The World Between Us

Winette
5 min readMay 22, 2021
Living in America with Vietnamese customs and our ancestors in the back xD

Mohia Kahf wrote “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” as an Arabic American poet. Honestly, when I first read the title — and I am sure most people could relate- I thought the poem was going to be quirky, but genuine. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about the strange personality of this grandma washing her feet at a department store.

As I read on, I realized the poem touches on events that still happen today, especially in a culturally diverse country that was built from the ground up by the accumulation of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Coming from the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, I can relate to Mohia Kahf and her grandmother, a traditionalist who holds cultural beliefs close to her heart.

I lived in a household with spirits and a foreign language, but I was raised by grammatical structures and American standards. I was judged for being the mix of both and for not fully committing myself to this and that. My parents became annoyed with my American ways like expressing how I feel or hanging out after school. They were repulsed by my emotional outbursts and always blamed it on American television shows. My classmates expected me to be smart and for this reason, they only wanted me for my brain, not my character.

In America, Say My Name, Viet Thanh Nguyen says, “the dilemma of being caught in between opposing cultures was hardly new and has not gone away, but it was still difficult for me.” Like him, I became lost and confused. I was tired of trying to shape myself into one or the other, so I chose one over the other. I chose the society that influenced me the most, the system that taught me everything I ever knew, and the language that never got me in trouble. And that became my biggest mistake.

I continuously argued at home with my mom about believing in Buddha, my way of dressing, or speaking in the dialectic language. Home became murky and streaked with mud that was spread by the dirt on our hands and our inability to combine colors of yellow with red, white, and blue. This is much like Kahf’s grandmother and the Sears employee who were on two different ends of the stick. “They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom” (line 21–22). One voice over the other, minds on opposite sides of the spectrum, arms beating in the air, this was life at home.

Despite my efforts to distance myself from my heritage, it always came back to me like a lost dog. I was still associated with it and everything it carried. People at school wanted me to translate things into Vietnamese and told me I got too many 100%’s. My mom wanted me to translate what she said in Vietnamese to American workers, yet English speakers looked at me full of hope to translate their English words into Vietnamese. Like Kahe standing between her grandmother and the customer, I felt the pressure to become the straight line that connects Vietnamese with English.

I was only a child and yet I had to carry the burden of being a translator. Deep inside, I was torn. I already chose which part to play, but my love for Vietnamese culture was carved into me and made me second guess myself. Was I willing to give up bò lúc lác or bún thịt nướng? Or the sixteen-hour plane rides to the Motherland? Or the privilege to talk about someone in another language without them knowing otherwise?

I thought longer and harder. I noticed that my willingness to push aside my ethnicity was deletrious. My mentality towards this prospect was wearing me down. My family relations between my mother and her sisters fractured. I was a shell of myself.

I realized how harmful my thinking was, so I decided to let myself take a step back and breathe. I acknowledged who I am and where I came from. I accepted the differences between myself and full Americans. I learned to appreciate the opportunities provided for me. (i.e the chance to wear an áo dài without judgment and the ability to understand the manicurists at the nail salon).

My name is Winette Ngọc Khanh Nguyễn and I am the piece that ties two worlds together. I am the ups and the downs of the accents embedded in my name. I “hold the door open for everyone” and for every possibility amongst the vast expanse of sea.

This post was an adaptation of my previous post also named The World Between Us. It is down below.

The damage inflicted by the clash of culture || Photo by Viktoria Goda from Pexels

Mohia Kahf wrote “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” as an Arabic American poet. Honestly, when I first read the title — and I am sure most people could relate- I thought the poem was going to be quirky, but genuine. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about the strange personality of this grandma washing her feet at a department store.

As I read on, I realized the poem touches on events that still happen today, especially in a culturally diverse country that was built from the ground up by the accumulation of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Coming from the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, I can relate to the author, who has an older relative who holds cultural beliefs close to her heart and the vast differences in behavior and way of thinking that counteract.

I lived in a household with spirits and foreign language, but I was raised by grammatical structures and the American standards. Something I found cool was that I could communicate to two different audiences, but on the other hand, I was judged for being the mix of both. My parents became annoyed with my American ways like expressing what I think or hanging out after school. My classmates teamed up with me because they expected me to be smart. I was tired of trying to shape myself into one or the other, so I chose one over the other. I chose the society that influenced me the most, the system that taught me everything I ever knew, and the language that never got me in trouble. And that became my biggest mistake.

I continuously argued at home with my mom about believing in Buddha, eating with chopsticks, or speaking in the dialectic language. Home became murky and streaked with mud that was spread by the dirt on our hands and our inability to combine colors of yellow with red, white, and blue. This is much like Kahf’s grandmother and the Sears employee who were on two different ends of the stick. “They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom” (line 21–22). One voice over the other, minds on opposite sides of the spectrum, arms beating in the air, this was life at home.

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Winette
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