I can pinpoint the exact moment that I understood how a single decision changed the trajectory of my life completely. I was ten. The sun was blindingly white, and yogurt was dribbling down my chin. My cousin, Ly (not her real name), and I were savoring the cold dessert on a normal, hot and humid July day in Vietnam. My cousin was dressed in clothes we'd brought from America, and the woman running the stand said, "You two are so cute dressed like twins." My cousin and I just looked at each other and giggled. Ly's mom and my mom are sisters. When my grandmother fled Vietnam with three of her six children, my mother was on the refugee boat, and hers wasn't. Our family forked back in March of 1979: Hers went one way and mine another.
No one ever explicitly said this, but at the time, it was understood that our cousins back in Vietnam lived in poverty while we Americans lived in luxury, even though we really didn't. All throughout my childhood, I was reminded of everything my family didn't have back in Vietnam — flushable toilets, clean water, new clothes, candy — and when I used to look in the mirror hoping for more angular features and lighter skin, I sometimes would tell myself that at least I wasn't Ly. Seeing where I could've grown up, how different my education could be, and how powerful my U.S. passport was had a profound impact on me.
I felt like I'd gotten a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (my favorite make-believe candy shop), so I pushed myself to succeed in school. When I got a C in the fourth grade because I couldn't handle fractions, I got workbooks from the library that I would complete in a week. I also did my best to blend in with my peers. My parents never told me to assimilate. But I felt their shame when people made fun of them, talked down to them, or were downright rude. And through those experiences, I understood that I needed to be perceived as American to succeed in America.
Immediately, I began shedding my image of all things Vietnamese: I made sure I spoke without an accent, only ate American food when others were watching at school, and under no circumstance did I speak Vietnamese in public. Next, I started mimicking the white kids around me. Kari didn't like peanut butter sandwiches, so I didn't either — even though I did. Raven thought foursquare was lame, so I never learned to play this fun-looking game. Joe only drank chocolate milk, so despite thinking it tasted like chalk, I added it to my lunch tray. These small shifts became habits as I continued mirroring the identities of those around me all through high school and into my first year of college.
I made sure I spoke without an accent, only ate American food when others were watching at school, and under no circumstance did I speak Vietnamese in public.
I moved into my dorm at UCLA to find that I would live among 92 strangers. But I wasn't concerned because I had perfected the art of becoming a chameleon by this point. To dislike me would be to dislike oneself (or so I thought). As I met my floormates, I'd suss out what their interests were and reflect those back as though I miraculously loved to fly fish (hadn't tried), hike (truth), attend concerts (hadn't been to any), wear pink (real, breast cancer is no joke), and the list goes on.
In my mind, I was winning the friend game when I had already introduced myself to more than 20 people before our introductory floor meeting. Then 8 p.m. rolled around, and I went to the lounge where everyone gathered. As students found seats, I waved at a few familiar faces. One waved back, but it was to the person behind me, another looked behind herself, and the next few simply re-introduced themselves to me. Our mini conversations about traveling from Ohio and how hard it was to find extra-long sheets at the last minute had apparently happened in an alternate universe. At the time, I found this confusing and chalked it up to first-day jitters, but this scenario occurred repeatedly. Everywhere I went — to class, lab, the cafeteria, or gym — I was a walking amnesia pill. Thank god for my roommates. Without them, I probably never would have made friends.
As panic set in and I considered that maybe college was a mistake, I scanned my neighbors. I looked for the "best" personalities to emulate — those who entered the same lounge I was in, opened a book and, minutes later, were surrounded by a group of talkative peers. Anytime I saw this happen, I'd casually sit at the edge of their conversation and try gleaning the recipe for their personality. The problem was, like most good cooks, they could often whip something together with random leftover ingredients and have it taste delicious. Their unique blend of spices created the confident, self-assured meal they served, and the aroma stirred up everyone's hunger.
These people with the "best" personalities and I were diametric opposites. Assimilation is the absorption and integration of people, ideas or culture. In my drive to assimilate, I became a sponge. A sponge is not attractive. No one dresses up as a sponge for Halloween unless they're also wearing square pants. Slowly, I started to understand why no one remembered me: No one wanted a mirror. College students pay large sums of money to learn, explore ideas and be challenged. Not to have their own thoughts regurgitated back to them.
In my drive to assimilate, I became a sponge. A sponge is not attractive.
Okay, so let's rewind here for a second and return to that yogurt stand in Vietnam. I wish I could grab little Jamie's face and tell her to look around. To absorb what it means to be Vietnamese because that would be the key to unlocking all the doors to the future. College is the first time I remember non-Vietnamese people telling me they liked phở. Suddenly phở was fabulous, and I was a fraud. Looking back at my cousin and me standing there, I consider the two paths in our forked road quite differently. If I hadn't had so much guilt about getting a golden ticket for doing virtually nothing, would I have tried so hard to be something I wasn't? Would I have loved being Vietnamese? If I hadn't felt this intense desire to hide my cultural identity, would I have been the one making a giant pot of phở in the dorms to share with my new friends? I don't think I'll ever know for sure.
But I do know this: Assimilation killed my self-esteem because it said, "Don't be you. Be everyone else." And once I let go of wanting to assimilate, I knew I had to find myself. I'd fallen down a rabbit hole and climbing out of it was hard. Years of mirroring others made it challenging to trust my core self.
Then sometime that year, I came across Joan Didion's famous quote, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." A light bulb clicked on in the basement of my brain, and I grabbed a pen and paper. As it turned out, I wasn't devoid of ideas or interests; they were all there, sitting in the dark, collecting dust. So, box by box, I began unpacking, and you'll find pieces of what I discovered scattered across my books.