“Do you know Vietnamese?” my aunt asked suddenly as we walked along a dusty path.
“Dạ, of course,” I replied proudly, “I can even read and write pretty well.”
“Okay,” she laughed. Pointing to a sign, she asked, “What does that say?”
“Chợ Bình Minh,” I answered without pause. Surely she didn’t think something as simple as the name of a market would trip me up.
“Then, how about that?” she waved her hand in the opposite direction.
“Uhm, Tiệm Quần Áo Quỳnh.” A clothing store. My aunt was clearly enjoying this.
“Last one. There.”
“Uhm, Phồng Cám Bệnh và Siêu Am” I stumbled a little over the technical terms; it was essential a doctor’s office.
“Dỗi quá. Good job,” I could tell she was impressed, and I was rewarded with a large bag of sugarcane juice when we finally reached at the market. I smiled to myself, proud that I wasn’t one of those kids.
“Catch!” my aunt threw a plastic bottle my way as I walked into her ‘kitchen’, consisting of exactly one gas-burning hot plate and a small fire pit. It was becoming a sort of game for us. She liked to catch me off guard and test my Vietnamese with little things like this.
“Nước Mám Hương Giang,” I rattled off. Some brand of fish sauce.
“Dỗi quá,” she called back. My aunt always coupled this response with a smile.
“Dì ơi!” I cried, “Let me help you with something.” I was feeling kind of bad. My uncle had passed nearly three years ago, and my aunt was still relatively young. She could have found another husband to take care of her, but she chose to stay, to take care of her children, the household, and my grandma.
“No, no,” she cried, “These are bàn tay ngồi viếc. Writing hands. You việt kiều aren’t suited for this type of work!”
“Come on Dì Mười. Give me a chance. I’m going to be in Vietnam for almost three months! I want to become a true Vietnamese!” It took a few minutes of persuasion and some jokes at my expense, but she finally gave in.
“Have you done laundry before?” I shook my head. “Well here’s your chance to be Vietnamese,” she winked and returned with a plastic tub, a small bag of detergent, and a mountain of unwashed clothes.
“Can I trust you to figure it out on your own?” she asked, “There are directions on the detergent bag, but if you need help, I’ll be inside.”
“Auntie, don’t you trust my reading by now?” I asked with exasperation.
“Yes, yes. I know you read very well. Okay, good luck.” And with a pat on the back, she left.
“Hương ơi! Wake up! Độc cho dì cáy này đi. Read this for me!” she spoke with an urgency that wrestled me from the last reins of sleep. When my eyes cleared, I found a jumble of papers in my lap.
“Bà ngoại fell in the bathroom this morning. I’m taking Grandma to the doctor. Help me find her papers,” she hovered over my head as she spoke.
“Well.. I think this is her ID…” I held up a card.
“What does that say? Read it out loud,” Had my aunt gone mad? This was no time for games.
“I think.. it’s an insurance card. But Auntie, I’m not sure. You should check.” I replied.
“I can’t,” she answered, “I’ve never learned how to read.”
I spent a month in the countryside of Bình Minh before heading up to Sài Gòn to start the Viet Fellows program. On the first day, Tony asked us all, “Why are you here?” and met a room of silence. What a simple question, and yet, infinitely difficult to grasp. Why was I here? I rattled off some answer about finding my identity as a Vietnamese-American. But as I settled into bed that night, I thought of my aunt.
I learned later on that my aunt was originally from Cambodia. She was, as they called it here, người tiễu số, a minority. In the village where my aunt grew up, the Khmer were heavily discriminated against, and even if allowed, she wouldn’t have been able to afford school.
So what does it mean to be Vietnamese? If you had asked me this question a month earlier, I would’ve said to be Vietnamese is to share Vietnamese blood, language, and culture. And in my definition, I’d always believed that I qualified as such. Yet here was my aunt. She didn’t have Vietnamese blood, she couldn’t read the Vietnamese language, and yet she was more Vietnamese than I could ever hope to be.
My whole search for identity was a sham, a beautiful dream that I concocted to give this journey a goal, a destination. As we continued on our orientation talks that first week, something finally hit me. I wasn’t Vietnamese; I was American. And I’d be a fool to think that three months in Vietnam could change that. I’d also be lying if I said this realization didn’t sting.
But as I listened to the issues that faced both Vietnam and America, from the cleanup of Agent Orange to the rights of people with disabilities, I found a renewed spirit. I was an American; there was no denying that. By that in and of itself was a unique identity, with a unique purpose. Perhaps I wasn’t “Vietnamese”, but that didn’t mean I had any less right to love and empower the Vietnamese people.
Vietnamese or American, việt kiều or việt nam, we all face the same obstacles. And with this new perspective, I’m ready to embark on a different journey, nervous that perhaps I don’t have a clear destination in mind, but certain that the resilience of my people and the faith I have in myself will take me where I belong.
By: Holy Vo, 2011 VIET Fellow