Vietnamese-Americana, or at least how I remember it


I know it’s just my age group and all, but there’s been a lot of articles and social media posts about turning 40, as if no other group has done so before us. Instead, we feel the need to publicly share all our angst–acting more like the millennials that we so disdain. Some of us take to extolling the virtues of being 40 over 20, as if we don’t miss our former svelte selves and prefer the wisdom afforded by our middle years. I don’t know about you, but I know lots of people in their late 30s and 40s who continue to lack any true wisdom. Other articles lament receding hair lines and encroaching crows feet, as if we’ve forgotten the acne problems or experimental facial hair efforts (goatee anyone?) of our youth. And yet others take on new exercise and diet regiments with much gusto, literally trying to eat, bike, and run ourselves back into our 20s (when we didn’t exercise at all). Why not yoga? Apparently that was so 2012, now it’s all about the biking and running gear. (How do you pronounce Lululemon anyhow?)  Blah. Whatever happened to just getting a convertible? And then there are the cultural references that only us newly-40 or nearly-40 types would understand and find funny: Reality Bites, LA Gear versus Reebok high tops, ‘N Sync versus NKOTB (both are equally cringe-worthy IMO), Atari, and the endless Star Wars jokes/memes/quizzes.

While I get all of these inside jokes and commentary, I grew up Vietnamese-American, a very particularly subset of American culture that is clearly under-represented in these articles.  So, in honor of the upcoming Tet celebration, and all my Viet peeps turning 40 this year and next, here are some reference points about the past that only my Vietnamese-American peers would get:

1) Video cassettes, and lots of them. Hong Kong serials ruled the family life, from Legend of the Condor Heroes to Police Cadet, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Chow Yun Fat were our heroes, and Barbara Yung was our heroine.  I know these are all Chinese actors, but we Viet re-appropriated them as our own long before Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or In the Mood for Love hit western screens.  Some 30+ years later and Tony Leung is still awesome. And even if you didn’t watch any of these serials, you know what I’m talking about.

2) Uncles and aunts, oh my! Every time our family met another family I seemed to gain more aunts and uncles. Only when I was a teenager did I realize that we weren’t actually related to most of them, but unfortunately, we were related to some. But still, I remember be dragged from house to house where us kids would always get thrown together and expected to get along. In reality, we all glowered at each other, trying to be more American than the others, and wondering why we weren’t allowed to hang out at the mall like other kids our age.

3) Medical school was the first choice, law school was the back up, and heaven forbid you’d need a third! Well, I took the road WAY-less traveled.

4) Tennis and volleyball, aka Asian sports. These were the only sports that Vietnamese-American kids played in high school. I followed suit and was on the tennis team. Who knows how cool we all would’ve been if only there had been table tennis to challenge us!

5) Holiday meals–what’s a turkey? We never had turkey at Thanksgiving, but I can guarantee you that our holiday meals could produce the very same food-induced coma! Holidays meant endless eating: heo quay (whole roast pig), bo 7 mon (beef seven ways), banh xeo (sizzling crepes), banh cuon (soft crepes), goi cuon (fresh rolls), goi tom ga (cabbage salad with pork and shrimp), cha gio (egg rolls), mi xao (stir-fried egg noodles), cua rang muoi (salt fried shrimp), sup mang cua (asparagus and crab soup)–pick any 6-8 dishes and you’d have Christmas dinner.

And if that isn’t enough, the Tet menu usually adds banh chung (steamed sticky rice with salted pork), banh tet (steamed sticky rice with either salted pork or banana), hu qua ham (steamed bitter melon stuffed with pork and shrimp), and a whole host of keo (candy), including candied coconut and sesame brittle.

6) New Wave music, Brother Louie anyone? It didn’t matter if Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the airwaves, all the Viet kids were swaying to Modern Talking and Depeche Mode. And of course, we had the wardrobe to match: black.

7) Speaking of music, Paris by Night.  Just typing those three words gives me the heebeejeebees.  I am almost certain that most of my peers disliked this variety show as much as I did, but it continues to have a strong following even by the younger generation.  For the uninitiated, check out youtube for performers and hosts speaking in the proper northern Vietnamese accents, wearing thick make-up (especially the middle-aged dudes), and even the occasional tattooed eyebrow.  In all seriousness, the shows were hardly ever shot in Paris and always consisted of a mix of classic Vietnamese songs, covers of mainstream American pop, as well as comedic skits.

8) Aqua Net. Okay, so here’s one thing that we shared with the non-Viet crowd: crispy hair. I can still see the perms with the big bangs in front. Yikes. I am guilty here but you will never get the photos to prove it.

I’m sure I forgot something.  What did I leave out?

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3 Responses to Vietnamese-Americana, or at least how I remember it

  1. Jennifer says:

    I’m not at all Vietnamese-American and age 40 is a distant memory. But I am a member of the diaspora (the non-specific, small d type) and I enjoyed reading your musings. I so wish I could have been there for your holiday meals, that’s for sure! Oh, and I love Tony Leung.

  2. hung nguyen says:

    Your post are great, just wonder why you use the flag?

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