Growing up in the 80’s the Vietnam War was still too fresh in many American’s memory, Vietnam’s identity was consumed by a war that brought more shame than pride and so I too avoided this part of me. Vietnamese-Americans were still coming to America trying to survive which also came with the shameful aspects that overshadowed the greater good like gang violence. Hollywood blockbusters like Rambo also glorified killing the gooks and movie sound bites of Vietnamese prostitutes became mainstream rap lyrics, “me so horny, me love you long time.” After tuning out any Vietnam war movies for a decade I discovered 90’s Franco-Vietnamese movies that I would watch countless times with relief that the stories were not about the war and were the total opposite of Hollywood with antiheroes who were poor and didn’t get the girl. They even went from bad to worse with depressing endings that went back to the loop of mundane routines. Films like ‘Cyclo,’ ‘Scent of Green Papaya,’ or ‘Three Seasons’ with typical French style cinematography which had drawn out scenes of water dripping off a lotus leaf or watching a person lying in a room next to a rickety fan just sweating for what might have been a minute, but felt like an eternity. Finding these rare Vietnamese 90's movies without stories about the war was a far cry from the hip Vietnamese culture people nowadays embrace from the trendy food trucks in many cities to Vietnam being a top travel destination.
When venturing out of my predominantly white neighborhood I'd sometimes meet other Vietnamese people, though these encounters brought both excitement as much as they brought anxiety caused by uninvited judgment as I proved to be the same only in appearance, but then had little else to show for my heritage and the momentary joy quickly turned to disappointment. It's not as if being Vietnamese was a sham, but rather that explaining my story was both complicated and met with mixed responses, the worst being pity for having lost my biological parents. Because of this I'd often not want to explain much, keep quiet, and just let them make conclusions of who I am. It wasn’t till high school and college that I started to make some Vietnamese friends, we found common ground in being American and I was always curious to learn about their families. Things like hearing about their journeys to the U.S. or familial duties that was something totally foreign to me and intrigued me as I was searching for anything to learn about being Vietnamese.
One college friend who left a lasting impression on me was Hai. We were floor-mates, but he didn't hang around with everybody, and quietly shuffled by us often returning from the library late at night. I eventually met Hai in the lounge playing ping pong together on study breaks and I found behind the serious facade was an easy going big-brother type of guy, and how different our lives were. College was a given path for me with hopes that I’d do well, I was never pressured into any major, and my mom's main concern was whether I had enough money on my dining card. Hai on the other hand came from a big family of six brothers who were first generation Americans, they were living the American dream with a family restaurant and going to the best public schools. However, with this Hai also carried the burden of his parents’ dreams to go to med school. As if this wasn’t enough pressure, he was expected support his younger brother who was also at the same college, plus help run the family restaurant when back home in the city during holiday and summer breaks. I always remembered Hai's words saying how lucky I was and that he wanted to move away and travel on his own, but couldn't break family obligations. Upon finishing college I didn’t have a definitive plan, but I was free and with my mom’s recent passing her words that I should someday go to Vietnam resonated even stronger.