Throughout the past few years, I have been struggling with a severe case of identity crisis (more specifically, a cultural identity crisis.)
In my family, I am first generation born in the United States of America. My grandparents and my parents were all born in Vietnam. My parents first came to the United States with their families before they were 18, but were still strictly raised in their new home with Asian values and customs. They grew up with a strong sense of their cultural background and it became a large part of who they would grow up to be. My parents still talk with a little bit of an Asian accent.
On the other hand, I was born in Long Beach and raised in Huntington Beach. My entire life, I have always been surrounded and immersed in American culture, despite my parents' various efforts to avoid this. I was raised in an English speaking home and grew up watching shows that followed an English-speaking caucasian lead. Almost all my friends up to now have been white. To clarify, this is by no means a bad thing. However, it goes to show the type of environment I grew up in.
I remember receiving an award in 3rd grade that congratulated me on my bilingual skills, as my principal proudly announced that I am one of the few kids at my school who spoke English at school and Vietnamese at home, but I had never spoken a word of Vietnamese. I was confused and knew that I didn't deserve the award, but still I bragged about it to all my friends.
Cumulatively, I have spent over 4 years in either Chinese-language or Vietnamese-language school, where students are taught to speak the language and learn about its culture by a professor who was likely raised in Asia. And still, as of today, I know more Spanish than I do Vietnamese or Chinese. At the time, I told myself that the only reason I couldn't get a hang of the language was due to my age or the skill of the teacher. It angered me every time I had to step into the classroom and learn for hours on end. But, as I look back on it now, I realize that it was partly my lack of motivation.
This is not something I am proud of. I do not want to be the person who is too unmotivated to learn about their own background and culture, but I have separated myself so far from my heritage that I simply didn't think it mattered. For almost my entire life, I have tricked myself into thinking that I was the true, godly image of a true Asian (in both ethnicity and culture) that just so happens to be living in America. But now, as I look back on it, I knew almost nothing about my culture, besides the fact that we visit the temple sometimes and that we celebrate Chinese New Year annually. I actually prided myself in the fact that I knew how to correctly pronounce "pho", but that was the extent of my knowledge.
Not being able to speak Vietnamese or Chinese has affected my life in many ways, one more importantly being that I can barely communicate with my dad's side of the family. Many of my family members there speak only Vietnamese, so I have never been able to truly connect to any of them due to the language barrier. This has separated me further from where I came from and what I always identified myself as.
Now that I have realized that I have been falsely identifying myself with a culture that I know nothing about, I am wondering what to do next. My identity crisis has been taking up half of my daily thoughts and I keep asking myself the same questions about who I am. Being born and raised in California has molded me into who I really am today, but the person who I am today is nowhere close to who I thought I was or who I want to be. I have decided recently that I am going to make a bigger effort to connect to my culture and embrace it in this American society, however difficult it may be. I am currently working on a personal project whose main goal will be to work towards creating a community in which differences are embraced and celebrated, which includes educating our generation on the various cultures that make up the melting pot that is the United States of America. That's something I'll talk about more another day.
So, to all of you who happen to be going through something similar, I encourage you to take a deeper look into your roots and culture. In so many cases, learning about "where you came from" holds the key to who you are in the present day. It won't hurt to make that extra effort, whether it be travelling to the country where your grandparents came from or simply doing a quick google search.
My dad once breakdanced in his high school talent show to the song "Rice Rice Baby" and won. If that isn't the true image of embracing your culture, I don't know what is.
About the Author:
Caitlyn Phu, currently a junior in high school, is a filmmaker, writer, and artist based in Huntington Beach. She is a member of the Academy of the Performing Arts’ MMET Media program, which specializes in filmmaking and live TV production, and the founder/president of the Heart2Art Project. Caitlyn plans to pursue a career in screenwriting and filmmaking after high school and aims to use her passion for the arts to both educate and make an impact on the world. Additionally, she is a writer for Free to Dream Magazine, a member of Model United Nations, and sometimes considered “pretty funny.” That last one depends on the crowd, though.
Instagram: @caityphu @theartofemotion