This won’t be a post where I preach the word of Viet Pride, word. I won’t be make you all salivate by the describing the deliciousness of banh hoi, banh cuon, bun, and of course pho. It won’t contain diacritics either – this font doesn’t support our crazy ass accents. Instead, I will be babbling on about my life thus far as a person of Vietnamese descent living in Canada. I could’ve just said Vietnamese-Canadian, but using hyphens to describe my cultural identity seems pointless to me.
Although I was born and raised in Canada, I never really considered myself as “Canadian”. I’m not oblivious to the fact that Canada is a multicultural society (in fact, I’m from one of the most “multicultural” cities in the world). Growing up, I never actively thought about “what” I was. Coming home from a busy day of school and listening to my mom bark on like a mad woman in Vietnamese while war-torn dramas play in the background was just everyday business for me. So whenever kids at school would play the racial guessing game and of course label me as Chinese, Filipino, or Korean, it never really bothered me as much as it did with some of my friends.
What did piss me off was when people made epic fail attempts to pronounce my last name. LOL. If you didn’t realize, my last name is Nguyen. The most Vietnamese last name evarrrrrr! If you’ve ever met a person with the surname Nguyen, you have probably asked them if they are related to x, y, and z people with the same surname. The answer, mostestostestostest likely, is NO you racist fooool! Ok, this wasn’t really an example of racism! The reason why ~30% of the Vietnamese population have been bestowed with this last name is because of the Nguyen Dynasty. This was the last Vietnamese dynasty, and it took place before the formation of French Indochina. Long story short, people who were loyal to the emperor changed their last names. This was no Genghis Khan, bammm chicka wa wa story.
Anyways, I’ve had people guess the pronunciation of Nguyen as Nu-gen, Nu-win, Noo-guy-yen… one time I heard Nugget XD There are two ways to pronounce my last name, i.e. there is a variation between Northern and Southern Vietnamese dialects. I was raised speaking the Northern dialect. This random video I found on YouTube explains it well. She does a good job actually 🙂 Vietnamese is a tonal language, so I find it pretty difficult to explain to people how to actually pronounce Nguyen! I just simplify it to “nu-yen”, which sort of how you would really say it (if you said it in super, super, super, slow-motion).
Back to the main story 🙂
I grew up believing I was pretty cultured. I went to Vietnamese Saturday school, enjoyed reading about the country’s history (and how we owned the Chinese, other Asians lol, the French, and the Americans), and loved getting into pretend cussing fights with my ba ngoai (grandma). When I went back to Nam, I began to have my doubts of course!
The first and only time I visited Vietnam was when I was 16. Before that, I had never been outside the country. You can imagine how difficult it is when you have an autistic sibling to worry about. When I arrived in Vietnam, it wasn’t the “Joy Luck Club” when I got off the plane. I wasn’t weeping for my long lost motherland in a rice paper hat! But I was ecstatic to finally meet my relatives, which my mom hadn’t seen since she left Vietnam. Growing up, I heard many funny stories about them. At the same time however, I was nervous to actually attempt to speak Vietnamese with them.
I understand the language fluently. It was the first language I heard as a baby, and it was the language I used to utter my first word. I remember at an early age teaching myself how to read using a Vietnamese newspaper! Just a side note, Vietnamese people are in love with their newspapers! It’s serious business right here. My mom will buy more than $50 worth of groceries at an Asian supermarket just to get a free copy of the Thoi Bao. Fifty more, and you get a free sack of Jasmine rice. Delish. My favourites in the newspaper were the crime sections and the real estate advertisements. Speaking it wasn’t too difficult for me either. I just felt somewhat embarrassed whenever I had to speak with adults. Being born and raised Canada, my accent isn’t the most authentic.
Whenever I spoke Vietnamese I home, my mom and my grandma understood fully what I was saying. But in Vietnam, I had to repeat what I said to my aunts and uncles. I felt really embarrassed, but at the same time, I knew they expected this and probably worse from someone living overseas. I quickly overcame my nervousness and spent the best summer of my life there soaking in all Vietnam had to offer.
I can honestly say I felt like I had lived there all my life. Ok, fine… most or some of my life haha. Life there functions at a more slower, relaxed pace. In Western countries, people work at a faster and more stressful pace. As a result, our daily lives are often dull and forgettable. In my short time in Vietnam, I felt a lot more happier and healthier. Well, that was mainly because my aunts were feeding me like there was no tomorrow (the food there is of course more delicious than its equivalent overseas)! I never felt so loved and cared about by so many people.
It was the Vietnam of today, from the eyes of a Vietnamese-Canadian that charmed me that summer. I’m not entirely sure if I would have said the same if I had been there 40-50 years ago. Would I even say the same if I were living in its extreme poverty today? No matter how much I try to immerse myself in Vietnamese culture, I will always have this disconnect from it. I was never born there. I never ran across the busy Hanoian streets during the wet season. I never got to get my first moped. I never got the chance to sit by the lake on a humid evening swatting flies with a bamboo fan. My appreciation for being Vietnamese comes from the stories of mother and grandmother, women who have been able to survive literally anywhere. I am vulnerable, sheltered from what my ancestors truly knew as Vietnam.
What I do know for sure is that I am proud of this country. I am proud of the people who, like my parents, fought to live better lives. Although they faced suffering time and time again, they never ceased to be sharing, gentle-spirited, and compassionate. Without Vietnam, I wouldn’t be me! Like many children of immigrant parents, I will spend the rest of my life re-building the legacy my ancestors wanted to see.