From Both Sides Now

by Global Directions Inc., Jun 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

"I am not sure if the Vietnamese people see me more as an American than a Vietnamese."

When I was preparing to live in Vietnam, I had not expected that I would be as much of a curiosity to the Vietnamese people as they were to me. After all, I was born there, and did not stand out immediately as a foreigner or an overseas Vietnamese. Like others, I encountered the usual "getting-to-know-you" questions which involved my age, martial status and salary-questions that would ruffle a few feathers, not to mention, be an impetus for lawsuits in America. And yet, these questions are easier to answer than the ones I received living in America as a person of Vietnamese descent.

When I was younger and people asked me what I remembered about Vietnam, I somehow felt they were expecting answers about bombs exploding in my back yard or troops marching through the streets. I'm not sure why I thought this; perhaps it was the way they phrased the questions: "Do you remember anything about the Vietnam War?" vs. " Do you remember anything about Vietnam?"

Well, I don't remember any gunfire or other indicators of fighting from the first five years of my life when my family and I lived in Saigon. My mind recorded only select memories; learning to play solitaire with my grandmother, drinking coconut juice at a street stall and playing with the chickens who pecked at the green gate that encircled my family's home.

Growing up in the U.S., I was quite confused with these two sets of images. America, in general, has a very limited perspective of what other cultures are like. What many people knew about my birthplace was from the media's mostly horrific news clips, sound bytes and documentaries about the war. The messages seemed to be that Vietnam was a battleground and not much else. I myself had not escaped this one-way, one-sided presentation of history. But intermingled with these images were my own memories and my mother's stories of her peaceful childhood-a life of playing in a rural village with her brothers and sisters and tending to the family's chickens.

A few years ago, I decided to travel and live in Vietnam for six months. I needed to see for myself what the country was like, especially before the changes that doi moi would eventually bring about. I wanted to see beyond the grim pictures of war and to reconcile the images I had in my head from the American media and the memories in my and my mother's memory banks. In doing so, I hoped to learn more about myself and my heritage.

Swerving through narrow streets and around motorbikes, I silently (and sometimes, not so silently) curse at the traffic. Was that really a motorbike that tried to squeeze in the ten-inch gap between my bicycle and a cyclo? And at 30 miles per hour! The number of vehicles in Hanoi's streets is frightfully high and continues to rise. Although the traffic and pace is not as frenetic as in Bangkok or Cairo, I tend to think that Hanoi's congested streets can breed heart disease. A usual grievance of mine is if only the driver had glanced behind him, he would have seen me coming and not try to cut me off as he turned left and a consequence, made me also ram into this other bicycle, motorbike, cyclo or pedestrian.

Yet I have come to realize that the manner in which the Vietnamese people maneuver their vehicles is reflective of how they tend to view most events in their lives. For example, many foreigners have expressed their surprise to me at how welcoming the Vietnamese people have been to people they were fighting just 25 years ago. It seems that many of the Vietnamese people have done both the forgiving and the forgetting, these people have remarked, and are ready to forge relationships with the outside world including their former war opponents.

Any Vietnamese person will tell you that the Vietnamese people have not forgotten. But what they have done, in the truest sense of the expression, is let bygones be bygones. The wounds from the war remain deep and some may never heal. But like the motorbike drivers who don't look behind them, the Vietnamese people also prefer to look ahead-to see what the future holds and to see how their lives can be improved. And like many daring drivers, the Vietnamese people take risks now and then, whether it be to open the doors of their country to foreign investment or just to make a new friend of a former enemy.

I have also received a warm reception from the Vietnamese people. Stories have circulated about returning overseas Vietnamese who are shunned by the local people, perhaps because the former are flaunting their wealth or because the latter feel jealous of the returnees' new situation in life. But I feel this is more the exception than the rule. On the first day in Ho Chi Minh City, a Vietnamese friend of mine and I went to find the address listed on my birth certificate. I had only wanted to see the house where my family used to live. Upon seeing us outside her gate, the woman who lived there invited us for tea and fruit without even asking us who we were or why we came. Although she did not know any of the previous owners of the house including my family, her hospitality and sincerity to two strangers touched me very deeply.

The hospitality I have encountered is interwoven with an earnest curiosity that fills the Vietnamese people I have met. I have been asked if many people in the U.S. speak Vietnamese and sometimes am greeted with surprise when I reply in the negative. During meals people have inquired if I can use chopsticks or if I can eat the Vietnamese chili paste ot tuong (yes to both). Do I have a boyfriend and have I thought about marrying a Vietnamese man? Most amusing is when young people ask me my opinion on the latest piece of clothing they bought-as if my having lived in the U.S. for the last twenty years was equivalent to holding the post of editor-in-chief at Vogue Magazine.

I am not sure if the Vietnamese people see me more as an American than a Vietnamese. I almost always feel that I'm straddling two cultures. In most social situations, more is expected from me than from a non-Vietnamese Westerner. For example, I should know the appropriate forms of address for elders and the correct procedure for a certain ritual. But there are other times when my "American-ness" is the basis of how my interaction with others is determined.

A general example is when I attend functions hosted by expatriates and am snubbed by a Vietnamese person because of my appearance, specifically my Asian facial features. Pulling up on my Chinese bicycle (best investment for any visitor to Vietnam whatever his or her budget). I would be told haughtily that this was an invitation-only party. At one time, I was even shooed away by the Vietnamese men who guard the vehicles. Admittedly, I do not dress as smart as some of my Vietnamese counterparts but I definitely do not need such rude treatment. In these situations, I have replied in my obviously Western accented English that I was invited and proceeded to park my bike. Their immediate response is one of very courteous and expedient service. I have often wondered if these people's behavior stemmed from class distinctions found in Vietnamese society or if it was some twisted, misplaced racism.

I do not automatically assume I am superior to others because of my Western background and definitely hold myself in check against using it to garner special treatment. But this aspect of my identity is always there -whether it be manifested in the way I carry myself, the attitudes and opinions I hold or just because it is a large part of the lens through which I look at things. And yet it has occurred to me that, not surprisingly, this is also how I see things living in the U.S.: my Vietnamese identity is very much heightened when surrounded by all things American.