I observed the Qingming (清明節) Festival for the first time in 3 years the other day. Since arriving in Singapore*, I’ve been going to temple once everyday. It feels like I’m making up for so much lost time. I post about these visits and the little things that I see along the way on my Instagram and Facebook. Friends online and IRL (yes I just used that unironically) have said to me, jokingly and genuinely, “I get it you’re Asian!”
In addition to my temple visits, I post a lot about political and popular culture of Asian Americans on Facebook. I celebrate the contributions people of Asian descent have made to that culture. I criticize the problematic politics of community members and hold them accountable for their actions. I try to relate the discussion of racism against Black folks in America to the kind Asian folks faced to hopefully build a bridge of understanding for my friends. I search for and share music, art, film, and literature by Asian American creatives. When I actually write personal statuses about my day or of running thoughts, some are about my interactions with other Asian folks or my engagement with Asian culture and history.
For example, I was in Melbourne over the 2018 Easter weekend. I walked to a near by bánh mì* shop and this happened:
March 31 · Melbourne, VIC ·
Auntie at the the bánh mì shop asked if I wanted chili on my order but not the white dude behind me. That makes my early morning.
Also, bánh mì nem nướng with chili is the best breakfast food
Or I just get hit by cravings for Asian food because that’s all I eat when I’m at home. I grew up on Asian food and I will never grow out of it, ever.
March 27 · Brisbane, QLD ·
I’m craving bánh patê (or is it pâté ?)* sô
The nearest Viet bakery is still so far it feels like a day trip going there. If anything I can wait until I get to Melbourne and hunt it down.
Side note: I can’t make lemongrass paste for shit but I like my nước mắm.
– Srsly tho y’all, which is it??? This whole French-Viet loan word thing is getting my keyboard confused
That’s right. I tried to make lemongrass paste and nước mắm**. I also tried to make Vietnamese and Chinese food when I’m away from home. I also tried to memorize and recite sutras and mantras in Vietnamese when I’m away from home.
Why do I do this?
Because I had to go grow up and leave home for university. This transition into adulthood revealed to me that my political, intellectual, and artistic interests as well as travel and life goals are shaped by my parents.
My parents (Papa Hang and Mama Nguyen, affectionately) brought me to the States in 1999. We had to move between Okalahoma, Texas, and Arizona because they couldn’t find work in SoCal. Eventually, we ended up in the San Gabriel Valley. However, those years in the Southwest allowed me and my parents to bond. I am so accustomed to traveling with my parents. They have passed on their travel interests to me. I seek out Buddhist temples, Asian ethnic enclaves, cultural museums, and performances by Asian folks wherever I go.
Because I learned more about my family history and my cultural history.
Mama Nguyen was born in Saigon to a Buddhist family and lived through the political turmoil. Under the South Vietnam government, her family among other Buddhist families were antagonized by President Ngô Đình Diệm’s (a member of the Catholic Vietnamese minority) policies. Though she wasn’t born yet, the memory of the 1963 Biến cố Phật giáo** (tr. Buddhist Crisis) and Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation was fresh.
Papa Hang was born in Nha Trang to a Hainanese family, who crossed the Pacific in boats and planes to get to America. As Hainanese (the Han people from the island of Hainan, China), he faced discrimination from the government and other people. The ethnic tensions rose during the war era, instilling fear into his community over their safety. Then upon arriving in America, he had to deal with all the racist bullshit in the 70s to the 90s. (Hell, even now tbh.)
My family has struggled to ensure that they, we, can be Buddhists and mutli-cultural without fear. The struggle continued into the 1990s when my cousins and I were raised. It continued into the 21st century where my generation is now trying to do our parents and grandparents proud by working hard and respecting our traditions.
Even so, I have a complicated relationship with my Chinese heritage. I know why Sino-centrism runs strong in my family (when people hate you for who you are, you can either deny that part of yourself, or fiercely hold on to it and show it off with pride). Yet, I still find issue with fully embracing my Chinese heritage. I’m more sure about my Vietnamese heritage because I grew up with the language. I never learned how to properly read or write but I’m trying now. Mama Nguyen probably thought I didn’t pay attention during story time or at temple but I did. Now at 21, I am on the verge of memorizing bits and pieces of a sutra in Pali and another in Vietnamese. I am tracking down the old stories she used to tell me and finding them in writing to improve my literacy. I’m a good daughter according to her, which feels great since I probably disappoint her in other parts of my life. [I digressed; sorry, I’ve been reading Victor Hugo because I’m a NERD full-stop.]
I am a very political person and I am still grateful to my family for that. The knowledge of the Hang’s family story gives me the privilege to philosophize about my place in it. The knowledge of the Buddhist struggle in South Vietnam shows me that just doing my best to practice my religion is a political act. In fact, practicing cultural traditions–keeping them alive–is an act of resistance against the forces that tried to at best oppress them, at worst eliminate them.
So yeah, I am very Asian. My ancestors worked hard for future generations, like mine, to give me the privilege of enjoying travel, education, and art. My family survived war and its aftermath for me to be Buddhist, to be multi-cultural, to be unapologetically very Asian.
* My spring break with UQ is about two weeks. I was in Melbourne for a few days. Now I’m staying in Singapore to hang around and write a short paper. Then I’m heading to Bangkok and meeting a dear friend.
** I ain’t translating shit, unless absolutely necessary. Vietnamese food should be popular enough in many places for people to know what these things are. If not, Google is literally a click away. Also, I’m following Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s example to “not fall into the ‘typical maneuvers of minority literature written for a majority audience’. He refused to translate his culture – for example, writing ‘Vietnamese New Year’ instead of ‘Tet’ – or have the book’s themes affirm American ideals and American exceptionalism.”