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  • Viet Linh Le

What it means to be Vietnamese

"I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me." - Virginia Woolf

While I will share my own story, the answer to this prompt can only be given by you. Identity is a very personal, complex, and intimate process. Who are we? What defines us? What has shaped us? Who do we want to become? It reminds of Michelle Obama`s book "Becoming" that, similar to today`s quote, suggests that we are continuously becoming - our best selves if we want to.


Identity can, thus, be a life-long journey, and admittedly, I haven`t dealt with this topic as much as I have when I was a teenager, a time when you desperately wanted to "belong" and "be part of" rather than being the outsider that stands out. Why the topic hasn`t kept me busy is also because I have found my answer and made peace with it, while being mindful of what my identity means to me as well as to others. But let me share my personal story with you.


I was born in Germany, while both of my parents are Vietnamese (although some say I don`t look "typically" Vietnamese or even look "mixed"). When I was young, I primarily identified myself with being Vietnamese given it was the first language we spoke at home (although I can`t speak it fluently) and I was surrounded by Vietnamese families, friends, and gatherings. I felt home, proud, and part of a Vietnamese collective culture. It wasn`t until I went to kindergarten and elementary school that I realized I was a foreigner.

Things change when you suddenly speak the country`s language more fluently than your parents. When I was still in elementary school, my parents gave me letters from authorities and councils to read and respond to without even understanding what "tax" or "sincerely" meant. I also remember one day when we reached a grade in elementary school where the class would be split into "Religion" and "Ethics". From the outside and with the eyes of a child, it was like the institution put all foreigners into "Ethics" and all Germans into "Religion" - this was probably the first time I felt being put into a box.


Other experiences dealt with having our first crush - when you had to realize that your German crush would probably be never interested in an Asian foreign girl. It was Identity experienced on an outside level. From the inside, I would realize the impact of (not) having an identity when our family first travelled to Vietnam. We were all excited, esp. our parents not having seen their relatives for a long time. Having felt foreign and as an outsider, I was thrilled to meet my "true" home, my "true" family (at the end, I never had grandparents to visit over Christmas), and my "true" people who would all have black hair, too.

After the first excitement of meeting our extended family, who welcomed us with open arms, and visiting a new, exotic country, I soon had to realize that even our Vietnamese people saw us as not Vietnamese, we were the Germans. It dawned on me that I was the foreign Vietnamese in Germany, although I was born in Germany, and, at the same time, I was the foreign German in Vietnam, although my name was Vietnamese. To a teenager, who also didn`t have many friends, this was sort of an identity crisis with no answers. During high school, you also didn`t have much headspace to work on this topic mindfully, so what I did was to accept that I was foreign, to also continue focussing on school (because this is what ultimately matters more in our Asian culture).


What people may not know, although I Iove telling this story, is that my name "Viet Linh" was given with the following meaning: "Viet" as part of "Vietnam" and "Linh" as part of "Berlin. When my mum first told this story, I fell in love with it, which has also become my own personal answer to this day. I may be a bridge between these two cultures, Germany and Vietnam (with London on top of this beautiful mix), in fact, I embody both of them in me - I live and combine the best of both worlds.


Love x,

Linh


What is your answer to your Vietnamese identity? Let us know by leaving us a comment or an email to vietnamwellbeing@gmail.com - join our Vietnam Wellbeing community today!

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