Like All American Stories, Mine is Complicated

A biracial American reflects on her Vietnamese roots, anti-Asian violence, her cousin who ran ICE for Trump, and our common humanity.

My buddy Joe in Arkansas called a while back and said he wanted to tell me a story about his friend, a captain at the local fire department. As a first responder, his friend has saved hundreds of lives, but couldn’t save the life of his son when the boy took his own life. Dealing with human suffering in his work for over 20 years, coupled with his own personal suffering, had taken a toll on his mental health. He’d found solace in volunteering for Joe’s organization Steaks 4 Sheepdogs, which tries to “create communities…that are willing to work together and not be so divisive.” Joe added that his friend owned laundromats where he allowed homeless people to wash their clothes for free and has donated significant time and money to underserved communities.

I wondered why Joe was telling me about this good guy until he revealed that his friend was facing a third-degree assault charge and was forced to resign from his job. The charge was for punching a man in an incident that happened outside a casino in Hot Springs, and the victim was a Vietnamese American. Joe’s friend allegedly said to the victim Liem Nguyen, “Your kind of people are not supposed to be here, I’m going to kill you and your kind of people.” I don’t know what kind of response Joe expected from me, a biracial American whose mother is Vietnamese. When I hear about any kind of attack on an Asian American, particularly Vietnamese Americans, I feel I am being attacked, too, and like we are being told, “You don’t belong here, you are not a real American.”

I met Joe a couple of years ago while traveling the country with Looking For America, an initiative exploring immigration and American identity in communities across the United States through public art, storytelling, and dialogue. I organized a series of conversations with folks across the political spectrum to break bread and share what it means to be American in different communities. I traveled as far away as Anchorage and El Paso and found there were 330 million American stories. Those conversations took me out of my Washington, D.C. cocoon and gave me lots of practice listening with curiosity to people very different from me and from each other. Sometimes those conversations became heated. So even though hearing about a racist attack on a fellow Asian American was hard, I listened to Joe’s story.

Joe is a self-declared redneck who rolled up to our first meeting wearing a cowboy hat and driving a truck with a gun rack in the rear window. I wondered if I looked my part of “East Coast Liberal Elite” as much as he did “Archetypical Trump Voter.” Even though Joe derided liberals (like me!) as condescending socialists hellbent on destroying his small town way of life, I liked the guy. He reminded me of the men who’d been friends with my working-class father. Men who fish, hunt, and cook their catch, who take pride in being able to provide and take care of their friends like they were family.

After we talked in the coffee shop for over two hours that day, he texted that he wanted to be part of Looking for America. “Y’all count me in,” he said. “The sooner we start seeing how much the same we are the sooner our lives will benefit.” Joe and I agreed that hate is tearing our country apart and we would each do our part to bridge the divides. If it sounds a little Kumbaya, it was. I didn’t just meet a guy from a Trump-supporters-in-a-diner story, of which about ten million have been written. I saw Joe. He saw me. We’ve since talked to each other on the phone a few times. He’s cooked dinner for me and my friends in his home.

So when he called me recently, I tried to understand how his pal slugged a Vietnamese American. I’d hoped Joe would share some mitigating factor for the violent act and racist words, like maybe that Mr. Nguyen struck first. About the best he had to offer, was that his friend was drunk and possibly drugged. I have never seen evidence to show that alcohol or drugs induce racist behavior or attitudes. (See Gibson, Mel.) I have seen plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that alcohol and drugs reveal more than they distort.

Like Joe’s friend, my brother was fired from a job years ago when he fought a man outside a bar. The man had hurled a racist slur and my brother fought back. My brother was a victim, but he also has a temper and was drunk when he slugged the man. Knowing him, my brother probably antagonized the guy in some way before the incident escalated. He can be kind of an asshole sometimes. (Sorry brother if you’re reading this!)

I’m not making excuses for racism. All acts of racism, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, uphold systemic racism. But my first reaction to hearing Joe’s story had not been outrage. That came later as I thought about how difficult it is for humans to inflict physical violence on each other unless they have dehumanized their victim. Joe hadn’t attacked the man, but he was making excuses, implicitly asking me to absolve his friend. Joe’s apology for his violent friend tested my capacity for compassion in a way that had me wondering once again, “Have I been wasting my time trying to connect with folks who see people that look like me as less than human?”

I have no qualms about Joe’s friend facing legal consequences if convicted, up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Arkansas is one of only three states that does not have a hate crime law, though, so there will be no additional jail time or fine added to his sentence. I have grappled with whether increasing the punishment is the right response to the racist aspects of his friend’s actions. I have doubted whether his friend being forced to resign from his job over the racist words was an appropriate response. Did this soul searching make me an apologist for racist actions? Am I a “Banana,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and so acculturated and assimilated to whiteness that I would make excuses for a white man attacking a yellow man? Or worse, not speak out at all? I heard what he said, though. You don’t belong here, you are not a real American.

What Joe’s friend did reminded me of all the times I’d been told I spoke English well, mistaken for Asian women who looked nothing like me, fetishized by men who “preferred” Asian girlfriends. Reminded me of one Halloween night when teen-aged boys, back home in Richmond, Virginia, threw raw eggs at me and my little brother while we were trick-or-treating. They sped off cackling and screaming, “Chinks!” I pretended like nothing had happened and quietly led my brother home in the dark, holding back the tears until I crawled into bed. Reminded me of how I used to hold up my eyelids and squeeze the bridge of my nose in a futile attempt at making my face look less Asian.

Even when people would ask me where I was really from, I felt confident in my American birthright. My father was a blond, blue-eyed Californian, who conferred U.S. citizenship on me at birth, though I was born abroad. But my Asian face would always mean I was something other than a “real” American no matter how many reruns of The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver I watched after school, no matter how many pulled-pork BBQ sandwiches, Sloppy Joe’s, and tater tots I snarfed, no matter how many times I won my class spelling bee, no matter how many times I skated around the roller rink like all the other kids on Saturday nights.

I was lucky to have never been assaulted with more than words and an egg, but the insults, indignities, and tiny affronts chipped away at my confidence and humanity and have, when added together, sometimes hurt as much as a punch to the head. I brushed aside those small humiliations, though, and swallowed my hurt, and never let them see me cry.

My mother never encouraged my brother and me to assimilate the way some immigrant parents did, but she also never made us learn about our Vietnamese heritage. There was no Saturday Vietnamese school like the one my niece and nephew attended, where they studied Vietnamese language, culture, and customs. Mom also never made us take piano or violin lessons, do extra homework, or any of the Tiger Mom things. She was an uninvolved parent even after she regained full custody of us from my father who’d hidden us from her in Alaska for a year. My brother and I fended for ourselves in suburban Richmond, learning from television and the kids at school how to exist in the world and how to be American. We became what we saw around us, white and working class. Assimilation wasn’t a choice. It just happened.

I never belonged in the Asian world anyway. All Asians know that I am not full Asian. They treat me as something different from themselves. Vietnamese people rarely peg me for kin. When I first visited Vietnam many years ago, I had to pay the foreigner price for train tickets, not even the lower price for Vietnamese living abroad and certainly not the lowest Vietnamese price, no matter how much I insisted I was half-Vietnamese. Someone even asked me if I was Swedish, perhaps because of my blonde hair. Vietnamese people used to call us Amerasian kids bụi đời, or dust of the earth. It wasn’t a compliment. Even in my own family, my relatives are surprised that I know how to use chopsticks and marvel when I pile on a particularly pungent, fermented paste called mom tom.

Even apart from my Asian face, I often felt like I couldn’t relate to the experiences of folks in my suburban neighborhood either. By the time I arrived in Virginia in third grade, my passport had been stamped so often that an extension that folded out like an accordion had been added by the State Department to make room for more stamps. I’d lived for almost a year in a tiny village in the Alaskan interior, a place as exotic as any of the countries my dad’s job as a radio technician had taken us during the first years of my life. After my mother remarried another tall, blue-eyed, white American when I was 12 years old, we moved to Germany for a year and travelled to nearly every country in Western Europe. We returned to the same neighborhood in suburban Richmond where people rarely left the country, much less the state.

Growing up in America, there was never a box for me to check on those forms that asked for my race. In those days, they only let you check one box so I always checked “other.” I never had a word for this “other” until President Obama wrote about being a Third Culture Kid, biracial and rootless, from everywhere and nowhere, and shaped by multiple cultures. Obama ultimately chose his black identity. I became more and more comfortable in the spaces in between, in fully occupying my biracial identity.

I later learned the Hawaiian word hapa, which refers to a person of partial Asian descent, which is fitting on an island chain known for its mixed population. I finally had an answer to that question, “What are you?” I am 100 percent hapa.

Non-Asians occasionally can tell I am biracial, but more often consider me fully Asian. So I have no choice but to defend my Asian self when it is under attack, not only as a person of Asian descent, but as a human being. With the recent rise in anti-Asian violence, I have seen that whatever veneer of whiteness might have protected me doesn’t protect me at all. It will never matter how good of an immigrant I become, how much I resist racial categories, or how much or little I embrace my Asian identity, my Asian face will betray me.

Those who complain about everything being about race and who say race doesn’t matter haven’t lived as a person who is regularly reminded that her race matters. That is why identity politics matters.

The good immigrant narrative doesn’t take into account stories like mine, and that of millions of other Americans of Asian descent. The good immigrant narrative lumps Americans with Asian faces into a singular category that denies our individual humanity. The myth of the model minority disregards the diversity that exists within the 6 percent of Americans called Asian, disregards the multiple ethnicities, the myriad political views, the complexity of life experiences.

While I marched in protest throughout the summer after the murder of George Floyd, one of my cousins defended the police in sweeping terms. We fought about it on social media. He said Floyd had committed a crime when he used a counterfeit bill to pay for cigarettes. When I responded that passing along a fake $20 shouldn’t lead to the death penalty, my cousin reminded me that his father had owned a convenience store and had feared for his life when he was held up at gunpoint and robbed multiple times by Black men. In his experience, the police had protected him from danger. I have never found myself on the wrong end of a pistol held by a Black man, or anyone else for that matter.

While I have spoken out about immigration reform that de-emphasizes deportations and about our government’s lack of compassion for refugees and undocumented immigrants, my American story became even more complicated in the Trump years. Another cousin, Tony Pham, who’d been making a name for himself in Virginia Republican politics, was appointed acting director of ICE in 2020. He used his status as a Vietnamese refugee who’d been a “good immigrant” to justify denying today’s refugees the same American liberties our family sought 47 years ago when they came to this country. Tony escaped Vietnam with his family in April 1975, enduring a naturalization regimen that began in East Asian refugee camps and ended after 10 years of being good immigrants when they were rewarded with U.S. citizenship. They’d paid a higher price for citizenship than anyone born to it. I’d always taken my citizenship for granted and I never worried whether a misstep might jeopardize my American birthright.

Tony and I followed similar good immigrant paths. We graduated from top colleges in Virginia and then became lawyers, one of three approved professions for good immigrant children (the others being doctor and engineer). Our paths diverged when I left law practice after six years to follow my passion for the arts and community building. Every aspect of my life since then has reflected my drive to live with curiosity, creativity, and exuberance. From the swing that dangles from the ceiling in my home and the murals that cover the walls of my art-stuffed home, to the music jams on my terrace that the neighbors have invited the police to investigate, to getting arrested twice while protesting the Kavanaugh appointment, to traveling the world extensively, including an annual surfing trip to Costa Rica, to amassing a large social following, to creating a long-term romantic partnership that resembles few relationships I know. A friend’s dad once said, “She’s not like other people.” He didn’t mean I was unlike any immigrants he knew. He meant I was unlike anyone he knew.

As I become more aware of the systemic racism that oppresses my Black and Brown brothers and sisters, I better appreciate how the good immigrant narrative perpetuates their harm and hurts me, too. The “model minority” is a myth that pits us against one another, when we should instead stand together. My family’s experiences, so different from my own, laid bare the quandary I face between the comfort of my biracial identity and the fight for justice for all people, not only those who look like me. I can’t deny the truth of my family’s experience, though, nor can I deny the truth of what I know, too. I have learned how to embrace complexity and ambiguity. The American narrative is always fraught with tension and so is mine.

In the two months since the incident, the attorneys have circulated conflicting accounts of what happened that night in Hot Springs. The trial is set for June 16. Joe says there is a video proving that it wasn’t his friend who’d initiated the attack. It doesn’t really matter to me what actually happened, though.

The story dredged up a lot of terrible feelings and memories about my identity and of feeling dehumanized. This is a story about how I’m working on becoming the kind of person who can see Joe’s friend as a human being who is more than a white-man-who-committed-a-racist-act. I wonder about the experiences that a person has that can make them attack another human being simply for the way they look. Without denying my own experiences of having felt dehumanized by racism, I would like to be the kind of person who rejects dehumanization while finding compassion for a man who may have dehumanized someone who looks like me.

Regardless of the trial’s outcome, I’d like to see Joe’s friend and his family have dinner with Nguyen and his family every Friday night for a year, or build a Buddhist temple together for the local Vietnamese community and labor side-by-side in the temple garden raising summer vegetables. Maybe the two could volunteer together with Joe’s organization. These are the kinds of humanizing contacts and shared experiences that I’d like to see for all of us, not in lieu of jail time but as a way of living.

As for Joe, I admire him. He’s a community builder and he cares deeply about his fellow humans. I admire him for reaching out to me about what his friend had done. It meant he trusted me enough to have a difficult conversation about race and hear what I had to say, too. These are the kinds of tough conversations we need to have. We must say the hard things. The alternative is to stay in our corners and cling to our dehumanizing ideas while the country splits apart.

As for me, I cannot and do not wish to speak for all Asians. No one person with an Asian face speaks for every other one of us. But each of us must tell our stories. Speaking makes me—us—American. So does listening.

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Philippa PB Hughes

Philippa PB Hughes leads CuriosityConnects.us, bringing people together who would not normally meet for art-fueled, humanizing conversations