But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor — landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before — that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream. Now I felt the deeper weight of my generational chains — my body confined, by history and policy, to certain zones.
In his memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the excerpt above on his time in Paris, in feeling foreign in a world that wasn’t his, outside of the American narrative he fit into.
My first two weeks in Vietnam, I felt alone, disconnected and on the brink of some sort of collapse. I realize now that culture shock is real and that the mind — at least my mind — is desperate for familiarity. When I probe further into this, I realize that my need to belong — to disappear into the crowd — comes from my childhood experience of being different. Everywhere I went in Chattanooga, Tennessee I was different. In elementary school, I remember only two other children of color in school with me, both black. In high school, there were maybe six of us total, in a class of 100.
While my eating disorder and alcoholism were born of many things, one principal struggle these afflictions relieved me of was my desire to fit in, to carve out a place for myself in this all-white world. My eyes have always been too small, my hair too black, my skin too yellow. And while I couldn’t change my race, I could modify my body size with and without food and alter my personality with substances. Through these mediums, I became an artist experimenting with my tools, going deeper and deeper into changing myself.
Ultimately, it worked, in a way. I became the party girl, the skinny girl, the anti-authoritarian girl. I proudly wore the badge of the token asian and made fun of other Asian people to beat my friends to the punch. I assimilated in the way that many POC do, without question, without hesitation, in an unwavering quest to fit in.
In an equity conversation with a former colleague, she, a white woman who truly practiced equity but, like many white people, can be blind to experiences not of their own, commented on a statement made by a POC. He had provided a solution of assimilation to the problem posed in a meeting about racial tensions at work. “How could he say such things that were disempowering?” she asked in her ruminations. He does and can because it is what is expected of him, of us. Being American is to be white and middle class, to own a home and have a family, to have a steady job and benefits. That’s the dream we seek; that’s the dream our parents seek for us.
I can see how it would be shocking for a white person to hear that assimilation is the answer. But for POC like me, assimilation has been the only answer to my so-called successes in life. Assimilation is what caused me to change my form, inside and out, leading me down the path to addiction. Assimilation is what has allowed me to pass in high-minded circles. Assimilation is what has granted me a successful career. My assimilation runs deep and all the remnants of my current world reflect it.
Breaking the mold of assimilation wasn’t crucial to my recovery, but it’s crucial to me now at this juncture in life. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve reclaimed my identity as Asian-American, that I’ve stopped taking the term twinkie, a person who physically presents as Asian but harbors western notions, values, and ideas, lightly. To do this, I’ve had to come to terms with my own internalized racism towards my own race, recognizing that I relate, converse, and experience life with these people in a way that is more similar than not.
This is why Vietnam has been so hard for me. Unlike Coates, I felt those same alien feelings coming back to me. The feeling of never fitting in, no matter how hard I try. I cried to Matt on the phone one morning, so afflicted by these feelings. In one of my earlier posts, I joked about my conceited notion that everyone is staring at me. But I realized that this notion is born out of this feeling of difference. I’ve become hypervigilant to looks — both overt and furtive — because I’ve spent my life trying to camouflage into the white cloth that surrounds me. And now, confronted with a different cloth, I find those old feelings flooding back to me, transporting me to the child I once was.
It’s been three months and I’ve gotten more used to this feeling of difference. I still feel the weight of the stares, but it feels less personal, impactful. I strive less to wear clothes like the Vietnamese, to walk like them, to talk like them, to live like them, instead finding my own way of living, the Jen Shin way, boldly, unapologetically.
I’m grateful for these triggers, these jolts back in time to a darker, more vulnerable place. They serve as a reminder of who I am, presenting me with the various scraps that are woven together to form the fabric of my being. They’ve also made me stronger in the face of difference, allowing me to build nooks and crannies that breed comfort instead of fear.
All of this brings me back full circle to why I’m in Vietnam to begin with. I came out a desire to travel but also out of a desire to challenge myself — my beliefs, notions, methods — in the face of difference. And, as far as I can tell, I think this Vietnam experience is going as planned, hardships and all.