Christina Ho

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Essay

By Christina Ho

I was recently asked to become co-editor of a Vietnamese-English magazine, with the intent of the magazine being to share cross-generational stories in hopes of bringing first generation Vietnamese-Americans back to the roots of our rich and deeply traditional culture. After being asked via e-mail from a Vietnamese professor at UC San Diego, I promptly replied and tried to be as gracious as possible in accepting the position; in our culture, there’s an etiquette to receiving an invitation such as the one I received – a sense of humbleness in the reply combined with a reciting of one’s skills and experiences in the area. All this is not exactly ingrained within me – my parents tried their best to raise me Vietnamese, but I rebelled early on, preferring The Cat in the Hat to the Vietnamese nursery rhymes that they somehow produced, and, later on, refusing to speak Vietnamese when my American friends came over.

As doctors, my parents quickly found that their patients interpreted their slow, strained, accented English as incompetence, their Vietnamese textbooks as practicing sacrilegious Eastern medicine, even their lunchtime ritual of bringing rice rolled into balls with fish or cabbage as alien, and, thus, as them being inept at practicing medicine. My parents found that they were required to act more American just to survive. So they did. And as they did, they realized that I lived not in Vietnam but here, in America, and they eased away from the Vietnamese grammar books that they required me to pore over, the new Vietnamese words that they had taught me daily in hopes of retaining who they were before the war by passing their culture onto me. My parents realized also that they could never give me or my brother the upbringing that they had, and, moreover, that America had already answered their lingering question of bringing Vietnam to this melting-pot land with a defiant no.

The Vietnamese culture puts a very strong emphasis on respecting elders – in fact, there are a variety of names that must be assessed and utilized in addressing someone. An older woman must be addressed with the prefix “Ba” or if she is close to you or close to your family, “Yi”, which literally translates to Aunt. A woman who is older but still close in age should be called “Co.” A person in the same age range as yourself can be addressed without a prefix. A younger person is addressed as “Em.” The traditions of Vietnam are so deep and cherished, that a misstep in the appropriate prefix can be a dastardly mistake. And, when writing my gracious acceptance, I, too, made such a mistake. I had heard only vaguely of this magazine, had written that perhaps I could contribute a story or two to it. I neither expected nor thought that they would ask me to be in such a position. I knew the magazine would be based in San Diego, and had no idea that Kim Oanh, the professor who had e-mailed me, was a professor and an elder. I was under the assumption that the magazine was student-run and student-produced, so I assumed that Dr. Oanh was a college student, like me. And in a fashion that I had thought befit the professionalism of accepting such a letter, I had started it out with “Kim Oanh-.” I find that this method is completely acceptable in writing a professional letter. This is the style millions of students use when e-mailing or writing to professors, peers, medical students, business companies. It all starts out with “Dr. Pence-” or “To whom this may concern-”. But I had violated a cardinal rule in Vietnamese tradition. I later received an email that tenderly, yet humiliatingly, recounted who she was, her position, and appropriate names to which I could address her.

Despite this blunder on my part, I realized an important fact about my upbringing: there never was a true assimilation period in my life. There was nothing to assimilate into. I was born here in America and, despite my parents’ varied and, at times, creative attempts to invoke my Vietnamese upbringing and withdraw an interest of it from me, I have always considered myself more American than anything else. I didn’t necessarily fit in with the other Vietnamese- American teenagers – they were usually, well, too Vietnamese. And I certainly didn’t grow up just knowing all the traditions of the culture. I would long to be like the American girls I watched on TV, and I appropriately got my wish after a while. As I look back on it now, I regret certain decisions that I made to exclude one culture just so I could be so a part of another. And here I am, still an outsider to both worlds. In America, there is an emphasis on individuality that at times I cannot understand. There is an emphasis on defining one’s own life, in one’s own terms, on breaking away from one’s parents and setting up a life different from any other. I can respect that; I can dream of that; I can wish for that. But what comes pummeling at me time after time is something that cannot be fully explained: duty and honor to my family. I cannot leave them, and if I do, I cannot travel any further than it would take a few hours to travel back to them. My parents have never understood my rebellions, which have ranged from small – cutting my hair short, when long hair in a daughter is prized like a great dowry – to large – when I applied and got into a prestigious program and a full scholarship at USC and announced I would go there and become a writer. I didn’t, of course. I couldn’t. Those rebellions have all been me trying to be American in the one way that I feel defines America. Yet I find myself, even through this, becoming more and more Vietnamese.

This is what Anne Fadiman emphasized in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: a family fighting America, fighting American culture, wanting so badly to re-trace their steps to a familiar culture that they know in their soul is truer than this, and yet failing in every regard of the fight. It is a beautiful thing to have a culture, to have something to fall back on, to have the familiar traditions and convictions. But it is almost impossible to be completely embedded in one culture and be expected to understand the ways of another. For me, this is how I dealt with my Vietnamese culture – as an American-like outsider, trying to study books of rural Vietnam and the local adages, traditions, and stories embedded deep within it as training for my editorial position. For the Hmong, this is how they dealt with Western medicine – through shamans and interventions and caution. Though Lia’s doctors argue as to whether they could have done more for the family, I know the truth. They could not have. It is the problem of two very vast cultures trying to embed within one person, one family. A problem that, as of yet, still has no solution.

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