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克城亞裔節:

越裔律師Angela Thi Bennertt:作爲亞裔美國人的自豪

Good afternoon Mayor Jackson, members of City Council, and public officials. I would like to express a special thanks to Madame Ryan and the Asian Pacific American Federation for inviting me to briefly address you today about the art of balancing traditional Asian culture with today’s all-American culture. There are three things that I will discuss:
1. my personal challenges on becoming “Americanized”;
2. how I grew to appreciate and embrace my Asian culture; and
3. how I now balance my Asian culture in my personal and professional life.
When my family moved to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975, we settled in East Cleveland. Yes, East Cleveland, not LA, New York, or Chicago, where there were and still are large communities of Asians. When we settled in East Cleveland, we were the only Vietnamese family, in what felt like a thousands of miles away. In addition to being a first generation Asian American, I was bi-racial, half Black, half Vietnamese. So I am acutely aware of the readily apparent cultural and physical differences between Vietnamese culture and American culture.
So here I was, this little half Black, half Vietnamese, curly haired girl running around East Cleveland, where no one looked like me. While I made friends very easily, I always felt different, and never quite felt like I fit in anywhere, either as an American or a Vietnamese. With the racism and hostility I experienced as a little girl, I knew right away that there was something different about me that generated negative feelings. The wounds from the Vietnam War were fresh and deep.
And like many other Asian Americans, I was faced with conflicted feelings of choosing between maintaining my cultural identity or becoming “Americanized.” So as I became older, I chose to become “Americanized.” I didn’t want to be different. I came to view our traditions as outdated, irrelevant, sexist and unfair. I would tell my mom on countless occasions, “I’m Americanized”, or “I’m not in Vietnam anymore, I’m in America.” I remember becoming embarrassed if my mom spoke Vietnamese in public. I absolutely rebelled against anything I thought was Vietnamese.
So to learn English, I watched Sesame Street, Electric Company, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, everything on WVIZ I could watch. The other difference was that the girls that I grew up with were so confident, outgoing, and fashion forward. And here I was, this ackward, little girl, who was lucky to be able to get her hair into a decent ponytail, and to make matters worse, my parents refused to shop anyplace other than Woolworth’s, Zayre’s or Pickway shoes. So, when I became old enough to work, I did so I could purchase the fashions that would make me “fit in.” Then there was the hair issue. In junior high, I abandoned the long hair for a shorter feather cut to look like everyone else.
But as I became older, more mature and developed a stronger sense of self, I realized that I didn’t have to abandon my cultural identity in an attempt to completely assimilate into American culture. That no matter what I did, I would always be different. So, I began to embrace, appreciate and celebrate my differences. I stopped allowing people to try to force me to choose one ethnicity over the other. I came to understand that I what I viewed as “sexist” was grounded in respect and courtesies that men and women extended to one another, in different yet, equally important ways. When my grandfather passed away, my Ong Ngoai, I realized that my history was passing away as well.
But more importantly, as a mother, I wanted to preserve my Vietnamese culture for my children and my children’s children. And fortunately, my children have embraced their diverse cultures and have a curiosity and desire to learn and be a part of our rich traditions and history. So, how do you balance the two cultures?
PERSONALLY
On a personal level, become active in a local community group. If you do not have a local community group within your culture, create one. It can be as informal as a group of friends gathering in your home to play cards or share stories. If there is one, join it and become active. Bring your children so they can interact with the community members and children and become exposed to their culture. And, if there’s an opportunity to share your culture with your children, either through a class project or a culture day, take advantage of it. You would be surprised at how excited and proud your children will be. Just recently, my mother was invited to my son’s 3rd and 4th grade class to share our Vietnamese culture. Because of her work schedule, my son, begrudgingly accepted me as a substitute. In addition to bringing photos, music, and wearing our native dress, I brought food - spring rolls, dried coconut, dried squid and wafer sticks. I wasn’t quite sure how the class would receive some of the food, especially the dried squid, but they were surprisingly open and receptive, and were willing to experiment with everything. It was so successful that my son, who would normally avoid me like the plague in front of his friends, walked me to my car and told me he was now the coolest kid in school.
Also, try to preserve your native language. Unfortunately, there’s the group like me, who can speak so few words that it equates to not being able to speak the language at all, or have only learned to say the bad words. And then, there’s the group who can speak the language, but can’t write or read it. While it may be challenging to force our children to learn it, it’s one of those things where they may not like it or understand it now, they will appreciate it later. I challenge you to organize intergenerational language classes in your community, where the older generation can learn English and the younger generation can learn how to speak, read and write your native language, so that your native language is not lost.
Preserve your culture during the holidays. At any given holiday, it’s not unusual for our dinner table to have turkey, greens, yams, spring rolls, fried rice, and banh xeo, with chocolate cake and lychee fruit for dessert. Teach your children how to make the dishes. Engage them in the preparation.
And don’t just expose yourself and your children to only your culture, help them become familiar with other cultures. America has a lot of communities that make up America. By getting to know other cultures, you develop a sensitivity to and appreciation for others. And through that exposure, you’ll find that you have common interests and become more tolerant and inclusive of one another.
PROFESSIONALLY
On a professional level, maximize the benefits of your cultural identity, without becoming stereotyped or labeled:
> Join organizations, groups and associations, such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association that support and advance your interests. And if there isn’t one, or if one has become inactive, emulate Barbara Lum and jump start one, such as the Greater Cleveland Asian American Bar Association. Become active politically in advancing your community’s interests. For instance, attend the first Ohio Asian American Pacific Islander Legislative Day at the Ohio Statehouse on June 8.
> Market your fluency, or even proficiency in a foreign language. This can be a desirable asset, especially when a company’s client base is diverse, or even international in scope. But, remember, fluency in English is still a business priority.
> Market your ability to be culturally sensitive to different cultures and peoples. Knowing what is proper behavior in one culture and rude behavior in another culture is a valuable employment skill.
CONCLUSION
As we are all aware, much progress has been made, not just nationally, but right here in Cleveland. Just look at us today - celebrating National Asian Heritage Month at Cleveland City Hall. When we first came to Cleveland in 1975, there was only one Asian grocery store and the only Asian food that was familiar to Americans was “Chinese”. Now, we have Asian plaza, #1 Pho, Korean House, Siam Café, Café Tandoor and a host of other Asian restaurants. And we are finally not all being classified as one group – finally dispelling the all too common notion that “All Asians look alike.”
I’m sure you have had heard references to America as a melting pot or a salad. But to me, America is not a melting pot or a salad – it’s a stir fry, full of colorful, unique ingredients that together, make a beautiful dish.
So, as we leave today, I encourage you to embrace, appreciate and celebrate our differences. Because the reality is, we can all take pride in our cultural heritage and be successful Americans at the same time. We don’t have to choose one culture over the other. But together, we can forge a stronger, more successful multi-cultural society.
Thank you and Happy Year of the Tiger!

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

 

 

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