My parents have been together for more than 20 years now. As I think about it, the fact is boggling to my teenage mind. Twenty years with the same person, always. The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s actually more terrifying than mind-boggling. Yet no matter how bizarre, despite their (many) ups and downs, one thing I have never questioned was my parents’ commitment to one another, their undeniable love. Never. Truly not once. That’s probably what made it so difficult for me to understand why everyone seemed to hate them so much.
Their path to marriage was not an easy one. There were many, many reasons why this is true, but to exclude race from that list is simply unfair. My dad is white; my mom is Asian. And before you conjure images of a white supremacist clan of a family spewing hatred towards my poor little Asian mother, let me stop you. It was never that overt — and it was never that side of my family.
While I will not go into the gory details, I was lucky enough that most of the shunning and confrontation (which carried on for years, by the way) ended with my birth. I suppose that’s when my mother’s family accepted that my dad was really there to stay. Unfortunately, what I did inherit was a culture of repression. My childhood familial silences were filled with words left unsaid. Though they were never spoken, the words still hung in the air above us all, weighing heavy over our heads.
But, let me also point out that there has probably never been a child as loved as I was. I never once felt unwanted by my parents, and I was heavily doted upon by all of my family. When you are the youngest girl in a family filled with boys, it’s a sort of natural thing.
However, (girl-child or not) when you are born of such perceived offensiveness, when you are born to a mother exiled, it’s hard to not consider every familial insult, every slight, every cold shoulder as a consequence of my mixed heritage. My parents’ love was my original sin.
It was during one of those periods when my parents and my mother’s family were not speaking that I got it the worst. My mother’s sister questioned me in my Ong Ba Ngoai’s living room in front of the rest of the family. She shouted in my face as my uncle looked on. I was 9 years old, and what I wanted most in the world at that moment was to sink away into the stuffed chair behind me and disappear forever. I had never before (or after) felt so unwanted, so forsaken, so “other.”
To this day, I can’t quite decide which was worse, the look of twisted pity on my uncle’s face or the insufferable self-righteousness that coated my aunt’s words.
It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that my need to “feel” Vietnamese, to be Vietnamese fueled the insecurity which surrounded my whiteness. I hated my European features. I hated being seen as white. When everyone around you questions your identity, your existence, you really can’t help but to question it yourself.
My identity is something that I still haven’t been able to define. If people refuse to accept me as I am, why do I keep pursuing it? If, for my whole life, I’ve been trying to feel Vietnamese, does that mean I’ve never really been Vietnamese?
My parents have been together for more than 20 years now. Fact.
My father is white; my mother is Asian. Fact.
I am both. Fact.
Yet I still can’t figure it out — am I the best of both worlds? Or am I some sort of ethnically ambiguous “halfling” who has no world at all? Some days I feel both, some days I’m neither. Most days I try not to think about it.
Photo credit: Jon Tyson//Unsplash