Because my grandfather is the eldest, the whole family — about 25 people spanning three generations — assembles at his house in Wichita to celebrate the Lunar New Year and pay our respects.
We laugh. We take pictures. We eat curry, egg rolls and sticky rice cake. We pass out lucky red envelopes. And we wish each other a happy new year with lots of good fortune, prosperity and happiness. In that moment, I’m happy to be with my relatives and feel proud to be Vietnamese.
It wasn’t always like that.
Growing up, I learned Vietnamese traditions before American ones. My parents emigrated from Vietnam separately — my mother was in her teens, my father in his 20s. They met, got married and had their first child here: me. They came to America with almost no money, but worked hard to give me a happy childhood. I have fond memories of new toys and clothes, holiday parties, family vacations and a private school education.
Then my parents got stricter, and I got more rebellious. I was their oldest and only daughter, and they didn’t know what to do. They were protective and tried to keep me home because they didn’t want me to get caught up in parties, drugs and boys, when in reality, I just wanted to hang out with friends like any normal American teenager. But my father didn’t like that.
I can hear him now: “You were born in America, but you’re not American. You have Vietnamese blood.”
During the few summers I visited Vietnam, I never fit in. I looked Vietnamese and I spoke the language fluently, but people knew I wasn’t from there by the way I dressed and acted. To them, I was a tourist. I was American. Confused and conflicted, I was caught between two cultures. There were moments when I wished I wasn’t Vietnamese at all.
I went to college at Wichita State University so I could live at home. My father continued to push conservative values on me, and I kept resisting. We fought often. Tensions increased until we couldn’t be in the same room together. I was trapped and lost.
So, I did what I could to escape: I transferred to the University of Kansas. I changed my major from pre-dentistry to journalism so I could do what I wanted, not what my parents wanted. I didn’t return home my whole first semester at University. I was embarrassed to face my father because I felt like I’d run away.
At KU, I thrived and followed my passions, but my family was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t talk to them much. Being away from home made me realize how much I missed it — my mother’s Vietnamese cooking, Vietnamese music blasting through the house, and having someone to talk to in my native language. I even missed my father’s protectiveness. In Lawrence, there was no one to watch over me or remind me of my roots.
Moving away from my family helped me understand the importance of being connected to my heritage. It was an integral part of who I am, and I couldn’t ignore it.
I came back for Christmas. It was tense at first, but my father and I had a long, overdue conversation. I apologized to him for all the trouble I’d caused the past few years, and I told him about the lessons I learned. I told him that I appreciated him and my mother for their sacrifices. I promised to be a better daughter.
My father told me what I already knew: that everything he had done was for me. Before I was born, he was thinking of me. That's why he and my mother immigrated to America from Vietnam: they yearned for the American dream and wanted to give their children the best chance at a good education and successful future. It’s something they didn’t have growing up in Vietnam.
My father admitted that he was too strict and difficult on me. He was afraid of losing me, he said. The more he tightened his hold, the more I slipped through his fingers like sand.
Then, he said two things I never expected to hear: “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.
Here’s the thing about Asian fathers: they don’t express their emotions verbally; they show it mainly by action. I always knew that my father loved me, but hearing it out loud was entirely new.
Since that day, my father and I don’t fight anymore. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but we’re better at understanding each other.
It's Lunar New Year, and I’m sitting on my grandpa’s couch, taking in the wonderful sight and sound of my family members mingling. Everyone is in high spirits. I want to remember this moment forever.
I text my boyfriend, whose family is also from Vietnam, and I say, “I love being back with all my family again. I’ve never felt more happy and proud of my culture.” He replies, “Same. We must carry this on.” And then I tell him I can’t wait for him to come to my family gatherings — in the future, of course, because my father doesn’t want to meet my boyfriend until I graduate college. Old habits do die hard.