Growing up in a small, conservative white town in South West Germany, there were not many children that looked and laughed like me. Once, I was asked by a classmate whether or not I was adopted. Reflecting back on that particular incident, I felt alienated. The concept of “othering” really starts with kindergarten and elementary school. And children, although innocent and well-meaning can be incredibly dehumanising and hurtful. Then, you carry these encounters with you for the rest of your life. Countless times, I am asked “Where are you from?” and “How come you speak German so well?” implying that I am not from here. As if I learned it by heart, whenever I introduce myself, I would first say: “Born and raised in Germany,…” to prove that I am German enough.
So, how do you start loving yourself? When the outside world continues to show you and tell you wherever you go, you don’t belong. That you’re inferior because you don’t have pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. You don’t belong because you live in a 2-bedroom apartment instead of a house. You don’t belong because your parents are not academics and they don’t speak German without an accent. That you and your folks don’t have a voice because none of you hold citizenship.
The town I grew up in consists of around 50,000 people and counts as one of the oldest cities in Germany. There are several cathedrals including the graves of some emperors and kings which attract a plethora of tourists worldwide. In addition, being surrounded by a vast landscape of mountains and forests, as well as vineyards, there is a wine fest every weekend. While it was great to grow up in a city with such rich history and an annual volksfest celebrating beer and pretzels, it didn’t feel like it was mine. While citizens here in Germany recognize the atrocities from the past – in every single history class you learn that you never ever again do any harm to the Jews – at times, this place still feels hostile and cold.
I didn’t know what this past had to do with me and where I was truly coming from until my first trip to Vietnam when I was nine years old: my parents booked a flight straight home to the motherland once we held the green passports with golden letters in our hands. We spent the whole summer break in Nam Định and Thanh Hóa. Về quê, my folks said. Coming home. I was excited and gleeful being surrounded by all the family. I had a grandpa and grandma, aunties, uncles, and lots of cousins. Faces that looked and laughed like mine. Food filled with all kinds of flavours that enriched the soul and fruits that enlightened the heart. Everything there felt welcoming and warm, the tropical temperatures seemed so much more fitting to my own brown body. Except from the mosquito bites, I loved running around in áo dàis.
The weeks went by and we returned to Germany. The first day of school back in Speyer, my brother and I had so much news to share. Young Huyen wore her new blue áo dài. I was proud and wanted to show off. I felt like royalty. Sadly, the day didn’t turn out like I had imagined. In class, I was made fun of and bullied. My classmates said: “Did you miss your alarm? Why did you show up in your pyjamas?” Nobody played with me that day and I went home crying, burying all of my new áo dàis deep in my closet.
Now, at 27, how do you look back and confront yourself with all the pain that has accumulated over the many years? You couldn’t see yourself, nor love yourself, in this sea of whiteness. Today, I know, it was a survival strategy to assimilate, to make yourself invisible. To speak their language, to become part of their system, to date and befriend whiteness, and to surround yourself with the good middle class kids. Consequently, you turned your back towards your own Vietnamese community. Yes, the homemade food is always good, but when you grow up with it, you also grow tired of it. The community gatherings and the excess of noise, listening to the elders speak — you start to cherish the quietness that seemed unattainable — the card games, the drinking, the upholding of patriarchy. Not only did it always feel like a chore, it all also was too much. When I had the opportunity to leave Germany, I took it. And not only once, but two, three, four and five times. I spent a total of five years in the U.S. There, starting fresh. There, seeing so many of us. Black and brown people. There, I was able and felt free enough to find my own voice. There, the pretense of the American dream, the visibility and representation of Black and brown people in any and all kinds of positions, a richness of stories, the widening of the cage as Ocean Vuong described it, that freedom, “I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough,” and I ran with it.
“All freedom is relative—you know too well—and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough”
― Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
The time and years spent in between spaces and conversations with remarkable people made me come to realise: everyone here in New York is from everywhere. I am allowed to truly celebrate both parts of me. As fellow traveller Carla said to me: “Take the good, leave the bad.” I made it a point of taking the good of being Vietnamese and taking the good of being German. Instead of always having to answer the question: “Do you feel more Vietnamese or do you feel more German?”, I started to not care. There is no answer. I know I am both.
Some days, where I long for cơm with thịt kho or bánh cuốn, I seek out the Vietnamese aunties in our supermarkets and embrace the casual “Cô có khỏe không?” that roll easily over my tongue, that gives me a sense of home. Other days, I feel very German when I allow myself to celebrate the stability that the education and health care systems provide. At this point, I also feel very U.S. American when I think back of the early beginnings of my political activist self, dreaming big and imagining new possibilities and structures that have us Black and brown people in mind. Though, more than anything, I feel connected to all kinds of people and stories and when we take away our limiting notions of nationalities, I feel connected to our land and the inhabitants as plants and creatures.
A couple years back, I came home from New York for Lunar New Year and before the community celebrations, I asked mẹ: “Can we go áo dài shopping?” She was surprised and couldn’t believe why, after so many years fighting against wearing our traditional clothes, I would want to do that at all. It was the first time in a very very long time, I felt comfortable being who I am. This life-long process of becoming Vietnamese and this search for identity has become more fluid and ever-changing. As we grow into the people we are becoming, I want to stay open. Recently, I’ve been thinking about tenderness, about staying tender and soft. Something that wasn’t given to us easily — as our parents’ souls are torn by war — it is something I want to cultivate because I truly believe that we are a tender people and that if we heal ourselves, we heal our past ancestors and future generations to come.
Eventually, I moved back to Germany in October 2018 with a new sense of self and every day, it is an active claiming of my own cultures. It is all within me: my ancestors, my language and my heritage. There’s no more proving whether or not I am enough of this or that. I am enough.
Born in Germany, Thị Minh Huyền Nguyễn is a Vietnamese writer, athlete and activist. She started Gold to Green, an online publication and podcast at the intersections of health, running, sustainability and culture in 2011. Having studied and worked in New York City, Huyen has co-founded WocForward in Brooklyn (a monthly exercise club for and by womxn of color) and Wayv Run Kollektiv back in Berlin to elevate queer, Black and brown, underrepresented runners. When Huyen is not writing or running, she’s pursuing a master’s in media science and involved in anti-racism / discrimination projects such as ichbinkeinvirus.org and biwoc-rising.org.