The first time I began questioning my national identity was on my train journey back home after coming back from my year abroad in England. My parents are both from Vietnam but I was born in Germany and have lived there all my life. When two Vietnamese men came walking in they looked at me and said (in Vietnamese): “Nah, she is Chinese.” I kind of felt offended and made the big mistake of replying in Vietnamese: “I’m Vietnamese”, forgetting that my Vietnamese wasn’t fluent and that I hadn’t spoken it on a regular basis for months. When Vietnamese people meet each other in a foreign country, they often would chat with each other and when he began asking me all sorts of questions about my parents and where they came from I was mortified that I seemed to have forgotten all the Vietnamese I knew. Why did I feel so guilty not speaking the language of my parents? After all, language doesn’t necessarily determine your national identity.
What about my knowledge of the respective cultures? Obviously, having grown up in Germany, German culture was the one I knew most about. I knew everything about all types of beer (it’s such a stereotype, I know right), German food etc. but I also knew why my mom would go around throwing rice and other food around our house when we moved into a new house (it’s to ask the gods for permission). And when I go to friends’ places I would always learn something new because there are some things that aren’t customary in Vietnamese families. However, I still had trouble assessing the right age of Vietnamese people to address them correctly. There is an interesting Ted Talk (Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local by Taiye Selasi) about how experience and your knowledge of a culture defines or doesn’t define your national identity. Clearly, having a vast knowledge of the culture you’re immersed in helps you with integrating into that culture and feeling comfortable but it doesn’t define my nationality.
There are a lot of benefits when growing up with two or more cultures but sometimes it can also be tough. The feeling of not really belonging anywhere, experiencing situations where helplessness makes you question your nationality. It feels like being suspended in the air, as if you are unsure where exactly to put your feet. Germany or Vietnam? Europe? Or somewhere totally different? I decided for myself that I don’t want to belong to one particular nation. But I possess the tools (language and cultural knowledge) to manoeuvre through these kinds of situations and to transcend cultural barriers. Maybe having no national identity is like learning to fly. As long as you know how to get where you want to go, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from or where you’re going.