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
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traditions as outdated, irrelevant, sexist and unfair.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
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?
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.
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.
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
Thank you and Happy Year of the Tiger!