My husband and I finally got around to watching the season finale of Fresh Off the Boat (FOB) this weekend. For those of you who haven’t watched, FOB is a sitcom that is centred around an Asian family that has just moved from Washington, DC to Orlando, Florida so that the father can open a steakhouse restaurant. I feel like a lot of Asian North Americans (is that a real term? I’m just going to use it to describe Asian Americans + Asian Canadians) have this sense of duty to support this show. After all, how many TV shows feature an Asian family? The season has been decent so far; not our favourite show of all time, but I do find myself relating to a lot of the content and it’s fun to discuss with my husband.
In this episode, Jessica (the family matriarch) realizes that her family may have assimilated too much to American culture and is worried that they losing their Chinese identity. She begins dressing more “Chinese”, cooks more Asian dishes instead of mac & cheese, and enrolls her children into Mandarin school. I thought about my parents and wondered how much they had ever considered this thought.
Truthfully, I don’t think they were all too concerned. Growing up, my parents hardly ever discussed Vietnamese identity with me and my brother. In fact, my father admits that they didn’t speak Vietnamese to us because they didn’t want us to be at a “disadvantage” at school — socializing only with other Asian students instead of all the other kids as well. I think the logic is reasonable, but I’m certain they didn’t consider how it would affect how we would identify with Vietnamese culture.
As children, my brother and I obviously wanted to fit in with our peers and not to be “weird.” I remember a Chinese kid named Kenny in my grade one class who had a thick accent. I’m pretty sure he was ESL, but I didn’t know what that meant back then. He couldn’t communicate well with the other kids, smelt like Chinese mothballs, and had stinky milk breath in the morning. Who wants to be like Kenny? I remember thinking how I felt sorry for kids that had to speak “their language” at home and had to attend Chinese school. How uncool! I’d rather spend time doing other things like playing outside or going to soccer games.
It’s interesting how much things change now that I’m an adult. It would be nice to speak Vietnamese to my grandparents or utter things in Vietnamese to my parents so that white people can’t understand what I’m trying to say. I feel sorry now for not learning Vietnamese as it partially takes away from my Vietnamese identity. I wonder if the future Baby Macedos will think about this at all.
I started thinking more about why my parents don’t seem concerned about assimilation. They didn’t try to indoctrinate us or explain the importance of Vietnamese cultures and traditions. They just did things that seemed like it was part of everyday normal life. My brother and I wouldn’t have known any different.
Identity Idea #2: Celebrate or practice cultural traditions on a regular basis so it becomes part of their ethnic identity (despite not being able to speak the language).
On the finale of FOB, Jessica admitted how much she loved mac and cheese because it was tasty and was so easy to make. She kept that food “white” by adding bacon bits. I remember my dad used to cook up bacon and those little pork sausages for us to eat… with rice. And we didn’t eat it for breakfast, we ate that meal for dinner. My brother and I thought this was normal until we had some friends come over after school. Our friend Ryan informed us that people eat bacon for breakfast and they use their hands. When I look back at this moment, I don’t recall being too bothered by it. Why do you have to eat bacon and sausage only at breakfast? They tasted delicious with rice. I could eat that for breakfast, lunch, or dinner! I admit, I’m pretty sure my dad still doesn’t know that bacon and sausage are breakfast foods. I can’t claim this is a Vietnamese cultural thing, but the point I am trying to make is that if it seems like a normal thing, it becomes part of your identity. Bacon, sausage, and rice for dinner is part of my upbringing. And I can call it Vietnamese if I want.
To make a stronger point, I’ll use Lunar New Year as an example. My parents didn’t explain about the traditions of Lunar New Year; the day would come and go. We showed up to the big family party, played with our cousins, ate lots of delicious food, and looked forward to receiving lai see (lucky money in bright red envelopes). Lunar New Year was something we looked forward to every year.
The lesson to pass onto the future Baby Macedos is to make sure we celebrate these types of events every year to give it some kind of normalcy. Even if they can’t speak Vietnamese or Portuguese, celebrating or practicing the cultural traditions on a regular basis will assist in forming their identity for each background. However, I want to take it a step further and explain to my children why we do these events like how parents explain Christmas or Easter to their kids. But I probably won’t say anything about bacon and sausage with rice for dinner until they find out themselves that those are actually breakfast foods.