My family was born in Vietnam, my mother in Saigon and my father in a rural village whose nearest city was Nha Trang, the capital of Khánh Hòa Province in the southeast region of the country. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, both my parents’ fathers were jailed, catalyzing a post-war diaspora that landed my parents in Morgan City, Louisiana, where my sister and I were born amidst the familiar humidity of another country’s south.
From the beginning of my life in America I felt enclosed in queerness, in displacement which, like the humidity, in Houston, Texas, where we moved when I was three, slid and covered every aspect of life lived gay and Vietnamese. The suburban lines of our empty two-story home felt doubly foreboding in its blankness, simultaneously a space for freedom and self-delusion.
When I was 5, my family began my first and only trip back to Vietnam. Over the course of the summer of 2003, we revisited my paternal grandfather’s home in the countryside, where several contractors and village people were working to renovate a once bare-minimum shack of clay, wood and bamboo. In Saigon, I stayed in my mother’s childhood home, a 550 square feet apartment-style abode where the shower stood, sans-tiled divide, next to the toilet and where my mother’s second oldest brother’s family now lived.
The city roared with tempestuous sound, motorbikes flew by in traffic that felt perpetually caked in dirt, dust and the sound of honks both verbal and motorized. “Tránh ra!,” loosely translated as “get out the way!” echoed in waves as vehicles dodged pass one other, barely missing streetside vendors and their large plastic buckets, sat like traffic cones colored in bright red, orange, green and blue.
The shimmering heat of that summer carried through to my childhood in Texas, beating in self-same intensity, while I channeled an understanding of secularity opposed to love at home. My uncle, a pastor at our predominantly Vietnamese church, told stories of his devotion to God weekly. By the time I was in school, that intensity of devotion had already fractured from my queerness as a Vietnamese-American, a product of two cultures further complicated as I came, amid suburban seclusion, into my own (mis)understanding of gender as I had been taught.
In Vietnam, I had seen male contractors, uncles, villagers and my paternal grandfather at the helm of it all, reconstruct the childhood home where my father and his siblings used to live, while the women and children stayed inside. In America, I had seen sermons absent of women in the pews, only to find them in the dining area, preparing meals for post-spiritual edification, as if their own didn’t matter, had taken a separate course toward paradise.
Instances of cultural interaction with binary gender roles confused my understanding of a world that became further displaced as I entered the public school system. From a young age, as I think it is with most children, I had clear ambiguities in gender expression, a pair of heels (gifts from family members in Vietnam) here, a costumed dress there; in my displacement as a Vietnamese-American I found ways to express myself freely sans gender binary.
It’s in this confusion of tones, a Vietnamese queerness naturally concomitant and paradoxical, that I grew up hearing the stories of my family’s diaspora.
The eldest of eight, my dad began working as a fisherman (read: boy) at the age of 12, when, in 1975, the American-backed South lost the war to the North and my grandfather was jailed for a period of five years. In the interim of his adolescence, my dad helped my mother everyday maintain the home and family until 1982, when at the age of 20 (the age I am currently at) my dad and his only brother, three years younger than him, embarked on a State-sponsored economic migration program that landed them in Hong Kong where they waited for the rest of their siblings before crossing over to America together. My mother’s family, incredibly, departing the same year via family-sponsored migration following her father’s move.
36 years later, I am on Long Island, 35 miles east of NYC in the suburbs of Hempstead. Street lamp-lighted mists adorn our night time skies like so many locally-sourced lamp auroras, a gift courtesy of the city’s ever-present light pollution. In place of stars we have gas, light for haze.
In the last four hours, amidst the first snowfall on another foreign land, I’ve puzzled the lost of queerness within the traces of my familial lineage. Under the auspices of the religious conservatives which have served as community and cloister to my extended family, any vestiges of queerness have either been erased, closeted or denied. The responsibilities of this inheritance are lost among the already countless losses of diaspora. I’m trying to say that diaspora doesn’t have to be and is not all lost. It is gift, it is abundance, it is multiplicity and it is me – Vietnamese and queer; twice displaced and twice gifted identities that wear and strain on one another like polar forces of the same material. I am saying that my family was born in Vietnam, that I was born in America, and both of us are born of both.