From Minority to Majority: On Navigating My Identity Abroad

Written by Stephanie Jamilla (George Washington University) Student Correspondent CET Vietnam, Fall 2017

As I sit on a bench on the Book Street (Đường Sách), which has become one of my favorite nooks of Saigon, and draft my final blog post, it strikes me how I’ll be leaving in a couple days. I feel a strange mixture of excitedness at going home and seeing family and friends but also a forlornness from leaving a place that has gained much significance to me. It’s been a process, finding my way through Saigon’s streets and acquainting myself with all the quirks and characteristics that make Vietnam, well, Vietnam. When I felt like I was finally getting it down, I realize that my time here has come to a close. Reflecting on this past term, I am struck with how as much time as I spent navigating the city, I’ve simultaneously spent even more time navigating my own identity.

When I first came to Vietnam, my mindset was like that of a researcher. As an International Affairs major, I chose to come here in order to learn more about Development, Environment, and Public Health within the context of a developing country and within my regional area of interest: Southeast Asia. And that’s exactly what I’d do. I’d walk around and observe what’s around me, always taking mental notes to refer to when I ask questions about them in class. I expected to remain a bit removed from Vietnam, with me as a foreign student coming to study this new place, just an observer and a subject separate from each other. Obviously this isn’t exactly how study abroad plays out. When you thrust yourself into a place and culture almost completely unfamiliar to you, there’s no way you can keep yourself distant when trying to get accommodated. However, I was caught somewhat off guard when my accommodating brought up questions of cultural heritage and identity. Initially I thought of such personal discovery as more or less secondary to exploring my academic interests. Of course, as a Asian American whose pursuits in international development are largely inspired by her own heritage, I had some cognizance that I’d have to face this part of my identity one way or another when returning to Southeast Asia for an extended period of time. But I never expected it to foment as it did.

For once in my life I am part of the majority. I am constantly surrounded by people who look like me, who have similar features to mine. At a quick glance, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell I’m different from any other college-aged girl walking down the sidewalks of Saigon. Yet, these initially invisible differences became very apparent to me a few weeks into the program. First of all, my Asian heritage is Filipino. So sure, I’m part of the broad Southeast Asian majority, but not the exact Vietnamese majority. Second, there’s the inherent fact that I’m American. Except, this second nature part of my identity, that I somewhat ignore in the US since it’s a given, became front and center here. While a significant part of my college experience has involved exploring my Filipino side, by coming to Southeast Asia I’m instead faced with the second part of my hyphenated cultural label. In the States, I’m often confronted with the all-too-familiar, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” And it seems like this question will follow me wherever I go.

friends at farewell dinner

My friends and I at CET Vietnam’s farewell dinner, they supported me a lot throughout my time abroad

I was pretty surprised when multiple Vietnamese people, friends and strangers alike, told me I look Vietnamese. This comment was affirmed by a variety of instances. Whenever I go out to eat with my fellow American classmates (none of whom are of Southeast Asian origin), the waiter sees my familiar face, looks a bit relieved, and talks to me in rapid fire Vietnamese, hoping I could translate for the rest. At a team-building retreat run by my roommate’s university club, I was one of two foreigners in attendance. As I sat with my Vietnamese teammates, an organizer approached us, scanned the group, and said, “Ok, raise your hand if you’re Vietnamese” since he couldn’t tell the difference. During a non-profit fundraising event, an American professor mistook me for Vietnamese and tried to explain what baseball was to me, until my friend interjected to tell him that I’m from Chicago. And just right now, as I’m sitting on Đường Sách, a group of ladies ask me to watch their bags as they participate in a photoshoot. I definitely did not understand them word for word, since they spoke to me in Vietnamese, but was able to get what they meant based on the context. I found myself performing the same script each time someone realized I am, surprisingly, not Vietnamese:

“Wait, where are you from?”

“America.”

“But…you don’t look American?”

“Ah, my parents are from the Philippines.”

“Oh.”

No one asks this out of malice. They’re genuinely curious to figure out the enigma that is my identity. I don’t reflect the general foreign idea of what an American looks like. (Blonde hair? Blue eyes? Something along those lines.) We tend to linger on the topic, and they often ask why I chose to study here and not the Philippines. And to be honest, the more people asked me, the more I asked myself the same question. Would it have been better if I did go to the Philippines? Would it have been more relevant? Why did I choose Vietnam in the first place, it’s not like I have much connection to here? I had to tell myself over and over that I chose Vietnam because I wanted to experience Southeast Asia through a different context than my usual Philippine lens. The region is alike in many ways but even more interesting are the parts that make each nation different, and I wanted to learn more about them. My reasons for choosing Vietnam were completely valid, though it took a lot of self reflection and thinking sessions while strolling around the park to regain this conviction.

Furthermore, I wish I could say that I took on this script in stride and took each inquiry willingly. But in reality, it made me pretty shy. I became hesitant to approach strangers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and the like, because I knew they’d start speaking fluent Vietnamese at me. Then I’d have to respond with either sheepish smiles of incomprehension or try and scrape my way through with beginner level Vietnamese, and my success rate of the latter was approximately 10-15%. Being unable to live up to their assumption and witnessing the same bafflement every time I didn’t made me feel a bit bad. I wanted so desperately to be able to speak back confidently in Vietnamese so that the script wouldn’t even have to exist. Except this meant that I would allow others me to mistake me for something I’m not: Vietnamese. It would mean pushing back my Filipino identity for the sake of convenience and of fitting in. I didn’t want that, did I?

No, I didn’t. What brought me to this realization was something one of my favorite Vietnamese language tutorial teachers said. During our first session, he asked me where I was from. (“Em là người nước nào?”). I sat a little straighter and responded that I’m from America. (“Em là người Mỹ.”) He then nodded and promptly continued on with the lesson. I was shocked. Where was the look of surprise? When would he ask the follow-up questions? I was shocked that someone could just simply accept the fact that I am American unquestioningly. In that moment, I realized that as readily as he took on my identity, I should readily offer it up to others. My Filipino-American background is something I take great pride in, so I shouldn’t try to hide it to pass as something I’m not. Who cares if I’m not Vietnamese, even if I look it or if I can’t speak the language all too well. I am here to discover this country that I may not know much about, so let’s talk and learn from each other and grow from it. I shouldn’t be ashamed of what I’m not nor what I don’t know. Rather, I should be, and was, ashamed that I let those two things hold me back from embracing Vietnam for awhile. By the end of the semester, I found myself going up to locals, to complete strangers, and asking to interview them as part of a final research project for my public health course. I actually initiated conversation, something that the me of 3 months ago would have never done.

Before I came to Vietnam, the country admittedly had little meaning to me. I knew it through all too brief high school history lessons of the Vietnam war and through AP English literature (namely The Things They Carried). I knew it through the eyes of the Vietnamese immigrant children I supported as a volunteer of an after school program for underprivileged Asian youth in DC. Yet their memories seemed as far away as the land that they tried to recall, the land their parents left. Now I can say for certain that Vietnam holds so much meaning. It is, honestly, a complicated country—one whose muddied past still hovers over its present. At the same time, it is one who faces the future right in front of it and works tirelessly towards achieving that future. Personally, Vietnam has become the place where I first engaged in grassroots community development internationally. It’s where I had meaningful conversations with my roommate, now close friend, while munching on street food and watching traffic diminish as the night wears on. It’s where I first tried bún bò Huế and realized how I much preferred this noodle soup over the classic phở. Vietnam taught me how to have a flexible and open mentality. It showed me that despite all the seemingly endless differences between here and America and the Philippines and otherwise, there are always similarities too. Everyone laughs at silly things and crams for exams and wants to play outside when the weather’s nice and, at times, feels a bit lost in life. Yeah, this is quite the cliche, but somehow it’s both humbling and comforting to know such overlap exists.

Views of Saigon city lights from the plane

Views of Saigon city lights from the plane

All the lessons I’ve learned here have ultimately accumulated into a personal growth that I’m so appreciative of. Through the happy, exhilarating times to the moments of frustration and self doubt, I am grateful to have experienced them all. As I finalize this blog post at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, I am hit by a wave of melancholy. How could I possibly leave a place that has grown to mean so much to me and that’s home to people who’ve grown to mean so much to me? Life has a funny way of conducting itself so unpredictably, so I don’t know if or when I can return. (Well, actually my roommate made me promise to come back when she either gets a Ferrari or gets married. Considering the results of an online quiz she took that stated she’ll tie the knot sometime between the ages of 20 to 25 and how she’s currently 19, maybe I’ll be back sooner than expected.) Regardless, I know for sure that I’ll always carry this experience with me as I continue on towards whatever’s next.

But for now, cảm ơn mọi người và hẹn gặp lại!

Thank you everyone and see you again!