I love you so much. I want these to be one of the first words you ever hear because I was not brave enough to exchange them with my own mother until I was 18.
I will try my best to raise you with Vietnamese. I know that at times you may not find it something to be proud of or to be spoken aloud in public, but I want to equip you with another tongue in case you lose your first as Woman. I never want you to know the helpless frustration of not being able to hold a full conversation with your elders.
If in two decades people are still blind to the beauty of Asian eyes, I will sit you down and we will have a talk about how the gentle curves of your lash line makes perfect sense with those of your profile. And about how much money I saved never having to really use eyeshadow. We’ll look at photos and movies and shows of people who have features like us so that you remember: this, too, is normal.
And if your friend posts a picture and captions it, “Where are my eyes?” send them my way. There is no point in making fun of yourself first when you do not know if others will do it at all. Besides, there is more to life than living on the defensive.
So be as you are. Asian is not a dirty word. Bring that ethnic-smelling lunch, and if anyone gives you trouble, tell them: “Men sailed the world hundreds of years ago searching for the spices used in these recipes. What did your mom make you today?”
And you don’t have to answer when someone asks you where you’re from. Some of my favorite responses have been: “Why is this so important to you?” and “Prefer not to answer,” and “Wherever you want it to be” and “We’re not close enough friends for you to know,” and “Trust me, you don’t really care.”
Or, you can just walk away. Anyone who’s only interested in your ethnicity does not deserve to know you at all.
On another note, you’ll be raised to know better than to talk over other people, but I promise never to silence your voice. I spent too much time trying to recover mine after realizing it was missing. Patiently listening and speaking up are not mutually exclusive.
But also, don’t ever feel like you must speak for the sake of being seen. For the sake of others like you to be seen. I have carried that burden, too, and still feel the weight. Remember that your words are gifts, and no one is entitled to them, especially if they’re not listening.
It’s very contradictory, I know. You will come to know this about many things Asian American. Just know that others’ expectations of your voice do not matter. The voice is a medium of expression and power and grace, but at the end of the day it is yours to choose what to do with. Quiet and vocal depend on the day; they are not characterizing states.
You will have to struggle through love and intimacy like everyone else, but hopefully you view me as an option to confide in. You are getting the sex talk. And the relationships one, and the gender one, and the heartbreak one. It will not be awkward, don’t worry, I have lots of stories.
With schooling, I don’t care what field you go into- but when asked about why you didn’t pick the other ones, I don’t want your answer to be rooted in fears that you cannot.
Your body is yours is yours is yours is yours. Dress it how you want, stay healthy. I trust that if you are my kid, any tatts or piercings will not have me raising an eyebrow.
But rest assured, I’m not saying a peep about your skin tone. I’ll make you put on sunscreen, maybe, but how dark your skin gets in the summer is no concern of mine and hopefully isn’t a concern of yours either. When you google “beautiful skin” and it comes back with pale skin, know that those results are leaving out the majority of the world, and for something to only include less than 1/5 of the human population is for it to be flat-out inaccurate. So don’t lighten your selfies and don’t forget that I bleached a strip of my hair in college only to learn that dark hair is comprised of so many more colors when examined under the sun.
And just so we’re clear, you are a person of color. Sometimes other people will not consider you so. You are. Yellow is a color. But really, since we are Southeast Asian, you might come out anywhere from pale yellow to olive to brown. Those are all colors we pay a price for. Own them.
Speaking of prices… My dear child, I will not subject you to the same anxiety-inducing frugality I grew up with, but know that we did not come from money. And we will live humbly as such. I may not have sway over your later-generation kids, but you’re going to live as if you have a past. Because you do.
And outside of our familial past, we are also affected by history. Images of you have been shaped by someone else’s eyes.
But you are not a lotus blossom when you are quiet or gentle, and you are not a dragon lady when you are clever or fierce. You are not mysterious or unknowable, you are not backwards, you are not exotic, and you are not an object. You are not geeky or nerdy or awkward or unathletic or delicate or juvenile. Anyone who makes you feel otherwise does not seek to understand the world in which they live.
I grew up during a time where artsy-bohemian-hipster seemed like a good escape from these tropes but to tell you the truth I do not know who I am if not defined by the things I am not. I hope by the time you are growing into yourself, you have more options to choose from and the power to pick for yourself- not out of survival.
And if some boy thinks you are beautiful the same way he likes that restaurant for its “exotic flavors,” remember, you are not a dish to try. Yellow fever is a sickness men created for themselves to be able to feel vulnerable to something. But the infection harms you.
Political engagement. We’ll talk about it. You’ll see how important this is later.
I promise to read to you all kinds of books about all kinds of people. You will not grow up with only one type of narrative. You will not grow up with only one type of person.
And let’s just say that you will not be the one asking me whether or not you could date someone black; I will be asking you. I am not sure how much change can happen in three decades, but no child of mine is going to “prefer” certain shades to be attracted to. Not when almost all the aunties and uncles you’ll meet when mom invites them over for dinner are married to or have dated people with different skin tones.
Do not be like me and wait until college to realize how perverse it is to prefer other men over those of your own race. I still gag recalling how ignorant I was. But it’s okay. The best thing about education is that it is more powerful than any harmful ideals we have been fed throughout our lives.
Mentioning your aunties and uncles reminds me: make good friends who build you up. Once, one of mine told me “but you don’t need makeup,” and it stuck ever since. Now I can admire someone else’s carefully lined eyes without feeling like I need that for me, too.
My mom bought me lots of children’s books from my birthplace. Folk tales with beautiful illustrations. I promise to introduce you to the stories of Vietnamese people. (And the films, poems, music, dance, visual art, the whole shebang.) There’s a certain strain of poetry and tragedy you may feel one day in your bones that’s connected to all of it. You are not the only one who has ever felt or will feel it. It’s real, and it deserves to be known. Plus, you’ll finally understand why Hollywood movies rarely ever make you feel anything.
And when you do feel things deeply, I want you to know that it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to scream. To be soft, and to be sturdy. Do not turn into me: half mít ướt, half robot, and rarely anything in between.
There are both Western and Eastern values I want to raise you with, and this’ll be a challenge. I’m still figuring out myself how to host both in one body. It may seem sometimes that they are in direct contrast with one another; I can assure you, both are necessary. Learning is nothing but thorough when you are caught between two opposites.
Speaking of which, there are times you will struggle with being neither Black nor White. You may feel awful, and alone. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you are the dividing line, you can also be the bridge.
The people around you won’t realize it, but the nuance you provide is something they desperately need. And that anxiety you get from never feeling like you 100% belong with either side is the same force that will drive you to understand all sides.