Since I am from Minnesota, most people would readily assume that the high school I went to had a predominantly white population. In this case, they would be right. In my class of about 350 students, there were two blacks and a handful of Asian-Americans--I can't even say how many Asians because most of them were fairly recent immigrants to America and, for the most part, they were in different classes than most of the white students. I never thought much about the people of color in my high school, at least not as people of color--perhaps because I had so few contacts with them.
I joined the student newspaper when I was a junior, mainly because my best friend was on the staff and strongly encouraged me to join. (As a coincidence, my friend just happened to be the news editor and needed someone to write stories for him.) I was enthusiastic about being on the paper staff, although I could easily have lived without the deadlines.
Over the next two years, my involvement with the paper continually grew. And during both years of my work with the paper, the same person served as the feature editor. She was incredibly talented, probably the best feature writer I have ever worked with. She always had great ideas and somehow was able to get people to talk to her when they wouldn't to anyone else. At the risk of lapsing into a string of clichés, I firmly believe she had a gift.
We got along quite well and always joked with one another; those who didn't know us would have sworn we were usually fighting, but that was just our way of communicating.
One day--I can't even remember the occasion any longer--I made a remark to her about being an American or fulfilling one's responsibilities as an American citizen or something to that effect. She took great exception to my remark--not because I may have suggested she wasn't acting the role of a "proper" American but because I called her an American in the first place.
My friend and occasional sparring partner was Asian: more specifically, Vietnamese. Until that day, however, I never would have called her Vietnamese; to me she was American.
To be honest, I was shocked when she said she did not think herself an American. How could she not? She lived in America, she acted like any other American teenager, she had the same benefits of every other American. Or maybe not.
I argued briefly with her about this. (Briefly because I never could argue with her for long: we always ended up laughing at each other. That's just the way our relationship worked.) I asked her, "If you don't consider yourself an American , what do you consider yourself?" She quickly and convincingly said, "Vietnamese."
Bits and pieces of her past I knew, and only bits and pieces do I know now. Her parents--South Vietnamese--were on good terms with the Americans in South Vietnam. (I think they operated a hotel, but again my memory fails me.) After the South fell, her family escaped. She must have been only two or three years old at the time. From Vietnam, they went to Japan. She went to school at least one year there and still has the yearbook with her picture and Japanese writing in it--I've seen it. From there, her family traveled to America. Obviously, I barely know the facts of her story, but these facts help me to understand why she feels as she does.
During this same discussion (disagreement? misunderstanding?), she told me that she plans to return to Vietnam someday: to better understand her roots, to meet family left behind, to witness the changes communism brought, to help somehow. Before this, I never knew how strongly she felt about her heritage; then again, before this I never thought about her background or her family's experiences. As a third-or fourth-generation American (depending on what side of the family tree I trace), I thought about the immigrant experience only as something that happened to my family more than one hundred years ago. I know where my European ancestors came from and what percentage German and Polish and Czech I am, and these facts always allowed me to contribute to the social studies discussions about immigration, but they have remained distant to me, little more than a piece of personal trivia to compare with that of friends.
Unlike my friend, I--like most Americans--lack the immediacy of this experience. But, I thought, what makes her feel she is not an American? Two things came to mind. First, how she and her family left Vietnam--they were forced to leave, really--would definitely affect her perceptions. If I were forced to leave my birth country, I would want to return, especially if I had to leave before I even knew what the country was like. I would be filled with questions: What are the people like? What did my home look like? What did my parents risk and what did they give up to save me and my family?
Second, in reality I knew few things about her life. I know what she did in school, and I knew who some of her friends were but little else. I knew she had at least one older brother and that she had a part-time job. But what kind of a life did she live? (And I don't mean economically.) In this whiter-than-white community, did she have to deal with racism? I knew racism existed, but to what extent? I never had witnessed any blatant racism, but certainly she must have. She never let on, at least to me, that she had experienced any racism. But, even with all my hopes, how could she not? I don't believe I can be an optimist on this point, and that I cannot be makes me sad. And angry.
I still see my friend occasionally, and she still amazes me, and we still argue (in jest). She graduated from high school the year after I did, and now, at college, she often works and associates with international students. This seems very appropriate. In her mind, I am sure she sees herself as an international student. I know I do.
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