in a country plagued by a civil war, I was taught to value freedom before I knew its meaning. Because death was a commonplace in my village, I understood the fragility of life at an early age. The civil war that began after the French withdrew in 1954 robbed my generation of our innocence—certainly we didn’t grow up listening to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Rather, we were exposed to songs about the despair of war and its horrendous consequences. Sitting on the steps of my grandfather’s house in Central Vietnam, I would often listen to my father as he strummed his guitar and sang “Kỷ Vật Cho Em” (A Souvenir for You)—a popular Vietnamese song written by Pham Duy, about a soldier’s honest yet brutal last words to his lover. (Below is an excerpt of “Kỷ Vật Cho Em” translated in English. [1])

You ask me, you ask me when will I return?
Let me reply, let me reply, that I will return soon.
I will return, perhaps as a wreath of flowers.
I will return to songs of welcome upon a helicopter painted white.
You ask me, you ask me when will I return?
Let me reply, let me reply, that I will soon return.
I will return on a radiant afternoon, avoiding the sun,
Wrapped tightly in a poncho which covers all my life . . .
I will return, I will return upon a pair of wooden crutches.
I will return, I will return as one with a leg blown off.
And one fine spring afternoon you shall go down the street
To sip a cold drink beside your crippled lover.
You ask me, you ask me when will I return?
Let me reply, let me reply that I will soon return.
I will return and exchange a moving look with you.
And I will shatter your life.
We shall look at each other as strangers.
Try to forget the days of darkness, my dear.
You ask me, you ask me when will I return?
Let me reply, let me reply that I will soon return.

Under the remnant of French colonialism and amid the violence, cruelty, and betrayal of a nation at war with itself, I formed my Vietnamese identity—an identity that had been influenced and shaped by the Vietnam War. By the time my family and I escaped Vietnam in 1975, my identity as a Vietnamese had been firmly established and cemented. Or so I thought.

In America, we were sponsored by a Presbyterian Church from Victoria, Texas, and once we were settled in Victoria, my Vietnamese identity was immediately challenged in this new environment. Located 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the coastal plains of Texas, Victoria had a population of 25,000 people in 1975. My family had been the only nonwhite members at the First Presbyterian Church; in fact, we had been the first Vietnamese family in Victoria. Our life in Victoria revolved around our church, and because our congregation was all white, I came to believe that Victoria was predominantly a white town. It was only years later that I learned that Victoria, even in 1975, had a sizable Hispanic population.

For the first two years in Victoria, I clung to my Vietnamese identity. As soon as I learned English, however, I was immediately struck by the differences in self-identities between my white and nonwhite peers. While my white peers identified themselves as “just Americans,” my nonwhite peers used the hyphenated identity of African-American, Mexican-American, or Asian-American.

After a couple of years living in the United States, I, too, began using a hyphenated identity, that of Vietnamese-American. I no longer felt completely “Vietnamese,” yet I didn’t feel “American” either. The hyphenated identity allowed me to express the uniqueness of my Vietnamese identity within the American context. In a sense, the hyphenated identity represented my struggles between the Vietnamese and American cultures. I maintained this hyphenated identity until college, when I was exposed to other constructs of identity.

At 17 years of age, I left home to attend the University of Texas at Austin, a state university with one of the largest student enrollments in the United States. I had never lived away from home, so my first year at UT was both exciting and exhilarating. I encountered people from different walks of life, and as my world broadened and expanded, I began to question my hyphenated identity. What did it mean to be “Vietnamese-American?” For that matter, what did it mean to be “just Vietnamese” or “just American?” When I chose my hyphenated identity in my early teens, it made sense; however, at the age of 18, I felt more restricted and confined by it. Eventually, I decided to embrace the humanitarian ideology and broadened my identity to be a “citizen of the world.” With my newfound identity, I sought to incorporate multiple worldviews and perspectives in my life. My new identity impelled me to form friendships and relationships with people of different nationalities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a “citizen of the world,” I had no national identity and knew no national boundary. In short, I held no allegiance to any country.

After graduate school, I took a job as an assistant professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU). There, I experienced another shift in my self-identity. Given my profession, it’s likely that I would have reclaimed my “blended bi-cultural identity” eventually [2]. But the racially charged environment at SFSU prompted me to question whether a “citizen of the world” identity, while an admirable goal, was attainable. We are the product of our family, culture, and society, and I didn’t grow up as a “citizen of the world” but as a Vietnamese living in America. Toward the end of my first semester at SFSU, I assumed the identity of “Vietnamese American” or “Asian American.” Unlike the previous hyphenated identity, I omitted the hyphen between “Vietnamese” and “American.” Looking back, I am not sure if I knew precisely why I had omitted the hyphen from “Vietnamese American.” Certainly, the difference between a hyphenated or nonhyphenated identity is nuanced and subtle. For me, the hyphenated identity signaled my struggles between the Vietnamese and American cultures, while the nonhyphenated identity indicated a more fluid and dynamic interaction between the two often conflicting cultures. The hyphen had called attention to my “Vietnameseness” set against the American context; the omission of the hyphen eliminated this distinction. Depending on the context, I could be more American or more Vietnamese, and while others may have perceived me to be more of one or the other, I made no such distinction for myself.

In 2004, my parents passed away, and this gave rise to another shift in my self-identity. Each year, on the anniversary of their passing, I hold a ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Houston, Texas, to commemorate them. As I sit cross-legged on the floor in the main part of the temple where service is held, the scene always seems unreal (especially to me as a Presbyterian). I sit facing the five-platform structure that is arranged in the shape of a pyramid and serves as an altar. The larger-than-life statue of Buddha sits in the center of the shrine on the uppermost platform while two smaller Buddha statues flank the main Buddha figure. The service begins, and I struggle to follow the chanting—although the chanting along with the beating of the drum sends me into an almost dreamlike state. After the metaphorical offering of food to my parents, I set off for the airport and fly home to Seattle.

This very act has confounded my relatives in both America and Vietnam. In their eyes, I am an “Americanized Vietnamese,” so it befuddles them that I would embrace the Vietnamese tradition/ritual of ancestral worship. How could I be so “Vietnamese” yet so “American?” I didn’t attempt to explain to my relatives on both sides of the pond that my Vietnamese parents believed in ancestral worship, and I chose to adhere to their belief system to honor them. Even if I could explain, would they accept that I have no vested interest in following the Vietnamese tradition or ritual for the sake of tradition? For me, it has been a means to an end.

In the years after my parents’ passing, I began to travel extensively, and my travels took me to different places around the world and allowed me to explore my American identity. In some instances, I found myself rigorously asserting and defending it. No other place has made as significant and profound an impact on my American identity as Paris, where I spent the month of June in 2009. Instead of clinging to Vietnam and its legacy, especially with its history with France, I chose to cut my ties with it and embrace my American experience. When the French asked about my nationality, I just replied that “I’m American.” I found that my American identity afforded me freedom from the history of oppression and domination that my people had endured under the French empire. In fact, by the time I landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on June 30, 2009, my identity had shifted from “Vietnamese American” to “just American.” By chance, I had planned to spend the July 4th weekend in New York City before flying back to Seattle, and as I watched our nation celebrate our independence day that Saturday, I silently celebrated mine.

Since my return from France more than two years ago, I have assumed the identity of an American—an American of Vietnamese descent, but nevertheless an American. Unless asked, I haven’t shared or volunteered this information. To be honest, I still would not if it weren’t for the rise in vitriolic rhetoric in our national conversation about race/ethnicity and national identity.

When I am often asked by other Americans about my nationality, I often reply, with tongue in cheek, “I’m from Texas.” Taken aback, they try to clarify. “No, I mean, where are you really from?” While I’m amused by their need to place me outside the American context because of my Asian features and skin color, in truth, I’m as American as they are (albeit a naturalized citizen of the United States). In fact, I could argue that I may even be more American because I have consciously chosen my national identity and allegiance to the United States of America.

Perhaps it was merely serendipitous that I woke up on August 15, 2011, to see Gary Locke, our new American ambassador to China, making headlines. The ruckus began when Tang Chaohui, a Chinese tech entrepreneur and blogger, snapped a photo of Ambassador Locke with a backpack, standing with his daughter at a Sea-Tac Starbucks, buying his own coffee. According to the blogger, Ambassador Locke even attempted to use a voucher. The post went viral, and the Chinese reacted with admiration, surprise, and confusion that Ambassador Locke “wore a backpack and bought his own coffee.” In the meantime, we in America looked at the reaction of the Chinese and asked: “What’s the big deal? We all have to buy our own coffee and carry our own backpack.” Perhaps one Chinese commentator summed it up best when he wrote about Locke on “In China, even a low-level official uses police to open up the road for them when they go out.” Another further explained, “We are so used to Chinese officials’ privileges that we’re now not used to Gary Locke’s normal behavior.”

Image from the Washington Post./Associated Press.

Given that I spent the weekend writing about the various shifts in my self-identity, I found the buzz around Ambassador Locke quite interesting. Certainly, I found it fascinating that both Chinese and Americans assigned the hyphenated identity of “Chinese-American” to Ambassador Locke even though he was born in the United States. Moreover, it was how Ambassador Locke identified himself that I found most interesting. In his statement, Ambassador Locke said: “I am both humbled and honored to stand here before you as a child of Chinese immigrants representing America, the land of my birth, and the American values my family holds dear. I can only imagine just how proud my dad, Jimmy, who passed away in January, would be for his son to be the first Chinese-American to represent the United States in the land of his and my mother’s birth. My parents, my wife, our children—we all personally represent America and America’s promise as a land of freedom, equality, and opportunity.” [3]

Ambassador Locke, I couldn’t agree with you more. I, too, may be ethnically Vietnamese; however, I’m all American (backpack, discount voucher, and buying my own coffee and all).

[1] Jamieson, Neil. 1993. Understanding Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] Citrin, Jack and David O. Sears. “Balancing National and Ethnic Identities: The Psychology of E Pluribus Unum.”

[3] Mong, Adrienne. August 15, 2011. “The ‘ABCs’ of Being Ambassador to China.”


Hoai Huong was born in Vietnam, escaped in 1975, spent time at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, and finally settled in Victoria, Texas, with her family. Later, Hoai studied at University of Texas-Austin and finished her Ph.D. studies at Cornell in 1994.  Currently, she is a market research consultant in the Seattle area and is working on her first novel. For more of Hoai’s writings, read her blog.

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