Being a Daughter of Immigrants (My Experience and Struggle With Identity)

It was 2005 on Halloween night, and I had just gotten into bed. With the lights off and the heater humming above, I rolled onto my back and listened to each breath I took. I was never one to count sheep. The longer I listened, the shallower my breathing became. As I laid there wrapped in my Winnie-the-Pooh blanket with my eyes trained on the ceiling lamp etched with flowers and vines, a pressure built in my chest, forcing me to sit up.

With my head tilted forward and my hands clutching onto Winnie’s arms, I could feel my chest moving up and down, yet the air seemingly refused to enter. I wheezed and coughed, trying to remove the nonexistent lump that seemed to be lodged in my throat, but it didn’t work.

Afraid that I’d be scolded for being out of bed, I slowly crept down the hall with the moonlight as my only light source. At the sound of the door opening, my parents’ heads turned from the television—some Chinese drama was playing. “What wrong?” my mother asked in her version of English, one many would call “broken.” “Why you no go sleep?”

“I can’t”—I took in a shallow breath—“breathe.” There was a slight pause before they both scrambled out of bed, speaking in rapid Vietnamese to one another as they examined me, confusion and fear apparent in their eyes. With my mom on the phone calling Kaiser and my dad rushing to get my brother who was three at the time, all I could think about was the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Fish With No Water” commercial. Except, in this case, I was the goldfish flopping around on the white table.

Several calls were made to figure out where to go as the operators struggled to understand my mother’s English. When she was finally told to go to the San Leandro Kaiser Medical Center, she rushed me to the car, but not before smearing a layer of white Tiger Balm on my chest.

Twenty-two miles later, and after a seemingly endless wait in the emergency room, my breathing had calmed down by the time a doctor was finally able to see me. Sitting on the exam table, I watched the doctor—a white male probably in his forties with a crooked nose and a receding hairline—try to explain my condition to my mother. “Asthma,” he said.

Her forehead wrinkled as he spoke words like “respiratory” and “albuterol”—words that simply weren’t in her vocabulary. Yet, she continued to nod.

At nine years old, I believed her nod meant, yes, I understand. Any other meaning was foreign. Alien, almost. After all, weren’t parents supposed to know everything? However, as time went on and I became responsible for filling out paperwork and handling various forms of communication for my parents, the difference between my English and theirs as Hoa refugees became more apparent.

You see, my parents did what I, and many other children of immigrants, will never have to do: they escaped a country torn by the Vietnam War and came to the United States not knowing even a speck of English. They did it for a life of freedom and opportunities, a privilege I had taken for granted as a child.

All I remembered was begrudgingly translating for my parents and speaking on behalf of my mother during phone calls to tenants, nurses, and a number of other people. Whenever she received a call and did not understand the other person on the line, she’d hand me the phone with a nod of her head as a sign for me to take it. I was a teenager.

Each time, I stared at her in with my eyes wide in panic and bewilderment. One moment I was quietly doing my homework, in the next I suddenly had a phone in my hand with the receiver pressed to my ear. Unable to tell her no, I didn’t want to speak, I answered. Although, it always felt like my throat was closing at the thought of talking on the phone due to my shyness. “Hello, thank you for holding. This is Cam,” I always said, my voice shaky as my mother—the “Cam” I was pretending to be—stood off to the side waving her hands for me to add something else.

“Tell him we stop by Friday to fix it,” she would whisper loudly as if they could possibly hear her. Standing just two feet away, she always waited until the phone calls ended, adding comments here and there. It was like simultaneously having two separate conversations in two different languages. If I wasn’t confused while doing homework, I certainly was after those phone calls. Yet, the person on the other end never knew. They never knew that rather than a forty-eight-year-old woman speaking to them, it was a thirteen-year-old girl who was barely done with middle school.

Whether I liked it or not, I did it because of family. As a child of two immigrant parents, family was the most important thing.

Coming to the United States as refugees, family was all my parents had. From traveling across the Gulf of Thailand and building a makeshift house in Pulau Besar to settling in the United States, my mom’s family only had one another to rely upon. My father didn’t have anyone as he escaped Vietnam and traveled to the United States. Thus, you do everything for family, whether you liked it or not.

Yet, this obligation did not change the fact that I soon found myself feeling at odds with who I was. Who I was at home was not who I was at school. At school, I was taught to be independent and to follow the American standards of living and rules of behavior. While at home, I was but a child, whose duty was to her family and following the values and beliefs my parents grew up with in Vietnam. It was a disconnect that I was not prepared for as I was torn between two worlds and two identities.

I was having an identity crisis, and I hadn’t even finished eighth grade. At that time, I thought I had to choose between these two identities, a decision  I know now wasn’t necessary. But as an adolescent teenager, it was either one or the other, and I had chosen my American identity at the expense of my Asian culture. I just wanted to fit in.

Looking back, did I make the right decision? Perhaps not, but it was a decision I made and one that has determined the course of my life. Because of my decision and desire to be like my peers, I had lost a piece of my culture.

Despite English being my second language—a Chinese dialect being my first—I now only speak English with both friends or family. I was so focused on perfecting my English in order to prevent ridicule from other students, I lost the language that connected me to my roots and to my grandfather when he was still alive.

Now, I am only left grasping at what I once knew as I try to remember and retain what is left. When I try to think of words to form sentences in my family’s Chinese dialect, I find nothing. All I have left are the meanings of the words when spoken. It is then that I am reminded of my first language and history.

Going to college with its diverse array of students has opened my eyes and made me realize that it’s okay to be different and to embrace who I am as a second generation immigrant. Thus, I share my story when I can, reminding myself and other students I meet to embrace their culture, as this is what makes us who we are and how we connect with different people.

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As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

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Being a Daughter of Immigrants (My Experience and Struggle With Identity)

It was 2005 on Halloween night, and I had just gotten into bed. With the lights off and the heater humming above, I rolled onto my back and listened to each breath I took. I was never one to count sheep. The longer I listened, the shallower my breathing became. As I laid there wrapped in my Winnie-the-Pooh blanket with my eyes trained on the ceiling lamp etched with flowers and vines, a pressure built in my chest, forcing me to sit up.

With my head tilted forward and my hands clutching onto Winnie’s arms, I could feel my chest moving up and down, yet the air seemingly refused to enter. I wheezed and coughed, trying to remove the nonexistent lump that seemed to be lodged in my throat, but it didn’t work.

Afraid that I’d be scolded for being out of bed, I slowly crept down the hall with the moonlight as my only light source. At the sound of the door opening, my parents’ heads turned from the television—some Chinese drama was playing. “What wrong?” my mother asked in her version of English, one many would call “broken.” “Why you no go sleep?”

“I can’t”—I took in a shallow breath—“breathe.” There was a slight pause before they both scrambled out of bed, speaking in rapid Vietnamese to one another as they examined me, confusion and fear apparent in their eyes. With my mom on the phone calling Kaiser and my dad rushing to get my brother who was three at the time, all I could think about was the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Fish With No Water” commercial. Except, in this case, I was the goldfish flopping around on the white table.

Several calls were made to figure out where to go as the operators struggled to understand my mother’s English. When she was finally told to go to the San Leandro Kaiser Medical Center, she rushed me to the car, but not before smearing a layer of white Tiger Balm on my chest.

Twenty-two miles later, and after a seemingly endless wait in the emergency room, my breathing had calmed down by the time a doctor was finally able to see me. Sitting on the exam table, I watched the doctor—a white male probably in his forties with a crooked nose and a receding hairline—try to explain my condition to my mother. “Asthma,” he said.

Her forehead wrinkled as he spoke words like “respiratory” and “albuterol”—words that simply weren’t in her vocabulary. Yet, she continued to nod.

At nine years old, I believed her nod meant, yes, I understand. Any other meaning was foreign. Alien, almost. After all, weren’t parents supposed to know everything? However, as time went on and I became responsible for filling out paperwork and handling various forms of communication for my parents, the difference between my English and theirs as Hoa refugees became more apparent.

You see, my parents did what I, and many other children of immigrants, will never have to do: they escaped a country torn by the Vietnam War and came to the United States not knowing even a speck of English. They did it for a life of freedom and opportunities, a privilege I had taken for granted as a child.

All I remembered was begrudgingly translating for my parents and speaking on behalf of my mother during phone calls to tenants, nurses, and a number of other people. Whenever she received a call and did not understand the other person on the line, she’d hand me the phone with a nod of her head as a sign for me to take it. I was a teenager.

Each time, I stared at her in with my eyes wide in panic and bewilderment. One moment I was quietly doing my homework, in the next I suddenly had a phone in my hand with the receiver pressed to my ear. Unable to tell her no, I didn’t want to speak, I answered. Although, it always felt like my throat was closing at the thought of talking on the phone due to my shyness. “Hello, thank you for holding. This is Cam,” I always said, my voice shaky as my mother—the “Cam” I was pretending to be—stood off to the side waving her hands for me to add something else.

“Tell him we stop by Friday to fix it,” she would whisper loudly as if they could possibly hear her. Standing just two feet away, she always waited until the phone calls ended, adding comments here and there. It was like simultaneously having two separate conversations in two different languages. If I wasn’t confused while doing homework, I certainly was after those phone calls. Yet, the person on the other end never knew. They never knew that rather than a forty-eight-year-old woman speaking to them, it was a thirteen-year-old girl who was barely done with middle school.

Whether I liked it or not, I did it because of family. As a child of two immigrant parents, family was the most important thing.

Coming to the United States as refugees, family was all my parents had. From traveling across the Gulf of Thailand and building a makeshift house in Pulau Besar to settling in the United States, my mom’s family only had one another to rely upon. My father didn’t have anyone as he escaped Vietnam and traveled to the United States. Thus, you do everything for family, whether you liked it or not.

Yet, this obligation did not change the fact that I soon found myself feeling at odds with who I was. Who I was at home was not who I was at school. At school, I was taught to be independent and to follow the American standards of living and rules of behavior. While at home, I was but a child, whose duty was to her family and following the values and beliefs my parents grew up with in Vietnam. It was a disconnect that I was not prepared for as I was torn between two worlds and two identities.

I was having an identity crisis, and I hadn’t even finished eighth grade. At that time, I thought I had to choose between these two identities, a decision  I know now wasn’t necessary. But as an adolescent teenager, it was either one or the other, and I had chosen my American identity at the expense of my Asian culture. I just wanted to fit in.

Looking back, did I make the right decision? Perhaps not, but it was a decision I made and one that has determined the course of my life. Because of my decision and desire to be like my peers, I had lost a piece of my culture.

Despite English being my second language—a Chinese dialect being my first—I now only speak English with both friends or family. I was so focused on perfecting my English in order to prevent ridicule from other students, I lost the language that connected me to my roots and to my grandfather when he was still alive.

Now, I am only left grasping at what I once knew as I try to remember and retain what is left. When I try to think of words to form sentences in my family’s Chinese dialect, I find nothing. All I have left are the meanings of the words when spoken. It is then that I am reminded of my first language and history.

Going to college with its diverse array of students has opened my eyes and made me realize that it’s okay to be different and to embrace who I am as a second generation immigrant. Thus, I share my story when I can, reminding myself and other students I meet to embrace their culture, as this is what makes us who we are and how we connect with different people.

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