When war washed over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, our families found themselves like driftwood, fleeing sodden and splintered, to countries whose names they couldn’t pronounce, to camps and trailer parks where the closest place to eat was this place called McDonalds, lost not just for words — simply lost, floating like hunched phantasms of who they once were, in lands where no one wants refugees, treated like dirt, gazes bowed to the ground. Bụi đời, the dust of life, we are.
There is always hope, as we are reborn through our children. It’s said that when your children are born, get ready to worry for the rest of your life. I imagine what my mother’s first words were to me: Vietnamese exhalations of joy and relief, that she got this 8 lbs. 9 ounce burden exorcised from her, then wondered, what should she be saying to this thing? The human capability to speak, is what separates us from animals, or what makes us more glorious, however you want to look at it. What does it mean to be American, a glorious American? We all know: the ability to speak English. I imagine, my mother and father wanted to tell me so many things: that I would grow up strong, that I would not only survive, that I would thrive. That they love me. But while I had the ears, they didn’t have the words.
You think you know yourself, until you get to University. I thought I knew who I was until I took my first class with Professor Um. Southeast Asian American studies. The images. The statistics. The stories. Then, I met the others: a heartfelt Cambodian American from Sacramento who would Kobe me on the court, a French speaking Vietnamese American who grew up in Hong Kong, a Charles Schwab-aspiring Laotian American who would eat and drink me under the table. My people.
We all hung out. We played NBA2K. We created an organization together: SASC. We organized conferences. We drove to Southern California promoting higher education. We expressed opinions that sounded so great in our heads. We listened to Two Tongues and Radiohead. We thought we knew what we were doing when really, we faked it until we made it. The real things always happen when we are out of class.
Identity is not a United Benetton of Colors ad, it is a catalyst for the habits you will practice, that will shape the person you will become. In America, when you are a person of color — identity, if I may speak from my particular lens, Southeast Asian American identity, is confounding, as Professor Um articulated through her lectures and wisdom, corralling us to organize for the greater good of our communities so often ignored by the census, the city planners, the talking points of presidential hopefuls.
If you don’t know your Southeast Asian identity, you will lash out at your mother for being a hoarder — when really, it’s a refugee’s mentality to keep and use everything you ever get — you will scold your aunt for not teaching you Vietnamese, when she was just trying to ensure you spoke undeniably fluent English — you will blame your uncle for lack of guidance, when he comes home from working 70 hour weeks — you will wonder where your veteran father wandered away to, when his absence was never his fault.
Don’t let me fool you: I am no perfect man. I try to do, the best that I can, with what it is I have.
I work as a STEM teacher, teaching students how to work and communicate with technology. There is a young Vietnamese American student, who I’ll call Vi, who is in all likelihood, the only Vietnamese American student at my school. Of course, she’s adorable, outfitted in Adidas gear, wide eyed under bà nội spectacles, correcting the accent marks on my white-boarded Vietnamese. I want to teach her everything I know: that everything is learnable, that the world is both big and small, that we live in an amazing time, as long as you stay the hell off social media. I imagine, I feel about Vi the way Professor Um has always felt about us.
After living abroad in Vietnam for a decade, I have returned home to Berkeley, more patriotic than I have ever been. I really love the hell out of the United States of America. I would wear the Stars and Stripes if it matched my dour earthen toned fashion more. I’ll practice my patriotism my way: patronizing mom n’ pop eateries. Our own way, our own style — the underlying creed, the swag, that America was found upon.
Being Asian American is hard. Being Southeast Asian American is even harder: you’re either dead, dying or deported. It is a seed that Professor Um planted in me, in all of us — this realization that being Southeast Asian American is a particular experience, with it’s own context, it’s own syntax, it’s own nuance and considerations, not even fellow Asian Americans can comprehend. Professor Um gave us the vocabulary for who we are: a people lost and found, a population evolving, an experience ephemeral, that most times, transcends language.
Adrift we were, Professor Um straightened our posture, so that we could look forward, and just as important, to look up. Yes, we are specks, that from the horizon to the cosmos, as Degrasse Tyson reminds us.
If I may: Life is a miracle, and so are we. Professor Khatharya Um rescued our humanity.