I grew up in a town where my graduating class had no more than five Vietnamese-American students. The number of Asian-American students that graduated with me was less than 10 total. Already, you might have guessed that my town was predominately white.
There was nothing wrong with that. My parents, when choosing a place to live after immigrating from Vietnam and leaving most of their family behind, wanted a safe neighborhood where they could raise a family. They wanted their kids to go to a school that would lead them on a good path to college and beyond, to a comfortable, stable career and family life of their own.
I grew up being as “American” as I could be. I played the games, watched the movies, read the books and ate the food of a typical “American” teen. The most connected I was to my Vietnamese culture was during “Tet” or the New Year, when my mom made Vietnamese food, we went out to restaurants and called or visited family in Vietnam.
Otherwise, I was an American kid trying to fit in with my other American friends socially, physically and mentally. I had no interest in Vietnamese music and language. I did not have an interest in Vietnamese books and did not go out of my way to go beyond my speaking abilities and learn how to read and write in Vietnamese. I was content with my bubble of “American-ness” outside of my house. When it came to entering my house, the most Viet experience I had was speaking to my family in Vietnamese and eating the food.
My mom, understandably, was always in the know about the news in Vietnam. She asked my dad to subscribe to a Vietnamese language channel, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN). She told my family what was going on in Vietnam at dinner time, but I am ashamed to say that I did not care much at all. I felt so far removed from the Vietnamese community during my youth that I did not have a direct interest or connection to it.
I never grew-up watching anime, listening to Korean pop music or being involved in other Asian related pop culture related activities. The most involved I was in that regard was watching a show called Yu-Gi-Oh, a Japanese manga turned television show, but even then, that was once a week on Sunday mornings and there was not a lot of people that I could have a conversation about that with without seeming like the “token nerdy Asian.”
My parents raised my brother and I as well as they could without having to move our family back to Vietnam or to a more Vietnamese populated part of the country. I was as Vietnamese as I could be without having to be surrounded by other Vietnamese people in school and in my extracurriculars.
I never really truly understood what the term white-washed was until I came to the University of Connecticut. To begin with, my personal definition of white-washed is not being “Asian enough.”
My mom always wanted me to have more Vietnamese friends, especially coming to UConn. I was adverse to the idea. I can’t explain the feeling. It wasn’t disgust or even fear. I never went out of my way to seek friends that were specifically one race or another. In my town, a majority of my friends were not Asian-American and that was fine with me. I didn’t feel the need to seek out friends of particular backgrounds.
When your Asian mom tells you to do something, as much as I respect and love my mom, sometimes you feel the need to “rebel” and continue on as if they never told you what to do. You still want to feel in control of your life in some way, especially when you leave home for the first time. In fact, when I first heard there is an Asian American Cultural Center (AsACC) at UConn, my first thought was to avoid going there. I didn’t want to be grouped in with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students at UConn. I did not feel “Asian enough” and I did not want to be tokenized.
The Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) is such a big part of my life now, but before joining, it was the last club I wanted to be a part of. I thought back on how my mom wanted me to make more Vietnamese friends and I instantly put that club out of my mind. Just three years later, it’s an organization I call home.
When I first became involved in AsACC and began making friends within the cultural center, I came to realize how white-washed I was. I could not fit in culturally or pop culture-wise with other students. Most importantly, and to my shame, I had no idea what was going on in the Asian-American community in terms of human injustices or even the successes. My friends grew up in populated areas, communities where they had peers with similar lifestyles. Meanwhile, I was telling my American friends to take off their shoes before they entered the house.
Coming into the community at UConn, I felt “less than Asian.” However, going into my third year of school here, I have been listening and trying to be more in touch with what is going on in the Asian-American community within Connecticut, the country and around the world. From there, I can share my views with not only my friends within the community, but also my friends that I’ve made at UConn who are not AAPI. I am still not as interested in pop culture within the Asian community, but that does not bother me as much as the fact that I was not as aware of the news that was going on.
As far as feeling a “less than Viet” person, I have met other Asian-American students, some Vietnamese and some not, who help make me feel validated and understood. They never make me feel different or ostracized because of where I came from.
The headline of this column asked “Am I white-washed?” After reflecting on my past and present, I believe I am. That is something I take complete responsibility for and is not the fault of my parents and how they raised me. I never took the initiative to explore my culture more until I got to college.
Kimberly Nguyen is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.