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Cultures are not monoliths

When I say I come from Vietnam, and when I explain Vietnam is a Global South country, I don’t want your pity.

I grew up around nature, around my parents and grandparents, all under the same roof. Houses are a thing, yes. Electricity kept everything running smoothly, certainly. But due to sustainability, electricity would be cut every other week, especially during the summer when the fans were on full-speed 24/7. I remember when my family got our first air conditioner. The conditions under which we could use it were only if the temperature rose above 95 degrees, and we couldn’t set the temperature lower than 79 degrees, so we could save money. Eventually, the district would still cut out the power. Then, we would be lying on our wooden bed frame, covered by a bamboo matt, cooling each other off with a handmade bamboo fan. My grandparents would tell me stories about them spending time in underground shelters when American planes dropped bombs on the North, before casting me outside to hang out with kids around my block. They taught me how to make the best of our land without fear of setting off landmines or being shot by the enemies. It was then that I learned how to build a community.

This community was kids ranging anywhere from five to eight years old, young enough so we didn’t have to do any chores and had time to be outside, old enough so we could build our own playground out of scratch. We used chalk to draw on the ground, tied hundreds of rubber bands together to make jump ropes, dug in the dirt to find crickets and put them in fight circles; though jumping ropes were for girls to run, and cricket fights were for girls to watch. The boys would climb trees to collect cicada carcasses in the summer, carefully put them in their pockets for delivery, sometimes sneaking a live one down to scare us girls on the ground. They also broke off branches that had many fruits and dropped them for the girls to pick the ripe ones. We would all be sitting on the ground eating these fruits until our teeth were red and our bellies were full, only to come home for dinner and get yelled at by our parents for not finishing our portion of food. The Great Hunger haunted our parents even when food stamps were no longer a thing; they always talk about it when we ate. It was because of them that I learned how to appreciate my food and where it came from.

I was raised with strict gender roles. I didn’t know what Spongebob was. I didn’t know heaters were a thing in the winter. I didn’t know what snow tasted like before my first year at Wooster. I only ate cheese once per year when my dad’s business partners brought it from Europe. I washed my clothes by hand and hung them up the roof to dry. But that does not mean that I was pitiful. That does not mean my country was pitiful. When I told the story of how I grew up to my American friends, I heard a lot of “sorry.” I did not know what people were sorry for. Are they sorry their country has left mine with thousands of deaths and injuries? Or their country has been looking at mine with colonial condescension and ethnocentric arrogance this whole time?

When people asked me why I didn’t have my hand on my heart and know the words to the national anthem, I asked them, which one? Because there is only one in my heart and on my mind, and that is Vietnam’s.

Vy Vu, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at VVu18@wooster.edu.

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