In a panicked state, I pack my bag for my 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. Whenever my uncle visits Vietnam from Texas, he fills his suitcase with Dollar Tree goods to appease friends and family, never mind that many of those items had been manufactured in Vietnam. I blush at the thought of showing up empty-handed.
Because America is better. Or so my family has maintained for as long as I’ve been cognizant of the concept of America.
Twenty years ago, my mother and I immigrated to the U.S, while my older sister continued to pursue her education in England, where she had relocated during her teenage years. This transnational dynamic is familiar to many Vietnamese families with parents in one country and their children in another. Unlike Vietnamese refugees, my family and I are part of the new wave of postwar Vietnamese immigrants, who came to America not out of necessity, but by choice, in search of the American Dream, never asking if it aligns with our Vietnamese soul. 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? After all, we are not supposed to look back when we have advanced toward higher grounds.
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. My aunt-in-law and her 2-year-old daughter are there when I arrive. 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. Her permanent resident card in the U.S allows her to be gone only six months at a time, so she and her husband are trading off.
I nod. 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. Unspoken is the fact that after nearly half a year apart, my aunt will spend only about five days with her husband before he leaves for Vietnam. I smile at my niece, who greets me in an invented language, which a few days later, I realize is her own concoction of Vietnamese, English, and toddler.
Unlike me who moved abroad at a young age and perhaps found it a few shades easier to integrate into American society, my aunts and uncles who immigrated to the United States never entirely settled in their adopted country. 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. The decision is motivated in part by the fact of our pregnancy and in part by the knowledge that now is my last chance to be with my grandparents.
“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 is hardly the only person who expresses disapproval of my reverse-immigration plan. “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. When I was a child, most of my extended family lived in houses with roofs woven from dried banana leaves. Now many are owners of apartments in full-serviced high-rises, developed by Singaporean and Korean 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 26-year-old cousin and I meet for dinner at a Hong Kong fusion restaurant in District 1. 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.
“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.”
I can tell my cousin is thriving here. She is young, talented, capable, and also lucky that Vietnam values American education so much that those who hold degrees from American universities can make four times or more the salary of their peers, perhaps part of an effort to encourage young Vietnamese to return from abroad.
“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 — when are you getting back to work, is a question that distressingly hovers over mothers. In Vietnam, mothers are entitled to six months of paid leave after the birth of a child. One of my cousins took three months to work from home, no questions asked, because she had a miscarriage. The overwhelming respect for a family-oriented life at times can put undue pressure on women, but in many cases, is also more humane as it acknowledges the enormous task of motherhood.
While in New York, I envisioned two options: living upstate in favor of a safer life to avoid anti-Asian motivated attacks at the expense of a total absence of diversity, or living in the city for the richness of cultures while in fear of being shoved in front of a moving subway car. I quickly tired of imagining. Somehow, a transnational move with four pets, and a baby on the way, feels simpler than the options 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 is not without its flaws. Where it comes to freedom of expression, there is still much to be desired. 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. But it is also a Vietnamese fantasy to attribute everything that is right and good to America. The American Dream is not without ample consequence and sacrifice. For the people I love, its pursuit has meant children separated from parents, partners from each other, teens who grow up without a clear grasp on either language. It is perhaps time for Vietnamese people, both local and abroad, to stop idolizing America and consider the long-neglected Vietnamese Dream.
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