I Grew from the Abundance of Displacement and Identity

Daniel Nguyen

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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 displacement 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 by my queerness. It was a peculiar displacement that, like the humidity in Houston, Texas—where we moved when I was three—engulfed and shrouded every aspect of life lived gay and Vietnamese. It was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The suburban space of our empty two-story home felt doubly foreboding in its blank austerity, simultaneously acting as a space for freedom while enabling self-delusion.

When I was 5, the family took what would be my first and only trip back to Vietnam. Over the course of a summer, 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 where her second oldest brother’s family now lived. The 550 square feet apartment was small and full, housing a shower that stood without so much as a-tiled divide next to the toilet. This closeness of quarters felt relationally diametric to my experience of space at home in America, where vast emptiness was mirrored in superfluous square feet and in emotional life. In Saigon I felt sure of myself in a tacit way in which understanding, and thereby comfort, came through one’s disappearance into a people and place so thoroughly you. Then, in Vietnam, I was at peace.

The city roared with tempestuous sound as motorbikes flew by in traffic. The air felt perpetually caked in dirt, dust, heavy with 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 sitting 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 my queerness as a Vietnamese-American, a product of two cultures. This fractured identity further complicated as I came, amid suburban seclusion, into my own understanding (and/or misunderstanding) of gender as I had been taught.

In Vietnam, I had seen the male contractors, uncles, villagers, and my paternal grandfather at the helm of it all. While the women and children stayed inside, they reconstructed the childhood home where my father and his siblings used to live.

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. It was like their own salvation didn’t matter. They’d perhaps taken a separate course toward paradise.

In the weeks, months, and years that followed my visit to Vietnam, I tried to understand my own queerness in Vietnam as opposed to in America. Then, in America, I had the seclusion of suburbia to contrast the closeness of community in Vietnam and in America at church. In America I had an openness provided by suburban insularity that became complicated as I grew older and as I grew into these (predominantly Vietnamese) and other communities.    

Instances of cultural interaction with strict 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 apparent 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 beyond the gender binary.

It’s in this confusion of perspectives that I grew up hearing the stories of my family’s transmigration in the 1980s. This was the foundation for a Vietnamese queerness naturally concomitant and paradoxical.   

36 years after my family’s immigration to America, amid the first snowfall on another foreign land, I’ve puzzled at the loss of queerness within the traces of my familial lineage. I am on Long Island, 35 miles east of NYC in the suburbs of Hempstead. Under the auspices of religious conservatives that have served as community and cloister to my extended family, any vestiges of queerness have either been erased, closeted, or denied in their various forms. The responsibilities of this inheritance are lost among the already countless losses of diasporic displacement. I’m trying to say that diaspora doesn’t have to be/isn’t all lost. It is a 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. I am saying that my family was born in Vietnam, that I was born in America, and we are together born from both.

 

 

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