Whether you’re from America or Australia or any other western country, if your ethnicity is Vietnamese, your experience in your ancestors’ homeland will be unique.
Take this scenario…The year is contemporary 2019. The place? Vietnam’s most progressive city — rising Saigon. My friend, a tall, white guy with blue eyes, walks into an English School without credentials and asks for a teaching job. He receives an application form. Next, I walk into the same English School to follow up on the detailed application I had submitted online. Silence, as the staff exchange nervous glares. Who am I? I am a Viet Kieu expat.
Vietnamese locals question my identity on a daily basis, and I am yet to become accustomed to the overall confusion that baffles them. With long black hair, sharp eyes and a tanned Asian complexion, the fluidity of my English often comes into question. Being a Viet Kieu expat has not only become a part of who I am, but what I am first and foremost in Saigon.
Viet Kieu: Not Asian enough to be Vietnamese, not white enough to be Australian
For travelers, immigrants and expats such as myself of Vietnamese descent but born and bred in Western society, we are Viet Kieus. Expats travel for various reasons. But the Viet Kieu experience is unique, in comparison to other expatriates. And every reason quickly becomes a shocking reality. These are my reasons…
To connect with family
This actually means various forms of interaction with a lot more family than you even knew was even possible. You can divide these engagements into the following groups:
Sinking countless Tiger beers until the early hours of the morning with shirtless uncles (karaoke mandatory).
Interrogations with squatting aunties wondering why you’re single as they infiltrate every personal boundary to understand your situation. (Note: “I don’t want to/I’m not ready to get married” does not fly. Avoid it at all costs. A tip to other Viet Kieu’s who want to deflect this question is, “I’m focusing on my studies/job right now.” You’re welcome.)
Cousins (miscellaneous randoms)
Realizing the Vietnamese use the term “cousin” quite loosely. Whether he’s the guy at the local smoothie stand or your taxi driver, anyone and everyone can apparently be your cousin in Vietnam.
To explore Vietnamese history and culture
Exploring the country’s rising culture is an educational experience for travelers, considering Vietnam’s war-torn history. As a Viet Kieu expat, this comes hand-in-hand with a roller coaster of emotions surrounding:
I’ve always taken much pride in my apparent knowledge of Vietnamese food, especially in Sydney, where I am the token Asian friend. But in Vietnam I know squat about Vietnamese food. I find myself pulling the same facial expressions that many of my non-Vietnamese friends do when seeing an Asian menu without pictures. My whole life has been a lie.
I quickly realized the blessings I have been granted as an Australian.
My family would be considered successful Viet Kieus. I am a fortunate Vietnamese person who has had means to access the benefits of an Australian lifestyle, one vastly different to the majority in a nation that continues to suffer emotionally, mentally and financially as a result of its complicated history.
This guilt is often surpassed by a deeper shame. I feel conflicted with whether or not I am abusing my status in the midst of rising Vietnam. Am I giver or taker?
The transcending smack-in-my-face guilt is because I know that my expat journey is at the expense of my parents’ historical war trauma. They fled Vietnam as refugees, risked their lives at sea, were detained in a refugee camp for 18 months, and hustled for years in a foreign country to provide better lives for my brothers and me…only for me to return as an expat 32 years later to sip on cafe sua da and retrieve that year-round tan. The only way I overcome this is to remind myself that, “If I’m not carrying a pang of soul-wrenching guilt in relation to my parents, am I even Vietnamese?”
I had long dreamt of settling into Vietnam’s working expat lifestyle. As most expats in Vietnam do, I opted to teach English.
The general requirements for a native English speaker like myself are easy to satisfy and therefore allow for great opportunities to make money, typically around $20 USD per hour, or more. I believed that my fluency in Vietnamese would allow me to better communicate with students, and figured that an assistant teacher (generally required in most teaching cases) would not be necessary. Oh, but how presumptuous I was to assume this would be considered advantageous in my job search.
The Viet Kieu bias in the Vietnam Teaching Industry
I am qualified and experienced. But I’ve been turned away from jobs simply due to my appearance. Furthermore, my surname is Nguyen. (Helpful, right?) I have even been granted interviews only to be rejected after submitting a photo of myself upon request.
It hurt. I had never experienced this sort of prejudicial behavior before. I watched as my less qualified, more western (read: white) friends rejected job offers while I was justifying my Australian-ness to online recruiters. They often made observations such as, “You look Vietnamese.” On one occasion, I replied, “Yes, my dad is Vietnamese. I am Viet Kieu. Is this a problem?” He left my message on “read,” and I never heard from him again.
Current Viet Kieu status in Saigon
Although being a Viet Kieu in Vietnam is turbulent, it is filled with excitement and opportunity. Usually, people presume I’m a translator among locals when I’m out with my friends. I’ve learned to laugh it off and have finally settled into Saigon — a place to call home.
I am only one of the millions of Viet Kieus on the planet, each with their own understanding. I’ve managed to create a lifestyle that brings me great joy, one that was unattainable in Sydney. It’s hard to imagine a life anywhere else that allows me to read by the pool in the mornings, work in the afternoons, and sip on cheap cocktails in bars during the evenings. My goal was to live in Saigon, and for 2 months I have been doing just that.
I am Vietnamese. I am Australian. Who am I?
I am Viet Kieu, and I am proud.