YouIn a state of panic, I packed my bags for the trip to Ho Chi Minh City. I’d received the news of my grandmother’s ill health, her doctor’s warning of her imminent passing. Amid the anxiety about my grandmother’s rapidly deteriorating condition, rising COVID-19 cases in Vietnam, travel, I am also acutely aware of a more practical matter: I don’t have enough time to buy any American merchandise to gift my relatives. My uncle travels to Vietnam every year from Texas. He brings along Dollar Tree products with him. It makes me blush to think of coming home empty-handed.
America is more. Or so my family has maintained for as long as I’ve been cognizant of the concept of America.
20 years ago my mother and me immigrated to America. My older sister, however, continued her education in England where she lived during her teenage years. Many Vietnamese families have parents who live in one country, and their children living in another. My family, like many Vietnamese refugees, is part of the postwar Vietnamese immigration wave. They came here not because they had to, but out of choice. We are in the search for the American Dream and never questioning if the American Dream aligns with what we believe. For a long time, I’d also mistaken this long-held myth as absolute. Once I left, I never imagined I would return — what for? When we move on to higher places, it is not a good idea to go back.
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My grandmother’s house in District 2, where when I was a child, the roads were so wet and muddy that mopeds would sink into the soft, red earth, is now considered prime real estate with easy access to the city’s bustling center. At my arrival, I will find my aunt-in-law (and her 2-year-old girl) there. I’ll be staying for about a month, so we will overlap for a few weeks.
“Your uncle Hanh will arrive approximately five days after your departure,” she tells me. Because her U.S. permanent resident card permits her to go only 6 months, she is now trading with her husband.
I smiled. Since my grandmother had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, my uncles and aunts have flown back from wherever they are — Oklahoma, California, Texas — taking turns caring for her. It is unspoken that my aunt will be spending only five days with her spouse before they leave for Vietnam, nearly half a decade after their separation. Smile at my niece who greets and speaks in a language I don’t understand.
My uncles and aunts immigrated from the United States to be with their families. They were not as settled there as I was. From across the Pacific Ocean, they try to manage their businesses (their main sources of income), arrange doctors’ appointments for their parents, maintain a tenuous connection with their partner, while also working a job in the U.S that promises to help them obtain their permanent residency. My aunt, too, had acquired hers after quitting her job as a banker in Vietnam to work in a chicken factory in Oklahoma — the hard-won prize for her years of manual labor is the semi-freedom to go back and forth, being perpetually in transit, and half-hearted conversations with her husband over FaceTime.
On my grandmother’s bed, where she now spends most of her time, I’m reluctant to share the news that my husband and I plan to move to Vietnam over the summer. This decision was partly motivated by our recent pregnancy, and partially by knowing that we will be moving to Vietnam in the summer. Get it nowThis is my final chance to spend time with my grandparents.
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“Why would you come here?” My grandmother furrows her brows. “You need to give birth over there so your baby is an American citizen.”
My grandmother isn’t the only one to express disapproval at my reverse-immigration program. “She’s saying that now, but she won’t follow through,” my mother told a relative. The older generation, it seems to me, is stuck in a vision of a past Vietnam, despite the fact that, according to the World Bank, Vietnam has gone from “being one of the poorest nations to a middle-income economy in one generation.” An East Asia Forum article called Vietnam “an economic star in 2020” for keeping the pandemic under control while growing its GDP more than most countries. And it doesn’t take an economist to see the country’s drastic development. My extended family lived in homes with roofs made from banana leaves when I was growing up. Many are now owners of high-rise apartments with full-service, built by Korean and Singaporean investors.
I explain to those skeptical of my decision that more than the desire to get reacquainted with my motherland is also a need for my baby to know Vietnam in the way that I had, in their spirit and their soul — not something I alone can teach.
“But will your husband want to be Here?” My grandmother says, expressing doubt about how any American-born person would willingly move to this country, the same one where she’d raised all four children into accomplished adults.
“He loves it here.” I smile my most placating smile, and she seems temporarily appeased.
Fortunately, I don’t encounter only resistance. My cousin, 26 years old, and I met for dinner at District 1, a Hong Kong-fusion restaurant. Having also lived in the U.S for many years, my cousin is well aware of the disadvantages of being a minority, the recent upsurge of Asian American violence, the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents Asian Americans from being considered for upper-management roles.
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“Working in the corporate world in Vietnam is somewhat less straightforward than in America,” she tells me. “The infrastructure isn’t set in stone so you have more flexibility to create your own rules, to have a bigger influence — essentially, you can build something new of your own. But if you want to climb the corporate ladder with its preexisting conditions, America is better.”
My cousin seems to be thriving in America. Young, gifted, competent, and lucky, she is. In Vietnam, Americans value American education so highly that they can earn four times the salaries of those with American degrees. This may be part of an attempt to encourage Vietnamese students to come back from overseas.
“Life is good.” My cousin leans back with her lychee cocktail.
As a soon-to-be mother, I am also drawn to Vietnam’s favorable treatment of expats, affordable childcare, high quality of life, and emphasis on family values. In America, the arrival of a baby can feel like a debilitating condition to quickly overcome — What time are you returning to work? It is one of the most troubling questions that mothers are faced with. Vietnam gives mothers six months paid parental leave following the birth of their child. Because of a miscarriage, one of my cousins had to take three months off work in order to be able the work remotely from her home. While the overwhelming respect that women have for their families can sometimes put on pressure, it is often more compassionate to acknowledge the immense task of motherhood.
In New York I had two choices: live upstate to escape anti-Asian-motivated attacks, and then move in New York for its richness in cultures, fearing that I would be shoved in front by a moving subway train. It was hard to imagine. It felt simpler to transnationally move four animals and have a baby, than it did in the States. For the first time in more than 20 years, I will no longer have to explain where I’m from — nobody will ask.
Vietnam has its faults. There is much that needs to be done in terms of freedom of expression. I’m writing this article in Ho Chi Minh City where I can’t seem to access the Human Rights Watch website. As a writer, I’ll have to live with the tension of never being able to fully voice myself in my mother tongue. It is also an American fantasy to attribute all that is good and right to America. It is no easy feat to achieve the American Dream without a lot of sacrifice and consequence. The pursuit of the American Dream has resulted in children being separated from their parents, their partners and teens not having a solid grasp on one or both languages. The time has come for Vietnamese to abandon America’s idolization and embrace the long-neglected Vietnamese Dream.
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