5: Finding Mai

5: Finding Mai

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Finding Mai

To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.

~Chinese Proverb

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I do remember exactly how I felt when it did.

I was about seven years old and a relative was driving me somewhere. Suddenly, a car pulled up next to us. The two boys in that car yelled two words at us that would change my life.

“F*cking gooks!” they called out, taunting us with their diabolical smiles.

At first, I didn’t understand what those words meant, and I certainly did not understand why the boys seemed to be so angry. With fervor, the boys continued the profanities.

I felt humiliated, ashamed. The blood rushed to my face as I began to understand that I was a “gook,” and that was a very bad thing. Eventually, they drove off, leaving me feeling completely insignificant.

Before this incident, I had a general feeling that I did not belong in the country in which I lived. Being a foreigner, I simply did not fit in. I was terribly different from the kids who attended my elementary school. I was often teased or misunderstood.

As I sat in the car, I put two and two together. I decided that those boys had delivered a message from the rest of the world, and I should be ashamed of who I was.

From that point on, I was.

I started to loathe being Vietnamese. I hated the weird sound of my name, Mai. I hated the sound of my native language. I hated how different my food was. I hated my greasy black hair, unflattering jaundiced skin, and narrow eyes that seemed to taunt me whenever I smiled.

During this time, I often accompanied my mother on trips to grocery stores. These stores frequently carried personalized items such as mugs with first names imprinted on them. Many times, I looked for a “Mai” mug. There were plenty of “Mary” mugs, but “Mai” mugs did not exist. Sometimes, children have a way of overly dramatizing events, and I was no exception. Whenever I failed to find a mug with my name on it, I assumed it meant that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t belong, adding further fuel to the fire already lit by those teenage boys.

Years passed. Although my general confidence grew, my sense of cultural identity did not. All my friends were Caucasian. I only spoke Vietnamese when absolutely necessary. Ninety-five percent of the food I ate was American, for good reason. Once, someone quipped that the bánh cuốn (rice noodle roll) I ate resembled a “translucent turd.” Being the outsider was so embarrassing that I overcompensated, trying to fit in even more. One man commented that I spoke like the quintessential “valley girl.” Mission accomplished!

In high school, I finally obtained U.S. citizenship. At long last, I had the chance to discard my birth name, Mai.

Prior to the citizenship ceremony, I had pondered many new names — the more American-sounding, the better. I entertained several candidates, finally selecting Kristen. Kristen just happened to be a popular, blond, blue-eyed cheerleader who ruled her high-school class, along with her prom-king, football-playing boyfriend. She was the epitome of everything I wanted to be.

With my new name, I could officially begin a new life, a new identity, a new me. I was ecstatic. I began to introduce myself as Kristen. Enthusiastically, I left the “old” Vietnamese me far behind, in favor of a new and “improved” American me — who would finally fit in. Surprisingly, something indiscernible lingered. Something felt strangely incomplete.

Soon after I gained U.S. citizenship, I met a new friend. She was lively, confident, and definitely Vietnamese. I remember the first time I heard her speak Vietnamese in the midst of American classmates. She spoke without an ounce of embarrassment, but rather with a sense of pride. I marveled at her. Over the next few months, we spent a significant amount of time together. I observed her closely, much like a student observes her teacher. She balanced both of her worlds comfortably, living in the present, but honoring her past. With each interaction, her sense of self-love rubbed off on me and nourished me like a salve to my parched skin.

With her help, I made other Vietnamese friends. While I already had many kind American friends, my Vietnamese friends provided me with a new sense of empathy. They understood the emotional complexities of being a refugee in a world that wasn’t always trying to understand exactly what it meant to be a refugee. They accepted me for everything I was and everything I wasn’t. Finally, I truly belonged to a community that made me feel completely understood.

My new friends took me on a journey where I was reminded of the beauty of my birthplace, as well as the tremendous resilience, strength, and perseverance of my people. I dined at Vietnamese restaurants and listened to Vietnamese music. I even started to speak Vietnamese again. Gradually, the sound of my native language became comforting. The taste of my native food became sumptuous. The sound of my native music became ethereal. The knowledge of my ancestors became fascinating. My eyes were re-opened to a mystical world I had left behind, years ago, sitting in that car.

I no longer felt like I had to fit inside someone else’s world. Finding mugs with “Mai” imprinted on them wasn’t important anymore because I finally knew I belonged. Being different was no longer a reason to be ashamed. Now, it was something to embrace.

Because I had legally changed my first name and all my official documents reflected it, everyone I met called me Kristen. Ironically, the new name I had waited so long for now sounded oddly unnatural.

One night, I met a teenage boy at a high school party. He introduced himself and asked me what my name was. Proudly, I said, “Mai.”

Years after I allowed two complete strangers and two vile words to redefine my sense of self-worth and identity, I had finally taken the power to love myself back into my own hands.

Today, I introduce myself as Mai. I am proud of who I am and what I am. Like many explorers, I uncovered a buried treasure I never expected to stumble upon. The person I had lost years ago was finally found. And I will make sure to never lose her again.

~Kristen Mai Pham

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