As a child growing up in the seventies in the United States, I learned about European exploration, the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ and circumnavigation of the globe. The thrill of treasure, whole parts of the Earth you could claim for yourself, fabled streets of gold and fountains of youth – these were fantastic myths unfolding in my imagination. What I didn’t know in fourth grade (when I wrote, directed and starred in a recreation of Columbus ‘discovering’ the ‘New World’) was that these were stories of untold violence: murder, rape, enslavement, thievery and the enactment of racist ideologies for the exploitation of black and brown people that continues today.
By the age of two, I had circumnavigated half the globe. I left with my newly married parents aboard a plane from Saigon. Our first stop was the once Kingdom of Hawaii. I didn’t know about any of that then either. My ‘discovery’ was the hotel ice-cube maker and the joy of chewing ice. If it were possible, at age two, I could have written about my discovery of the Hawaiian Islands and their magic machines that made mounds of square frozen water.
We were refugees and yet we were not refugees. My (European American) father worked for the US Department of State; we made our home in the DC area where I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, lived in a brick ‘rambler’ built for returning World War II vets in the late forties, and learned never to speak Vietnamese. Vietnamese were ‘dirty kneed’, enemies, a source of guilt or sin.
My Vietnamese mother was born in the Year of the Snake. She left her skin behind and never returned to Vietnam. Like many immigrants, we melted our identities, and yet did not.