On Vietnamese Heritage and Seeking Revolution

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.

tweet about understanding history of oppression imperialism etc

Okay these tweets called me the heck out and I loved every second of it. Stanning BlackPink and writing about the attractiveness of Asian men will not bring about the revolution in and of themselves if at all, so I am ready to start learning and acting in relation to understanding and fighting displacement, imperialism, and more! 

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.

kai cheng thom image healing

A cool human in the leftist group I joined posted this image which I love! I most appreciate how the picture emphasizes the multiple domains of healing and wellness beyond only symptom alleviation. 

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!



Filed under Personal, Society

9 responses to “On Vietnamese Heritage and Seeking Revolution

  1. You sure pack a lot into your entries. I think one way to start connecting with your culture would be through food. I’m not sure what your grandmother cooked for you or what your favorite Vietnamese dishes are. Books from writers such as @viet_t_nguyen (on Twitter) are also good places to start.

    I don’t speak Chinese … just some very basic Cantonese. I can’t order a meal in Cantonese unless I just want some rice. I grew up speaking Cantonese to my mom and English to my dad. I learned some basic Mandarin in school in Philippines where I grew up. When I came to Canada, my siblings and I just used English all the time except with our mom even when her English got better. As I got older and started working, there wasn’t a lot of free time to learn Chinese. I took a night class once but that was it.

    Thanks for another interesting and thought provoking entry Thomas. Have a great week and stay safe. 🙂

    • Thank you Matt for your relating and sharing! Yes I’ve read some of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books – so far I like his nonfiction more than his fiction and I’m also looking to add additional Vietnamese writers to the list, which I think I am starting on okay. Appreciate you sharing your story about not speaking Chinese aside from basic Cantonese. Your story resonates in that I also used English all the time and as I got older and was always working on school and my helping jobs and such learning Viet never was a priority. Hope you’ve had a great week too !

  2. This is fascinating. I don’t really have a culture or a “people” as such as I’m 63/34 white British, in fact white Southern English in fact OK all of both sides of my family comes from ONE COUNTY. Weird. However, 1/64 of me is Spanish and I think I’ve noted before about how I’m pretty convinced I come from Arabic-Iberian stock somewhere along the way, I have a huge feeling of homecoming and connection to a place in Tunisia I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice and although I would never try to co-opt that as my heritage I’m proud to have some part of an international heritage not just a hyperlocal one! Also, a few years ago now I was contacted by a woman with the same (maiden) name as me who lives in Honduras and had traced her ancestors back to Bristol, which has huge slavery implications – I don’t think anyone has been brave enough to look up the links though and I’m not the family historian.

    I think having a look at your heritage now you have some distance is a really good idea and I bet there are loads of books and experiences. Do you know when and how your family got here? Are there other family members like cousins here you can ask? I bet there’s a Vietnamese cultural association that could help you find out if not. We had a fascinating series on the BBC about different groups of immigrants to the UK and there was a very moving Vietnamese one – most of the people making the films talked about trying to hide their culture or ignore it and only coming into an interest in it later so you’re not alone in that. Here’s the link, not sure if it will work for you of course. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f4ym

    • Thank you Liz for sharing about your own heritage and history! I do think it’s important to recognize that white people have origins and culture too, because otherwise I feel like some people might view whiteness as like a norm or standard or a “neutral” ground. So I’m appreciative of you sharing some of your own process on this blog.

      Thanks also for validating my decision to explore my heritage now that I have some distance! Yes, I am in the process of reading books which is nice. Unfortunately I’m not super close to really any of my family to the extent that I can trust them (aside from family closer to my age who are in a similar predicament as children of immigrants). But, I’m working on it and I’m determined to learn and grow. That’s great to hear about that series on the BBC. And of course as always, grateful to you for taking the time to read and respond so meaningfully, (:

  3. x

    Hi Thomas,
    This is amazing. I can relate to the difficult feelings of learning about the past. For example, when people asked me about some of the history in my country, it causes some negative feelings among my friends and our discussion became awkward. I am always curious about history, (my family’s and my country’s) but sometimes the truth is not so easy. I also feel embarrassed that for many reasons, I didn’t learn about many of my country’s past events until I went abroad. But on the bright side, this has provided me different perspectives and motivation to learn. Btw, I have been heard a lot of great things from people went to Vietnam, from their working and travelling experience, it is a very nice place to go. I hope someday I would visit there.

    • Thank you so much Xin for this thoughtful and empathetic comment, I especially appreciate you naming the negative feelings and the pain that can come with learning about the past or recognizing that one may not know as much about their country/heritage as they would like. I’m glad that going abroad helped provide you with different perspectives and a motivation to learn. Yay for the positive things you’ve heard about Vietnam; they and a lot of other Asian countries are doing much better at controlling the Coronavirus than the US. Hope you’re doing as well as possible and sending strength and warmth your way.

  4. Jess

    Your words resonate with me. My father is half Latino and my umma is Korean. When I was 1 they divorced and I had a strained relationship with my umma until I was 8. I have not heard from her since I was 8 and I have no idea where she is. Anyway, I’m 50% Korean and have no connection to my heritage. I have experienced and still experience shame for looking Asian but not being a “real” Asian. Honestly for a while I even experienced hate for my Asian features.
    Someone on this thread suggested exploring food and I feel like that is a great idea and something my own therapist has recommended. Asian food definitely gives me a feeling of home and belonging, but I still wish I knew more about it or had Asian friends to show me more of Asian culture.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience Jess. It sucks to hear that you experienced hate for your Asian features and I relate to that feeling of not having a connection to your heritage due to an estranged relationship with your parent(s). I’m not sure if this is may resonate for you, but I try to practice self-compassion and recognize that I’m doing what I can to connect with my Vietnamese culture and even if we may be at a “disadvantage” given our relationship with our parents, it’s not too late for us to learn – our efforts to do so in and of themselves are a sign of our willingness to learn and grow.

      Exploring food makes sense! I can’t really cook (yikes) so at this point I’m focusing on reading about history and culture. I’m glad that Asian food gives you a sense of home and belonging and hope that you can build relationships with people or continue to branch out to explore your culture. Thank you again for taking time to read and comment!

  5. This is such an interetsing topic, not knowing much about your heritage. I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with that since we’re all entitled to identify with what we choose to. Also I think people of colour get more flak for not knowing about their heritage compared to Westerners and Caucasians.

    I am sorry to hear your childhood was abusive, and it makes sense to why you feel distant from Vietnamese culture. Growing up my parents thought me about Chinese culture and I was brought up as a Chinese culture though I lived in a predominantly Western culture. I didn’t feel connected to it and at the same time also didn’t feel connected to Western culture. Unlike you, my childhood wasn’t that traumatic and there were many happy moments. But I don’t claim to know everything about my ancestry or constantly feel the need to be Chinese.

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