“Where would you like to see the Vietnamese community 10 years from now and how do you plan to get the community there?”
The prompt took me back to the days when I realized I was Vietnamese, or at least accepted that as part of my identity. Thinking about where I would want to see the Vietnamese community, I thought of the Vietnamese community 10 years earlier. The answer lies in my middle school years. It was the first time I truly recognized that I was different, definitely not “Canadian”…whatever that means. It was the first time I encountered overt racism and the first time I felt so alone and in the dark. My identity as a Vietnamese-Canadian was overshadowed by my yearning to belong in world where it seemed I was nothing but a stereotype. I saw the Vietnamese community as a people that I longed for, yet they were nowhere in sight. Usually, a bubbly and happy person, I began to battle with my first signs of depression and anxiety. I’d come home with slumped shoulders and a downcast expression. I would throw my lunch away in fears that the aroma of pungent fish sauce would cause my peers to turn up their noses. When friends would visit, I would make sure they knew that I hated the food in my home and that I wish I could stay with them. I’m sure this broke my mother’s heart. I would shove the silky Vietnamese pyjamas into the corners of my closet, hoping that they would never see the light of day. I went as far as ruining my delicate áo dài that my aunties would bring from Vietnam, rejecting and running from the culture that shaped and fed the souls of so many others. By the time my mother attempted to breathe life back into my ties to Vietnamese culture, I had already lost so much of the language and so much of the love and comfort that it once gave me. One day, she told me to look in the mirror and tell her what I saw. Silence filled the room as I struggled to answer. Frustrated, perhaps in disbelief, she took my shoulders and said, “You will always be a Vietnamese girl, no matter what you try to do.” That reality both snapped me back into the present as well as made me motivated to seek what that identity even meant to me. It was time to face the shadow of Vietnamese culture that seemed to follow me wherever I went. What does it mean to be Vietnamese? Must I embrace the picture-perfect version of what a Vietnamese girl is to the elders? Can I shape my own path when it seemed so dark?
This lack of stability and attachment to Vietnamese culture from my childhood carried over into my fears that still weigh on my heart today. Every moment I was made aware of my cultural identity, I wanted to sink back into that place of shadows. Hide, cover, fake it. Not fully understanding how to be a proper Vietnamese girl…I felt that every time I reached out I would be laughed at or ignored. Either way, it was (and is) an isolating feeling. That rejection from the world created a void of darkness in my life. I thought to myself, “There must be others that feel this way, I can’t be the only one.” I wondered… could I reach out to the elders that I know of? Surely they would be excited to teach me and to comfort me. Hope.
The division between generations, pride and ego, honour and shame…it all played a role in quieting my voice and veiling my hope for a deeper identity that is attached to my brown eyes, tan skin and black hair. I wanted to know where I came from! My history, roots, culture…yet this division kept me from the very people I considered experts on the subject. It leaves you without much hope; that little flame that was lit when you began the journey of discovery feels as if it would be snuffed out in a moment. This divide deepened the darkness, and the realization of such a lack of passion or empathy rendered it to a single, burning ember.
The blurred lines between traditional and modern. The struggle to deepen roots and cultural ties. It felt as if it would be impossible. My vision for the future of Vietnamese community involves the bridging between the past, present and future. The joining between old and new. I see a Vietnamese community where each person can look at the other with assumed wisdom and experience rather than assumptions of ignorance and divide. The way to do that…it will be complex but surely worth it. I believe the place to start is to envision it, embrace it and pursue it.
There is a way.
My first encounter with culture that began to shift my experience was when I entered my first year of university at UBC (University of British Columbia). Fresh eyes and a clean slate reignited my hope to find belonging and closeness to my culture. I spotted the familiar “nong lá” worn by cheery-faced people at an unsuspecting booth. Without a second thought I was at the booth and signing up my name. When I had confidently scrawled my name on the list I looked up and saw two beaming smiles. I hadn’t even asked them what the club did or the history of the club, I simply signed up and hoped for the best. As I walked away from that booth with my friend, I realized that my craving for cultural identity was still just as strong. Knowing that a community existed on campus where I planned to spend the next few years sparked a light in my heart. The void was no longer a never ending path; with twists and turns and no light at the end. Instead, I saw two faces, smiling and inviting me to join them. Hands reaching out where they had never been before. The beginning of hope began with two passionate individuals who held out their light in the midst of my darkness.
Simply seeing people in my stage of life promoting and willingly advocating for Vietnamese community and culture, created a vision of unity between tradition and reality. A joining of hands between those blurred lines. I plan to (and am) committed to joining with the experiences of those before me. From my parents to my community of older brothers and sisters to the ones that will come after me. I plan to take the wisdom I receive and to pass it on, to unite old flames with new.
Firstly, educating myself on the local community and organizations that exist in my region. I did this by joining my local VSS and participating/volunteering, communicating and asking countless questions to the executive team. Secondly, actively participating in and communicating with the other leaders and members of these groups. Attending other local Vietnamese organizations and their events, making new connections and spreading awareness of the local VSS I belonged to and attempting to collaborate events to showcase the unique talents of all Vietnamese communities. Finally, maintaining these relationships, deepening bonds and including all people with welcome and warmth. Never turn a blind eye to a curious onlooker, you may be looking at the future of the Vietnamese community.
I find that the growth and unity that makes the Vietnamese community so strong is only able to further extend when each person experiences the love from someone they respect. I joined my local VSS, received love and care that encouraged me to become a stronger advocate for Vietnamese community and soon enough I began to spread this experience and speak fondly of my experiences. 3 years later and I am now connected to a wide range of Vietnamese communities and am encouraging my local friends to do the same! What seemed so limited at first has grown beyond my imagination and through UNAVSA I can only see that it will go further!
“When we are lost in the dark, we have to rely on an inner light to illuminate our path.”
Aside from my vision for the future, I reflected on how I came to connect with and pursue the Vietnamese community in the first place.
I remembered, shyly at first, when I slipped into an old áo dài. The cool silk fit like a glove around my body. Where I once felt constrained and uncomfortable I now felt calm and at peace. Memories of my grandma bringing in a suitcase of Vietnamese fruits and goods from her trips back to Vietnam resurfaced. I began to feed the flame growing inside of me with stories of my parents childhood, seeking cultural events and attending the local Vietnamese student club on campus. This flame grew and I saw a path forming where the light would fall.
This little light that illuminated the pathway I was walking down, was just bright enough to see where to put my foot next. The path felt as if it was suspended in the dark. The source of that light within me was burning bright, but only just enough. Fuelled by my own strength and pursuit for identity, my timid light grew and grew. Still, the path seemed dark around every turn, without being careful and cautious, I feared I would fall off with one, wrong, hasty step.
Imagine, you’re alone on the pathway suspended in space. The only source of light came from within you, illuminating just the short distance around you. You see the edge of the path…maybe it’s the edge, you can’t be sure. Then, in the distance, you see a bobbing light, like your own. Carefully, as you step towards the light, the shape of a face forms. You are face to face with another traveller, carrying their own little light. Together, you illuminate the path and see that there is more space and room to walk than you thought before.
I was inspired by the many Vietnamese, non-Vietnamese and all-in-all passionate people I met through my local VSS. The students and visitors to the club shared such a wide range of experiences and had many clear differences, yet the love for Vietnamese culture and willingness to discover and uncover the beauty within each journey amazed me. It was as if in a sea of darkness each person burned bright with their own flame; put together in a room flooded in their iridescent light. I stood in awe at the gathering of open-minded people, united in seeking understanding. I watched as international students practiced english and gently corrected Vietnamese and locals shared insight into North American culture. I experienced the embrace of complete strangers that felt like brothers and sisters.
This is how it is done. This is how you illuminate the way for others! Walking alone is doable, you will eventually get somewhere. The best way though is to find others that are walking that path and joining the light, passion and vision to illuminate a brighter future. A local club or organization is a start, already a bright and powerful flame that can light up a community. Yet, expanding further and taking that love for your locals and applying it to all those you encounter would really light up our world. Expand your circle, make connections and boldly shine your light for all to see. As a current leader at my local VSS, I find that people are drawn in through kindness and love. It is less about the technicalities and more about the community. I see a bright future for the Vietnamese community, and it all starts with your inner light.
Everyone has a choice to make. When you realize the potential of your inner light, you can choose to keep it to yourself. I found that light on my journey with VSS. Learning to embrace both the traditions of old and the union of the Western experience with my Vietnamese identity is a fulfilling and life-giving experience. I made many new friends, connections and enjoyed the feeling of belonging and inclusion in this community.
I had a choice to make. Should I stay in this bubble of comfort and love? Or…should I approach that timid and shy person in the corner of the room? On one hand I could stay where I was and not worry about that complete stranger…on the other hand they had the chance of experiencing the one thing I longed for before finding a place in this community. It was time to pour out what was poured into me.
Listening to the stories of so many others; it is actively and intentionally stepping forward and extending the invitation into community that is the life force of the Vietnamese network in North America. I decided, staying in my bubble of light and warmth did wonders for me, but little for the people around me.
There is nothing like passing on the passion and sharing in love for Vietnamese culture and community. When I decided to take the initiative to pour out the love from the people before me into others, I was amazed at what occurred.
Taking after the mentors that invited me warmly into my local VSS, I chose to do the same for others. The intentionality and genuine extension of friendship brought in more members than the executive team had hoped for! We ended up pulling off the first full-blown cultural show our club had ever done! If we had kept this close circle of love and passion for Vietnamese community to ourselves, we would have had half the actual community than we do now and probably half the hope for the future.
It is well worth it to pour out the love and spread the passion. Ignite your flame and illuminate the way for others, it is only then that they will find you quickly and sooner as the flames join, the fire will burn brighter than ever before!