Stranger in the motherland
One Sacramentan’s adventures in reverse-migration
On a cool March evening in Hanoi, Vietnam, 24-year-old Judith Le was steaming mad.
“I’m just so tired of being asked to explain what I am every time I meet someone. Why can’t it be enough that I’m from California?” fumes Le, a Vietnamese-American, relaying an incident from the night before.
A German tourist at a bar had asked where she was from, and she had replied, “California.”
“No, really, where are you from?”
“California. I was born there.”
“I mean, what is your ethnicity?”
“Why does it matter?”
Le knew where the conversation was heading, and she resented it. It was one thing to explain her cultural heritage when she was in Sacramento, her hometown; it was another to be in a country that didn’t feel like home and be pushed to claim it as her own.
The conversation quickly escalated from casual chatter to a yelling match; the tourist accused Judith of rejecting her true identity.
“I think of myself as more American than Vietnamese,” she says. “Sure, I have my identity issues, but I haven’t rejected my identity—I mean, I’m here, aren’t I?”
Since childhood, Le had been struggling to determine what significance the Asian side of her identity should have in her life—a challenge that led her to a minor in Asian/Pacific/American studies at New York University after graduating from Valley High School in south Sacramento.
She applied to the Princeton-in-Asia fellowship program hoping to explore a new culture, not necessarily to engage with a part of her own identity. Initially, she requested a position in the Philippines, but an interview with an enthusiastic former fellow posted in Hanoi swayed Le to accept a position at Traffic, the wildlife-trade monitoring network, which has an office in Vietnam’s capital city.
Le was unsure of what she might find—or even what she was looking for—by spending a year in Vietnam. She wondered whether she would have anything in common with the people there, and if so, what that would mean.
“It’s an identity that I haven’t fully come to terms with,” she says. “Part of me sees it as something I don’t want to deal with.”
Her parents shared her uncertainty regarding the move, but for different reasons. With their memories of Vietnam’s postwar period still fresh, they were concerned about letting their daughter move to a city they associated with government oppression.
“She’s got a lot of opinions, OK? Living in a country that’s Communist, I was afraid she’d get in trouble,” says her father, Hung Le. His final recollection of Vietnam is of leaving Saigon on a Vietnamese naval ship packed with 3,000 people in April of 1975, just before North Vietnam took control. Three harrowing weeks later, after the passengers were transferred to other vessels because the ship was sinking, 20-year-old Hung and his family were taken to a refugee camp on Guam. From there it was on to Camp Pendleton in San Diego to await sponsors. After receiving a scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota, Hung joined family members in Sacramento in 1977.
Recalling the tight controls put in place once North Vietnam took over the country, Le’s mother, Lan Kim Le, worried from the time her daughter departed for Hanoi last July until her safe return home last week.
While Le didn’t have problems with corrupt customs officials or police officers, as her parents had feared, her year was far from stress-free.
There were the usual surprises of exploring a new culture in a developing country. The Vietnamese practice of elbowing to the front of lines was her biggest pet peeve, with invasions of personal space and blunt comments like “You are fatter now. You were prettier when you were skinnier,” close behind.
But her real frustration was more profound: She struggled to find a connection between herself and the people around her. Her accent and American style of dress proclaimed that she was not native Vietnamese, which meant she was vulnerable to the same treatment as other foreigners. The locals often assumed she didn’t know Vietnamese—though she could understand the comments people made and recognize when the price of fabric at the market was twice as high for her as it would be for a local shopper.
To Le, these behaviors represented a delineation of who was truly Vietnamese, reinforcing the sense that her parents’ country hadn’t embraced her. “My coworkers one time got up close to my face and examined it and were like, ‘Nope, not entirely Vietnamese. There’s something else there,’” she says.
After growing up in south Sacramento, appreciating the community’s diversity and her place in it, she found the rigid homogeneity of Vietnam stifling. In hindsight, she thinks that she may have given up too easily on connecting with Vietnamese people, half afraid to identify with them and find that she was not as wholly American as she had always thought.
“Part of me thinks that I don’t want to get along with Asian people because it will affirm a part of me that I don’t want. If I could do it again, I would try to make more of an effort with my coworkers and cultivate more Vietnamese friendships,” she says.
Le’s mixed feelings are unsurprising given her parents’ bittersweet memories of their homeland. When Vietnam was reunified, the world of her then 22-year-old mother, Lan Kim, turned upside down. The university where she had been studying closed, and she was required to attend classes on the teachings of Ho Chi Minh. Her brothers were imprisoned under spurious charges of treason because they taught at a French school. To add to the hardship, the family’s safety net practically disappeared when the South Vietnamese currency was declared invalid.
“They said starting tomorrow, each household can only have $500, even if you have a whole case of money you’ve been saving for your children and grandchildren, your retirement,” she says.
Hung and Lan Kim rarely spoke of their former lives in Vietnam when Le was growing up.
“The experience was painful,” Hung says. “You basically lost your country, you left everything there, got out with empty hands and had to build your life again. That’s not something I want to tell her. I want her to look at life with a rosy picture, not a depressed one.”
Assuming they could never return to Vietnam with Le and her sister Aurora, Hung and Lan Kim didn’t teach their daughters much Vietnamese beyond what they learned from their grandmother—a decision Hung says he regrets. Now they can return anytime, but are reluctant to go looking for a place that no longer exists.
“I have a clear picture of [Saigon] in my mind, but now everything has changed. I wouldn’t even recognize my own house. I want to leave the picture intact,” Hung says.
After a weekend trip to the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Le gave her parents an idea of how much their hometown had changed. The clean streets, French architecture and cosmopolitan vibe her mother had described had been replaced by hordes of roaring motorbikes, suburban sprawl and signs with government messages promoting helmet use or avoiding the risk of HIV/AIDS.
“She said, ‘Mom, the things you described about Saigon I didn’t see,’” Lan Kim recalls. “My family is not in Saigon anymore, so if I could afford the airplane ticket, I’d rather go to Hawaii or something, not some Communist country.”
The scars of history similarly affect the attitudes of in-country Vietnamese toward their brethren overseas, as evidenced by the jeers Le received from taxi drivers and people riding motorbikes alongside her. According to Hung, many Viet kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, who return for visits are snubbed for leaving war-ravaged Vietnam and prospering in America.
“They think she was born into privilege and is well-educated,” he said. “When Viet kieu come home there’s jealousy and a lot of resentment.”
While Le had no aspirations to serve as a Vietnamese-American ambassador, she did take advantage of opportunities to encourage acceptance of outsiders, particularly in her part-time job teaching English to high-school students. In the process, she concluded that in the past year she hadn’t been entirely accepting either.
“I tried to foster a broader sense of awareness and critical thinking in my students, yet as time went on, I began to realize that they were also inadvertently teaching me the same thing.”