Story by Gina Pham, MPA, ’19
After 27 years, I’m finally grasping my own identity. Language has both confused and formed my identity over the years.
Born in the US to Vietnamese refugees, I didn’t know English until I started pre-k. As a moldable kid, I simply assumed whatever identity was imposed on me. In school I was American; at home I was Vietnamese; in between school and home I was whatever strangers treated me as, which varied depending on the situation. I was a hyphenated (Vietnamese-American) kid so my life straddled two very different identities that often conflicted with one another.
If you’ve heard of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, it gives you a sense of how conflicting my two alternating identities were to each other growing up. As a kid, I didn’t understand how to resolve these clashes of my identities. I acted a different way around different people, and I didn’t know who I was if given free choice. It was easy to go with the path of least resistance, but I eventually tired of being two different people. I needed to own my own identity and stop letting others decide it for me.
When I started learning Spanish in 7th grade, I slowly began embracing a completely new culture. I got obsessed with listening to Latino music on the radio. The first CD’s I bought were by Latino artists; my parents even bought me some Latino music CD’s for Christmas. I was speaking Spanish outside of Spanish class with my high school friends, and I dreamed of living in Mexico when I grew up. During my high school years, I subconsciously chose to embrace Latino culture as much as I could. It gave me a clear, new, exciting identity to latch onto when I had tired vacillating for years between US or Vietnamese culture.
Heading into college, I passed my Spanish AP exam so didn’t need to take language classes, but I decided to take Mandarin classes for pragmatic reasons. That began my obsession with Chinese culture. I studied abroad one summer in Beijing and didn’t want to leave when my program ended.
In college, having experienced more culture options to choose from to create my self-identity, I was growing more sure of myself — my likes, dislikes, values, tendencies. I was no longer limited to choose between two very contrasting cultures, I had a more complete spectrum I could be flexible on. Life wasn’t just black or white anymore. As corny as it sounds, I had a rainbow of options that bridged the gap between between the black and white.
Through years of self-reflection, participation in diversity activities in my last job at Amigos de las Américas, and ICC courses now at MIIS, I finally came to define and embrace my identity as “Houstonian” — very proud to say my hometown is the most diverse (and just plain amazing) city in the US. Coincidentally the top 4 spoken language in Texas are mine: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese (not planned, but very convenient that it worked out that way).
Language classes were my gateway to cultures I otherwise wouldn’t have had authentic access to, and are a huge reason why I am who I am today — more complete, more sure of myself, and therefore able to be even more open to other people and cultures.
Amigos de las Américas program training in Yucatan, Mexico, summer 2017. I’m 3rd from the left in the front row.