How did you learn about Vietnamese culture? For many, it’s not a straightforward answer, you don’t really "learn" it, it’s something that gets passed down along generations: from thôi nôi (first birthday) traditions of ‘picking’ your future path to celebrating Lunar New Year annually. But for many third culture kids living in Vietnam, there is no ông or bà to ask — leaving them to explore Vietnamese culture from the ground up.
The term third culture kids refers to individuals who grew up in a country and culture other than their parents' or their own nationality. This movement between cultures often allows for complex interaction and the amalgamation of different experiences. To delve further into their relationship with Vietnam and their personal identity, we sat down with some third culture kids to hear their thoughts on growing up here, their blended sense of identity, and making a home in a foreign land.
Meet Matt, pictured on the left below. Matt’s parents were originally from Australia and are working in Vietnam as teachers. Their family came to Vietnam in 2013 and has stayed here for eight years, where Matt recently graduated high school in Ho Chi Minh City. Next to him is a picture of Adwaith, Adi – to his friends. He was born in Kerala, India but moved to Vietnam with his family nine years ago when he was nine years old. For both Matt and Adi, remaining in Vietnam wasn’t planned per se, but similar to the rest of our interviewees, the decision was made – whether explicitly or not – to extend their stay and make Saigon their new home.
What assumptions did you have about Vietnam before coming here and what do you remember from when you first arrived?
For any young child, a transition to leave behind a culture that you were accustomed to would have been an understandably daunting prospect. Adi remembers being afraid of a struggle to fit in with other children, a sentiment also shared by our other interviewees who did not know much – if at all – about Vietnam prior to their arrival. Fortunately for Matt, who although found it tough to leave his friends, trusted his parents when they told him how great the move would be and what an amazing city Saigon is, “I definitely took on those feelings of excitement and looking back, my experiences in Vietnam surpassed every expectation we had as a family.”
Matt remembers vividly the moment he stepped foot outside Tân Sơn Nhất airport, “The humidity was like nothing I had ever felt before and I remember feeling as if the doors to a boiling sauna had just opened. It really drilled home the fact that I was in a new country, a new environment, and new culture.” But as every Vietnamese person knows, the true test lies in whether you show fear facing the country’s infamous traffic scene of organized chaos. Adi recalls his initial encounters as characterized with fear, a nine-year-old boy in a new city, he was overwhelmed by the motorbikes that he had thought would crash into him at any moment.
Our third interviewee, Eshana, has lived in Vietnam for over 13 years. Her father’s ever-changing job meant that it was strange for her family to stay anywhere for more than a few years, but in her own words, they ended up "building a home here where I lived a life full to the brim."
What was it like growing up in Vietnam alongside other children who didn’t share your exact background?
Eshana explained how it was challenging to be immersed in a new environment and see no one that resembled herself. “I used to feel the need to explain certain behaviors or try to dispose of my Indian accent to make sure that I was fitting in. Constantly being around children that didn’t share my background meant I had to scramble to adapt to what I did have in common with them.” However, over time, she found friends who accepted and were understanding of her culture – friends who would acknowledge the differences but not let that impact the relationship. This sentiment was shared by other interviewees where they expressed an appreciation for their exposure to another culture:
“It also gave me a significantly better understanding of the world around me. How to feel about it, deal with different opinions and cultures, and find common ground with people that, at first glance, would seem I have nothing in common with. It's something I'm really grateful for.”
How do you remain in contact with your culture and history?
Our interviewees all agree that their parents helped them sustain their connection to their native culture and history, be it through food, trips back home, or maintaining a native tongue.
However, unlike English-speaking expats who benefit from the language being the most widely spoken in the world, Eshana has found it harder to maintain fluency in Oriya – the language native to her state Odisha in India – and Hindi. She explains that although she can converse with her parents, she has lost the ability to read and write. “My grandparents often express their wishes regarding my lack of Oriya, stating that they wished I could write them letters and read what they send in return. I wish I could, too”.
Despite holding passports from the Philippines and Taiwan, our next interviewees Cedric and Serena have lived only in Vietnam all their lives.
How would you describe your sense of cultural identity?
Cedric found it best to use food to answer this question, as a Filipino-Taiwanese raised in Vietnam, he describes himself as a ‘mix of dumplings, adobo and phở’ – all, to him, inextricable cornerstones of his cultural identity.
Through food, Eshana is able to remain in contact with her culture through her mother’s home-cooked Oriya meals. However, her third cultural identity can set her apart at the dinner table. Although there are many Indian dishes that she loves, Eshana finds that she is unable to cherish them in the same way her parents do, opting instead for Vietnamese cuisines when given the choice “because my idea of home is different to theirs.”
To address the question, Serena turned instead to her relationship with language: “In a family where my father’s mother tongue is Chinese, my mother’s is Vietnamese, and mine is English, misunderstandings over nuances often arise”. Therefore, it’s upsetting to Serena at times because she finds it difficult to communicate to Vietnamese peers while being unable to engage in Chinese conversations. She reflects that “I do not feel a sense of deep connection with my culture, and sometimes feel ashamed because of it”. Matt also expressed his regret in never giving learning Vietnamese a true attempt: “it’s something that I'm embarrassed to say when talking to people … I wish that I could confidently say that I gave it a real go because it would represent something really important to me.”
The feeling of being torn between cultures that ironically form the basis of one’s identity isn’t a foreign experience for third culture kids. For Adi, India doesn’t necessarily feel like home whenever he visits but he’s unsure whether he would put that label on Vietnam. To him, Saigon only feels like home because of the friends and family that live here, “but with my friends going off to university and knowing my family will eventually return to India, it's likely that it will stop feeling that way.” Adi explains that it’s less about where you’re ‘from’ but more about the experiences you’ve had, he sees third culture identities like a puzzle: though each piece may look a little different, they come to form a bigger image of himself.
Being surrounded by Vietnamese culture for a significant portion of their lives, our interviewees admit that it would be a lie if they claimed that they didn’t feel a connection here, with their identity being shaped by an amalgamation of their different experiences. It may have meant that they missed out on a more ‘orthodox’ upbringing but as one of them put it “for what I've gained as a result, I'd say it was absolutely worth it.”
What are some of your favorite places or experiences that you have had in Vietnam?
Coming from the commercial hub that is Saigon, Matt expressed that Hanoi felt familiar yet unrecognizable to him in how the city retained many remnants of the country’s past. From its unique architecture to its unparalleled urban scene, Matt reminisces on his visit to the capital as one that was unforgettable. Eshana, on the other hand, seemed to be torn between multiple personal favorites. A self-proclaimed city girl, she holds images of Hoi An’s marketplace at night, the busy air of Saigon’s District 1, and ‘any bubble tea store ever’ close to her heart. Away from the bustling streets of our cities, it was a caving expedition with his friends in Động Phong Nha (Phong Nha Cave), which exemplified to Cedric how much Vietnam meant to him. However, for Serena and Adi, it was the little moments that they cherish the most — from mundane details like small alleyways or paper-flower trees to long conversations at cafes with friends.
Looking back at your time in Vietnam, what would you tell your younger self?
Cedric: “Visit and experience more of the country with your friends. Enjoy the food and try to pick up some of the recipes while you’re at it!”
Eshana: “I would tell my younger self that it's okay, that I will eventually find my place amongst the flurry of the big city, and when I do, it’ll be everything I was looking for.”
Matt: “In only a few words? Eye-opening, incomparable, and so, so, so special.”
Adi: “Your time in Vietnam is going to be special. It’ll be challenging at times, you might be alone. But cherish every moment, every experience you make.”
Serena: “It’s loud and humid but also interconnected and warm. It’s less about the place, and more about the experiences with people you have in Vietnam.”