Life is full of smooth identity changes – the moment you finish university to go off to find your way, when you left a toxic job for a nurturing one, or that first flight you took leaving home for the first time – that let you shed one sense of self to inhabit another. As you take those steps toward change, it gets easier because you see it as an opportunity, an improvement, a transition to a better life. However, there comes a time when your identity is threatened, and you will feel a distinct loss of self and comfort. And instantly, you become detached, as if you do not belong anywhere.
My Holland, an expert in positive psychology and neuroleadership, believes confidence comes with being more in touch with yourself and understanding your sense of connection. Born in France and lived in Australia for years, My moved to Vietnam with her family “to help the country catch up with the rest of the world after the troubles of the last century.”
While her startup, EQuest Asia, already holds leadership training and executive coaching specializing in EQ, positive psychology, and happiness at work, the Viet Kieu in her wants to do more. My recently announced the launch of a new service for overseas Vietnamese to take on a self-discovery journey on the Mekong – VK Vacay Route to Roots.
Here we will know more about what inspired My to arrange the cruise retreat, the identity issues she faced in the past, and what makes Vietnam home.
So why have you launched this initiative, and why is it just for Viet Kieu or Vietnamese interested in their multiple identities?
Well, the company that I established in Vietnam 4 years ago works in leadership development, coaching, and positive psychology, helping companies based here to improve their corporate cultures with a strong focus on well-being. One of the key factors here is connectedness and having a sense of purpose. If we know who we are and who we are working with and have a shared sense of direction, we have the main ingredients for positive company culture.
As a Viet Kieu myself, I realize that I have been looking for that sense of connection all my life. I was born in France and have lived in various countries, but I have always carried my Vietnamese identity with me. Others’ expectations have constantly challenged this identity. The French see me as a foreigner, even if I was born there, and in Vietnam, people ask me why my Vietnamese is not perfect. I am 100% Vietnamese, with Vietnamese parents and great pride in my culture. Since I moved to Vietnam, I have learned a great deal about my heritage. Much of what I learned as a child was based on the experiences of my parent’s generation, and so much has happened since they left Vietnam in the 1950s. In my discussions with other Viet Kieu, I recognize a deep need to fill in the gaps in our identity, and I want to use my skills and my personal experience to help others on the same journey. There are also quite a few Vietnamese people who feel they have much sense of Vietnameseness.
Can you talk more about the issues Viet Kieu face in searching for their identity?
Sure. It’s really about feeling misunderstood by both sides. In the West, we are seen as foreigners, no matter how long we have lived there or how great our contribution has been to their society. We look different, so we are treated differently. In France, I receive compliments on the fluency of my French. For goodness’ sake, I was top of my class in French in high school!
Growing up in France in the late 60s and 70s, the war interrupted my family’s connection with Vietnam. We waited anxiously each day for the overseas post when we would receive aerograms with news of the family back home. Every night there was the TV news with images of terrible suffering. My father was a doctor, and we used to pack medical journals and medication to send to hospitals, removing the packaging to save weight.
For most Viet Kieu who have grown up in another country, the information about Vietnam and our culture can be pretty confusing. Many overseas Vietnamese families relate to the times when they were in Vietnam, a country they left decades ago. These narratives are, of course, fundamental from a family perspective, but they don’t necessarily prepare you to connect with Vietnamese society and culture in the 21st century.
Given these issues, why did you and your family choose to relocate to Vietnam?
That’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question! Before moving here, we lived in a picturesque little town on Australia’s east coast with beautiful rainforests and empty beaches. But for me, something was lacking.
Partly, it was about always being seen as a foreigner, as I mentioned earlier, but also, it’s about making an impact. I have always wanted to share my learnings in Vietnam, to help the country catch up with the rest of the world after the troubles of the last century. And as it has turned out, the timing is excellent and my business has flourished. But more importantly, I get a great buzz from seeing clients empowered and enlivened by the knowledge we share. We challenge them to think positively about their purpose; once the switch is flicked, there is no looking back.
My Kiwi husband works with me in the business and is a great supporter. He is enjoying the challenges and opportunities of Vietnam after a long career in NZ and Australia. It’s like a new lease on life for him and our two daughters came with us to study at RMIT Saigon. It’s been great seeing them connect with their Vietnamese heritage through their relationships with their friends here and their desire to explore the country.
What can your VK clients expect on the cruise?
It’s a voyage of discovery, and the river journey is a great metaphor for this. It’s three days and two nights on the boat, leaving from Can Tho after the transfer by limo from Ho Chi Minh City. There’s room for 15 guests, and the boat is gracious and refined. So’s the food and there’s a lovely wine fridge. So creature comforts are well taken care of. We will run workshop-style sessions in the mornings, and there are relaxing activities in the afternoons, for example visiting a Khmer temple or chilling out with the locals in a remote branch of the Mekong. A nice blend of personal and shared discovery with a bit of French elegance and relaxation.
What kinds of issues will you address in your sharing sessions?
This depends on the composition of the group, but there are some common issues that all Viet Kieu face. For example, finding our authentic voice in the whirl of conflicting expectations. Or finding ways to express our emotions when our vocabulary is limited (in my case I have always regretted that the Vietnamese we spoke at home weren’t fluent enough for me to have deep discussions with my parents in their native language). Or whether or not we should give our kids Vietnamese or Western names. We all have our issues, and I want to explore them with no judgment. The cruise boat will be a safe space for Viet Kieu to be heard and acknowledged so we can explore the issues of identity deeply.
What other ways can VK connect with its roots?
For me, it’s essential to maintain a sense of curiosity, to want to know more. But with an open mind, a sense of respect for others’ past and present, and a humility that comes from recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. For me, this is when meaningful connections happen.
What do you think Viet Kieu have to offer Vietnam that hasn’t been properly acknowledged?
Plenty has been said about the economic and trade connections that VK can bring, and there are many success stories. And there are plenty of teachers and consultants sharing knowledge. But beyond this, because of their life experience, Viet Kieu possesses a world view and cultural agility that lend themselves very well to the enormous opportunities Vietnam faces as the economy integrates with international growth engines and Vietnam takes its rightful place in the world. If my initiatives help this in any way, then I really will feel that I have connected with my roots.