In my AP Lang & Comp class last week, we read “The Stranger in the Photo Is Me” by Donald M. Murray. Our writing prompt after was to mirror Murray’s writing style while also portraying our own message. Here is my written essay. My english teacher said it was pretty good so I thought I would share it with you all.
Who Am I?
In kindergarten, I brought rice and fish for lunch everyday. I saw my friends eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and while they munched and dirtied their hands with the jelly, I stayed nice and neat with my chopsticks and thermos of rice.
In first grade, I wore an áo dài or traditional Vietnamese dress to picture day. My friends and teachers complimented me and how lovely and exotic I looked.
In second grade, I moved to Woburn. I was thrusted into a predominantly white town of children whose parent’s parents had grown up in the same house. I came home a lower class minority town where everyone seemed to constantly be moving and running. Living here meant a perfect bubble of security. There was no more moving every other month or being told no when I asked for a doll.
In third grade, I brought in egg rolls. I learned how to write in Vietnamese. Everyone would say how delicious the egg rolls are and I smiled. They seemed to love my food as much as I loved theirs.
In fourth grade, I explained how to say Phương Nam more times than I knew how to count, which was higher than everyone else like expected. I was rejected from a modeling agency for having “chinky” eyes.
In fifth grade, I started pronouncing Nguyễn like noo-yen instead of ngwén. I stopped having teachers call me Phương Nam and shortened it to Nam.
In sixth grade, my brother called me white-washed. My mom agreed. My dad nodded. They scolded me for my loud tone and lack of respect, my failing manners as I forgot to greet them when I came home from school, and my now heavily-accented Vietnamese. They asked who I was. I didn’t answer.
Who was I? Who am I? I am Nam. A child born from two refugees. A child born from a history of struggle and war into an age of prosperity and opportunity. But that is my parents’ story, not mine. Who am I?
I now teach Vietnamese to students on Sundays. I now take AP English Language and Composition. I use 3 utensils to eat: chopsticks, fork, spoon. I have a closet full of áo dài and a dresser full of skinny jeans. I wear a jade bracelet on my left wrist that will never be able to come off. I wear a promise ring on my right hand that I refuse to take off.
I wouldn’t say I feel American. I wouldn’t say I feel Vietnamese. I wouldn’t say I feel Vietnamese-American or even American-Vietnamese. Between two cultures, I am sitting on a bridge. At home, I am an alien that has forgotten her roots. I step into the world and become a foreigner that may be a commie. I am in limbo outside of my house and away from the world.
What certifies an American? Blue eyes and blonde hair? White, milky skin? Large eyes and neanderthal browbones? Potato salad and bacon ranch potlucks? An affinity for bacon? Is there a rite of passage I missed? I had a Sweet 16 and watched Mean Girls; I thought that was enough.
What certifies a Vietnamese? A quiet demeanor and short stature? Black hair and long, slender eyes? The ability to compute math or any set of skills like piano or violin? Intake of rice? Is that it, because if it is, I should most definitely be qualified.
If I am duly certified, can that mean I am both? How can a single person be both? I look in the mirror and see a banana; an Asian exterior and American interior. I am far too loud and far too ambitious to satiate the needs of my parents. I am far too polite and critical to assimilate into American culture, because let’s face the truth: I do not look American. However, I do not look Vietnamese either.
In this picture from first grade, I see a girl smiling so brightly at the camera. Smiling fiercely radiant with no hindrance of a quiet demure on her mind. I see a girl swelling with pride and bubbling of happiness.
I see a girl wearing a silk áo dài in a sea of polos, cotton sweatpants, and denim jeans. An áo dài that would be forgotten about weeks later during a move to a different city. A silk áo dài so delicate, it would be ruined by the dirt and dust that pattered it. An áo dài that was stored away in a closet behind jeans, tee-shirts, and sweaters.
I see a girl who has not yet faced racism and stereotypes. I see a girl who has not yet conformed. I see a girl who has not yet felt the social pressure to conform. I see a girl who hasn’t tired of the question, “What’s my name in Vietnamese?”. A girl who hasn’t learned to roll her eyes when people show her a squibble of lines followed by the question, “What’s this in Chinese?”. A girl who still laughs at racial ignorance.
I am in 11th grade now. I haven’t worn an áo dài for a while now. I don’t eat lunch at school anymore. My best friends also happen to be first generation immigrants. I buy anything I want still. I don’t bring egg rolls to school. I don’t bother with telling others how to pronounce my name. My brother has realized I’m not white-washed, I’m white-dyed.
I am still sitting on a bridge between two cultures. That bridge is not the halfway point where I sit in limbo, but where my generation sits. We are the generation of transition. We are the generation of assimilation. This bridge is our home. This bridge is what we are. This bridge is who I am.