The Argus sat down with Kim Pham ’19, Nahian Khan ’18, and Harim Jung ’16 to talk about how they come to terms with their hereditary roots and growing up in America.
Kim Pham ’19
The Argus: Where are your parents from?
Kim Pham: My parents are from Vietnam. They grew up there and came here about 20 years ago. They came here as a married couple.
A: Would you say that their connection with the Vietnamese culture is similar to your connection with the Vietnamese culture?
KP: Yeah definitely, because they grew up with it and sort of have it in their genes—and this may not be the best way to say it—but how Vietnamese they are. It’s really in their blood, where as for me, I feel like I had some of it growing up, but it definitely got lost as I was growing up. I was definitely more interested in Western culture.
A: What do “Vietnamese values” mean to you?
KP: I think it overlaps with a lot of Asian values. Like respecting elders. It was important to greet elders properly. When we greet someone, sometimes we have to change the word depending on their age, and it’s important to follow that because it is respectful. Also, it’s important to eat food that is given to you. I actually remember that when my parents would get out of work in the evening time, I would just go to my room and get on my computer, but I remember my parents don’t like that. They wanted me to come and watch TV with them, so they wanted to have my presence around.
A: What sort of community did your parents immigrate to when they immigrated to America?
KP: I don’t think they immigrated to a “Vietnamese community.” Nashville was very diverse—they definitely had a Vietnamese people they could interact with—but it wasn’t as big. If anything, my family was kind of isolated to their own family. Of course having our Vietnamese culture inside the house, but for the most part, they didn’t really participate in Vietnamese gatherings that were going on in Nashville.
A: Did you have a moment when you felt like your connection with Vietnamese culture was different from your parents?
KP: Well I guess in the education system, actually my parents didn’t really push me. They didn’t really make me study and all that. They barely knew what was going on in my education. They didn’t know my grades, but I did well without their support. But I do wish they were more hard on me, I wish I had that expectation, but I didn’t. So for me, I value education more than my parents do, which is weird because, you know, they are Asian.
A: Do you ever remember a time when you had to self-censor parts of your identity among different groups? Not just adaptation to the environment, but some part of yourself that you were repressing?
KP: I guess with my parents, I didn’t do that. I mean why would you? But I guess with my American friends, I definitely censor myself around them. I don’t know why but I guess they don’t understand it, you know? It’s hard to talk to someone when they don’t understand your experiences. So with my parents, there is just one side I show to them. But I guess with my friends who aren’t Asian, which I guess was pretty relevant when I went to a pretty white school. But I would actually not ever invite my friends over to my house because I just feel like they wouldn’t understand my family. Not that there was anything wrong with my family, but I feel like my house wasn’t as furnished as their house and I was like a little bit embarrassed about that because my parents are very simple, practical people.
A: How do you negotiate different parts of your Western identity and Vietnamese identity? Was there a time when you felt that both identities worked together in contributing to something you are proud of?
KP: Applying to college. I thought I was going to some University of Tennessee school because that’s what everyone does….So as you know, for those parents who care about college, they take their kids to go on college tours, they sign them up for ACT prep, and all that stuff to really prep their kids for college. My parents didn’t do any of that. So I had to act like one of these parents and do my own research on colleges and then I had to work hard for my grades, which is sort of what my parents taught me. So yeah, I sort of merged that together and, yeah, now I’m at Wesleyan and [in the QuestBridge Scholars program].
Nahian Khan ’18
The Argus: Would you say that your connection with your culture is different from your parents’ connection with your culture?
Nahian Khan: Well, my parents are a lot more connected to the culture, because they were born in Bangladesh and raised around Bangladesh. They tried to install the Bangladeshi values into me, and, you know, for the most part, they succeeded. But I still, myself, do not feel at all connected to that culture, because I was never literally rounded by it.
A: What do you consider Bangladeshi values?
NK: It’s just kind of like a natural thing, Bangladeshi values meaning respect your family, respect others around you, and just be a general good person. There are plenty of Bangladeshi values that I disagree with. They got some real bigoted stuff going on. I’m pretty sure they hate the gays, they are very Islamic, which isn’t a bad thing but there is a lot of not-so-good things within that: women’s rights, for example.
A: Do you remember an instance when your connection with our culture came in friction with your parents’ connection?
NK: Yeah! We were actually talking about gay marriage, and my parents were actually kind of against it and I was like, oh wow, this is kind of backwards to me. I just figured I had grown up in a different society, so I had those values that are appropriate a little bit? Comparisons can’t really be made in that regard.
A: Did you ever feel like you had to self-censor parts of your identity in a given space?
NK: As I said, Bangladesh is really Islamic so I grew up as a Muslim. And my friends in high school were very crass on the topic of Islam, so they would make terrorist jokes. This would not happen here, obviously. They would say random generic shit you would hear about Islam and they would just be like “Jihad!” and shit like that. I didn’t really care, but there were instances [where] I wanted to be like “Cool it down. This is someone’s culture you could be offending.” And I kind of distanced myself from Islam a little bit and I identity myself as an agnostic now.
A: Was there ever a moment when you first explicitly noticed a divide with your culture and Western culture when growing up?
NK: Yeah, seventh grade. Wow! My social studies teacher Mr. Woods was just talking to some student about a culture book, you know, one of those flip books that explains someone’s culture, and it was on Islam. He was explaining how during Eid, you sacrifice a goat. He was showing this person in my class a picture of the sacrifice and saying, “Can you believe they do this?” And I’m like sitting there, I didn’t say anything, and I was like, “Wow.” I knew there was some disconnect between my own culture and the one I’m growing up in. But that was the first big instance of us-and-them.
A: How do you negotiate different parts of your Western identity and Bangladeshi identity?
NK: I love the culture, I love the food, and sometimes I love the people but they can be a little judgmental sometimes, which is something I’m not fond of. But I am just proud to be a Bangladeshi. The values that they have I do identify with, and the ones I don’t like, I just try to compromise with them or I denounce them. The ones I denounce are few and far between. In my every day, I realize that I am different, and I compromise with that. I don’t really think it’s a double life. I’m a mix of two different cultures, and that’s fine.
Harim Jung ’16
The Argus: Where are you from and where are your parents from?
Harim Jung: I’m from New Jersey, born and raised. I actually spent a couple years in Connecticut when my dad was studying for his Masters in Divinity at Yale Divinity School. But pretty much, New Jersey is home for me. My parents are from South Korea, my dad being from Busan, which is next to the ocean, and my mom is from Incheon, which is a village not too far from Seoul.
A: What are some values you would attribute to South Korean culture?
HJ: When I think of South Korean culture, especially in a modern sense, I recently come to think it in terms of this post-colonial society where there is a lot of….I guess after the Korean War and after the North and South split there was a lot of polarization between South Korea politically as well as culturally. In South Korea, just what I see in the media as well as politics, it’s a very hyper-reactionary society to the north. It’s trying very hard to define itself against this communist country. As a result, there is a lot of hyper-capitalist development and a hyper-adoption of Western cultural values, especially in terms of religion and conservatism. There is a lot of patriarchy rooted in Confucian values, but amplified by this hyper-capitalist, reactionary position that Korea is in.
From what I can see, there is a lot of social hierarchy and a lot of respect for elders and people in higher social strata than you. It’s taken very seriously if you address someone the wrong way, and they basically have the right to curse you out or just ostracize you socially.
A: What do you really like about Korean culture?
HJ: The culture behind hospitality and family in South Korean culture is something I’m familiar with and it is definitely an integral part of my identity. It might be different in other cultures in this country [the way in which] the centrality and family [differs with] customs we have when visiting each other’s family or family friends….I mean I see how other cultures have similar overlaps but that’s something of the South Korean’s culture experience that is really important to me. Specifically, in the church, it’s not like your typical go to early morning mass, maybe coffee hour, and then go home. Services are later and we always eat lunch together after service. Different weeks different families or groups within the church prepare the food. That’s something that’s really important to me: sharing food with community.
A: Was there ever an instance when you remember a clash between Korean and Western culture?
HJ: I guess where my American upbringing clashes with the culture or the experiences that my parents and parents generation, the immigrant generation, is really just on the standards of etiquette and almost personal expression as a result of conservative values in the parent generation that is rooted in hyper Christian-conservative culture. One thing in my personal journey with body modification this year, in terms of painting my nails and piercing my ear, that’s something that is really un-kosher in my parents’ generation; it kind of makes you look like a gangster to them. So yeah, that is a conflict where for me in my upbringing, this sort of body modification is a sense of self-care or personal empowerment, but for the parent generation, they really believe in keeping your body clean and pure. To them, they see it as a destructive thing.
A: How do you negotiate these identities and how in what way do you think they interact with one another?
HJ: It’s really easy for us to construct binaries in different structures and things that we face in life. There are things in both cultures that I have adopted, and there are things that I question and do not agree with, but I think just who I am and people with similar experiences as me kind of bring these two different cultures together as one and that’s what makes us unique and contribute to this social domain of American. These unique intersections people bring really challenge what has normatively been constructed as America, I guess.