Reflections on EAP Vietnam 2010

Back T(Here) to America and Vietnam

by son chau

Dentist:
You’re going to Vietnam? For how long? Are you going there for
vacation?

Me: No. I’m
actually going to be studying abroad there for a semester…5
months.

Dentist:
Really? What in Vietnam will you be studying about? The education there is not
good as the U.S. There’s nothing there besides
tourism.

Me: I’ve
realized that it’s time to go back to my family’s homeland. I think this is my
perfect chance to do it. The education in the classroom may not be the best, but
I think when it comes to my identity, family history, and culture, it may be
worthwhile.

Dentist: Oh,
that’s good. Just make sure you don’t get STDs. The girls there are
vicious!

Me: Oh my.
I’ll be sure to watch out for that.

Dentist: Hehe.
Be very careful!

After getting my braces off this past summer, I stopped by the dentist to get my teeth cleaned. We had a little discussion about my Education Abroad Program (EAP) plans for fall semester, so we talked about Vietnam.

Shortly after, I had a conversation with my friend about break dancing in Vietnam. I shared with him the trailer of the first Vietnamese hip hop movie coming out in March called “Saigon Electric” onYouTube.

He elaborated, “Their style…it’s just a replication of more advanced Asian countries. It just doesn’t feel ‘right.’”

Thereafter for at least 15 minutes, we had a long discussion about “Who really is qualified to practice hip hop?” Where did these feelings come from? Why is it okay for other East Asian countries to be like us and our friends in America, and not Vietnam? Although I was yet again defending Vietnam, in the back of my mind I did feel somewhat the same way too.

This conversation, like many other talks about Vietnam with my family and friends, often revealed our perceptions of Vietnam being backwards: filled with hungry thieves, poverty, shady vendors, seduction for American citizenship… the list goes on. Tons of negative sentiments and stereotypes toward Vietnam. Up until departure, I continued to defend Vietnam in my conversations and in my personal motives for going, even though I hadn’t been there yet.

As a child going to a Vietnamese Sunday school close to my home, there was little to no mention of the country of Vietnam. When it did get mentioned, the war would automatically be brought up as though Vietnam was isolated in time. Up until high school, I thought that the yellow flag with three red stripes was in fact the flag used by the Vietnamese community here but also used in the homeland. I later found out that the school was actually using the South Vietnamese flag the whole time, as the current official flag of Vietnam is red with a yellow star at its center representative of the Communist Party.

Although I was attached to the Vietnamese community in San Jose, I was also detached. Throughout these years, I developed a self-definition in opposition to my parents. Home and the outside were to be separated. Vietnamese was spoken only at home and at Vietnamese school. If it was spoken anywhere else, it would be awkward. Even until college, I felt weird speaking in Vietnamese with friends. Often my Vietnamese American friends would not feel comfortable or competent enough to do so as well.

I can see why my Vietnamese American friends today still have a similar mindset regarding the separation of the Vietnamese culture and an American lifestyle. “What are these Vietnamese people echoing my parents, uncles, and aunts doing what I like to do…? They should stick to their Paris by Night and karaoke discs. All those things are not me because they are not me. I am modern, they are traditional. I am Vietnamese American…not a F.O.B. (fresh off the boat).”

I cannot put into words how my perceptions have changed drastically – my perception of Vietnam, of my family, of having an accent, of “coolness,” of time, and most importantly, of myself in retrospect.

In Vietnam, I was able to transcend my traditional “linguistic spaces.” By circumstance, I had to speak Vietnamese everywhere I went. I was finally able to think in Vietnamese. I was able to meet and relate to young people like me. I was able to meet family I had never met until then. I was able to discover the depths of my family history. I was able to grow a deeper love for Vietnamese food. Indeed, I
appreciate my mother’s cooking more now; my taste buds have shifted. I wish I could let her know how sorry I am for preferring fast
food over her cooking over the years. Vietnamese food got way more soul than a $1 McChicken.

Studying Vietnamese music history also helped me appreciate Vietnamese music a lot more. Now I know why karaoke and sad, nostalgic songs are so deeply significant for the older Vietnamese generation. Just as hip hop or any contemporary music speaks to our generation’s nuances and struggles, Vietnamese “misery pop” music whether pre- or post-1975 speaks not only to their mundane day-to-day lives, but also to their memories of days past in a homeland that once was.

Most importantly, I’ve learned to be less selfish, to be more mindful of my family and friends. Not everything is about politics; it shouldn’t be. I learned to think and act a little bit more with my heart. Of course, I still have a lot to learn about the traditions and norms of Vietnam.

Lastly, even though I am finally back in the U.S. and to my regular, everyday life, I believe the connection will be there forever. Each and every person that I’ve met in Vietnam has reshaped my views – not simply in terms of school, but in real life terms. My understanding of “home” has transformed. I used to reflect upon my position in Vietnam as an overseas Vietnamese “traitor coming back.” In the beginning, I felt like I did not belong in Vietnam. You could say I had a kind of “guilt” rooted in the residue of war, but I think I’ve taken a few more steps past it. As I have learned inside and outside of the classroom, Vietnam is changing; the world is changing. Indeed they are changing quickly.