The "Happy Days" Syndrome

Khang Nguyen

Writer’s comment: Two years ago, a Vietnamese girl I met in the freshman dorms asked me during a dinner conversation whether I considered myself Vietnamese or American. I, of course, was utterly stunned by her question, but I was not at all surprised at what she was telling me.
        For as long as I can remember, I have always had a kind of “cultural identity crisis.” When I was younger, I would watch sitcoms like “Happy Days” and wonder whether I wanted to be Vietnamese or American. Having had most of my adolescence to think about this question, I have come to the conclusion that I want to be both. Why not enjoy the best of both worlds?
        In my English 20 (Intermediate Composition) class, we had to write an essay that was 3,000 words long for our final paper; I had never before written anything that long, so I didn’t know what to write about. Then I thought about what I knew best. I had previously written an essay in class for an assignment on “how people speak.” The shorter essay had been easy because it dealt with things that I had grown up with—such things as durian and Tet and traditions, like bowing and saying chao anh. So I decided to take this essay and expand it to include not just the language of my culture but every aspect of it. And everything seemed to flow from there.
—Khang Nguyen

Instructor’s comment: You could hear the class skidding around a corner the day Khang Nguyen read his essay aloud. It was a rough draft, but a marvelous rough draft, full of conflict, powerful images, heart. Most of all, what we were hearing and understanding was voice—that ineffable quality that writers usually develop only after years of thinking about who they are and who they are not. As Khang read from the lectern at the front of the class, smiling at times, deeply moved at others, we saw how voice stood for a person’s moral choices, his likes and dislikes, his obstinacies. What we had not been able to put into words came abruptly into view. We were in the presence of it. Everybody’s writing improved after that.
—Elizabeth Davis, English Department

Durian fruit. When people ask me how I feel about my Vietnamese culture, the first thing that comes to mind is durian fruit. Unlike the strawberries or cherries found at Safeway, durian fruit at first glance does not even look edible. The entire fruit resembles a dirty old football, except that durian weighs nearly three pounds. One-inch spikes and a tough brown outer peel cover the fruit, giving it an intimidating look. Inside, yellow, kidney-shaped pieces line the peel like orange slices. As a child, I hated durian. I refused to even taste it. Later on, when I was older, my mother bribed me with two dollars to try the meaty flesh. I fell in love with the fruit instantly. Its heavenly aroma tantalized my olfactory senses. The fleshy kidney-shaped parts felt as smooth as butter inside my mouth.
         Just like the durian, my Vietnamese culture repulsed me as a young child. I always felt that there was something shameful in being Vietnamese. Consequently, I did not allow myself to accept the beauty of my culture. I instead looked up to Americans. I wanted to be American. My feelings, however, changed when I entered high school. There, I met Vietnamese students who had extraordinary pride in their heritage. Observing them at a distance, I re-evaluated my opinions. I opened my life to Vietnamese culture and happily discovered myself embracing it.
         When I was seven years old, I wanted very much to be American. I wanted to be like Richie Cunningham from the sitcom “Happy Days,” which aired often in the early 1980s. I wanted his startlingly blue eyes, his confident smile, his red freckles, his red hair, and of course his strong “American” voice. I envied his tall, strong frame and hoped that I would be as fortunate in stature when I grew up. I wanted to be outgoing and popular with the crowd like Richie was. I dreamed of living in a big house like his, with nice new furniture. I wanted my parents to be just like his—caring, loving, and smiling all the time. Richie’s parents always seemed to be home. Never once did Richie come home to an empty house. He always joyfully greeted his mother after school by tossing his books on the couch, running over to give her a hug, and saying, “Mother, dear, I am home.” If I could not have all of this, I decided, I would settle for merely hanging out with the white, American crowd. After all, Richie Cunningham hung out with white guys at Al’s Cafe. To be like Richie Cunningham, I concluded, was to be American.
         Sometimes, after watching “Happy Days,” I would pull a chair into the cramped little bathroom in our apartment and look at myself in the cracked mirror above the rusty sink. I always felt sad. In the cracked reflection, I saw a small face with no blue eyes, no red hair, and no red freckles. I wondered if my skin would ever fade to the nicer shade of white. I even tried to imitate Richie’s clean, accent-free voice and realized that I could not get rid of the “Vietnamese” influence on my English. As the years passed, I still lugged that same chair into the same decrepit bathroom, realizing more and more every year that my dreams of gaining Richie’s stature would never come true.
         I looked to my Vietnamese parents to see if they shared any characteristics with Richie Cunningham’s parents. They did not. My father and mother were never the jolly and smiling couple with rosy cheeks. Instead, the strain of surviving in a foreign country painted numerous wrinkles on their “yellow” faces. Their hair was not blond or that luscious color of red, but rather a hideous jet black. And their weary, pointed eyes, only half open most of the time, made them look as if they were in their fifties instead of their late thirties. Their clothes were the tired old hand-me-downs that someone had been generous enough to give them.
         And never did my mother bake me mouth-watering chocolate-chip cookies, and never in my entire adolescence did either one of my parents read me a story at bedtime. They valued the Vietnamese spirit of hard work and were always away working and going to school. When they were home, they always practiced their English and forced me to study. They never really smiled that often, and they kept me from a lot of fun activities, like going on school field trips and going out to play with my friends. My parents worried most of the time.
         My fourth-grade class, for instance, had planned to go on week-long camping trip up at Sly Park during the spring break. All of my friends were going, so I begged my parents to let me go, but my pleading fell on deaf ears. They looked at me disapprovingly, squinting their eyes, tensing their eyebrows, crinkling their noses. I knew what their answer would be. I pleaded with them, but they insisted that a week was too long to be away from home. I moped around the house with much bitterness, but they told me that I should listen without argument to my elders and accept their decisions. They reminded me that Vietnamese children should always listen to their “wise” elders and happily obey their elders’ orders. Elders, after all, knew best. I remember crying in school on the Friday when classmates left me behind, a little boy at his desk, alone in the empty classroom, with his head sunk between his two tear-soaked arms.
         While my head rested on my arms, my heart burned with a raging fire fueled by an intense hatred for my Vietnamese parents and their Vietnamese mentality. Damn the Vietnamese way, I thought. Why did my culture have to be so heartless? Why was a week too long to be away from home?
         I remember thinking that Richie’s American parents would actually have encouraged him to go. I could see it: Papa Cunningham, with a big, proud smile, saying, “My son, the ‘outdoors man,’” and Mama Cunningham saying, “Don’t forget your medicine, and remember to have a good time.” As Richie walked away, Papa Cunningham would hold Mama Cunningham and whisper intimately, “What a man our son is growing up to be!”
         Oh, how I had hoped my parents would become like them. My parents and I could go out on family outings like the Cunninghams. My father could teach me how to start campfires without matches like the Indians used to do. We would sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” at the campfire while the fish we caught during the day sizzled in a pan on the blazing fire. My father would play catch with me. When we were alone, he would put his arms around me and secretly show me his killer curve ball. But my parents would not do any of these things. We were not American. I was not American. We were Vietnamese, and Vietnamese people did not go on family outings, and they certainly did not play catch.
         As I stared out of the window with my swollen, red eyes, I remember thinking how unfortunate I was to be born into this world Vietnamese. I thought about all the Vietnamese people that I knew and I thought about how they were treated. I thought about my mother, my father, the Truongs who lived down the hall from our apartment, and the Vans who lived in apartment 246. Most of them were poor. They all wore the same outdated, second-hand clothes that my family wore. (All of us shopped at the same thrift shop on Third Street.) They spoke with heavy accents that made most American people cringe.
         Once at the Gemco supermarket near our apartment, my mother politely asked a clerk where the laundry detergent was located. The clerk looked stupidly at my mother with his large left eyebrow raised. He winced both of his beady eyes. “The laun-dry is in the third a-isle. Do you un-der-stand?” The clerk’s condescending voice made me feel really inferior. I hid behind my mother, afraid of his fearsome gaze. When we walked away, I looked back at the worker and found him making funny faces at us. I gently pulled on my mother’s sleeve, but she ignored me and hushed me along. Because of my mother’s unwillingness to face these blunt acts of racism, I always felt as though people had a right to make fun of my mother and me because we were Vietnamese.
         Even in school, most of the American students teased my Vietnamese friends and me. Sometimes when we walked past an American crowd in the hallways, they would say something like, “ching-ching-chung,” point at us, make other rude remarks, and laugh merrily among themselves. I clenched my fists in anger, but my fears of getting beaten up by the bigger white guys always stopped me. Their numbers as well as their cocky air of superiority always humbled my anger. I began to blame all my misfortunes on being Vietnamese. I began to think that if I were not Vietnamese, I would not be teased. The thought that those cruel little white kids were at fault, that this blatant display of racism was wrong—that I was not inferior—never crossed my mind. I began to equate Vietnamese with inferiority. These Americans did not hate me personally; they hated this Vietnamese “shell” around me. I concluded that everything about being Vietnamese—the culture, the passivity, the language—was equated with failure. My culture became the ugly, spiky football-shaped durian fruit I had refused to eat as a young child.
         So at around the age of ten I decided to make a conscious effort to limit my Vietnamese activity. I did not want to belong to the “inferior” race any longer. I did not want to be looked down upon any longer. I did not want to be Vietnamese. I refused to go to the Kim Quang temple with my mother on Saturdays as I had done before, deciding to stay home instead. She often stood yelling at me for this, but I remained obstinate. Whenever my mother celebrated the traditional Tet holiday at home by making the food offerings to the gods, I criticized her actions, thinking that they were archaic and old-fashioned. My mother always told me to pray sincerely to the gods for good fortune with two incense sticks in my hands, as tradition dictated. I, however, snatched the incense sticks from her hands, shoved them into the incense stand and ran into the bedroom.
         And I began to argue with my parents more. No longer did I passively accept their decisions because they were my “elders.” They had to justify their actions, and their justifications had to make sense to me.
         “Go to bed, Khang, it’s ten already,” my mother would say softly in Vietnamese.
         “But, mother! Tomorrow’s Saturday. I want to watch wrestling. If you are tired, you go to bed,” I replied boldly in English.
         “What did you say, hon ha [are you being rude]? I am your mother. I have to work tomorrow. Don’t make me spank you.” Her face tensed.
         “Well,” I said, nervous now, “I don’t have to work, so why should I go to bed?”
         With these words, I knew what was to come.
         Filled with a rebellious determination, I would look up at my mother’s cherry red face. She would angrily clench her hands. Her beady, stern eyes would gaze directly at mine, attempting to pierce through my armor of defiance. She would then abruptly turn and walk over to the closet, pull out the infamous broomstick, and proceed to chase me around the room. She was a cat, full of rage, determined to get me, the small yet resilient mouse. I would run from her for dear life! This mouse, however, never had good fortune in this game. When she caught me, my mother would unleash her anger on my rear end with the broomstick. I would always cry, fight, and scream, but the waves of blows would keep coming and coming. I felt like a small ship amidst an incessant tempest at sea. Afterwards, however, she would always feel bad and rub the swollen parts with Chinese medicine as I sat, crying.
         I also revolted by speaking as little Vietnamese as possible. My mother and father berated me for this, but the stress of work and life made them complacent about forcing me to speak our native tongue. Whenever I reluctantly spoke Vietnamese, though, I used a lot of the American lingo I picked up at school, like “chill out,” “right on,” and “hey, man.” I stopped following my traditional habits of addressing my older friends by anh and my younger friends em. I instead referred to them as “you,” which was, according to my mother’s teachings, a definite way to show disrespect in the Vietnamese culture. Furthermore, I stopped bowing to my mother when I greeted her, and I stopped saying thua ma con ve (Mother, I am home). My parents, of course, did not like this insolence but permitted these actions as long as no one outside of the family knew.
         Once, when I was eleven, I came home from school and discovered that my mother had company. Mr. Leu Long had just arrived from Vietnam, and my mother invited him over for some che (Vietnamese dessert). My mother and Mr. Leu Long used to attend the same high school in Vietnam, and now he resided in Sacramento. I greeted Mr. Leu Long by saying, “Hi, sir,” and offering my hand for a handshake. Mr. Leu’s eyes widened as he sat in astonishment. My mother’s face turned bright red as she cringed in anger and embarrassment. Mom immediately pulled me into the bathroom and slapped me across the face. Never again did I speak in English to my mother’s Vietnamese friends.
         My attitude toward my culture changed in 1989 when I became a freshman at Hiram Johnson High School. During the month of February in 1989, Hiram Johnson High School celebrated Tet (Vietnamese and Chinese New Year’s holiday). I, of course, did not care too much about these festivities; the real New Year’s celebration, after all, had already taken place a month before, in January. But whether I liked it or not, I had to attend the mandatory assembly.
         The highlight of the assembly was a Vietnamese fashion show called Van nghe, where girls from my school modeled traditional Vietnamese garments. The school held this event in our well-known auditorium that was used for performances by the local theater clubs. When the curtain went up, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Every one of the models wore long, traditional Vietnamese gowns, many with colorful embroidery designs. I recognized Amy from chemistry class, who wore a dark lavender gown with deep purple flowing designs around the collar. She was stunning. I saw Fong, who chose a much more ordinary, less ostentatious white gown with no embroidery. Every Vietnamese girl there had long hair and a petite body frame.
         I had already seen much of this clothing at family get-togethers and Vietnamese weddings, but I found myself genuinely surprised by the way the models conducted themselves. Unlike the impoverished Vietnamese people that I had been exposed to for so long—a community of which I was ashamed to count myself a member—these ladies stood tall and proud. Smiles painted their faces. They held their chins high. I did not detect any signs of shame, nothing to indicate disgrace. When they gracefully stepped across the stage, I did not hear any boos or anyone taunting “ching-ching-chung.” In fact, the audience, which at first was slow in its response, ended up giving the models a standing ovation.
         I sat there seemingly alone in the dark, with no ghosts of “Richie Cunningham” around me, contemplating my attitude toward my culture. Had I judged the situation hastily as a child? Most of the Vietnamese people I knew were poor for a reason. When I judged them against the white “Richie Cunningham” Americans, I had compared people who had just arrived in this country to people who had long been established here. Had my feelings been premature? Immature? I thought about durian fruit and how I initially had hated it, not necessarily because it was ugly, but because it was different. I contemplated whether people behaved the same way. I thought about the clerk at Gemco. Maybe he teased my mother because she was different, not solely because she was Vietnamese. Images of Vietnamese people from my past came to mind. I did not know what to think, but I did learn one thing for sure from the Van nghe: being Vietnamese did not mean being a failure.
         From that point on, I opened myself up to my culture and fell in love with it. I no longer hated bowing to my elders and saying Chao bac when I greeted them simply because this was Vietnamese tradition. I stopped avoiding my Vietnamese friends. Whenever I spoke to my Vietnamese friends, I always tried to speak Vietnamese, feeling embarrassed no longer. I addressed my older friends with the traditional words Chao anh and my younger friends with the words Chao em. And every year since 1989, I have always prayed hard in front of the food offering to the gods. I never forgot to pray for my family, my friends, and most important, for myself.
         The only times I felt bad around my Vietnamese friends were times when I did not know how to say a word in Vietnamese. I would say “movie” instead of cine, for instance. My lack of vocabulary served as a constant reminder of my long-time neglect of my culture. I always regretted—and to this day, still regret—losing those valuable years.
         Nowadays, in the new house that my parents strove so hard to get, I no longer have to drag a chair into the bathroom. It took twelve years, but I can now see my reflection perfectly well. There are big differences when I look, though; the mirror is no longer cracked, the face I see is no longer small. I look older and a little bit wiser (I owe this to the tough yet proper way I was raised). I still do not detect any blue eyes or red hair or red freckles, but that’s okay because Richie Cunningham, if he were real, would actually envy the way I have two cultures at my disposal. I have become a living microcosm of two worlds, a living testament to the harmony between my Vietnamese and American cultures.