By Long Do Hoang
When I was a child, my perception of the world was so small until I understood what heritage meant. I was a born in a small town near Stuttgart in Germany, Göppingen. Growing up there, the majority of my friends were German, the language we spoke with each other was German and the games we played were all in German. I was aware that the language that I spoke with to my parents was different, but I did not know about the concept – the social construct – of “heritage”. To me and my friends, the way we looked or where our parents came from did not hold any significance. All that mattered to us was that everyone in our group knew about the latest episode of Power Rangers or Pokémon. But our ignorance came to a halt after me and my friends entered elementary school.
Once I entered elementary school, I learned that the world seemed to be a little bit bigger than what I had anticipated. What consisted of my street, family, community and kindergarten before expanded to a new school with hundreds of new faces. And these faces looked nothing like mine. And I was not the only child to realize that. It was then when other kids would come up to me and ask where I was from. At that time, I did not have an answer, or, at least no answer that was to their satisfaction. I would tell them the street I was living in only for them to move to their next question which was: “No, what country are you from?” Whenever I would try to explain to them that I was from a country named Germany they would get mad while telling me that it was not true. I would hear statements like “You cannot look like that when you are German” or “My daddy said you are from China” as if their parents were more competent to assess my valid identity. So, after accumulating a certain amount of confusion and frustration, my younger self decided to ask the wisest person he knew at that time: my mother. One day after my full first grade schedule, I went up to my mother and asked her: “Mommy, why do people keep saying that I am from China when I am German?” to which my wise mother replied: “Long, you are neither German nor Chinese. You are, like the rest of our family, Vietnamese.” That answer came as a great shock to me. I learned that day, that I was neither German nor Chinese but Vietnamese. I was from a country that was completely unknown to me and more importantly, to my German friends. How should I explain my identity to them if I myself knew nothing of the country I was from?
Once summer vacations arrived, my parents decided that it was time for me and my then 10-month-old brother to get to know the country they came from. So, at six years, I was seated in a plane and flew about 30h – there was no direct commercial flight to Vietnam back then – to our “homeland”. I remember quite vividly how excited I was. I was going to meet my grandparents for the first time! Maybe, I hoped, they would also be really into baking like the grandmas of my other friends. I was looking forward to a nice big suburban house with a garden full of flowers and trees and maybe even a German shepherd dog named Rex? But the reality was very different.
The first thing I recall was the intense heat that slapped me across my face once we left the plane. Back then, Vietnam was still economically struggling. The country had suffered a long period of war and the government was blacklisted by multiple countries that were allies of the United States. What that meant for my younger self was: No air conditioning, no real streets, no real cars, bad electricity and no flushing toilets or running water inside the house. Having lived in a country where people do not even question that a toilet should be able to flush, this came as a huge shock to me. My grandparents also, were no strangers to poverty. While the parents of my father had a big hole in the roof from a dropped bomb during the war, the parents of my mother shared one room with the siblings of my mother as well as the toilet – which was a hole surrounded by a fence – with the whole neighborhood. But here is the wonder of childhood. Even though I was shocked at first, my younger self realized two things: I realized that there was a place where everyone looked similar to me, a place where I did not have to explain my existence. And more importantly, that I had a huge family who exceeded my highest expectations. My family might not have had a house with flowers and a dog, but it had cousins who played with me, grandparents who loved me and uncles who would drive me anywhere by a motor scooter! I learned how to climb on palm trees to pick coconuts and how to sharpen sticks to catch some fish.
I learned that although my family was very different from the ones of my German families, there was nothing that I needed to be ashamed of. Seeing all my family members I realized that it was possible to have an identity that might be slightly different from the rest of the Blumenstraße in Göppingen. And now, after having lived in Germany, England and the United States I can confidently say that there are no similar identities. The world can sometimes seem small but take it from someone who had the privilege to see a tiny bit from it: This world of us is huge and the more we are ready to explore ourselves and our so-called “heritage”, the more special and interesting it will appear.