We're All American
by Thao Nguyen
The last few months have dredged up a lot of questions about national and cultural identity. There is more contention about what it means to be American now more than ever. Does it mean being born here? Being naturalized? Having a certain set of ideals and practicing a certain set of cultural practices?
I was born and raised in the United States, and I’ve always considered it my home. If I’ve learned anything about being an American, it’s that being American does not mean having to give up your ethnicity. I’m Vietnamese American, and my entire life I’ve heard the same three statements over and over:
You’re so whitewashed!
But where are you really from?
Don’t lose your roots.
I didn’t see any of these as microaggressions because I understood a lot of the people that were saying these things to me meant no harm. But they also really got me thinking about what it meant to be a Vietnamese American. I have never really felt a need to get in touch with “my roots.” I’ve never felt a need to go back to the motherland, as they say; in fact, I have no desire to go to Vietnam at all. At home, my family eats Vietnamese food, but we also eat foods from all kinds of other cultures. I can read and speak the language, but ask me to write and I’m basically illiterate. My family never watches Paris by Night or does karaoke at our parties. To be honest, for the majority of my life, I’ve identified as more American than Vietnamese. This isn’t to say that I was ashamed of being Vietnamese, as I have often been accused. It’s the exact opposite. I’m proud of my ethnicity and all of the experiences it’s given me.
The beauty of being American is that there is the opportunity and the choice to practice your own culture while having the option to experience and embrace others. I’m not talking about cultural appropriation. I’m talking about learning about other ethnicities, truly understanding the significance behind their practices, and realizing what a blessing it is that there is freedom and space for that. There isn’t a societal or governmental power dictating these things. Maybe I’m lucky because I live in the Bay Area, where the melting pot we learned about in school is a reality. But I do think that we have the capacity as a society to make this true across the country.
Yes, there are forces telling us that differences should be questioned, that certain practices are un-American, or that some cultures just don’t have a place in this country. But unless your culture involves doing things that violate human rights, or threatens the lives of the innocent, then there’s certainly a place for it here. Being American doesn’t mean having blonde hair, blue eyes, and eating apple pie for dessert after a long day of playing baseball. It means that you have the openness to accept other cultures and the heart to love your neighbors regardless of cultural differences.