During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
I didn’t understand why, but I wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed. I told my mom I wanted to be like the other girls in my class.
I begged to eat hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and spaghetti like the other kids for dinner. For lunch my mom packed me fried rice. Seriously, why couldn’t it be a peanut butter sandwich?
On the playground, kids slanted their eyes, spoke gibberish and then asked me if I understood.
All my life, people asked me, 'What’s your real name?'”
Those are some of my childhood memories. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was an outsider and all I wanted was to fit in and be like everyone else.
I didn’t appreciate our family story. My grandmother, mother and her siblings fled Vietnam to escape Communism with dreams of a better future.
My mother was pregnant with me at the time. She made a conscious decision to give me an “American” name. My namesake is the Bionic Woman, Jamie Summers — the show was popular back then, and it was the only American name my mother knew.
Yet all my life, people asked me, “What’s your real name?”
It got to the point where I asked people if they wanted to see my birth certificate.
I’ve been told I look like “a China doll,” and asked countless times, “Where are you from?” I’ve been told I don’t “sound Asian.” What does that even mean?
That’s how I grew up. Now that I have daughter, it’s so different seeing it from her perspective. My husband is Cuban and I’m Vietnamese, so we lovingly call her our Cubnamese American baby.
She identifies as Asian. She’ll gladly down a bowl of pho or ramen, and of course dumplings. She’ll happily share her heritage and family history with anyone. She’s given presentations on her heritage at school, wearing a traditional Vietnamese outfit known as an Ao dai.
She’s even requested noodles for school events. Back in the day, I winced if my mom mentioned making egg rolls, a labor of love I didn’t appreciate, for a school function.
I can’t recall ever openly talking about race in our house. What I do remember is having it drilled into me that I had to work harder than everyone else. That I couldn’t compare myself to others because it didn’t matter what the others did. What did matter was what I did. College wasn’t a question. It was a minimum requirement.
Now I have such admiration for what my mom did. Looking back, she made miracles happen. She never had the chance to go to college and worked mostly entry-level jobs. I never realized how little we had growing up because my mom, along with her sisters, protected me. My aunts swooped in to fill the gaps: the money for the prom dress, the class ring I wanted. Somehow, someone stepped in.
Sometimes I was reminded of all that was lost when they journeyed to the States. They left behind loved ones. They walked away from material wealth and status. I always felt I had to make their sacrifices pay off.
For my own daughter, I want her to experience the world with an open mind and take the risks that I never thought I could. I want her to know it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to ask for help. I marvel at her confidence and how easily she embraces her identity. So when she recently asked me, “Mom, why do they hate us?” I was gutted.
She’s not oblivious. The news is always on in our house, so she heard about the attacks on elderly Asians and the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in America. Sometimes I couldn’t hit the mute button fast enough. Why hadn’t I gotten ahead of it? Why didn’t I talk to her about it before it came to this awful question?
As parents, I think we often want to shield our kids from the ugly parts of the world, but reality has a way of creeping in.
I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. I vaguely recall telling her that they don’t hate her. They’re just angry and needed someone to blame. And she connected the dots herself. She said, “They’re mad because of the coronavirus? Because President Trump called it Kung Flu?”
It reminded me of the Black Lives Matter protests. That was the first time we talked about race and how people can be judged by their skin color and the way they looked. She couldn’t wrap her mind around that. She said, “But mom, it’s about the inside. Their heart and brain.”
If only the world could learn from a kid.