Tal Le is originally from Baltimore, Maryland but currently resides in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Portland State University in International Relations, Tai spent a portion of undergraduate career studying abroad at Hanyang University, in Seoul, South Korea. Unsure of where his path in life would take him during his time at Hanyang, Tai set sail to venturing on the journey of discovering a deep appreciation for his Vietnamese heritage. Dive deeper into Tai’s story below.
Hello, my name is Nhật Tài Nguyễn Lê. First name Nhật Tài, middle name Nguyễn, last name Lê; everyone calls me Tài (or something that sounds like “Tie”). My mom actually named me Tài for two reasons: 1. Her favorite singer back then was named Tài. 2. Tài in Vietnamese means talent. My parents hoped that I had some talent in me… Hopefully, I lived up to my namesake.
I wasn’t always proud of being Vietnamese. It took a long while before I truly valued my culture, my language, and my ethnicity. Like most Vietnamese-American kids, I grew up in a primarily white, American community; wanting to fit in and not really knowing why others didn’t perceive things the same way as I did. Being judged? Been there, done that. Nước mắm and gỏi cuốn for lunch? Been there, done that. Being laughed at for speaking a “ching chong” language? Been there, done that. Criticized for the ways my eyes look? Been there, done that. These things, when pushed on a seven year-old, hurts. Especially when it comes to a child that has to walk the border of two cultures; the American culture outside of his home and the Vietnamese one at home.
Being placed in such detrimental circumstances really affected me as a person. My parents were hard-working people. Out of the house at 8 AM, home by 8 PM. They had a lot of things to worry about and it was hard enough trying to convey to them what and why the kids at school were bullying me because of my cultural and ethnic differences.
You see, when you’re a child you don’t know how to explain that the kids at school were hurting your feelings and making you feel embarrassed to be Vietnamese. You don’t associate that they’re bullying you due to your culture or ethnicity thing until you’re like.. 16 or some older age. It’s more of like, “mom, the kids at school don’t like my hair” or “mom, the kids laughed at me eating my bánh bao.” I love bánh bao. That’s why I look like one today.
I can vividly remember being upset that I was named Tài while other kids at school had “normal names”. It was in second grade; Mrs. Sharp was my teacher. I asked her, “Can everyone just call me Tommy? I don’t like my name being Tài.” I loved Power Rangers and Tommy the White Ranger was so cool. Mrs. Sharp replied, “You can be called Tommy, if your parents allow it.” She said, “if”. I knew they wouldn’t allow it. Not only would they not allow it, I would probably be spanked with a feather duster for asking to change my name. I didn’t understand why I had to have a name that was weird to spell, or hard to pronounce. “Thigh”, “Tay”, “Tia”, were just the many attempts at how to pronounce my name (trust me, I know others who have harder-to-pronounce names). To my parents, it was like I wanted to change my ethnicity when I asked them to change my name. It was as if I wasn’t proud of my culture, that I wasn’t proud of their careful consideration of thoughtfully picking my name for me. But that was the truth. Young Tài didn’t understand why he needed to be proud of something that made him stand out from the crowd. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, not until I moved and lived in South Korea.
During my University studies, I was so lost in my career path. I was failing all of the science courses I took (I mean I got a C in Chemistry Lab, but that’s a C… and a Lab course…) I wanted to study towards a degree that my parents would be proud of, a degree that made money. I wanted a Public Health and Pre-Physical Therapy degree, but sadly, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology hated me with a passion. I dreaded showing up to class and being surrounded by people who excelled at Bunsen burners, molecules.. just plain science. I kept thinking, “why did I get an A in Chemistry, Biology, and Physics in high school if I’m failing at it in college??” It wasn’t until my third year when I decided to take it easy, and take courses that interested me. Art, Hip hop, piano, Korean… etc. You name it. Whatever was the farthest from science, I took.
Now I wouldn’t say I’m not smart. I loved school. I truly loved math. Statistics was my favorite course. I love how easy math felt. Things just needed to be plugged in, and answered. It was like a formula on Excel. If you did it right, everything would just calculate and the answer was straightforward. That mindset transferred to learning a new language for me. Language as a structure, is a complex thing. There’s an order to everything just like math. It was like there was an equation for every sentence, you just needed to plug in the variables, and voila! You’re on the road to kind-of-not butchering a language. For me, learning another language really paved the way for my true interests in college, and afterwards. I found that I loved learning how languages worked and the structures, and etc. All the formulas you work to really put together a sentence, or a conversation; along with language came the culture, and societal norms. That’s what I really enjoyed. Learning how and why a certain group does things a certain way. Unknowingly, I connected those societal and cultural norms to how I, a Vietnamese-American lived.
Soon after my first term of Korean 101, I switched my major to International Relations. I was fascinated with how other people and other parts of the world lived and how foreign policies affected those countries. What part of my culture or society contributed positively or negatively to other countries? The more I learned about culture, and about division in the world, I wanted to learn more; that quickly took my life in a whole different direction: studying abroad.
I knew that I’ve always wanted to travel, and explore the world. I just felt that wasn’t ever feasible – especially as a college student; one with a lot of debt. Thankfully my school offered a 1-for-1 exchange. That meant that I would be paying the same tuition I was paying to my home institution when I was studying abroad. Housing was covered by the Korean university, and everything just seemed to fall into place. Except the telling my parents part. I’ve lived away from my parents for five years then, so moving to another country and still being away from there wasn’t a big deal – in my mind. I thought it was going to be easy.
It wasn’t easy. It was hard telling those close to me that I wanted to move away. My mom kept asking, “why are you leaving America? Don’t you know that people fight to come here to study, and you’re doing the opposite?” You know the usual questions like, “you’re going to study in North Korea? Aren’t you afraid of getting bombed?” and “you’re going for a girlfriend, aren’t you?” were the more frequently asked questions. I even had a coworker who wrote a card saying, “Have a great time in China!” So you see, I had a hard time convincing people that coming to South Korea was beneficial for my learning, for me. I At that time in my life, I just felt trapped and I wanted an adventure. I wanted a push in life. A fresh start.
I sure got one.
Leaving my life here and studying in South Korea for 1.5 years changed me as a person. I think before, I was a person afraid of straying from the norm. I knew I wanted to explore and really discovery other parts of the world, but I was afraid of leaving my support system, people who kept me grounded.
It was overwhelming. Being in a foreign country where everywhere you turned, it was an Asian face. The only crowds of Asians I ever saw before were at church, Asian Leadership conferences, and at the line at Lee’s Sandwiches. I used to feel very claustrophobic when I was around a large amount of Asians. That feeling, I had to quickly get over in South Korea. More so, I was dealing with being homesick. I’m a mama’s boy. I call her every day. Legit. So having to either wake up early to talk to her, or stay up late to talk to her was a struggle. I tried my best to suppress that homesickness feeling for a while longer.
It didn’t take long before that feeling of missing mom’s cooking (and mom, of course) came back. If you need to know about one thing, South Koreans love their Phở. They really love eating Phở. But still, it was hard to find decent Phở that tastes like mom’s homemade Phở. The South Korean palette is different than Vietnamese people. Most of Korean foods start off with a plain base and they would flavor it accordingly to their taste. Vice versa, a lot of Vietnamese food start off being flavored according to the cook already – i.e. hardly fish sauce needed, but recommended. So for me, the pho in South Korea didn’t satisfy as that cure for being homesick as I anticipated. The search for feeling a sense of belonging continued to linger.
In South Korea, I studied at Hanyang University. They’re known for their Engineering program, but their International Relations and Business program is pretty darn good. I felt like I learned a lot more about my major when I studied abroad with students from all around the world, learning from teachers from all around the world. Getting to hear and see opinions and different point-of-views from more than just an American standard was so insightful. I learned more about the necessity of having a Business background in relations with my International Relations degree. And let me tell you how crazy cool it was to be in a class primarily made up of Asian students who’ve all studied abroad in other countries – they had accents that ranged from Australian to British, from Singlish to Valley Girl – “like oh-my-god, it was totally cool.”
At Hanyang University, I lived in a dormitory mixed with a range of different students from different countries. They all seemed to have a community amongst their friends. The Germans hung out together, the Chinese students were at a table together, the Koreans studied together, and me, I was in a table of students mainly from Canada or the States. I got along with them, but at times, I still didn’t feel like I was fully understood. Things like wearing shoes in my dorm room, to me talking to my mom in Vietnamese made people do a double take. I felt alone, lost, and I really missed gỏi cuốn. There was no access to a kitchen to cook, so I wasn’t able to make anything edible that resembled Vietnamese food. I thought I had to wait for my next trip to Vietnam to eat some true Vietnamese food.
My friends and I love visiting Hongdae – it’s a district in Seoul where there’s an abundance of art, street performers, and amazing nightlife – nightclubs. Apart from the nightclubs, I tend to visit Hongdae for the food. One autumn day, my friend – who knows her way around Hongdae really well – suggested we visit this hole-in-the-wall that served amazing ramen and donburi (rice bowls). Not really a fan of ramen, I opted for the rice dish. I remember jumping for joy (I was sitting down, but my inner self was jumping for joy) when this dish called “Kakuni Don” came out, and it looked and smelled just like one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. It was the Japanese equivalent to “Thịt Kho Tàu”, a Vietnamese dish that consists of marinated pork and boiled eggs that are braised in coconut juice. On my first bite, the flavors immediately brought me home. I just had asked them for a boiled egg to add to the rice to complete the dish and my craving for Thịt Kho Tàu . Don’t get me wrong, I loved South Korea, and I wasn’t trying to escape too soon. I just longed for a little doorway or portal back home – where I could temporarily leave, and spend time with my friends and family whenever I wanted. Sadly, those don’t exist (at least I don’t think they do…).
I was four months into my studies until I found a Vietnamese friend. It was a girl who was also studying in the same Accelerated Korean program. The program was an intensive course that was five days a week, four-hour classes, ten weeks per level and fully taught in Korean – it was intense. My classmates were overly excited when they found another student that was from Vietnam and they wanted me to meet her. The difference between us? She was from Vietnam. Like Vietnam, the motherland. We were raised in different environments – she mainly had an influence from one culture, and spoke mainly Vietnamese at home and outside the house, while I attempted to balance multiple cultural influences – while trying to find out what it meant to be, Tài; those factors didn’t matter to us. I had a confidant, someone who could understand me when I wanted to express an idiom in Vietnamese. The best part about her? She spoke English too. We would switch back and forth between Vietnamese, English, and Korean. It was crazy cool. Like we had a language of our own. Often we would compare the differences between the cultures, and how there were a lot of similarities.
I have to thank her for being my friend. Thanks to her, she introduced me to a community of Vietnamese students at my school. They were primarily from Vietnam, but it didn’t faze them to have a Vietnamese-American in the mix. I think that’s one thing that really opened my eyes to joining VSA (Vietnamese Student Association) when I returned. Camaraderie in looking past a person’s differences, and bonding over the similarities, that’s what I loved. The language we shared. The foods we shared. I felt welcomed and at home. I felt like I was part of something; a community. I was able to learn more about my culture while living away from home. An appreciation for who I am.
I appreciated my language a lot more when I lived through that experience. Language is a complex thing. It’s a form of communication but also brings people together. It’s the language of my parents. Their form of communication. It’s how they express their feelings, and if I were to not understand how they felt, or if they were not to get my feelings, I don’t know how I would feel. So being given this gift of another language – something that was just instilled, or handed to me – and me not really appreciating it at a young age – during my time in South Korea, I truly learned the importance and value of my native tongue.
I think the gift of being raised as Vietnamese-American (or any other Ethnic diaspora) is the fact that we are able to seamlessly switch between two cultures. We take from both cultures what we like, dislike, value, find of importance, and really mesh it into a something we call our own. Just the fact that we can switch between languages, or if we have a have a hard time describing a feeling or something in one language, it’s easier in another language. I really found these little things to be a gift, and what really shows me how grateful I should be for being given these opportunities.
And lastly, I learned the importance of having a support system; whether that’s a community, or even a student group. I definitely think that we all have parts of our lives where we come face-to-face with a storm in our life, something that may seem difficult to navigate through alone. That’s where having a strong support system comes in to play. Having to deal with cultural deprivation and slight loneliness really set me in a depressive state of mind. I know that I would’ve had a harder time navigating that storm if it weren’t for the positive groups of people around me. They don’t need to know everything about my life. I just needed to know that they would be around me when things didn’t go right. I needed a shoulder, a hand, someone to grab a meal with; a friend. I thank the friends I have today, for being just what I needed and still need.
I left South Korea learning about more than just the Korean culture. I left with an appreciation for more than just Korean pop culture. I left knowing that I had an amazing support system wherever I went in life. I left feeling more appreciation for the language that I was given from birth, as well.
I didn’t know how much Vietnamese and Korean had similarities. I didn’t know that Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese shared a common root. The Chinese language. I read somewhere that Chinese makes up about 60% to 70% perfect of the Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese language. That was evident when I had classes with mainly Chinese students. When I looked at the dictionary given during our course, there were so many words if I translated into Vietnamese, sounded too similar to its counterpart in Korean. I quickly found that’s because those words were Chinese rooted words, therefore Vietnamese and Korean shared a common ancestral language. Here I was trying to associate the Korean vocabulary words I was learning to its English counterpart when I could learn it easier using Vietnamese! For example, the Vietnamese word for doctor is written as bác sĩ, while the Korean counterpart is bak-sa. These similarities were more than just a coincidence.
From then on out, I started associating Korean learning with Vietnamese more than English. Little did I know that process improved my Vietnamese language tremendously. I’d have to thank that process for really fueling my passing in learning languages. It really sparked my interest in translation and interpreting that during my last term at Hanyang University, I took Translation and Interpreting: English and Korean 101 – a course taught primarily in Korean. I was amongst Korean students learning the methods of simultaneously translating from English to Korean, and from Korean to English. If I had not had that push of being fascinated with languages, I would not have been able to take such a course, and really appreciate the gift my parents had given me. Something I definitely took for granted, but something I value with my life now.
I’ll say that I didn’t jump right into a VSA when I returned. VSA was always something I tried to avoid – for many years. I didn’t want to be in a group full of people talking just Vietnamese, and listening to Như Quỳnh, and cải lương. Coming back, I didn’t know what I wanted. But also, coming back, I wasn’t as opposed to that as before – the listening to Như Quỳnh part, not the cải lương, I’m kidding. I came back realizing that I’m probably not the only person facing an identity struggle and there has got to be others who feel that same conflicted way I had felt. I guess you could say that VSA did fall in my lap. Winter term, 2016. I learned that VSA was a safe space. A safe space for Asian-Americans to come and really just share our frustrations, concerns, laughs, and tears. Just a comfort space knowing that you’re not the only person that feels some sort of way. There are people facing life head-on with you, and willing to help you navigate those storms.
And that is it. That is how I came to truly value my culture, my language, my ethnicity. Thanks to my encounters in South Korea, the relationships, and experiences I made, and for leading me to this crazy little group we call VSA. A group that truly has supported me in all my endeavors; pushing me to become a stronger and more resilient Tài.
A little tidbit about my current future, it’s my goal to return to South Korea, improve my Korean, and earn a Master’s Degree in Interpreting and Translating; using Korean, Vietnamese and English. Through my time in South Korea, I was introduced to the societal issues that faced immigrants in South Korea. What hit home for me, was that many Vietnamese immigrants and migrants faced mistreatment in South Korea. A lot of workers come from Vietnam to South Korea to make a living, and send back their earnings. In that process, they are jumping into open waters where they don’t know much about the country they’re entering. Sounds familiar right? Because my parents went through very similar situations as these Vietnamese migrants in South Korea, it struck a cord to me. Coming into a foreign country where you can be mistreated, misrepresented, and misunderstood – I had the urge to find any way to help them. I want to work towards more equal justice for immigrants in South Korea, and be able to have fair treatment in the workforce all-around. That is one of my many goals in returning to South Korea.