Having grown up mostly estranged from my Vietnamese family, teaching my own children about their heritage has been a challenge. But giving my kids what I never got is something I’m committed to doing. And as a result, I’ve created a pathway for my own learning and my own healing.
My parents were separated before I was born. I never lived with my dad, who is Vietnamese. I never spent the night, never even visited his house. When my sister and I saw him, he’d take us to the local pizza joint, and we’d spend the rest of the evening playing with our English-speaking cousins upstairs while the adults did karaoke in the living room in a language I couldn’t understand. I never learned a word of Vietnamese.
Occasionally, my sister and I would go camping or to a theme park with our extended family. In preparation for my cousin’s wedding, I was measured for an áo dài, the national garment of Vietnam, but I was later uninvited. As I got older, visits with my family became fewer and farther between until they dwindled to nothing. By the time I went to college, I had no contact with anyone on my father’s side and had legally changed my last name from my Vietnamese family name to my white stepdad’s last name.
That all changed shortly after my first child was born. Suddenly, I had this little quarter-Asian baby, and she looked a whole lot like me. I remember worrying that no one would know she was Vietnamese, and although I’d made an effort to erase that part of myself, it still bothered me. A few months later, one of my cousins reached out on social media. One by one, my other family members came out of the woodwork, wanting to reconnect with me — and meet my new husband and daughter. Initially, I was defensive, wanting to protect her from the rejection I experienced. But I also felt like she deserved to know where she came from.
So, when my daughter was still an infant, I decided that I would teach her about her Asian heritage. With renewed contact with my Vietnamese family came my daughter’s first áo dài — and mine, too — sent by my beloved great aunt. We attended our first celebration of Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, and rang in the Year of the Rooster with chè thái, a Vietnamese fruit cocktail, and chạo tôm, shrimp on sugar cane. And it was lovely. Seeing my daughter be fully embraced by my Vietnamese family brought me a sense of kinship with them that had been missing for the last 30 years.
Part of me mourns the fact that I didn’t get to grow up connected to that part of my identity, but it’s tempered knowing that the same won’t happen to my children.
It’s been six years now. Living across the country from my family has made it harder to keep my now two kids connected, and sometimes my efforts feel contrived, because it’s not as if I fully understand my heritage. But I’m trying. I have a CD of Vietnamese lullabies. I’ve started to cook family recipes with them, like lemongrass chicken and pork and greens soup. For Tết, they anxiously await the arrival of their lì xì, the red envelopes stuffed with “lucky money” that the family send every year without fail. Most of all, we talk about who we are, that they are Vietnamese like Mommy, that we are the descendants of refugees.
It’s bittersweet. Part of me mourns the fact that I didn’t get to grow up connected to that part of my identity, but it’s tempered knowing that the same won’t happen to my children. And seeing them have the experiences I never had is a gift I never expected. In many ways, I’m a child again alongside them, on the same journey, tasting nước mắm (or Vietnamese fish sauce) for the first time, learning to say “cảm ơn” (thank you), and claiming all of who I am.
Image Source: Kimmie Fink