Butter & Sugar Sandwiches: Navigating the Vietnamese, Chinese, Immigrant, Refugee Identity & History

This is an abridged version of a piece originally published on Project Yellow Dress republished on Project Ava with the permission of the author. 

In elementary school, I was teased because of the clothes I wore, which often were more similar to pajamas than the jeans and dresses the cool kids wore.  I remember how in P.E. one day, one classmate asked me why I always wore muted-pastel tights, and then went on to say how she could never wear clothes like mine.

The lunches I brought to school did not spare me from casually snide remarks either; after my teacher saw some fellow classmates confront me about the rice and tofu dish I was eating out of a Hello Kitty bento box or the butter and sugar sandwiches my grandmother so lovingly made for me, she “gently suggested” to my mother that it might be better if I had more “American” lunches, preferably packed in brown paper bags, not the clear plastic ones you can get from a supermarket in Chinatown. Ironically, butter and sugar toast is now all the rage in American cafes.

Though growing up the child of immigrants is a very common experience for most Americans, growing up the child of refugee immigrants was and is a very unique experience. I was raised in a 2-room apartment for the first few years of my life, living with my parents, my grandmother, and two uncles. Most of my relatives had come over to America with nothing, having fled Vietnam on small boats to flee persecution (my mom’s family because they were ethnic Chinese and my dad’s because my grandfather’s position in the South Vietnamese army) and to seek a better life, and enduring months in refugee camps as they waited for sponsorship papers from other relatives already in America. After arriving in the States on planes, they began school or work programs provided by the 1980 Refugee Act, but those small stipends stopped after a designated period of time. I remember hearing my mom telling me about how one of her very first jobs in America was washing the windows of a big building in downtown Oakland, and how excited she was when she got paid (in cash). Most of the money she made though went into the family fund, as she was helping to raise and care for her many nieces and nephews, many of whom still had one parent or sibling(s) in Vietnam.

One of the first memories I have about recognizing my race and ethnicity was when I had to do a photo collage about my life for a 2nd grade project. I remember my dad suggesting that I use a picture of me on a horse during a trip to Vietnam the year before, and for some reason, I felt shame. I did not want people to know that I had been to Vietnam, and I ultimately captioned the photo as having been taken in Oakland. I also remember running out of glue that day, and my dad using cooked rice to tack the remaining photos onto the poster board.

High school was the time when I really started facing issues of identity, stereotyping, and discrimination. I went to a predominantly Asian high school, but a majority of my classmates were Taiwanese. I am half-Chinese, but from the island of Hainan in South China, and this background coupled with my Vietnamese half left me feeling like an outcast at times. I was constantly being reminded of my Otherness, and often I felt as if I had a scarlet “V” pinned to my chest. No one really understood my mixed background, and whether my classmates knew it or not, their assumptions and views toward aspects of my identity made me feel less-than.

Once when I was being introduced as a new student, my teacher began almost apologizing for my Vietnamese-ness: “She has a Vietnamese father, but she is half-Chinese and understands Mandarin quite well.” It may sound rather harmless, but her tone and the chuckles from the audience left me with pangs of shame, hurt, and anger.

For several community events, I was tasked with leading the Vietnamese groups. I originally thought that I was given this position as an honor until one of my classmates said, “Yeah, you are the only one who knows how to handle these people. They are always so rude and loud, and maybe you can fix that.” “These people.”

The turning point came in one of my high school history classes. As the token Vietnamese student in the room, I was asked to share my thoughts about the Vietnam War. Aside from that, my knowledge of the Vietnam War was so different from that of what was being described in the textbook; while there were chapters about how American troops fought in Vietnam, there was no mention really of the War from the Vietnamese perspective, and only a sentence or two mentioning Vietnamese Boat People. It devastated me to learn that my family’s history had been reduced to an afterthought.

I decided to major in history in college, focusing particularly on War, Revolution, and Social Change, but with a special emphasis on genocide studies. I became driven by the idea that I was bearing witness in some small way to the millions of voices silenced throughout history. When I became a history teacher after college, I incorporated genocide education into my curriculum, and probably more pertinent to Project Yellow Dress, I created (since none existed at the time) a unit on Vietnamese Boat People. I wanted to share this often overlooked chapter in history, but also to focus for once on the history and stories of my Southeast Asian students.

College was where I took my first few Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies classes. I was finally being taught history that was specific to my own identity. One of my classes even focused predominantly on Southeast Asian American history. Growing up in a code-switching family that fused English, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Hainanese, I felt at home in a classroom where Vietnamese and English danced flawlessly together. It was also in this class that I was exposed to “Journey From the Fall,” a film focusing entirely on the Vietnamese experience after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and where I was given the assignment of interviewing an actual Boat Person – I chose my mom.

This interview was the first time we really truly discussed her life story. I had heard bits and pieces growing up, but neither of us ever pushed too hard on the details. This time was different. My mom, a little hesitantly at first, told me about her idyllic memories growing up, and how the War completely upturned her life. She talked about her parents losing their business because ethnic Chinese were being blacklisted by the Communists, how her sisters had to find ways to bribe officers to keep their brothers from serving on the front lines, how my mom had actually tried to escape several times before finally making it to Thailand, and how she and her mom had been jailed after having been caught trying to escape. She described the seasickness she felt on the small fishing boat, her fear of being caught, robbed, and even raped by pirates, and crying from happiness and heartbreak as she looked out the window of the plane that took her from Thailand to SFO because she was thinking about her aging parents who had sacrificed everything to get her and her siblings out of Vietnam. She told me about the English classes she took when she got to America, the burden and the blessing of raising her nieces and nephews, and the gratitude she felt toward a country that gave her a new life, a life worth living.

In graduate school I focused on delving into the importance and necessity for both genocide education and Southeast Asian (American) studies. It was in my Equity and Social Justice in Education program that I was finally surrounded by so many people who understood coming from mixed heritages and cultures, and who shared my desire to challenge traditional forms of education and curriculum content and create alternative spaces. I was so grateful to meet educators who work tirelessly to create curriculum and practices that encourage critical thinking, see communities of color as wells of strength and value, and want to disrupt systems of privilege and oppression in and outside the classroom.

They say that people are the sum of their experiences, and I have grown and changed so much since those elementary school days. I have learned to embrace and celebrate my identity (as fluid and as complex as it may be), to challenge stereotypes and microaggressions, and to recognize that everyone has a story to tell.

Ava Love,

Julia H.

PYDProject Yellow Dress (PYD) is a website focusing on sharing and highlighting the histories, experiences, and voices of Vietnamese Boat People and the wider Southeast Asian community. We currently have several campaigns taking place, including a Call for Submissions for art pieces (photos, creative art, poetry, reflections, etc.,), a Vietnamese Boat People Interview Project, and a Southeast Asian American Survey Project. For more information, please check out at projectyellowdress.squarespace.com

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