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Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese

Judges selected seven winners from more than 100 entries in the 2015 Sam and Jackie Wong-Alhambra Source Scholarship. Alhambra high school seniors and recent graduates were asked to write about their heritage and how it had come to shape them. The winners each received a $500 scholarship award, along with the opportunity to have their essays published in Alhambra Source. This week, we feature an essay from Andrew Quach, an Alhambra High School grad who is now a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara. Quach wrote about his family's journey from Saigon, and feeling a desire to hide his Vietnamese heritage, even though he lived in an Asian-American community. Quach wrote to us to say that he is currently studying political science and plans to pursue a law degree. "My career aspirations include using the justice system to fight for minority civil rights and perhaps pursue public office," said Quach. 
“The United States of America is a big country.” Simple and direct, this sentence could be understood by most elementary school aged children. Yet, to truly comprehend the implication of this statement requires a type of wisdom acquired through perspective, not age. This sentence was originally penned in the “Vietnamese Refugee Orientation Handbook,” which was handed out to those seeking safety inside the borders of the United States. Among them were my parents. 

Quach giving his commencement address

After the fall of Saigon, my grandfather took my mother and her siblings to America, eventually settling in Alhambra. My mother, aunt, and uncle were products of Alhambra High School, the same school that I graduated and delivered the commencement address from this past June. My family and I grew up in Alhambra and we call it home.
In a city that boasts a 53 percent Asian population, my family and I seemingly fit in. However, looks are deceiving. Approximately three in four Asians are Chinese. Vietnamese Americans account for only about five percent of Alhambra’s total population. It may be hard to believe, but in a city full of similar faces, I’m a minority. 
I’ve known from a young age that I was different from my peers. In grade school, whenever my teachers asked what language we would like our handouts to be given in, half the class would raise their hand for the blue, Mandarin papers. More often than not I would be the only one with the purple, Vietnamese form.
The United States of America is a big country; feeling lost is understandable. Growing up in Alhambra as an ethnic minority meant being lumped in and categorized as Chinese because it was convenient. At supermarkets, restaurants, movie theaters, I would be spoken to in Chinese, even before English. Then came the awkward moment when I had to repeat, time after time, “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.” I started to regret that I wasn’t born Chinese. I would be lying if I said I never raised my hand for that blue handout because it made me feel like I belonged. 
Quach (fourth from left) at a fundraiser for congressman Mike Honda (seventh from left)The United States is a big country. The truth behind that statement became even more apparent when I discovered the absence of my heritage. It seemed as if everyone was from Guangzhou, Shanghai, or Beijing. They had family there, but when I was asked about my origins, I would reply “Santa Ana” or “Arizona.” The history of my people is a history of displacement. My parents ran from communism and oppression, fleeing the only home they ever knew. They left behind everything. There was no room for pictures, letters, or other keepsakes. There was no room for culture.

Quach (left) with debate coach Kevin Tong

Fortunately, that’s only half the story. It’s true that ethnic minorities like myself may feel lost in a majority Chinese American population, but that’s not to say Alhambra is a terrible place for minorities. On the contrary, growing up in Alhambra was a constant celebration of different cultures. Not many cities in this big country celebrate the culture of minorities like Alhambra does. The annual Lunar New Year celebration on Valley Boulevard, a childhood favorite of mine, draws all ethnicities out to celebrate. Vendors distribute products from various ethnic backgrounds, including Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Dance performances  vary from contemporary hip-hop to Chinese folk dance. While this festival may be celebrating a rich and diverse background, its attendees are the real sign of a diverse city. Walking down the streets of the festival at a young age, I saw faces that didn’t resemble mine. Instead, I saw people of all races and ethnicities. Being multicultural isn’t merely putting on a celebration every time a minority holiday rolls around, it’s about making a population feel comfortable enough to explore the culture of others. 
Living as a Vietnamese American in Alhambra wasn’t always easy. I struggled to identify with many of my peers for quite some time, but I realized that I didn’t have to be from Guangzhou or greet others by saying “Ni Hao” to be a part of my community. I was able to feel at home by embracing Alhambra’s culture of acceptance. After a generation of displacement, relocation, and struggling to fit in, my family and I have found a new home. While I may not be completely connected to my original heritage, I have planted roots that are nurtured by the water of diversity.

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1 thought on “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese”

  1. Funny, but true. I’ve noticed at Asian-type establishments, or where Asians might be employed, most of the time (not all the time), Asian usually greet other Asians speaking in Mandarin, instead of English – but the same holds true in Latino communities (…an possibly other communities; not sure, but I deal with many Armenians and they prefer to communicate with each other in their own languages).I’m not bothered nor offended by these uses of their own languages.

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