I was having dinner with my friend when he told me “I don’t think VFA does enough to represent Vietnamese culture.” This came as a surprise because I’ve been working at VFA for over the past three years and our mission is to “empower the Vietnamese community to succeed while bridging, preserving, and promoting cultural heritage.” His comment triggered a visceral response within me. I wanted to fight him, using words and intellect as my weapons: “You’re dumb! Quit saying stupid things. Pooh head.” I described how VFA’s programs strive to honor Vietnamese culture and heritage.
- We teach immigrant families to understand the differences between Vietnamese and American culture and navigate the U.S. education system.
- Our after-school program encourages students to use their native language to explore English, math and science.
- We train Vietnamese-American youth how to conduct community research in a culturally and linguistically respectful way, especially when working with elders.
- VFA is creating the first-ever Vietnamese/English dual-language preschool that will preserve and promote the Vietnamese language and heritage for future generations.
I was feeling protective of VFA at that moment because I thought the organization was doing a good job of incorporating Vietnamese culture into our programs, services and outreach. I would have felt less defensive if my friend had expressed more reasonable concerns, such as “Why does your Executive Director have a strange obsession with unicorns?” or “Your staff look tired and malnourished.” Those comments are fair and I would have replied “It’s because he’s vegan” and “Excellent point! Your donation of $1000 will provide our staff with healthy, organic meals for the entire summer.”
I reframed the question and asked my friend, “Can you explain what you mean by Vietnamese culture?” I was trying to understand where his concern comes from. “What do you picture when you say those words?”
Perhaps my friend envisions a bunch of girls walking around school wearing traditional Vietnamese áo dài (long dress) and nón lá (cone hat); grown-ups drinking coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk while squatting on a street corner; or that our students should only be fed bánh mì (sandwich) and phở (noodle soup) for lunch every day. While these popular symbols are commonly associated with Vietnamese culture, they can also be damaging to our community if they perpetuate false or negative stereotypes. For example, we’re not farmers who wear just cone hats out to parties or Halloween. We have better things to do, like binge on Season 4 of Arrested Development.
Vietnamese culture runs much deeper. It is embedded in our language. We use special pronouns to address our friends, family, strangers, children and elders. These pronouns reveal the unique relationships between people and are a sign of respect and humility.
It is defined by our history, like the bánh mì sandwich, which isn’t native to Vietnam but was introduced by the French during its colonial period. Seattle loves bánh mì because they are cheap, healthy and delicious.
Finally, it is embodied by our resiliency. Despite a history of war, colonization and Communism, the Vietnamese community continues to endure and thrive. How did we do it you ask? By selling phở and doing your nails. Booyah!
Music, clothes and food are just some of the ways through which Vietnamese culture is expressed, but alone they do not (and cannot) fully capture the rich history and complexity of all things Vietnamese.