Vietnam is miles away, blocked by the Pacific Ocean. It’s a small country located in Southeast Asia, packed with people all over her soil. This doesn’t even begin to account for all her children that are scattered to the corners of the world. Like dandelions, they scatter into the four winds: Texas, New York, Germany, Massachusetts — the list goes on. The great cacophony of war had thrust us out of home and country. The conflict in the 60s had made us nomads, desperate to lay roots wherever we can.
For many Vietnamese, Southern California has been made home. The streets of Little Saigon buzz with my childhood’s words. And as the cars rush down the asphalt in the muggy California heat, my ears catch every note of the Dan Day flung out of open windows. We are the majority; my school halls were filled with the same tanned faces. It is a familiar face, the kind that I took for granted as I grew up surrounded by my people.
I suppose that’s why I feel off when I leave home — that I’m no longer the majority, but rather the minority. Not even that, but a minority of the Chinese minority. A minority of the minority.
MIT has an enormous Asian population, but it’s a mostly Chinese one. And it’s not as though I feel any less welcome than I did when I came. However, fewer people understand my culture. I’m the only one on my hall who gets excited for Tet, Vietnamese New Year, as well as the only person who can speak the language. It’s a lonely feeling; to see people that look so much like you, but do not understand. This is still in America, where I can find Asians. In Mexico, I am constantly asked,
¿Eres de China?
¿Japón? ¿Corea? ¿China?
De dónde eres? Tienes una cara china.
¿WWI o WWII?
It becomes a checklist for them. I’m exotic. Considering that my face is one that is only seen on television, it’s no wonder why I get stared at. While I can understand the curiosity, it’s sad to think that no one even thinks my country exists. Just once, I want to hear someone say Vietnam. It’s a small place, but it’s still there. I’m not Chinese, nor Korean, nor even Japanese. I’m Viet. I have my own tales to tell that no other country has. Epic heroes claim victory in my bedtime stories; meanwhile, our sorrows are magicked into symphonies, spilling their agony in such beautiful cadenzas.
I wish that I wasn’t a minority in the minority. At the least, I’d like people to know one thing: not all people that look the same are the same. These masks of convenience are forced onto foreigners to make their worlds more homogeneous. In the case of Asians, they do so in order to make them more Chinese. It is a cruel gesture, one that not only erases but also destroys. Countless years of strife are transfigured in an instant. The world shrinks just a little bit more. It becomes a lonelier place for foreigners.
So I ask: be kinder. The world is fluid; its people are even more nebulous. Even so, you should still swallow the bitter melon that Truth has become. No land is foreign enough that masks are necessary. As for me, I am going to hold onto my identity. Of all countries, I came from one with 92.7 million relatives. It’s a distant home; distant and mystic. I was born there before coming to America. Though I’m thousands of miles away, one thing remains true.
Vietnam still sings.
Johnson Huynh is a rising sophomore studying Mechanical Engineering. This summer, he is working with a team to develop a drone that can 3D print onto any surface in Aguascalientes, Mexico.