In 2016, I took a DNA test from 23andMe to answer one question: Who is my grandfather?
It’s a question that plagued my family for over 50 years because my mom is Amerasian — one of the thousands of Vietnamese children fathered by Americans during the Vietnam War.
The only thing she really knew about him was that he was a U.S. soldier, and he left her and my grandma when the country fell to the communists. She never met him. She didn’t know his name. And she didn’t know his race.
What she did know was that when he left, she grew up with names that were not her own:
Mỹ lai or “half-breed” is what they called her in schools.
Amerasian is what they called her when she came to the United States.
But I’ve only ever known her as mẹ — mom.
She and my dad met as refugees in Pittsburgh after they escaped Vietnam in the late 1980s. Within a year, they had me, a bumbling little mixed-race son who cried louder than the jet engines they flew in on.
My family eventually moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and growing up in the Midwest, I encountered a good amount of racism veiled as well-intentioned questions like, “What kind of Asian are you?” Since I was mixed race, though, I also got the same questions from other Vietnamese people.
- “Why’s your skin so dark all the time?”
- “Your hair is so curly! Can I touch it?”
- “So you’re Mexican/Hawaiian/Native, right?”
The one question that annoyed me the most though? “What are you?”
Don’t get me wrong: The question is insensitive and downright asinine, but the reason I was so angry about it was because I didn’t have a good answer myself because I never knew my grandfather’s race.
In a world where so much of who you are is tied up to how you look and where you come from, not having an answer to such a simple question was agonizing — especially since it resulted in me never being “enough” for any one group. For white people, I was too Asian. For Viet people, I was too American.
So what am I?
I asked my mom that a lot when I was little, though I didn’t realize it then, it came masked in questions about my ông ngoại (grandfather in Vietnamese). “Do you remember what ông ngoại looked like? Was he tall? Was his hair curly too?”
The only memories she has of him come from a single photograph of him and my grandma she had when she was little. The picture was worn even when she first saw it and so blurry she couldn’t even make out facial features. But there are things she can remember: My grandma and him standing in front of a friend’s house. My grandma smiling, buried in his arms, and he stood tall “almost to the rooftop.” My mom remembers his smile, and says it’s the same one she sees in me to this day.
More than anything, I wish I could see that photograph. My grandma burned it, though, along with many other possessions that might have linked our family to the Americans after the country fell. Pictures, letters, stuffed animals, jewelry — all were burned in a pyre in a paddy field somewhere outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
There were some things they couldn’t burn away, though. My mother’s darker skin. Her full lips. Her round eyes and light brown hair. Unbroken reminders of a race she was never sure of and of father who she never met. Who never hugged her or held her hand after the other kids called her “half-breed.” Who never got to answer for her what my mother tried to answer for me: What am I?
So the same month I turned 24, I bought a kit from 23andMe and set out to find that out.
I remember the night I dropped the kit off in the mailbox to send it to the DNA testing lab. My hands were shaking as I pushed the box through the mail slot — and I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold Chicago air around me or because of something else.
Call it anticipation. Call it excitement. Call it nervous longing for answers you’ve waited your entire life for. But I couldn’t help but feel weird about what I was doing. Almost like I was about to find out a secret that I was never meant to know.
And worst yet: What if I was disappointed by what I found out? Like I go through all the trouble of buying a $100 DNA kit and building it up in my head, only to find out that my grandfather was another Vietnamese person.
I know. It’s ridiculous — but still.
When the results came in, I felt like I exploding in a ball of frustrated energy. After decades of not knowing, I was finally about to get the answers I wanted for so long. And then, all at once, there they were:
I am Vietnamese with a touch of African and European.
It felt like a fog clearing and I finally had an answer to, “What are you?” Well, you see, I’m Asian, and black, AND white. I’m a goddamn microcosm of the American Dream.
My bliss was short-lived, though. I called my mom later that night to tell her the good news — and while she was very happy to hear about how we were black and white, it gave her pause.
“Are you sure?” she asked. Of course I’m sure, I told her, I had connected with a few cousins through the DNA website and they were all black, too. She paused for a moment longer — and in that moment, I realized what was happening: My mom was disappointed.
If there’s one thing Vietnamese people don’t often confront, it’s their own racism. I can’t tell you the number of times Vietnamese people around me made a derogatory comment about people from other races — black, white, Latino, even other Asians. Discrimination just doesn’t carry the same weight as it does in American culture.
And though my mom didn’t say it out loud, I heard shame through her silence. Just a twinge of it — but it was there. Her silence carried every stupid question I’ve heard from other people.
Why’s your hair so curly? Why’re your lips so big? What are you?
It was all I could to stop myself from screaming.
And I knew it couldn’t be helped. Everything I experienced while growing up wasn’t even a tenth of what she went through in Vietnam. She wasn’t just mixed race. She was a my la ― a half-breed, a spawn of the enemy and symbol of everything wrong with colonialism and imperial oppression.
She resented that the same way I resented not knowing the truth my whole life.
I hung up the phone and assured myself of my resolve: I was going to find my grandfather. Internalized racism be damned. And two years later, earlier this year, I did find him thanks to the 23andme website’s ability to connect me with extended family. Through cousins, I was able to find his name and more specifically, I found his obituary. It turned out he had been dead almost five years by the time I caught up with him.
After I found his obituary and told my mom about her father, she made a trip to visit me in Chicago. I framed a picture of my grandfather from the obituary, wrapped it and gave it to her on her birthday.
My face grew hot as she unwrapped the portrait and I told her about my search and how I finally found him. As the paper gave way and revealed her father, my ông ngoại, I wanted to look away. I was sure she’d be disappointed again. She’d tell me, “This can’t be him. No way. He’s black.” And I wouldn’t know what to do.
Then tears fell onto the portrait. The pent up anger, sadness, hurt and longing of over five decades of waiting and wondering seemed to emerge all at once in a single volcanic moment. Here he was. Her father.
Turns out, none of that mattered when she finally came face to face with him. All the years of bullying, discrimination and internalized racism melted away revealing that little girl from south of Saigon who just wanted her dad.
It made me realize: I started this search to find answers to a few questions. Now I know I’ve been asking the wrong ones my whole life.
I wanted to find somewhere I could belong. I wanted to find an identity, after spending my entire life never feeling like I had one myself. I wanted to call myself black, or white or Viet. But I can’t because those cultures don’t really belong to me — I’m not sure if they really belong to anyone.
Vietnamese people will still think I’m Mexican. And black people will never see me as black. And white people will always ask me, “What are you?”
And that’s okay. Though I didn’t know it in the beginning of this search, uncovering my roots has been more rewarding than fitting a particular mold others expect of me.
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