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Baggage

Baggage

Walking onto the plane, I am reminded of all the baggage I carry with me. 60 pounds of luggage follows behind me in my checked baggage. My shoulders are weighed down with the gifts I am bringing back to family: ginseng, fragrant soap, gum, and vitamins. Beyond these worldly possessions, however, my heart hangs heavy with the constant struggle between my heritage as Vietnamese and my upbringing as American.

My name is Jeffrey Trong Vuong, and I am a Vietnamese-American. Born and raised in Orange County, California, I grew up just minutes away from one of the most concentrated bodies of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. However, like many of my generation, I am one step removed from the struggles that brought our people to this land. My parents have carried the hardships of leaving their homes and starting anew across their backs in order for my siblings and me to have a better life.

As I work my way farther down the plane, I am taken aback by my situation. This cavernous miracle of technology, seating hundreds of people, will move us across an ocean and to another continent. I marvel at the hundreds of people around me. Though only hours before we were oblivious to one another’s existence, we are now all embarking upon the same fifteen hour odyssey. We make our way toward our seats, vagrant waypoints that we call home for the next day and a half.

Both of my parents fled Vietnam before the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. They were the lucky ones. My mother and her family landed at Camp Pendleton, along with hundreds of other refugees. My father, making his own way in life, was in South Carolina pursuing a degree in engineering. Seemingly serendipitous events brought them together and to Southern California, where they gave birth to my older sister, brother, and me. Though all of my life I have known California to be my home, for my parents, the States will never be able to fill the void left by Vietnam.

It’s now two hours into the flight. The late night meal was just served – chicken and mashed potatoes with cheesecake for dessert. People are starting to get cozy now, wrapping the airline-provided blankets about their bodies and easing back their chairs in unison, creating a sea of people who are almost comfortable. In our half-seated, half-lying down states, we’re able to sleep, yet the low rumbling of the jet engines serve to constantly remind us that we are not home.

I never really put much thought into my racial identity. Growing up, racial minorities made up the majority. During high school, I was a member of our Vietnamese Student Association. I even became president during my senior year. However, our group never really delved deeply into what made us different from others. We went through the motions, selling Vietnamese food during the annual food fair, putting on a lion dance, and attending some events with other high schools in Little Saigon. However, I never had to think of myself in the minority.

We’ve now landed in Taiwan, our layover on the way to Ho Chi Minh City. Having survived the longer of our two flights, we now scoff at the paltry two and a half hours that separate us from our final destination. However, now more than ever, the anxiety in my heart is greatest.

I left home for college, traveling across the country to a place where Vietnamese-Americans were an extreme minority. During those four years, I was too busy finding my identity as a student living on my own for the first time, much less have time to ponder my racial identity. However, near the end of those years, armed with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I finally had time to wonder about who I actually am. There are sides to my identity that are well developed. I know who I am as a student, as a friend, as a son. But for the last 21 years of my life and continuing on to this day, I don’t know how being Vietnamese changes my personal picture.

“Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City. The local time is a little before 11am. The weather is sunny and hot,” garbles the captain over the intercom. We’ve finally made it. We are in Vietnam. We are home.

VIET2010 is a program dedicated to raising awareness of the environmental and medical aftermaths of Agent Orange and Dioxin in Vietnam. More so than this, however, it is a vehicle through which the displaced members of the Vietnamese community can unify to help solve problems affecting our homeland. Even greater, for me, and those of my generation and beyond who like me, have been unable to connect with those directly affected by the war and the displacement, it is the opportunity to connect with our identities and learn about our past.

Throngs of people greet us as we collect our baggage and proceed out into the tropical heat of the city. Signs everywhere hold up Vietnamese surnames with American embellishments. Though many of us are simply visiting, the smiles and anxious faces of those awaiting wayward family members gives me hope that I am some place that I belong.

 


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