Typically when I first meet somebody new I am asked about my ethnicity. For some odd reason, people seem to be very fascinated with my background. Most of the time, people guess that I am Chinese mixed Caucasian, and others, Chinese mixed Korean or Japanese. But after that whole awkward conversation of rejecting all of their guesses, we end up with a conversation that sounds a little like this:
Other person: So where are you from, originally?
Me: I was born in Canada actually, but I’m Chinese.
Other person: Oh that’s cool! So which part of China are your parents from?
Me: They were actually born and raised in Vietnam but they’re Chinese.
Other person: Born and raised there? Doesn’t that mean they’re Vietnamese then?
Me: No… they’re definitely Chinese…
I am very proud of my heritage and am always proud to tell others that I am Chinese, but there was a time when it was almost a crime to be anything but Vietnamese. My parents lived through some of Vietnam War but thankfully, eventually immigrated to Canada safely. I have never thought about second guessing telling somebody my background because I have never felt a risk from doing so. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for my parents.
My Mom grew up in a large family with three sisters and two brothers. Her family was well off at the time; Grandpa was a successful business man that everybody loved and Grandma was a respected teacher. The eldest sibling would help their Mom, my Grandma, take care of the rest of the kids since their Dad was always going off on business trips. When Dad finally settled down and opened a family restaurant, all of the kids naturally helped out there too. Between going to school and helping out at the restaurant, many of the siblings also took a liking to teaching the Cantonese and Mandarin dialect on the side.
One night, just as the restaurant was closing up, a bunch of Vietnamese soldiers rushed into the vicinity causing chaos and fear right into the hearts of my mom and her family. The leader, speaking in Vietnamese, questioned my Grandpa about his activities within the restaurant to see whether or not he was performing illegal activities. My Grandpa responded to all of his questions calmly, politely, and honestly. Just when everybody thought the fiasco was over with, the Vietnamese soldier spat out the question that made my grandpa catch his breath. “You and your family are Chinese. You must be doing something shady… are you teaching the Chinese language to youngsters?” Seconds, which seem like hours pass before my Grandpa answers: “No, of course not. We would never dare to.” A gun gets pulled out at point blank, aimed at my Grandpa’s face. “You want to try again?” Sobs escape from my Mom and her siblings’ throats. “No sir, we swear, we are just operating a restaurant.”
The soldier hesitates, laughs, and puts his gun away. “Carry along then, but don’t let us catch you doing anything shameful like that. We will catch you, you know.” They leave. My Grandma who was silent throughout the whole incident calms her sons and daughters. “It’s okay kids, they’re gone now, it’s okay.”
These incidents happened more often than not, but my Mom and her family were able to finally leave the country. My Mom has good and bad stories from back when she was in Vietnam, and she is looking forward to visiting again sometime soon now that is it safer. However, this was the moment in time where she felt most connected to her Chinese heritage but equally in fear that it was the reason she would not see the next day of her life. After learning about the hardships experienced by my parents, I have learned to appreciate my background so much more.
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