The other day I felt sad and a little ashamed about how little I know about Vietnamese culture and history. After joining a Slack channel consisting of a bunch of radical leftist Asian Americans, I read messages from a lot of these folx about how understanding their ancestry and familial roots helped in their healing processes. These messages and some of my own introspection over the past year made me wonder: how did I get so disconnected from my own heritage?
My lack of cultural understanding related to my Vietnamese heritage feels rooted in my abusive childhood. My mom yelled at me and gaslighted me for several hours a week, every week, for the first 18 years of my life. This experience motivated me to focus on healing, including healing from my disordered eating in my adolescent years and my PTSD in my college years. Throughout high school and college, I read a ton about Psychology, active listening, self-compassion, etc. in addition to going to therapy. My desire to practice healing as a therapist stemmed from more than my own experience with abuse though; I wanted to provide to others the compassion my grandmother gave to me. I also always loved understanding people and analyzing interpersonal relationships.
So I ignored a lot of my Vietnamese heritage and focused on more mainstream mental health practices. I learned a lot about providing therapy and the psychological factors related to mental illness – difficulties regulating emotions, ineffective interpersonal patterns, self-defeating thoughts internalized from childhood, etc. This focus shifted around my junior year of undergrad, when I won a small grant to conduct a journalism project on Asian American women’s mental health in relation to suicide, and I talked to a lot of leading experts on Asian American mental health. Through that experience I started to think and feel a lot more deeply about societal oppression, including racism, sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, capitalist exploitation, ableism, and more influence mental wellbeing, a topic that still serves as one of my primary clinical and research interests.
Though I have focused a lot on Asian Americans’ mental health in relation to systemic oppression in graduate school, I still ignored my Vietnamese heritage. I think this delayed desire to learn about my heritage stems from many factors, like how a lot of people learn about their heritage from their family, but I cut off my family due to past abuse and neglect so I could preserve my mental health. My education in the United States ignored and avoided any meaningful discussion of Vietnamese history and culture. In some ways I still associated Vietnam with abuse because of my mother, though I recognize now that a lot of white people abuse their children and I think my mother’s abuse stemmed more from adhering to patriarchy than it did from Vietnamese culture, even if both may have played a part.
At this point in my life, I want to learn more about my Vietnamese heritage, even if right now that just entails reading up on history and inhaling books by Vietnamese writers. My desire to learn about my Vietnamese heritage at the core connects to how I want to continue to radicalize my therapy practice, teaching, and research – I want to further understand how western imperialism and capitalism harmed Vietnamese people as well as Vietnamese people’s resilience. In addition to mindfulness (a culturally appropriated practice in the United States), self-compassion, and other intrapersonal self-care strategies, I believe understanding the roots of our oppression, our social identities, and our ancestors’ struggles and perseverance can empower us toward both individual and collective strength. I would feel hypocritical recommending these ideas to my clients and students if I did not practice them myself.
I recently finished Grace Lee Boggs’s amazing memoir The Next American Revolution. One of her points I loved most included believing in the revolutionary power of the people, of ourselves, instead of waiting for others, like elected officials, to save us from oppression or crises like climate change. I am still figuring out my place in the revolution, though I know my main role will always revolve around healing work given my predilection for helping others and understanding why people do what they do. When I acknowledge that it is okay that I am still in the process of figuring out how to best aid in the revolution, my shame lessens. I can listen to activists on the streets and do my best to aid in their efforts with minimal guilt. I know that understanding myself, all of myself, will help me help others to heal from trauma and to flourish beyond it. Tearing down oppressive systems and erecting communities of care in their place – I cannot wait to contribute to that effort as a queer, redhead, Vietnamese American.
How have you tried to understand or learn about your people’s history, especially if you come from a marginalized lineage? Or what has made it difficult for you to do so? General reactions to this post? Until next post!