“We all carry inside us, people who came before us.” -Liam Callanan
My heart is breaking as we hear more and more about the different events happening around our country where Asian-Americans are being targeted. With the most recent shooting that took place in Atlanta and it being deemed as a result of a “bad day,” it leaves me with a gut-wrenching feeling that my family isn’t safe (and one of the biggest reasons why I don’t go most places now without my husband).
The events of this last year have been disheartening to know that the country my family fled to for safety is now a place where many have turned their backs on Asian-Americans and the safety and well-being of our future generations.
April 30, 2021 will mark 46 years since my grandparents and parents’ home country of Vietnam fell to communism and they fled the country in search for a safer place to raise their family.
Grandpa was a General in the Vietnamese Army and knew that he had one last chance to get his family out of the country with the last airlift the Americans were doing for officers and their families a week before the country lost. He told Grandma to pack enough clothes for the kids that they could carry but not to pack anything else. Grandma thought it was like any other time they’ve had to relocate to a new place.
From what I’ve been told growing up, when they arrived at the airfield, Grandpa told Grandma that if she wanted all of their children to survive, she had to get on this plane with them and leave without looking back. She didn’t have a chance to think about it, to say goodbye to the only land she knew or say goodbye to her family. In order for my grandparents to ensure that all nine of their children survived, they had to leave behind everything they knew to start over in a strange land. Grandpa told Grandma that it would be about another week or so until he could join them, but that he would see them again soon. Little did they know, a week or so would turn into 17 years later.
Growing Up as a First Generation Born Asian-American
While I didn’t experience discrimination or hate at the level that some others have had to face around the country, growing up in a city that was predominantly Dutch and unaware of the different Asian cultures did come with some setbacks. As a child, it didn’t effect me too much when people questioned my ethnicity or asked me what kind of language I spoke before they even knew my name, but now as an adult reflecting back on my experience, I realize that I grew up around racism and discrimination for most of my life and I just didn’t realize it.
“Where are you from?” This was always the first question that was asked before strangers even asked what my name was. As if my country of origin was more important than my name. I was very confused as a kid with this question and always answered, “Michigan?” I questioned where I was from because I wasn’t sure what they were trying to ask.
This would follow-up with a “No, what Asian country are you from?” Ooh, so they really wanted to know what country my parents came from. Just because I was Asian, I couldn’t possibly be from the United States! I would simply answer with a “My parents are from Vietnam because I’m from the U.S.” leaving them completely bewildered.
“What’s your last name?” This was a funny question and always gave me a kick when I gave them my answer! Those who asked me this question didn’t even know my first name yet. As if knowing my last name could actually tell them what my ethnicity was. Before I was married, my maiden name was Viola-Vu- no big indication of what ethnicity I was because my dad was adopted and took on both last names- his adopted (Viola) and birth (Vu)- to create a new last name for him, my sister and I.
Even now with my married last name, people are stumped when I give them my name. “Hi, I’m Megan Swank.” and they would look at me with this confused look until I followed up with a “I’m married and took my husband’s last name.”
“Oh I wasn’t expecting that” The above comment always led to some version of this next comment, especially when there was a substitute in my class and they would be going through the roster. I always knew when my name was coming too and that there would be some rude comment about whose name it was. “Megan Viola…Viola…” for some reason a hyphenated last name always stumped them! “Viola-Vu,” I would say and raise my hand. “Huh, I wasn’t expecting that.” This comment always left me so confused. Like what kind of person were you expecting with this last name? Not an Asian girl apparently because there were times when they would ask “Are you sure?” Like am I sure that my last name- yeah I’m pretty sure it is!
“Was English your first language?” or “You speak pretty good English for an Asian person.” Why yes it was, or actually it was one of the two languages I learned first! Yes, it’s possible to learn two languages at once, especially if you’re raised in a bilingual household. My parents may be from Vietnam, but they made sure my sister and I learned English AND Vietnamese when we started to learn how to talk. That didn’t stop school from marking me as an English Language student just because my parents checked the box that two languages were spoken at home. This not only made me resent knowing Vietnamese, but it made me want to stop speaking it. It was only once I became an adult and I saw what an asset it was to be bilingual and how much others regret that they didn’t have this skill.
“The Vietnam War shouldn’t have even happened and all those people owe us for being over here.” This comment was made in a high school geography class during a unit about the different wars the U.S. had been involved in around the world. I was the only Asian kid in the class and on top of that there were only 6 Asian students TOTAL in the entire school. The comment was made by one of my fellow classmates who didn’t know I was Vietnamese and said that his family had every right to be angry about the Vietnam War. I guess his grandfather had fought in the war because it was 2007 and he was only a freshman in high school.
My teacher, who knew I was Vietnamese, a first generation-born Vietnamese-American and could see me moving uneasily in my seat didn’t bother to say anything to address the issue, rather he allowed the conversation to keep going and asked what others thought. I’m not sure if this was an invitation for me to speak up, but instead I curled further into my seat as the conversation continued and tried my best not to let tears show. The few friends that I had in that class knew that I was uncomfortable but didn’t want to speak up against the others either, I guess in fear that they would be lashed out for supporting a war that was “meaningless” to the Americans.
This is the first time I’ve ever spoken about this, but I vowed that when I became a teacher, I would make sure that NONE of my students would ever feel the way that I felt in that classroom. In every single one of my classrooms, I made sure my students understood that where they came from, who they were and the experiences they brought to the classroom were 100% celebrated and appreciated! I wanted my students to feel safe in our classroom, not scared to speak up about who they were.
“You don’t look Vietnamese. I mean aren’t you all from the same place anyway?” I’m sorry but what does a Vietnamese person look like or what characteristics do we have that other people don’t have? No, we do not all come from the same place! On top of that just because my family is from Vietnam doesn’t mean that we speak the same Vietnamese dialect as another Vietnamese family. Our country has hundreds of different dialects depending on where your family originated from. Throw in all the other Asian countries and that’s hundreds of thousands of other dialects, traditions and backgrounds!
Raising Biracial Children
As a mama now, I’m realizing more and more each day the importance of talking to our children about the history and cultures they come from (on both sides). I never want my children to feel scared to be their 100% selves or to feel like they can’t speak up for themselves when they feel like they’re being treated unfairly or that they aren’t represented properly. I want to teach them to stand up for themselves when they feel that they’re being judged on their character based on the color of their skin.
I remember when Bryan was only 3 months old and I had gone to the store to pick up some pre-made formula bottles for him so that we were ready for our trip back to Texas and this elderly couple had gotten into the express checkout lane behind me. This lane was a 20 items or less lane and I only had 6 packs of formula bottles and maybe 5 other item in my cart. The couple looked into my cart and counted each formula bottle as an individual item and made a comment, thinking that I couldn’t understand English because I was Asian.
“She can’t even count the number of items in her cart correctly. So young to have a child, that poor baby is going to have a hard life.”
Yes, I did look young for my age and still look pretty young, but at the time, I was 26 years old, married, had a college degree and was working as a full-time teacher, but because I was Asian, they assumed I couldn’t speak English and that I wasn’t capable of taking care of my child. It took everything in me to hold my tongue, not let them see me cry and not turn around and yell at them. Instead, I turned around, smiled and asked if they would like to go in front of me since they only had two items and I had 11. KILL ‘EM WITH KINDNESS!
I only hope that I can continue to show and teach my children how to appreciate the different traditions and cultures they come from so that they don’t ever feel ashamed of who they are. This world is full of people who are rude and hateful, but it’s also beautifully diverse. Just like the family they come from, my babies will taught to appreciate the diverse cultures, traditions and experiences this world has to offer.