Original article republished from Project Yellow Dress, written by Co-Found of Project Yellow Dress (PYD), Julia Ha. PYD is an online platform and space to share and highlight the histories, experiences, and voices of the Southeast Asian diaspora.
Growing up, I encountered many situations that I am sure many children of immigrants can relate to.
In elementary school, I was teased because of the clothes I wore, which often were more similar to pajamas than the jeans and dresses the cool kids wore. I remember how in P.E. one day, one classmate asked me why I always wore muted-pastel tights, and then went on to say how she could never wear clothes like mine.
The lunches I brought to school did not spare me from casually snide remarks either; after my teacher saw some fellow classmates confront me about the rice and tofu dish I was eating out of a Hello Kitty bento box or the butter and sugar sandwiches my grandmother so lovingly made for me, she “gently suggested” to my mother that it might be better if I had more “American” lunches, preferably packed in brown paper bags, not the clear plastic ones you can get from a supermarket in Chinatown. Ironically, butter and sugar toast is now all the rage in American cafes.
Another time, my teacher had to call my mom to come home from work to bring me a Halloween costume since I was the only one in the third grade who did not come to school dressed up that day. Unfortunately, my mom casually strolled in with a pajama-like outfit with little pumpkins on it, which probably was worse than just not having a costume. Needless to say, I stood out like a sore thumb amongst the princesses and superheroes.
I also got pulled out of school at random times to serve as an interpreter and a companion for my grandmother when she was in the hospital, often because I was the only one who was “free” at the time. I vividly remember the doctor pulling me aside and showing me an x-ray of my grandmother’s lungs, trying to break down the medical jargon so that not only would an eight year old understand it, but also so said eight year old would be able to explain it to her grandmother and relatives in Vietnamese and Cantonese.
Despite my fluency in English however, I was put in ESL (English Second Language) classes until the third grade. In Kindergarten I was tracked into ESL because I came from a non-English speaking household, but even when I began out-reading and writing my classmates, I was still taken out once a week to go sit in a small windowless room to record tapes of me describing scenes of a dog running across a field.
In high school, I recall going with a few classmates up to the small town of Mendocino, a predominantly White community, and while we were having lunch in a café, a man came up to us and asked us how we learned to speak English without an accent. Not too many weeks later in a nearby town, I was asked my name and when I responded, I was asked for my “real name,” or in his words, “Ching chong something.”
Though growing up the child of immigrants is a very common experience for most Americans, growing up the child of refugee was and is a very unique experience. I was raised in a 2-room apartment for the first few years of my life, living with my parents, my grandmother, and one uncle. Most of my relatives had come over to America with nothing, having fled Vietnam on small boats to flee persecution (my mom’s family because they were ethnic Chinese and my dad’s because of my grandfather’s position in the South Vietnamese army) and to seek a better life, and enduring months in refugee camps as they waited for sponsorship papers from other relatives already in America. After arriving in the States on planes, they began school or work programs provided by the 1980 Refugee Act, but those small stipends stopped after a designated period of time. I remember hearing my mom telling me about how one of her very first jobs in America was washing the windows of a big building in downtown Oakland, and how excited she was when she got paid (in cash). Most of the money she made though went into the family fund to help support her nieces and nephews, many of whom still had one parent or sibling(s) in Vietnam.
When my parents had me, we did not have much. Most of my clothes came from garage sales and flea markets, as did my toys and pretty much everything in our apartment. I still get nostalgic whenever I pass by the Laney College Flea Market, vividly remembering the countless weekends my family spent perusing the aisles, me begging for a dollar to buy a knock-off Sanrio pencil or butterfly clips or a book I had my eye on. When my brother was born, we finally moved to a bigger house, affordable only because of the Bay Area housing market crash caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and two more uncles moved in. My house became the center for so many family gatherings, from birthdays and weddings to memorials and holidays.
One of the first memories I have about recognizing my race and ethnicity was when I had to do a photo collage about my life for a 2nd grade project. I remember my dad suggesting that I use a picture of me on a horse during a trip to Vietnam the year before, and for some reason, I felt shame. I did not want people to know that I had been to Vietnam and so I ultimately captioned the photo “Me riding a horse in Oakland, CA.” I also remember running out of glue that day and my dad using cooked rice to tack the remaining photos onto the poster board.
High school was the time when I really started facing issues of identity, stereotyping, and discrimination. I went to a predominantly Asian high school, but a majority of my classmates were Taiwanese. I am half-Chinese, but from the island of Hainan in South China, and this background coupled with my Vietnamese half left me feeling like an outcast at times. I was constantly being reminded of my Otherness, and often I felt as if I had a scarlet “V” pinned to my chest. No one really understood my mixed background, and whether my classmates knew it or not, their assumptions and views toward aspects of my identity made me feel less-than.
Once when I was being introduced as a new student, my teacher began almost apologizing for my Vietnamese-ness: “She has a Vietnamese father, but she is half-Chinese and understands Mandarin quite well.” It may sound rather harmless, but her tone and the chuckles from the audience left me with pangs of shame, hurt, and anger.
For several community events, I was tasked with leading the Vietnamese groups. I originally thought that I was given this position as an honor until one of my classmates said, “Yeah, you are the only one who knows how to handle these people. They are always so rude and loud, and maybe you can fix that.” “These people.”
The turning point came in one of my high school history classes. As the token Vietnamese student in the room, I was asked to share my thoughts about the Vietnam War. Aside from that, my knowledge of the Vietnam War was so different from that of what was being described in the textbook; while there were chapters about how American troops fought in Vietnam, there was no mention really of the War from the Vietnamese perspective, and only a sentence or two mentioning Vietnamese Boat People. It devastated me to learn that my family’s history had been reduced to an afterthought.
I decided to major in history in college, focusing particularly on War, Revolution, and Social Change, with a special emphasis on Genocide Studies. I became driven by the idea that I needed to bear witness in some small way to the millions of voices silenced throughout history, and when I became a history teacher after college, I made sure to incorporate genocide education into my curriculum. I also created a unit on Vietnamese Boat People, since none existed at the time. I wanted to share this often overlooked chapter in history, but also to focus for once on the history and stories of my Southeast Asian students.
During my sophomore year in college, I became a Dean’s Intern and two of the other Asian Americans who worked the same shifts were also half Chinese and half Vietnamese; finally, I was not the only “different” one in the room and it was so exciting to be around people who I could relate to on such a personal level. We bonded over things like our parents’ love for Chinese dramas and Paris By Night, the level and ease of code-switching in our respective homes, the internal and external struggle of being considered not quite Chinese but not quite Vietnamese enough either – that space of feeling like you have to choose between your various identities. We laughed about how most people think Vietnamese cuisine consists only of pho, and lamented over how even within the category of Asian Americans there is a hierarchy fueled by stereotypes that often places Southeast Asians on the bottom of that ladder. We recognized early on that most policies specific to Asian Americans, be they political, educational, or social, often were created based on stereotypes about Asian Americans being docile, submissive, academically gifted, good in math, bad drivers, Tiger Mom, stingy, the perpetual foreigner, and most infamously, the “Model Minority.” We knew that despite what people argue to be a “good stereotype,” the Model Minority Myth fails to acknowledge the realities of many Southeast Asians – the poverty, the gangs, the struggling neighborhoods, the comparatively limited political and social capital, the low academic performance levels, the high dropout rate, the high teenage pregnancy rate, the fact that most came to the United States as poor refugees, not affluent immigrants. Of course we all had friends and family in every part of the spectrum, but a disproportionate number of the Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, and other Southeast Asian folks we knew led and lead very different lives than the one the Model Minority Myth espouses.
College was also the place where I took my first few Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies classes. I was finally being taught history that was specific to my own identity and that allowed me to see myself reflected in the material. One of my classes even focused predominantly on Southeast Asian American history and it was taught by the first Vietnamese American professor I had ever had. Growing up in a code-switching family that fused English, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Hainanese, I felt at home in a classroom where Vietnamese and English danced flawlessly together. It was also in this class that I was exposed to “Journey From the Fall,” a film focusing entirely on the Vietnamese experience after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and where I was given the assignment of interviewing an actual Boat Person – I chose my mom.
This interview was the first time we really truly discussed her life story. I had heard bits and pieces growing up but neither or us ever pushed too hard on the details. This time was different. My mom, a little hesitantly at first, told me about her idyllic memories growing up and how the War completely upturned her life. She talked about her parents losing their business because ethnic Chinese were being blacklisted by the Communists, how her sisters had to find ways to bribe officers to keep their brothers from serving on the front lines, how my mom had actually tried to escape several times before finally making it to Thailand, and how she and her mom had been jailed after having been caught trying to escape. She described the seasickness she felt on the small fishing boat, her fear of being caught, robbed, and even raped by pirates, and the happiness and heartbreak she felt as she looked out the window of the plane that took her from Thailand to SFO, unsure about when she would ever be able to see her parents again and wondering if they too would ever be able to leave Vietnam. She also told me about the English classes she took when she got to America, the burden and the blessing of raising her nieces and nephews, the gratitude she felt toward the country that gave her a new life, and the regret she had about not being able to be there by her father’s side when he passed.
Learning about the Southeast Asian American experience and being able to couch my family’s story (and my own) in it helped give me a deeper purpose to my role as an educator. In graduate school I focused on delving into the importance and necessity for Genocide Education and purposefully expanded the scope of my curriculum to be able to include the Cambodian Genocide. It also gave me the opportunity to do a lot of research on the needs and experiences of Southeast Asian American students. It was in this Equity and Social Justice in Education program that I was finally surrounded by so many educators who work tirelessly to create curriculum and practices that encourage critical thinking, see communities of color as wells of strength and value, and disrupt systems of privilege and oppression in and outside the classroom. But often I was just one of a few Asian faces in the classroom. That is why one of the best things about PYD has been being able to meet so many incredible Southeast Asian American educators, many of whom are constantly advocating for our community, be it for resources, access, representation, or a seat at the table.
I am so proud of being a child of refugees and of being Chinese-Vietnamese American. I think that so many people see these identities as weaknesses and points of shame, but little do they realize, these are my greatest strengths.
Find more original pieces written by Julia Ha and other submissions on Project Yellow Dress’ website.