—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Every time I can’t defend myself, I get upset at myself. It is all about these tiny little but subtle things. Accumulating angst this way turns me into a bitter person; this bitterness does not go away until it is resolved. Just like when I didn’t do the thing I knew was right, it gnaws at me. Only the right action can free my soul.

Innocence: Take the Heat

Once upon a time, we were college students. It was the time when college students like us were still very naive and innocent – simply because we were the last generation of youngsters who actually know the names of trees, flowers and plants around us; the time right before the free market took a full blow in Sài Gòn and uprooted those poor living organisms; the time when, even though we were college students, our job was to listen to the teachers in the classroom. 

It was in the early 1990s, about the freshman or sophomore year in college, the period of time in the Vietnamese educational history when any American popping up in Sài Gòn would be snatched to put into teaching at a college, I had a chance to study with one American in such circumstances.

She was very young, could be a few years older than us, a college graduate maybe. She was assigned to teach us conversational speaking. I thought it could be interesting to study with an American. My first impression of her was that she was very friendly and nice.

Into the second class, the American teacher arrived and told us: “Your Vietnamese names are very difficult for me to pronounce and memorize. Why don’t you change it. Each one of you will pick an American name, this way I can try to remember your names and who you are.”

Immediately upon hearing that, I went ballistic. I could feel my blood boiling inside me. It rushed to my head making me feel like it was going to explode. I flushed with anger and it was rising in me beyond control. Just as I began to see stars before my eyes, a tirade of curses flew out like lightning: “Are you crazy or what? Who the hell do you think you are? Everybody knows ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ Isn’t it an English idiom? Didn’t you come to Việt Nam to learn about Vietnamese people, to learn about Vietnamese culture and life? And you can’t even try to learn the Vietnamese names! What the hell are you going to learn then? Screw you!”

Gosh, I actually just cursed in my head. There was no way a student at that time was able to do such a thing to a teacher. I was only talking to myself! I was sitting there, with a hot head, extremely infuriated without knowing what to do about the situation. Curse or reason, I couldn’t do, and didn’t know how to do it – we were never taught those skills. All I could think of was: “I would never change my name for such a stupid thing like that. I am not going to change my name. I am not going to change my name. What can I do? What can I do?”

When it was my turn to talk, I told the teacher: “My name is very easy to pronounce, so I don’t see the need to change it. You can try to say it as you see it.” Holymacaroni! I couldn’t believe what I just did. I didn’t know how I did it, but I did it. The first time ever I talked back to the teacher in front of everybody. I was so nervous not to know what the American teacher would respond. She said, “OK.” And nothing else.

I talked back to the teacher, and nothing happened to me? Really? I felt a small sense of victory, but my body was still shaking out of nervousness, to the point I don’t remember whether I continued to curse her in my head or I was thinking about something else. But I have tried to recall and cannot be sure who else in the class reacted the same way I did. Maybe there was somebody else besides me.

Maturity: Learn and Think

In the twenty-first century, I came to America to study. I noticed that in books, people write French names with accent marks, and read them, or German names, the way they are supposed to be. When it comes to Vietnamese names, they do it the generic way, without diacritics. I thought to myself, “Something is not right here.”

Are we Invisible Asians?

I soon learned that Việt Nam is such a small country almost invisible to the Americans and Europeans. But I also learned that we have to raise our voices. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, don’t they? I began to wonder whether Vietnamese people have demanded to have their names pronounced correctly. Then I recalled, in fright, that I had been doing the generic thing all along: every time I introduced myself in English, even when in Việt Nam, I said my name without diacritics. What was the excuse for that? Why did I imitate the foreigners like a robot? Am I programmed with a xenophile DNA to do so, one inherited from my ancestors?

I don’t mean to blame my ancestors now that I have learned what I need to learn and should be responsible for all my actions. And what I learned is that treating people differently because of their ethnicity is discrimination. That’s what colonialism used to be, and imperialism is.

I also learned that what the American teacher imposed on us in college represented her imperialistic act. According to her behavior, she must have thought that Americans were the only people on earth who had something to teach others, that American culture was the only one worth learning. People like her when going abroad are only willing to do whatever is convenient for them their American way. They are free to dismiss the local culture without a second thought.

Wisdom: Take Action

Since then, I have been very careful to watch for signs of discrimination, and try to confront them as best I can. It makes me stronger every time I can do this as I gain respect for myself.

What I am trying to remember is the name of the American teacher in college. With a name, locating her is not a big deal. I will facebook or send her a letter telling her how imperialistic she was to us Vietnamese students back then. Maybe no Vietnamese has ever told her that. Maybe she is not even aware that she is discriminating. And if I am the first to let her know, that is great. She may change. She may not change. But that is not the point here. What is important to me is that confrontation to protect myself, to raise my self-esteem is never too late. Self-salvation that comes late is better than never at all. I only confronted her halfway back then. If I write her now, I can complete my personal victory. Even writing this now already brings me closer to that victory.

Every time you can’t defend yourself, you get upset at yourself. It is all about these tiny little but subtle things. Accumulating rage this way turns you into a bitter person; this bitterness does not go away until it is resolved. Just like when you didn’t do the thing you knew was right, it gnaws at you. Only the right action can free your soul.


The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News. Read the Vietnamese version here.

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