On (Not) Being Vietnamese


Tet passed recently, and Vietnamese holidays always make me think about what it means to be Vietnamese, or not Vietnamese. I’m less interested in the question itself, because there’s no good answer to the question, and more interested in what it implies. The question implies that there is such a thing as Vietnameseness, and that we can define it with a list of things: you’re Vietnamese if you can tell the difference between good pho and bad pho, you’re Vietnamese if you have a favorite brand of fish sauce, you’re Vietnamese if you get teary at the sound of a Khanh Ly song, you’re Vietnamese if you know who Modern Talking is, you’re Vietnamese if…the list can go on. The question of what it means to be Vietnamese is only interesting to me because of the reason why I, or we, or anyone, might ask that question.

I am always getting asked a variation of that question. I went to this Tet party last month, and chatted with a young Vietnamese scholar recently arrived from Viet Nam. We had been speaking for a minute or so, in English, when she said, “You’re not Vietnamese, are you?” This reminded me of the time I had dinner with a group of Vietnamese studies specialists and this young Vietnamese doctoral student, recently from Viet Nam, said to me after a minute of conversation (in English), “There’s not much about you that’s still Vietnamese, is there?” This reminded me of the many times I had been to Viet Nam where people would say (after a few words in Vietnamese from me), “Your Vietnamese is so good!” This means that they thought I was not Vietnamese, since no one would compliment a Vietnamese person on his Vietnamese. I thought, this is what it must be like to be a white person in Viet Nam who breaks out her or his Vietnamese. People treat you so nicely just for being able to say “Please take me to Cho Ben Thanh.”

Whenever this happened, which was at least once a week, it would always remind me of those days in San Jose when I was a kid, in the 1980s, when my parents forced me to attend Vietnamese Catholic Sunday school. I barely spoke any Vietnamese back then, and in that time, in that place, you could not be Vietnamese if you did not speak Vietnamese. It was in the Vietnamese Catholic church, and in Vietnamese language classes, that I first developed my distaste for authenticity. Perhaps it was the pressure of being outsiders, refugees, newcomers to an American life they felt to be strange and one that they had not truly chosen that drove the Vietnamese I knew to define being Vietnamese narrowly. Their Vietnamese identity and culture was like an asteroid from a foreign planet that had come crashing to the American earth, and they would do everything they could to preserve it. So they had their rituals and festivals and masses and schools, where the prescriptions for being Vietnamese were very clear. If you felt included in that world, it was home.

Home was a comforting place, where people always welcomed you, made sure you had enough to eat, knew how to say your name. Home was also the place where people knew you enough to put you in your place, dislike you, hate you, have enough of you, take out their frustrations and rage on you. My parents lived and worked in the Vietnamese world, and the people they were most afraid of were other Vietnamese people. This was the other side of authenticity, the fact that if you knew what it meant to be really Vietnamese, then you also knew where the soft spots and deep hurt were as well. No one knows how to cut you down like another Vietnamese person, who’ll do it with a smile. No surprise that in the 1980s in San Jose, the crime Vietnamese people spoke most often of was the home invasion, when Vietnamese youth invaded the homes of people who looked just like them. The youth knew what hour of the day to come, who to torture, where to find the gold and cash. Was it my imagination, or was this just a repetition of the war, these kids who did the same things the older generation did in Viet Nam. I remembered how, in the second grade, circa 1979, the Vietnamese kids of my San Jose school had already formed gangs and fought each other over territory in the schoolyard. The Vietnamese people had brought their home with them, and home was a civil war, imposed on us by white people who were happy to watch us fight each other. At least in Viet Nam, we fought white people too. Was it my imagination, or in America, did the Vietnamese go out of their way to make white people feel at home whenever they encountered them.

I was never so glad as I was on the day I finally left home. It would take me two decades before I could come back to San Jose without feeling that I was being suffocated by the closeness of those walls of home. Strange, I felt freer going to Viet Nam than I did to San Jose. Not that Viet Nam doesn’t have its own basket case of problems, but it’s not my basket case. I didn’t go to Viet Nam with any expectation that I would suddenly feel at home, 100% Vietnamese, ready to kiss the soil of the motherland. I expected to feel like a foreigner, and that was what I was. The only problem was that the Vietnamese, once they knew who I was, expected me to feel and behave like a native, except when it came to financial matters, when they expected me to behave like a foreigner.

But this was all a long time ago. Wasn’t it? Nowadays the Vietnamese are redefining authenticity, since anything a Vietnamese person does in Viet Nam must be authentically Vietnamese. The rich Vietnamese are so rich they’re doing whatever rich people are doing everywhere, finding new and creative and absurd ways to spend their money, like the $37 bowl of pho or a Lamborghini on the streets of Saigon, where you can’t drive faster than 30 miles per hour. Come to think of it, you can’t drive anywhere in Viet Nam faster than 30 miles per hour. So if this is alien and foreign behavior in Viet Nam, it’s still Vietnamese behavior. Meanwhile, in the USA, there’s a whole new generation of Vietnamese Americans. Some of them want to do culture shows and preserve Vietnamese culture. Some people need to know what their culture is and find it reassuring to rehearse the motions, or to treat culture as if it is something found in a museum, static and unchanging.

But do contemporary Americans feel the need to prove their American culture by periodically wearing powdered wigs and tricorn hats and owning slaves? We think we have moved beyond all of that as Americans and are perfectly happy to think that James Franco represents American culture to the world today. But I haven’t been to a Vietnamese culture show in ten years and I’m curious to see whether today’s American-born students are still doing fan dances and candle dances dressed in peasant clothes, which is what my generation did, most of whom had never had their bare feet in a rice paddy. When I was growing up in San Jose in the hard eighties, I had no idea what a rice paddy might really be like. My idea of Vietnamese culture was that we were a very smart and resourceful people who knew how to both work for cash under the table while collecting welfare and food stamps. I’d like to see a culture show about that.

Nowadays there are some in the new generation who don’t speak any Vietnamese, who don’t care what white people think, and who may not really care that much about being Vietnamese either. Sometimes I run across them in person or see them do their thing from a distance, like Tila Tequila. She doesn’t proclaim her Vietnamese identity, but she is Vietnamese (of a certain kind) in the way she behaves. I’ve seen many like her in Saigon and San Jose, eager to move on up and look good while they’re doing it. Mostly I assume there are many, many more diverse Vietnamese I will never meet because I wouldn’t have a reason to–they’re not doing anything “Vietnamese.” More power to them. They are Vietnamese and they’re not Vietnamese all at the same time. What they do is Vietnamese and not Vietnamese all at the same time. The ability not to be forced by someone’s question about your authenticity into making an either/or answer–yes, I am Vietnamese, or no, I am not Vietnamese–which is to give in to the whole weight of someone else’s expectations around being “Vietnamese.” So the next time someone asks me if I’m really Vietnamese, I’m going to say “yes and no,” and then I will wait for them to ask me another question.

Viet Thanh Nguyen


“On (Not) Being Vietnamese” was originally published on DiaCritics.org on March 11, 2011.

Category: Essays


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  1. Trung Vo says:

    The country is called Việt Nam, not Việt Nữ. Vietnamese culture is defined by its men, not its women. Vietnamese culture is whatever Vietnamese men define it as and are willing to fight for. We’re a patriarchal society and those values are carried by the very language itself.

    • Camille Luong says:

      Hey Trung Vo. Actually, the origin of the Nam in Việt Nam refers to miền nam, not đàng ông nam. If you study Hán-Việt, you will know that the characters for Việt Nam are 越南: 越 refers to the Yue people of China, while 南 means South. South of the State of Yue. So this is an inaccurate comment as the true etymology of the word Việt Nam is “South of Yue”, not “Man of Yue”.

  2. tienvan nguyen says:

    the vietnamese translation published on VNEXPRESS.net on 14 May 2019 is changed into ON BEING VIETNAMESE.

  3. Gogg says:

    “You are Vietnamese if …”:
    You are a master of Vietnamese,
    You understand and use the slang that Vietnamese classes are using.
    You have to understand what Vietnamese
    people are thinking, care about, and express what they want to say. Public or metaphor.
    How is Vietnamese society operating? Which model? What social and public authorities are snarling about the social
    In the changing social context:

    “Reply to RFI, expert Dufour [DCA-Chine Manager, Manager]

    Analysis: «Structural loss can be accepted by the US when people are still in an inequality model, ie a model in which China plays a role, as people often say it is the public workshop of the world. But since China, around 2015, announced its intention to change its position with the Made in China 2025 plan, the United States saw the risk of a competition for
    economic and technological power that could change. probably the game ».
    Dufour further explained: «The Chinese system is different from the American system because it is not a classical market economy. China has another model that distorts international competition rules. And what Washington can accept now, is now unacceptable in that new perspective. This may explain that behind the commercial loss excuse, people went to a real war ».
    (RFI – Radio France International, May 16, 2019)

    The emerging rich in Vietnam has no “strange” questions (strange, odd) like a decade ago when they first met less than a minute! Now, they also have no time to worry about finding ways:

    “… it is good to spend money, like a bowl of pho $ 37 or a Lamborghini on the streets of Saigon, where you cannot drive 30 miles faster (about 48 km) an hour …” Surviving and surviving must have been struggling with the new game:

    – Apart from America, where is the safest tax haven?
    – Is becoming a US citizen the first choice?
    – How to maintain power and deal with people and public opinion?
    – How to operate an Airline Company … or a profitable production line?
    -How to turn a public property into a private property?
    The question, the Vietnamese identity answer depends on the individual, class, level … a topic raised by a master of languages ​​like the author (Viet Thanh Nguyen)
    when returning to the source Vietnamese origin through the article transferred to Vietnamese language
    ( ” I am Vietnamese”,
    VnExpress compiled according to the English principle, May 14, 2019)

    An article after nearly a decade of lying dormant for less than a week was introduced by the local online newspaper
    For readers. The article has sparked the vitality when many people are interested in watching and discussing vigorously. So, Is (or not) Vietnamese
    [On (Not) Being Vietnamese]
    It is also necessary for a Master to write, with the Conductor for this chorus to accompany the masses to enjoy the rhythm!

  4. Thong says:

    The Vietnamese translation on VnExpress is a bit too literal that at times doesn’t make much sense — I’m glad I found the original version here.

    Seeing the perspective on being Vietnamese from an American born is delightful, yet unsurprisingly it doesn’t get much sympathy from local Vietnameses (as shown in the comment section on VnExpress). To many of them, being Vietnamese is not just being able to speak the language, but also to uphold Vietnamese values that have embedded in their lifestyles over thousand years of the country’s history. It’s definitely not about the Lamborghini or the expensive pho, nor doing fan dances in peasant clothes. It’s more about being family-centric, respecting the elderly and paying homage to the ancestors. These are the basic values that subtly shape the behaviours, albeit diverse, yet bearing a common theme throughout many generations of Vietnamese people. It’s the same way that American society is shaped by 3 pillars of equality, freedom, and justice.

  5. Lina says:

    Dear anh Viet,

    I recently read the translation of this piece on VnExpress and had to look up its English version straightaway. The translation didn’t quite make the cut for me, but it makes so much more sense in English.

    I moved to England by myself at the age of 15 – a critical period when teenagers try to define who they are and make sense of their identity, so I have a similar, but different struggle.

    Well done, it’s a good read.

    Kind regards,

  6. Herb says:

    Good article. What is being vietnamese? or black or Jewish or a white suburban kid? I am interested in what is universal. Respect, good human relations and also bullshit. So many variations of bs around the world….essentially the same just different flavor.