If it wasn’t for Denmark I would have been born an American, live the all American life in the greatest country in the world. I wonder if I would grow up in California since my parents can’t stand the cold, and perhaps I would learn how to surf, or get a hot rod at sixteen, and I wonder would change my perspective on race and culture. Most likely, since I would be living the American way, that is how I imagine it from films like “Back to the Future”, and “American Graffiti ”. Or perhaps I would still hold the same beliefs since I would still be the son of an immigrant, a son growing up trying to integrate without losing touch of his culture. Someone trying so hard to be part of both worlds that eventually he is part of neither. Of course because of the Danish, this is nothing more than a silly fantasy from my 17-year-old self.
My parents fled Vietnam after the war with my oldest sister who was 2 at the time, they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand. They stayed there for about a year, my second sister was born there in that period. During their stay in the refugee camp my parents got invitations from different countries that offered them political asylum. But they were holding out for America, since my father fought on the side of the South Vietnamese, America was the only option for them, in fact for them and the other Vietnamese it was the Promised Land. There was a waiting list for America, and they were at the top of it, they were so close. And then Denmark came with an offer for asylum, and once again my parents declined. The Thai social workers told my parents that they had refused too many invitations, and that they would have to accept the next one, otherwise they would be staying at the refugee camp at least one more year. And with a small child and a newborn, this would be no option for them. On the September 11th 1977 the Dutch government offered my parents political asylum and they had to accept, not knowing what or where the Netherlands was. They were in tears after they saw it on a map and realized how far it was from America, they had their hopes set for America, and now they would go to this unknown country.
They arrived in the Netherlands in December that year, and because their accommodation in the refugee center wasn’t ready yet, they stayed in a three star hotel in Amsterdam for three months. In those months my parents went to Dutch class to learn the language, although it was mostly my father since mother would watch my sisters. Because there hadn’t been such an influx of refugees before in the Netherlands, the government had to create the infrastructure at the same time the refugees arrived. One of the social workers assigned to my parents was a Dutch nun who had lived in Vietnam and spoke perfect Vietnamese, she even had a Vietnamese name, we called her Bac Ly. To think of that time, that era and hear the stories of the Vietnamese who arrived then, it almost sounds like a utopia compared to the situation of the Syrian refugees today.
Years later I would find a photo of my parents with my two sisters at the airport, they had arrived with other refugees and were greeted by Dutch citizens at the airport. After the hotel in Amsterdam my parents moved to their accommodation in the refugee center, which was a bungalow park. My parents still thought they could go to America, but after a while they accepted that that wouldn’t happen, not soon after I was born.
Even though there were many Dutch people welcoming my parents with friendly faces, there were also those who disliked the government’s willingness to take in refugees. It is difficult for me to empathize with people who are so adamant against helping people in need, no one wants to be a refugee, but once that happens the last thing they need is to face prejudice and anger. Being the son of refugees I have witnessed how hard it is to start over in a new country. Facing racism and hatred was difficult for my parents; it was confusing as well in the beginning when they were just starting to learn the language. Some Dutch were very welcoming, others would yell at them angrily.
A few years ago my father told me he felt guilty toward the Dutch government that he didn’t do better, at first I thought it was a strange remark, my parents arrived with the clothes on their back, an infant and a small child, and from that they managed to put four kids through college, I told him he should be proud, but for him, and for my mother they felt they were given a chance for a new life, so therefore if Dutch society treats them with some sense of racism, they would accept it. And for a while my siblings and I went along in that thought process, we did it subconsciously, ignoring the calls and remarks. We were small kids only, my sisters were 9 and 6 years old, and I was all of 5 years old, but I remember those days even though racism was still too abstract for me to understand, in my mind I thought people yelled at us because they were just angry. To me some people were just unhappy when they saw us.
The first time I encountered real racism I was 6 years old, I say real racism in that it was because of my race. My two older sisters were 7 and 10 years of age, and we were playing outside near our house in a park where families could go for a pick nick and kids could climb trees. We had gone there many times before, and even made some friends with the local kids, but this one time a little blond kid, about my age would yell at us, calling us quite literally poop Chinese and pulling the outer corners of his eyes in case we didn’t get the message. The fact that he yelled at us didn’t really surprise us, we had kids calling us names before, and we were would just reply by sticking out our tongues or raising our fist (since the middle finger wasn’t introduced until the late 80s).
What really surprised us that day, and also shocked us a bit was that the little blond kid was having a pick nick with his parents, and his parents started to repeat what the kid said, and would encourage him. First of all, we were too shocked to respond, we never thought an adult would openly insult us like that, up until that point we just assumed it was name-calling amongst kids. When we got home and told our parents, they couldn’t really explain it to us, and told us to just forget about it, because some people are “just like that”.
There is always and always will be a fear of the unknown, and more specifically the fear of the foreigner, and suddenly we became the foreigner, it was after we moved because my parents found work in the South of the Netherlands and I was about to enter high school. It seemed to happen very suddenly, all of a sudden there was more name-calling and I started to notice how very different we were from the Dutch. We weren’t outcasts, we had Dutch friends and we felt we were pretty well integrated. But you were always aware you were different. Subtleties like being followed around in stores, not getting in certain bars because they were “full” or just receiving weird “compliments” that turns your race into stereotype; hard worker, never complaining, and good in math.
Race has played such a large part in my life, whether I like it or not, that sometimes I feel as if I’ve been slightly misplaced, I’m not quite Dutch, and not quite Vietnamese, my thoughts are in Dutch but I look Asian. I know I am not alone in feeling like this, there are many immigrant children who share the same experience growing up, but from my point of view it has shaped me a great deal. Which is an awful though, the idea a lot of my values an opinions are not only formed by my cultural heritage but also the racism I had encountered growing up. Over the years I have come to accept these encounters with racism as normal, it’s just part of me, or more precisely part of how the other sees me. And I have reluctantly made peace with it; perhaps that Asian stereotype does apply to me, never complaining.
But then there is always America, when I prepared to move here, all those images from the great American movies flashed through my mind. The Ultimate land of the Immigrant, it would be such a great and wonderful experience. Once I got off at Boston Logan, I got stuck at customs; I had entered the United States of America. All the passengers of my plane went out the gate, and was sent to a small interrogation room below and then lined up with four others to open our bags. I looked around me and saw four colored faces; we all had the same expression on our face: resignation.