“But, where are you really from?”

On Wednesday, May 19th, I will be speaking along with two distinguished Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) about our experiences in the Peace Corps and how it shaped our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) careers.

Between 2003-2005, I lived in a small (less than 2000 people) rural village in the highlands (about 7300 feet above sea level) of Peru as a Community Health Volunteer. The old Peace Corps slogan rang true. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) was one of the toughest jobs I would ever come to love. It also set me on a path that I am extremely proud of– a bilingual (English/Spanish) psychologist who works with marginalized and underserved communities (racial, cultural, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.). By the way, today is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia! 

A few weeks ago, an old friend from my Peace Corps Peru cohort sent me the below picture. “Look, you have always been sharing about your experiences!” he texted. I smiled as I re-read the article written by the 2005 version of me. I did not openly share much about my background throughout my service because I wanted to fit in with the other volunteers [I was already “othered” enough by the locals]. However, towards the final months of my service, I realized that most of my fellow volunteers turned friends did not know an essential part of my identity. Here are some excerpts of the text. My translations and current thoughts will be in [italics].

Sonia?! Yes, I went by Sonia in Peru. That’s another long story for another post.

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People often ask me, “What is it like to be a Chinita [literally translated as Chinese person] in the Peace Corps in Peru? Do I get annoyed when people call me Chinita because I am Vietnamese? Do I feel like I have a slight advantage over my blond-haired, blue-eyed colleagues because I blend in better? Do I like the chifas [Chinese-Peruvian restaurants] here?”

For me, after two years here, I think the most critical question someone can ask me and that I have been asking myself is, “What it like is to be a first-generation American in the Peace Corps. How has that impacted my experiences? What role does it play in my daily interactions?” [Still questions I ask myself].

I used to believe I was no different from any of my colleagues who signed up for this experience. I was a college graduate with some study abroad and traveling experience. I wanted to perfect my Spanish, help others, and I was oddly excited about “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” After all that we have been through, I feel a deep camaraderie with my fellow Peace Corps friends. I know that ten or fifteen years down the line, we will reminisce and laugh about how often we contracted giardia, about how utterly divine choco sodas [chocolate coated saltines] can be, and how we all made it through this experience. [Yes, this is very true. I am still in touch with my cohort, and we have a bond that forever connects us].

And the true beauty of this all is that each volunteer’s experience has been so different. Each of us will be the only person who will ever know what happened in our village and with our host families. This knowledge is rare in a world where you cannot claim many things as truly yours anymore. And for me, I have also carried with me the unique experience of being a child of immigrant parents who came from a developing country, only to return to one. 

Even after 26 years [now it’s nearly 41] of living in the OC [Orange County] and becoming naturalized United States Citizens, my parents are still Vietnamese at heart. Vietnamese was the first language I learned, and I did not learn English until formal schooling. I walked into the boys’ bathroom on the first day of kindergarten because I did not understand the signs and was placed for years in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. If you listen closely to my English, there are a few words I still cannot pronounce correctly. I have always lived a double life. When I am away from my family home, I am Hong [the Americanized phonetic pronunciation] who is loud, outgoing, independent, and free-spirited. But when I walk through the doors to my childhood home, I become Hương. I transform into the Vietnamese daughter [now I understand that is called code switching] who has was trained to place duty and honor above all else. The one who was not allowed to go out in high school, condemned from playing sports because it was too tomboyish [in my mother’s opinion] and held to strict standards.

Most children of immigrants share similar struggles — the dichotomy between what one learns in school in the independent culture of EEUU [USA] and returning to one’s collectivistic home. I followed the rules placed upon me for many years. I never questioned my parents, and I studied hard for years to be a medical doctor [luckily I quit medicine and decided to pursue psychology]! I gritted my teeth and did things to make my parents happy and respected among our family, friends, and community. Perhaps all those years of rigid rules and structure prepared me to live in a small rural community. I did not feel like I was sacrificing so much when I realized that a woman in my community could not drink alcohol or do certain things. The written and unwritten rules of living in Mato [my town] haven’t bothered me too much because I am accustomed to rules and fulfilling obligations.

I also know I have a high tolerance for cultural ambiguity and unfamiliar situations. Can you imagine showing up to kindergarten on Halloween and not understanding the concept of Halloween and why everyone was wearing funny outfits? [I was the only student without a costume]. To me, that’s pretty similar to when my town wants to wear their best polleras [traditional Peruvian wool skirts layered over one another] and dance up a storm to loud huayno [traditional folkloric music]. It’s just another world that I have learned to live in but may never truly understand. 

***

I think we all arrived in Peru with our emotional baggage(s) and viewing life through different colored lenses. We all came with the good intentions of “making a difference” and learning a thing or two, but the two years have all played out differently for all of us [and that as PCVs we all gained more from this experience than we could give back]. It is hard enough moving to a new country and leaving behind your family, friends, hot water, and comfort foods, but on top of that, imagine trying to untangle suppressed emotions and balance various identities.

During the last two years, I have found myself a bit confused about who I am. When I am in the United States, I am a perpetual foreigner. In Vietnam, I am the viet khieu [Vietnamese person who lives outside Vietnam]. And during the last two years, I was the Chinita in Peru. Except to my host-sisters… I was just their hermana [sister] who happened to be Vietnamita-Americana.

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So where am I really from? [I am less confused these days. Today, I would answer Everywhere].