By Katie Hinh, Page Designer
I have had a unique experience of growing up on a blurred color line. I have had the fortune, or misfortune, to grow up in a bicultural household: half white and half Vietnamese. And I’ve come to know that someone who doesn’t understand privilege has never been denied privilege. Growing up with two distinct heritages changes how you view yourself as you grow up.
It starts when you’re young and you go to school for the first time. You are surrounded by new people and those people don’t quite look like you. You’ve never noticed it before but someone else pointed it out. But since they pointed it out, you get self conscious about how you look. You are asked questions by your teachers and friends like “What languages do you speak?” and you are constantly bombarded with “What’s your real name?” So you learn to not mention your heritage in order to avoid the questions.
When you get older and you go to higher education, you have pretty much alienated one side of your culture. You forget that you were ever different in the first place, but you are then forced back into a different category when you have to painstakingly explain to your teachers that you don’t know Spanish when they ask you to translate for them.
When you get to high school you begin to reinvigorate your cultural heritage. You feel free and want to take ownership of this piece of you that has been withering away. But when you bring it up, people shut you down, tell you that they don’t care, and say that you are just spouting nonsense to feel special. And you think that they’re right that you aren’t special.
Then when these same people finally recognize your heritage they call you “chinky eyes” and babble incoherent words that they think sound “Asian.” It doesn’t matter that you don’t have chinky eyes or that their assumption that all Asians speak the same language is wrong. You have people tell you to “get back on a boat back to your country,” but you were born in America. But they don’t care about any of this, because you don’t look “American” enough.
Let me tell you, that experience never leaves you.
I thought that I was doing myself a favor by never truly claiming ownership of who I was, because of the backlash that I had gotten from trying to claim that heritage. My father tried to get me to learn Vietnamese, but I didn’t want to because no one else had to, and I didn’t want to be weird. I let people make jokes at my expense to fit in.
Growing up with these challenges changed my perspective. I don’t want pity or sympathy. I want people to recognize what they have. I want people to realize that all walks of life and cultures should be celebrated and no one should feel ashamed to be who they are. I have felt devalued because of something that I was born into, and no one should ever feel that way.
Even at Miami today, it is hard to fit in. I look passably white, and when you look — for all intents and purposes — white, you get lumped into that category. I would like to stress that there is nothing wrong with that category, but I am not in it.
When you have no choice but to be labeled by society you begin to care about that label. If everyone is going to recognize you as the other, then you might as well get picky about what they’re going to call you.
I want to be able to hold on to the narrative of who I am. That narrative includes not only being white but also being Vietnamese. I have a chance to embrace a culture in which I am specially connected to. I no longer feel the need to shrink from my heritage. I have learned to be proud of that, and it took me a long time to come to terms with it.