When did I, a daughter of Vietnam, become an American?
It wasn’t 1975, when our family fled the fall of Saigon and rebuilt in Phoenix. Not in 1982, the year on our U.S. citizenship certificates. It wasn’t when I married a punk-rock fan. Not even after we had kids and asked our parents to live with us in a bicultural, multigenerational household outside Washington, D.C.
What finally Americanized me was a vote I cast in July 2007.
Why did it take three decades? Wouldn’t a child of 9, even hardly speaking English, assimilate quickly in American schools? Isn’t that what immigrants fear, their children losing their language and heritage?
It’s true that teachers and classmates were so helpful, I progressed quickly from spelling everybody “evryparty” to acing report cards. Girls asked me to sleepovers. Neighborhood kids filled our yard. I fit in. Until puberty, when it’s human nature to start asking ourselves that all self-absorbing question: Who am I?
Answer: a political refugee. My family didn’t leisurely choose to leave Vietnam, debating when and where. We were not economic or tourist migrants. This was a matter of survival: Because Dad was a former South Vietnamese officer and an editor of an English-language weekly, if we stayed the incoming communist government would have sent him to “re-education” work camps, just as it did to my uncles who were taken prisoners at the front. The new regime would have punished Mom not only because of her husband but also for her siblings who served in the South Vietnamese military, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, who married American soldiers.
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