Most recently there have been so many “Viet Kieu” or “Overseas Vietnamese” coming back to Vietnam. The Tet holiday I think was the biggest single time of returning Vietnamese coming to visit their birthplace. I met so many of them going out and seeing local foreigners I know with Vietnamese I had never seen before (You get to know the faces in the ex-pat bars). I would introduce myself and upon hearing their accent would know they are American. They would tell me that it was the first time back for them in 30 or so odd years!!
Also, they told me about how the place had changed so much and how it was strange to see so many foreigners now living in HCMC. I was talking with one, who I later became good friends with, and she told me that Arizona was home now but she felt guilty because Vietnam should feel more like home. I answered that in this day and age, there is no reason that we should only have to pick one home. For me, I feel comfortable and at home just as much in Tokyo, HCMC and Madrid as I do in Columbus.
But it got me thinking. What exactly defines a nationality? When I was a child I thought an American was either white or black and spoke English perfectly. As I got a little older, I began to think “an American” it was anyone who spoke American English flawlessly. But now I know it is anyone who holds an American passport. Restrictions aside, it is possible for anyone to go to America and call themselves American if they can get a passport. However, it is only a one way street.
With the ease of air travel, the popularity of studying languages abroad, and less governmental restriction, there is a large amount of people leaving their native lands and taking on new nationalities in Europe and America. But this has not happened the other way around. I can never be a Vietnamese or Japanese no matter how well I learn the language or adapt to the culture.
Excerpt from Let’s Go Vietnam’s “Coming Home” by Quang Tran a Vietnamese American
A few years ago, while watching television I was struck by images of a marketplace in Vietnam crowded with vendors selling live crabs and colorful fruits, part of a documentary about an American woman’s backpacking journey through the country. Watching that documentary was disorientating in the extreme, not because it was about a foreign place outside of my reality, but because it was in fact all too familiar. As a young Vietnamese immigrant growing up in America, I had learned to separate out a public “American” life and a private “Vietnamese” life at home. Seeing a Vietnamese market on American television blurred this distinction. I was both fascinated by the beautiful images and confused by how public they were. I thought that Vietnamese immigrants were the only people in the U.S. who knew about Vietnam. How could this American woman have seen more of my country than I have?
Indeed, I used to wonder at international travelers who romanticized and exoticized Vietnam; where did they get such silly ideas? I resented that some came for adventure and left with souvenirs and believed that they understood Vietnamese culture or could talk about Vietnam as if they were now the experts. I wanted them to understand that their fascination with Vietnamese crafts as so much more beautiful than “dull” modern life is so incongruous when juxtaposed with millions of Vietnamese children’s’ dreams to have a house with a concrete floor.
Reflecting on that TV documentary, I realize that if that American woman saw more of my country that I did, it was a threat to my belief that I could still claim Vietnam to be my country, and with it, the idea that Vietnam can belong to anyone at all.
This is a dilemma that people like myself face. I have been abroad now for about 6 years and have found that I can fit into society quite easily in Spain, France and even Mexico, but the Asian countries will always see me as a foreigner. I try very hard to adapt their local customs and learn the language which is my passion but will always be treated as an outsider, or if I speak the language, than a novelty.
As the website “Japan – A Primer of Newcomers” states: when a white person speaks the Asian language fluently, it is often perceived in a “look mom the horse can do math problems” sort of way. But I believe over time, and as more foreigners come to live in Asia, then this perception might have a chance to change. Here in Vietnam, the returning Vietnamese often make comments just like the Japanese which convey their surprise that a white person can use chopsticks, enjoy Vietnamese food, and have made HCMC their home (or one of their homes). But in America it would be extremely rude to tell an Asian person that they use a fork and knife very well.
So my point is, people of any nationality can call themselves American with a passport, but will it ever work the other way? It’s always interesting when I meet a Viet Kieu and they ask me where I’m from, to which my reply is “Ohio.” But then I turn the question on them and they say they “Well, I’m Vietnamese but I live in California.” regardless if they were born in Vietnam or not. Would it not be the same if I said “Well, I’m Irish, Celtic, Polish with perhaps a few barbarian, nomad clans thrown in, but I now live in Ohio.”
Therefore, the question of how to define a nationality, or better yet, the person we define ourselves to be, becomes a more difficult question. It would be very interesting to be able to define one’s self as an “International.” For me, I sometimes catch myself slightly bowing when I meet others which is a characteristic of the Japanese. I adore the Spanish siesta and their relaxed attitudes. My favorite foods are Japanese and Vietnamese. I prefer that people take their shoes off when coming in my house; I speak moderate Japanese, Spanish and French; yet when I’m asked what I am, the answer that comes out is always “American;” to which they will think I’m incapable of speaking another language or using chopsticks. Unfortunately, it seems that only in the West do we give the passport instead of skin color more of a priority when determining what or who someone is.
Will Asia ever be the same way?