The Importance of Being Vietnamese


Published January 4, 2016 in Episode 37

Vietnamese people have the phrase “bốn ngàn năm văn hiến” -- four thousand years of culture. The phrase is frequently tossed around to allude to the depth of the Vietnamese heritage. But I still can’t help wondering, what do Vietnamese people mean when they say “Tôi là người Việt Nam" - I am Vietnamese? So what makes us Vietnamese?  If someone were to ask you what makes Vietnamese people unique, how would you answer? How do different Vietnamese people think about their Vietnamese identity?

So I went out to ask around.

“When you look at yourself in the mirror, and you wake up in the morning, automatically you see yourself as black hair brown eyes, tan skin, and immediately you know that you come from a very unique background,”  says Theresa Ngô, a 28-year-old from San Jose, California.

But what happens when people don’t even believe you? For Belgian Francois Nguyễn, how he identifies himself to people changes depending on the continent:

“When I’m in North America and people ask me where I come from, I always answer that I’m from Belgium. I was born and raised in Belgium so I always say I am Belgian. Then they usually make a face and try to find a way to ask me why I don’t look white. But when i’m in Belgium and people ask me where I come from, I answer that I’m from Việt Nam because my face is from Việt Nam and my hair and the way I look. And because of how I look, I carry Việt Nam with me everywhere I go. I represent a community and a long history. And you know, all my actions, everything I do, will shine a light on other Vietnamese. and I think it’s a baggage that every Vietnamese should carry with them.”

Vy Liêu was born and raised in the Netherlands, so I have to confirm and ask her, “Are you Vietnamese?”  “Yes,” she replies. “My parents are Vietnamese.”  

To her, it’s the language, it’s a taste, a feeling.

”Why I feel like I’m Vietnamese? Because I speak Vietnamese with my parents. I love Vietnamese food. When I feel homesick, I crave a traditional Vietnamese dish. It’s called ‘thịt kho.’ I always crave that when I miss home.

I look Asian so I feel more Vietnamese than I am Dutch. Also, whenever I talk to Vietnamese people, I feel much more related to them than to the Dutch people. That’s why I feel more Vietnamese.”

Liêu isn’t the only one who mentions food when I ask about being Vietnamese. In fact, five out of seven people bring up the food we eat. So many people seem to equate being Vietnamese with eating Vietnamese food. Maybe that explains why Loa has so many food stories - we’re just really proud to be Vietnamese!

In all seriousness though, food is never just food. Vân Ánh Nguyễn, a second year student studying Sociology at Berkeley, California, has a deeper insight:

“In my family no one ever said ‘I love you’ and that was really difficult because I don’t know if they actually love me or not. And I think that comes from a lot of family as well, because you don’t go out and hug someone, kiss them or say ‘I love you.’ But you ask them have you been eating, ‘Do you want rice, do you want this?’ And that’s how we express love. And it took me awhile to understand that food in Vietnamese culture actually meant more than just eating. It’s a type of bonding, it’s showing affection. When my mom set out the rice or fish or something I know she’s worrying about me. A lot of people kind of bond over food. They usually ask, “Has blah blah blah arrived yet? We can’t start to eat without them.’ And the elder has the first pick on what to eat whatever they chose.”

To the parents reading please say you love us more, and we promise to eat everything now that we know food is just a vessel to convey our values: love, affection, and respect.

Respect, I’ve come to find out, is another big characteristic of the Việt identity. Thanh Liêu, a mid-career professional from San Francisco says,

“To me, what it means to be Vietnamese is to take care of your parents, showing your respect to people, and getting respected back. That’s a big thing in Vietnamese culture, and that’s one of the things that makes me Vietnamese.”  

But to others, such as Nguyễn Văn Oai, an activist and former political prisoner, Vietnamese people are characterized by a certain mentality when it comes to withstanding difficulties.

“From ancient time until now, the Vietnamese people have, in war and in revolution, exuded incredible strength to overcome unimaginable hardship. That is a unique characteristic that I see in the spirit of the Vietnamese people.”

So being Vietnamese is a bit of: how we look, what we put in our bodies, and how we express ourselves. But what is it that informs our perspective? And what does that mean for different Vietnamese people working together?    

Jason Nguyễn, a dual Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, says that ideas of identity don’t always align, and why that is.

“Vietnamese identity isn’t even a single thing throughout history. We have to think of all the different projects and different imaginations at play. They're engaged in different ways of producing and acting Vietnamese for themselves. And that's true about people in the diaspora as well. You have post-war  migrants, and you've also got second, third generations. If people have to interact then they’re going to have to figure out some way to work out their differences, find that sliver of something you have in common.”

I think that’s the moral of the story -- we’re all figuring out the common ground in our identity. Maybe that’s the beauty of it all.