Among, Amidst, In: Navigating Three Cultures and Self-Identity

Six years ago, I flew from from Hanoi, Vietnam to Boston, U.S.A. on an F-1 student visa for the first time.

Up until this past summer, ever since I arrived in the United States, I’d always felt the differences between American values and Vietnamese values as a binary. They seem like polar opposites that cannot be reconciled; whenever my mind starts to wander, that cultural conflict often finds a way to grab my attention in the form of questions such as, Am I Vietnamese enough? or I’m not an American citizen, so is it bad for me to swallow in so much American ideology? or, on a broader societal scale, What does it mean to be American? To be Vietnamese? To be something in between?

 

Waiting for my next connecting flight at Narita Airport.

 

But that changed after my summer internship in Tokyo, Japan, where I took on the identity of Vietnamese-born international student in the United States with a profound interest in Japanese culture. The internship was at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University (TWCU), and the purpose was to have someone help the students learn English with a focus on cultural exchange.

Those two months defined the way I navigate my identity in the world.

I had enough exposure and lived experience to talk about Vietnam and the U.S. in a way that was informative, so that I could be something like a cultural ambassador. On the other hand, I also planned to immerse myself in a place as culturally rich as Japan. I have dreamed about visiting Japan since I was a kid, but I also have learned to be a sensitive and aware global citizen at Mount Holyoke. So, as I stepped on my first bus ever in Japan from Narita Airport, I reminded myself that this was an opportunity to live among Japanese people and get to know their culture better, that I would go all in, asking questions, trying out things, and living the daily life of a regular Japanese university student.

 

My first lunch at the university: kitsune udon, small salad, and green tea.

 

From my first meeting with my supervisors, I had the impression that the students at TWCU would want to know about my life in the U.S., as the two countries are so far apart and so different. What I didn’t expect was that when I actually met the students, some of whom I am still in touch with, they were equally curious and excited to learn about Vietnam as well as the U.S. Considering the fact that most of them either planned to study or work abroad in the United States, or contented themselves with staying in Japan, I was pleasantly surprised by their overwhelming, genuine interest in knowing more about Vietnam.

In fact, because Japanese culture and Vietnamese culture had a lot in common, the questions I was asked about my home country were more informed and hence specific than what I would get in the U.S. For example, a typical Japanese meal is similar to a typical Vietnamese meal: rice, vegetables, meat, and some soup. We also both use chopsticks. However, table mannerism in Japan is different from that in Vietnam, and the students were curious about that. Do you pass food to each other with your chopsticks? What do you say before a meal? After a meal?

Here’s another example: Japanese people tend to buy their grocery every day; Vietnamese people also do this. The students were curious about the differences in buying habits between the two cultures. Do Vietnamese people shop at supermarkets more or local markets? What do they prefer to buy at supermarkets versus local markets?

Here’s another one: studying abroad is  very popular in both Vietnam and Japan. What is English education like in schools in Vietnam? How do students and their families prepare to study abroad? What are some of the more attractive locations for Vietnamese students to study abroad?

 

A complimentary dish from a ghost-themed bar. It’s neither common nor unusual to eat insects in Vietnam, but my Japanese friends were so afraid!

 

In short, the TWCU students knew Vietnamese culture was more similar to Japanese culture than American culture, but they were not sure how much. And hence, the questions they asked me were more specific, and pushed me to look at aspects of Vietnamese society that I had not thought much about before. As a consequence, on one hand, I’m happy that all Americans I’ve met in the U.S. said they enjoyed the absolutely powerful bitterness of our coffee and wanted to know more about Lunar New Year. On the other hand, the questions I received in Japan about daily life in Vietnam also made me take a step back to reflect on and appreciate the little things of my culture more.

 

My farewell dinner where I invited students who helped me out a lot during the internship to enjoy some Vietnamese food I prepared myself: miso tomato soup, fresh spring rolls, and vermicelli bowl.

 

Another highlight with regards to the questions was that, the students, knowing that I came from Vietnam, often wanted me to compare the U.S. and Vietnam and Japan on various topics: food, education system, social justice, social norms, and so on. The most powerful thing about such a request was that there were more than two things on the table. I did not have to speak and compare cultures in binaries. I did not have to use contrasting statements. What I had to do was give a multidimensional answer that showed not the polarities between two cultures, but the differences among cultures.

This realization changed me. I debated less inside my head about whether I should associate with Vietnamese values or American values more. Because why should I perceive myself in only those two sets of values ? Why can’t I have both and make them my own? And why don’t I, as I interact and get to know people from more cultures around the world, let those moments inform the continuous development of my own values?

 

Just keep growing, multiplying, blooming…

 

Among all identities that I can take on, and amidst the current universal pressure to polarize, I think it’s important for me to immerse myself fully in my immediate environment, so that I can be grounded, so that I can learn, so that I can grow.

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