Ngọc (Bi) Nguyễn was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, and educated in an International French school for twelve years. At age fifteen, she moved to the United States to attend a very Connecticut boarding school. Ever since, she’s been asked this simple, yet deeply confusing question: where are you from? Because she didn’t have any concrete answer to give, Ngọc decided to write a memoir about her identity quest. Weird Culture Kids is her firstborn.
You can follow Ngọc‘s journey on Instagram at @weirdculturekids or @nioccy, or on her website, https://weirdculturekids.com/. Her memoir, Weird Culture Kids, will be published in December 2020 by New Degree Press. With thanks to Ngọc and New Degree Press, enjoy a taste of Weird Culture Kids below.
Image: © Moustafa El-Kass, 2020
I was very young when I realized that my upbringing was different from that of the majority of the kids in Vietnam. Growing up in a wealthier-than-average Vietnamese family, I was given a very privileged and international upbringing — one that was not at all common in Vietnam in the early 90s.
Unlike me, my parents were Cold War kids who took pride in their Soviet heritage, an important element of their identity since many years of their youth were spent in Moscow for their higher education and professional careers. They, too, were very privileged in their own time and context, since they managed to escape the war in Vietnam while getting the best education that was offered to them in the USSR, Vietnam’s then strongest ally. But because they didn’t grow up in a globalized world or learn how to adapt properly to it, both of them suddenly became very ill-equipped to raise “weird culture kids” like my big brother, Phan, and myself.
In fact, culturally-speaking, Phan, and I were extremely weird. We were both born in Moscow and raised by parents who were Vietnamese but believed themselves to be somewhat Soviets — a country that no longer existed by the time we both started to understand the notion of nation-states and the inherited identity that was shared among the same people. To make matters worse, under the pressure of our French-educated grandparents, we were both enrolled in the International French school when I was three and Phan was five.
Mom and Dad could never help us with our homework because they didn’t speak a word of French. Instead, they spent their days and nights making sure that my brother and I were also fluent in both spoken and written Vietnamese because according to them, the contrary would be like a second wave of French colonization. Naturally, my parents carried their allegiance to the Eastern bloc proudly and, as a consequence, they couldn’t communicate with our friends and their parents, who automatically belonged to the Western one.
This was the daily context in which I grew up: Vietnamese with a splash of Soviet culture at home coupled with a very French rearing at school. I was always in the middle, not entirely Vietnamese but also not fully French. Although it was sometimes confusing and conflicting to grow up among these different cultures, it was simply the norm for a small bunch of us.
I guess it was time to burst that bubble.
I left Vietnam at the age of fifteen to attend an American boarding school in Connecticut and ever since, one of the most recurring questions that people asked me when we first met was “Where are you from?” This had always been one of the hardest questions for me to answer because I had never believed that we should—could?—be “from” one place. I was never sure what type of information the speaker was trying to get from my answer. Was he trying to figure out where I was living before arriving here? Or did she want to know where I was born? Or, going beyond the geographical dimension, which cultures shaped my personality, and which sets of beliefs dictated my behavior?
Dodging this question was never an option due to the nation-state paradigm that we currently live in. It was very normal and acceptable for people to ask strangers and newcomers this question, socially speaking. With time and experience, I learned that the answer to this four-word question was supposed to give me not only a strong sense of identity, but also those around me a strong sense of who they were dealing with.
Despite this common practice, nothing accurate ever came out of this question.
Naturally, my go-to answer had always been “Vietnam” because that was the country of my passport, and my whole family still lived there. But personally, I have never fully felt Vietnamese. I was born in Moscow, grew up in Hanoi, and enrolled in the French school at the age of three upon my return to the “homeland.” I knew how to write in French before I learned to do so in my mother tongue. Most other Vietnamese kids told me that I was very “Tây” — a Vietnamese expression that literally translated to “the West” in English.
My parents brought me up in a nostalgic world they created at home where they spoke often about their time in the USSR, listened over and over again to the Soviet hit songs of the 1980s, and where they spoke about the atrocities caused by the French and the American people in Vietnam for more than a century. Yet, the French and the American education systems were the ones that my parents had chosen to put me through.
Where is the logic behind these seemingly-illogical decisions?
The world was changing and Mom and Dad knew it. They knew it because they witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall. They knew it because they lived through the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They knew it because they belonged to the losing side and the view wasn’t as nice. So they decided to prepare my brother and me in the best way they knew how: enrolling us in what were deemed the best education systems available.
After all, they too, received the gift of “best education” in their time and context.
That meant that Phan and I would both enroll in a different school system to theirs, would potentially adhere to opposing schools of thoughts, and would eventually never see eye-to-eye whether it was about the best style of political governance or social inequalities. They took a gamble and experimented with their so-called most valuable possessions—their kids—in order to best prepare us for the world of the future. A globalized world instead of a polarized one.
With time, I finally reached that future state where I was definitely well-prepared.
Or so I thought.
Thanks to my education, I was able to live in many different countries and continents around the globe and was in contact with many different cultures. Indeed, I benefited from the perks and advantages of being a weird culture kid. I could relate to many different cultures at the same time and saw several different perspectives simultaneously because I never truly belonged to any of them fully, but only to fragments—bits and pieces—of them.
And that was why I had such a problem with the question “Where are you from?” – because I was not from anywhere but at the same time I was from everywhere. I found the question to be suffocating because answering it by saying “I am Vietnamese” was never enough for me. I was from Vietnam because my family lived there, but I was ten times more eloquent in French than in my mother tongue. I was from Vietnam because of the way that I looked but openly American in the way that I experienced the world— loudly and passionately. I was the mosaic of every culture that I had encountered, loved and sometimes even hated.
Perhaps we should start answering this question differently because for me, culture, and by extension, one’s identity, was not necessarily where you lived, but how you’ve lived. Maybe next time somebody asked me that question, I would tell them about that time when I lived in Vietnam and ate spaghetti with chopsticks and Mom’s Phở with a fork. I could share with them my most traumatizing experience in life, when Mom had always taught me that only kids possessed by the devil wore shoes indoors, whereas Kate — Tommy’s Australian mom— had made me wear my shoes indoors when I was at her place, for fear of dirtying my little feet. Needless to say, I was convinced that the devil had possessed me and cried for hours on end upon returning home from my play date.
Mom laughed incessantly when she found out why I was crying. I was even more confused.
I have grown to be accustomed to those confused moments where I found myself between cultures and languages and rituals and customs, without belonging truly to any one of them. With time — and a lot of courage — I discovered that although I don’t fully belong anywhere, I belonged everywhere.
And that, ultimately, was my superpower as a weird culture kid.
* * *
Weird Culture Kid (WCK)
/wɪəd ˈkʌltʃə kɪd/
noun – informal
Person who does not fit into any one specific cultural standard and who creates his or her own “weird culture” to give him/herself a sense of belonging. The process of making a “weird culture” is very straightforward: the WCK takes bits and pieces of the traditional and nation-state cultures that s/he’s previously experienced while growing up and mixes everything together to create his/her own customized culture. These customized cultures are deemed “weird” because, objectively, there are many different and conflicting elements within them, but somehow for the WCK in question, things just seem to fit and to flow.
© Ngọc Nguyễn, 2020
This extract has been edited in parts, with the writer’s and publisher’s permission, to align with be:longing’s publishing style and practices.