Mai celebrates the last night of the lunar year yachting on the Saigon River in January, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam
Born to a father who served in the American marine corps and a Vietnamese immigrant mother, May, 32, felt she was different from others ever since she was a child.
“Our names, our hair color, and our eye color were different,” Mai told VnExpress as she recalled her and her siblings’ childhood in a small town an hour’s drive from San Diego, California, where the majority of residents were white.
“We considered ourselves different from others the moment we stepped out of our houses.”
Hoping to help Mai and her brothers and sisters blend into the local community, her mother didn’t teach them Vietnamese or Vietnamese culture. Her family rarely watched Asian movies and only visited the area’s Little Saigon district once a year to visit her grandmother.
Racism was a serious problem during May’s school days. Asian children were forced by other students to sit in a separate area, which was called “The Great Wall.” When Mai once gave a hug to another student of color, bullies threatened to beat her up.
“The US was similar to a carelessly mixed bowl of salad. Things were completely different in each state, and there were places that were open to everyone, while others were seriously racist,” she said.
“The town I lived in when I was a child was one of those. People of color hung with one another as a separate group, Mexicans hung with one another, and the rest were white.”
There were even violent school incidents caused by racial tensions, which made the young Vietnamese-American girl feel more isolated.
“All I could do was study. I wanted to be accepted in my own school, and the only acceptance I could get was that from teachers,” she said.
Despite achieving notable academic performances and always being among the top students in her school, Mai became obsessed with finding her real “identity.” She then realized studying was nothing more than a temporary escape.
Things got better after Mai graduated high school and left suburban southern California for the cosmopolitan culture of Boston University.
But before her freshman year of college began, Mai was so worried that she began scouring Google with searches like “how to befriend white people.”
However, after arriving at the university, she felt relieved when she discovered she was only one of many Asian students, including Vietnamese students, all of whom treated her with genuineness.
In 2009, her Vietnamese schoolmate Huy invited her to visit his family back in Vietnam during their winter break. She accepted the invitation and spent her $1,500 in savings, which she had earned waiting tables, to buy a ticket to Vietnam.
Little did she know the trip would change her life forever.
Home Sweet Home
May was immediately impressed with the country’s beautiful landscapes. Then Huy took her to visit his family and experience Vietnam’s famous Tet Lunar New Year holiday rituals herself.
“That was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere,” Mai said.
“It was a warm feeling, which was strange and hard to describe, because I had never felt like that, even in the place I called home.”
May visited Vietnam for the second time in 2015. This time, she came as an intern for a Hanoi-based European company that consulted in the field of foreign direct investment (FDI).
After receiving her master’s degree, Mai paid Vietnam a third visit. This time, she decided not to return to the US
Mai graduating with a master’s degree from the University of California San Diego in 2016. Photo from Mai’s Facebook
Mai has stayed in Vietnam ever since and works in the supply chain sector. She learned Vietnamese with the help of locals, noting that “[Vietnamese] people always take care of and willingly support” others, even those with different appearances like herself.
A neighbor of Mai’s helped her adjust to the new place and culture by often inviting her to family dinners.
“She even helped me move and has always treated me like a family member,” Mai said.
“We stay in contact and still have a close relationship to this day.”
In 2020, Mai founded an advisory firm that helps Southeast Asian factories import high quality equipment from Europe. She also works with her partners to promote Vietnamese tech products in foreign countries.
“I left all by ‘baggage’ in California,” Mai said. “Mixed-race kids like me can feel isolated in American society, and that’s when we start to explore the outside world.”
In order to give back the help that has been given to her, Mai is now the administrator of the largest online community for foreigners living in HCMC.
“People here prioritize relationships and close connections. The most important thing is that I no longer feel isolated, and I don’t need to prove myself in order to be accepted,” she said.
“I live confidently as a normal person here.”
May returned to her hometown in the US a few months ago. She said the town’s atmosphere has changed thanks to larger immigrant communities. The area has become more tolerant towards people of Asian origins.
Still, she is planning to down settle and develop her career in Vietnam.
“I want my children to grow up here, so that they can know about their roots, about Vietnamese culture, and have friends,” she said.
“They won’t have to be obsessed with finding their ‘real identities.'”