Photo Credit: Phuong-Cac Nguyen
I hadn’t fully grasped it until most recently, but my identity has always been amorphous. When I came of age in Southern California, I didn’t feel so different than my fellow Gen X peers. I was lost, perpetually grumpy, restless — which wasn’t different from what I was seeing in my friends and in pop culture, too — particularly on MTV and in the movies. But then, when I hit my 20s in the early 2000s, my identity gained a new edge: I was Asian, and I was cool because I was Asian. Cool because the latest, futuristic gadgets came from Asia. Cool because people loved sushi, ramen, pho, fried rice, Korean BBQ, pad thai, sake, Asahi beer, karaoke, Hondas, artist Takashi Murakami, the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Olympic ice-skating medalist Michelle Kwan.
When I started expanding my physical world to other places, though, suddenly being Asian wasn’t cool. Like when I was visiting New York City and got catcalled with “konnichiwa” even though I was not Japanese; or in Rome, when men pulled on the corners of their eyes when I passed. Things changed then: I understood I was, and always would be, an outsider. When I moved to Brazil, that identity weirdly turned into a distinctly American one. I felt self-righteous whenever people would say they would have never guessed that I was from the U.S. because of my eyes — that I would always be a “chinesa” to them. Ironically, I became such a big proponent of Brazilian culture and its people that my friends there would joke that I was more Brazilian than they were. Perhaps I thought my way out of my identity crisis was to choose an entirely new one rather than be forced to choose among the ones people back home projected on me.
Maybe that’s the superpower of Asian Americans: Of all people of color in the United States, we have a particular ability to put our feet in other people’s shoes. Our history in the U.S. compels us to have compassion for the historical injustices Blacks must bear. We empathize with Latinos, because people love our food but want us to go back to our country, even if we were born here. We understand how Muslims might feel, because it doesn’t matter if we are Korean, Cambodian or Vietnamese, many Americans see us as an enemy from China. And we feel white, because we aspired to McDonald’s, skate culture or Reeboks after our parents immigrated or fled to the U.S. as refugees and raised us here.
Given the current rise in anti-Asian hate crime, reports of which rose almost 150 percent in 2020 (while the overall rate of hate crime dropped by 7%) according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, we now are, however, feeling distinctly Asian. We felt it when former President Trump called Covid-19 the “kung flu.” We felt it when, while grocery shopping, we were told to go back to our countries or called communists. We felt it when we saw people randomly beating our elders on the street. We felt it and then bought pepper spray, mace, guns, tasers. And those feelings have continued to build. The mass shooting in Atlanta may have been the most vivid and tragic example of this rising hate, but it was also the proverbial last straw. Now, Asian Americans are coming together on a scale that I haven’t seen in my 43 years; not only to speak up, but to fight back against the racism we each have quietly endured for decades.
In this context, it felt like a good time to gather my mother and her adult daughters — my sisters — for a conversation about our experiences across generations and cultures. Although my sisters and I were born Vietnamese Americans, we each contain a multitude of cultures created and integrated through the mishmash of influences around us. I’m the eldest; my sister Tien, a journalist and author, is 39; Chloe, a digital marketer, is 35; and DC, who works in the social impact space, is 31. Our mother, Ta-Cuc, 67, is a writer.
Here is what we had to say to each other at this inflection point.
Phuong-Cac: Ma, when you landed in Central Pennsylvania in 1975 as a Vietnam War refugee, what were your first impressions?
Ta-Cuc: I was 22. I was housed in a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I arrived right when the autumn was just beginning to show on the foliage and the tall trees. How peaceful this place was compared to the one I just left, I thought. Sitting in the airplane en route here, I told myself, I am being reborn into a womb that will offer me a new life.
When I was younger, I aspired to be an army doctor, so I would visit my South Vietnamese military friends on the front lines to see whether I could live with my decision. Because of that, I had witnessed war with its horrifying destruction, so the contrast in America was very pronounced.
Americans were kind and attentive. I remember a man who worked at the dining hall at the camp who noticed that every time they served fish for dinner, I would not take a piece. One day, he offered it to me. My second brother, who was already fluent in English, explained to him that I suffered from a fish allergy. After that, when fish returned weekly to our menu, he would take out a piece of fried chicken for me.
From there, I moved to San Diego, Calif., where my family was sponsored by a Christian church.
Phuong-Cac: Was what you experienced in those first days as a refugee consistent with what you thought the U.S. was like when you lived in South Vietnam?
Ta-Cuc: That story about the man at the camp was exactly what I imagined about the U.S when I was in Vietnam: a civil country with generous people and a heritage of vanguard literature. We South Vietnamese had translated so many novels from American authors. Later, after I married your father and returned to Pennsylvania in 1976, this time to live there, I found the same kindness at Penn State University.
Of course, like any other nation, the U.S. has problems. One of which is racism. I encountered my first racist incident later, and then again. But up to that point, because I mostly stayed in the neighborhood around PSU and the campus, I did not experience much hate. It was later that I was exposed to a more complicated picture of this country.
Phuong-Cac: What happened that disrupted that image?
Ta-Cuc: When we lived in Texas, I flew into a rage when you came home from kindergarten one day with half your face covered in scratch marks, with blood and sand embedded in them. You said you were bullied and I asked why you didn’t tell the teacher. You told me you did. I immediately took you back to the school and started yelling at the principal and everybody else. The first sentence that jumped out from all that rage was, “You don’t think I can speak English, do you?!”
Language usually is the first barrier for a foreigner to any country. In turn, language is the weapon of choice for bigots. People do not have a voice if they cannot speak the language, since they cannot complain to a local agency or media. How else could we explain the reason for ignoring an 5-year-old Asian’s injury that was so obvious to the naked eye? They did not even bother to clean your face, as if they were sending me a blatant signal that I would have no recourse by not being able to raise my voice.
Phuong-Cac: Were there other incidents?
Ta-Cuc: Around 2002, a well-dressed man followed me when I got out of my car in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Costa Mesa, California. He had parked next to me. When he caught up with me, he said, “A monkey must have taught you how to walk and now how to drive. You look like a monkey, a monkey, a monkey…”
I waited until I was inside the mall where I felt safe and then unleashed a torrent of curse words at him. Again, the first thing I said was, “You didn’t expect I can speak English, did you? Not only can I speak it, but I can curse, too.”
In 2008, I returned to central Pennsylvania to finish college. While walking down the street to a supermarket, two young men followed and taunted me with racial slurs. Again, I waited until I reached the front of the store to respond to them. Again: “You guys do not think I can speak English, do you?”
Looking back, I was really shocked and angry the first time it happened, because the compassionate image of this country was shattered for me in a very jarring way. Later, I deliberately let these people know that they cannot humiliate anybody — Asians included — and not get a response. I was also very mindful that I might not be the first nor the last victim, therefore, I wanted to stand up not only for myself, but for others who might not be able to fight back, because of the language barrier, as you might have noted in my unconsciously repeated response each time.
Phuong-Cac: What do you make of the anti-Asian racism in this country now, 46 years later? How are things different in that regard than when you first came to the country?
Ta-Cuc: My impression about this country has not changed that much, because I have witnessed our continuing effort to address inequality and racism, albeit slowly sometimes. Look at the history of Asian and Asian-American activism, which goes back to fighting exclusion laws, alien land acts, the internment, etc. Those movements built towards the seminal Asian and Asian American activism of the 1960s. There also was a lot of organizing after the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. And the KKK in 1981 terrorized Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay, Texas. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which was established a decade earlier to fight for civil rights, filed a lawsuit against the Klan to defend the fishermen, and won.
I think this moment feels different because our tools for organizing and movement-building are different, but a lot of what we’re seeing now is building upon the groundwork laid before. It is sad, but I do not think these violent acts will disappear overnight in this political climate. We just have to keep up our resistance.
Phuong-Cac: Tien, what has been your experience of racism? I know it’s a broad question, but I find it interesting where people decide to begin their stories.
Tien: That’s hard to answer. It’s like asking, What is it like to live in the world? White supremacy takes up so much air, occupies so much space, infects everything. It’s such a fundamental part of how so many of our institutions and systems are built that I find it really hard to point to one, two, 10 or a hundred things and say, “Yeah, that’s what sums up the experience around racism.” It’s also worth remembering that so many of these experiences are not just racist ones; they’re also layered with sexism and classism and homophobia and so on.
I think there is power in sharing individual experiences — particularly as doing so helps process our own trauma and builds solidarity within and between communities — but I strongly resist, and resent, the demand that we do so, especially during moments like these, to prove, yet again, that racism exists. Of course fucked-up things have happened to me, but I have no interest in re-living them for predominantly white gazes to commodify and consume, which too often happens. I’d vastly prefer we shift this well of energy into strengthening gun control laws, making healthcare more equitable, truly investing in communities of color, etc.
Ta-Cuc: I really like how Tien is bringing attention to other issues that are plaguing our entire society: More than a decade after I left PSU, I still remember a book that was in our required reading list: How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. For me, regardless of any controversy that ensued from this book, it is a striking reminder just by the title that racism is so difficult to deal with, because, not only does it have so many facets, it can also flourish under many disguises, especially a lack of knowledge or under social-political pressure.
Phuong-Cac: DC, you were born and raised in Cerritos, California, where there’s a large Asian population, so you started out your life already in a diverse setting. Cerritos even won the distinction of being the most diverse city in 1988. I find that interesting because until our family moved to Cerritos, my classmates were mostly white and it never even crossed my mind that I would ever be among those who looked like me; it was even more obvious because I was still learning English at that time. What was your experience like?
DC: I never felt different for being Asian American; I was surrounded by other kids who also had parents who emigrated from other countries and spoke predominantly in their native language with English being their second or third language. In elementary school, there were obvious similarities among us: lunch boxes were sometimes filled with Asian food (rice, seaweed snacks, some type of soy sauce-marinated meat), or sometimes American food (sandwiches, cheese and crackers) the next day. Asians aren’t a monolith, though. There were also differences among us and not seeing representation on TV, media, among other places, still made it clear that I was part of a minority.
In college, I stayed in my comfort zone and hung out with mostly Asians, although I began to expand my social circle compared to when I was in high school in Cerritos. It wasn’t until working in corporate America that I entered into an environment where I was usually the only Asian American in meetings or rooms with mostly white colleagues. I learned to hide (or… not disclose) any discerning factors about being Asian. I didn’t talk about my parents emigrating or how I was raised to blend in as much as possible.
Phuong-Cac: Beginning about eight years ago or so, I began telling new people I met to call me “PC” instead of my real first name, because I couldn’t be bothered to teach them how to say it or I wanted to make it easy for them. That said, my colleagues today have been calling me “Phuong-Cac,” and I feel like in this political and social climate, it’s an act of activism. They might not say my name with the Vietnamese accent, but I’m pretty sure my Americanized Vietnamese isn’t much better either. Beth Nguyen wrote in the New Yorker about her traumatizing experience of having a Vietnamese name in America. Chloe, at some point, you asked people to start calling you “Chloe,” and eventually you legally changed it to that. What made you arrive at that decision?
Chloe: While I didn’t have nearly as awful an experience, I can relate to a couple of her [Beth Nguyen’s] stories: the tension of roll call at class. Giving out a fake name. The fake name was actually given to me by others, “Ann,” to take the closest American name equivalent of my Vietnamese name. I didn’t hate the given name, but I didn’t identify with it.
I hated my name being misspelled; I got anxious from the quizzical look people had when they saw my name; I anticipated the “What does your name mean?” question, which also feels kind of racial because I never hear a Kim or Helen or Sarah get asked what their name means. I frequently was mistaken for male if my name was not accompanied by my face or voice. So when I was 17, I decided to give myself an American name, a name I liked and chose myself. Bless my great family, friends and teachers who made the transition with me.
There is indeed a lot of identity tied to one’s name, but it’s not the only facet of me that holds my identity. Being bi-cultural doesn’t mean I have to be of one culture (Chloe) or another (Nguyen). I am both at the same time (Chloe Nguyen).
Ta-Cuc: After hearing Chloe’s account, I feel deeply affected. I did not fathom all the difficulties my daughter and others like her had to face. I am grateful that finally, from that collective experience, we have entered a new phase where any name should not be a burden for the one who carries it. As for me, I’ve always believed that either culture (in our case) should never limit us. I do not have an American name, yet I always feel “both at the same time” just like Chloe (yes!) Nguyen. So far, I have spent more time living in the U.S than in South Vietnam. The Vietnam War is and always will be a part of my identity, but I gave birth and raised all of you in the U.S., plus I have found many friendships and my support system here.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Red Canary Collective.
PC Nguyen is Managing Editor of Red Canary Magazine and a design strategist. She runs Totem, a strategic foresight consultancy that specializes in branding and qualitative market research through the lens of empathy and compassion. PC has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Conde Nast Traveler, among other publications. Her documentary on Brazilian lowrider car culture, South American Cho-Low, was featured on PBS and at various independent film festivals.