Youth Column: Reflections on Identity

By Amie Do

Being born in America, unlike my parents who are immigrants from Vietnam, has led to a difficult journey of assimilating into both the American and Vietnamese cultures. Although this process has been challenging, it has also been rewarding. It wasn’t just having to adjust to an environment where I felt disconnected, but it was an ongoing push and pull of my cultural identity. Despite being born in America, my experiences often felt like I was straddling between two worlds, where the expectations from my Asian side clashed with my American side. While my roots are deeply embedded within Vietnamese traditions, my surrounding environment pressured me to integrate into American life. Growing up in an area where Asians are the minority further pushed me to contemplate who I am and where I belong. 

Living in America has made it difficult for me to embrace my identity; I felt the pressure to fit in with the American culture, but at the same time, I didn’t feel fully American. From early childhood, I was surrounded by peers who were either Hispanic or White. The subtle stereotypes that I’d casually hear from my classmates encouraged me to build a wall and distance myself from my Vietnamese identity. Throughout Elementary and Middle school, I desperately wanted blonde hair, blue eyes, and to have pale skin. To put it simply, I wanted to be white. 

In elementary school, I even began to dislike eating Vietnamese foods like pho and banh mi and crave American foods instead. I told my mom not to pack me lunch so I could eat school lunch. This was partially because I thought that if I ate what the other kids ate, I would be able to fit in. The more I ate American food, the more I felt American. The only time I would eat Vietnamese food was at home. Anytime I would ask my parents to make American food, they would look at me with disapproval, reminding me that I should be grateful for what I had. Food became a significant reminder of the omnipresent balance that was my navigation between both cultures. 

Just as food was important, language found its hold on my psyche. English was not my primary language, nor my parents’, Vietnamese was. However, as I diligently learned English, it felt more and more like my first language. My proficiency in Vietnamese declined, and I began to lose my native tongue. This language shift created a cultural barrier between me and my parents: because they primarily spoke Vietnamese while I spoke English, I never was able to fully express my authentic feelings, and was unable to properly communicate with my parents. 

Growing up, my home was the only place where I could really connect with my Vietnamese heritage amidst the pressures of Americanization. Every Wednesday afternoon, my mom would cook homemade Vietnamese meals such as cha gio, goi cuon, and bun bo hue. My family would gather around for dinner and say prayers in Vietnamese. While eating dinner, my family would talk amongst each other, sharing stories from the past or stories about our family history. The savory aromas of Vietnamese foods filled the air as my family laughed and spoke Vietnamese. These moments weren’t just about food; they were moments that reminded me of my cultural identity. They reminded me of who I am. My home was just a physical space; it was a living confirmation of my Vietnamese heritage. 

Fortunately, I’ve since been able to properly communicate with them after I was taught Vietnamese again. I was forced to attend a Vietnamese school by my dad in order to relearn my native language. Being forced to go to Vietnamese school every Saturday meant sacrificing my weekends and free time. However, I came to appreciate the importance of this experience. Being surrounded by peers who had experienced the same struggles I did, made me feel as if I wasn’t alone. Reconnecting with my native language has opened new doors for daily conversations with my parents but also for a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the Vietnamese language. While the journey was challenging, the rewards were immeasurable making it worth a while. 

When I visited Vietnam last summer, I felt too Americanized. My aunt would sometimes make fries and spaghetti as she was worried that I would miss American food. I won’t lie, I really did crave American food. However, being in Vietnam also emphasized the feeling that I didn’t belong there. There were huge family gatherings that I would be forced to go to where everyone seemed to naturally form their own groups. The kids hung out with each other, the adults talked amongst each other, and me on the other hand, I found myself stuck with my brother. It hit me hard, I seemingly missed out on what being Vietnamese meant. In my desperate attempts to assimilate into American culture, I completely left my Vietnamese culture behind. 

Thankfully, my time in Vietnam allowed me to connect with my cousins and their children, who are around my age. These reunions weren’t casual gatherings but were moments where bonds were forged. As we shared stories, laughed, and gossiped, I felt a sense of belonging wash over me. In this moment, I realized that my heritage wasn’t just cultural practices; it was a living and breathing part of me. Through these interactions, I’ve grown to love my Vietnamese heritage for what it is because that’s who I am, an integral part of me that I cannot change.

My involvement with AALEAD has reaffirmed my belief in the power of community. I believe that a community is a place where one can feel like they belong and where individuals can support each other. Communities should provide a sense of identity and serve as a place for social and emotional support. That’s why I’m actively involved in Youth Council and the Youth Ambassadors program, advocating for a community where everyone can feel like they can be themselves. These programs have allowed me to witness firsthand how a community can foster a sense of belonging and support. In Youth Council, I’ve been able to interact with youth from Annandale who’ve similar beliefs and experiences. We worked on a workshop about misrepresented Asian minority groups and facilitated it to the middle schoolers. By doing this, I was able to empower youth to embrace their identities and advocate for a more inclusive community. Not only did I educate others, but I also affirmed my identity and fostered a pride in my cultural heritage.

AALEAD has provided me with a space and platform where I can amplify my voice and embrace my identity and connect with others who have similar experiences. It has inspired me to help any youths who are facing the same struggles as I did. I want to be able to encourage them that they should be proud of who they are, to take pride in their identities. Even now, AALEAD still continues to support youth in need by empowering youth of all backgrounds and giving them the opportunity to “define themselves and their own futures.”

AALEAD has encouraged me to acknowledge that I am not Vietnamese; I am not an American: I am a Vietnamese-American. This identity is a unique blend from both cultures and experiences, and I’m proud to embrace it and proud to help others embrace theirs.

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