To be American or to be Vietnamese? That is the question


By Song My Hoang

“You’re so American!”

This is pretty much the reaction I get from everybody I meet at Union. I still do not know whether or not to take it as a compliment. At some level, the statement is true, but it does not completely describe who I am.

What am I then? I am a good example of a “Third Culture Kid.” A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her formative years outside his or her parents’ culture.

I was born in Vietnam, and all my family members are native Vietnamese. I moved to America when I was one, and I spent my elementary school years here. I actually went back to Vietnam to attend fourth grade at a Vietnamese school. I then continued my fifth grade year in America. I eventually went back again to attend an international school from sixth to 12th grade.

While I feel lucky to have the opportunity to become immersed in two different cultures, it is a constant struggle for me to identify a true home for myself. I seek self-identity in a world where I do not have ownership of any culture.

Language is such an integral part of one’s cultural identity. It is a verbal expression of one’s culture and acts as a means to communicate one’s cultural values, beliefs, feelings and customs.

However, I feel uneasy when someone asks me about my mother tongue. It should be a very easy question to answer.

I graduated my high school with an  International Baccalaureate bilingual diploma in English and Vietnamese.  A person is considered bilingual if he or she is equally proficient in both languages.  Here is the problem: I do not feel comfortable stating that I am truly fluent in both languages.

During my time in Vietnam, I was  not confident with my Vietnamese speaking abilities because I felt out of place in the Vietnamese community. My exposure to Vietnamese was limited to my household.  My classes were taught in English and I interacted with my friends in English because they were international students.

I communicate minimally in Vietnamese with other individuals in the Vietnamese community because my responses would come out extremely awkwardly and fragmented.

I had a fear of meeting my parents’ new acquaintances or distant relatives because I did not know what to call them.

In Vietnam, people refer to each other based on kinship terms, rather than on their actual names. Some of the kinship terms are: “Em” if they are younger than you, “Chi” if they are a female who is older than you, “Chu” if they are a male similar to your uncle’s age, “Co” if they are a female similar to your aunt’s age, and “Bac” if they are similar in age to your parents.

The thought of basing my pronoun usage on my judgment of their age was very frightening. I probably unintentionally offended some people by inferring they were older than they actually were.

I thought I could escape the complexity of the Vietnamese language by attending college in the U.S.  But I was wrong.

I met some Vietnamese students when I came to Union. They started speaking to me in Vietnamese, and I felt obligated to respond in Vietnamese out of respect.

Vietnamese did not come naturally to me, and I started speaking to them in English. I am pretty sure I got some funny looks. I felt somewhat embarrassed. How could I not feel comfortable speaking my own language?

It makes sense to assume that my fluency in English could compensate for my inability to effortlessly speak my supposed native language. Although my English is better than my Vietnamese, I have to face the reality that my English is not as exceptional as an American’s. There are some cultural references and vocabulary in English that I am unaware of because I have never been constantly exposed to an English-speaking environment.

I sit in my English classes and constantly ponder why I am unable to articulate my ideas as quickly as others do. It takes a while for me to process the information because my English and Vietnamese are jumbled together in my mind.

I speak English with an American accent and have no hint of an Asian accent. However, when speaking to other people, I occasionally struggle to develop proper, grammatically structured sentences.

Language is just a partial determinant of my cultural identity. I also have to consider the value I place on Western and traditional Vietnamese beliefs. I have to admit that I tend to adopt fundamental Vietnamese customs such as celebrating traditional holidays as well as venerating my ancestors through certain practices.  Yet, I thoroughly enjoy American social activities and entertainment.

I am sometimes frustrated by the fact that my cultural identity is not clear-cut.  However, in such a dynamic and globalized society, I think it is important to redefine the meaning of identity and home.  Perhaps this mesh of two different cultures will lead to a beautiful outcome.

In the mind battle of being American or Vietnamese, I choose to embrace my third cultural identity, which I will name Song My.



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