In our Minority Report series, we bring you candid conversations on race, culture and belonging with Vietnamese and Asians living and working in other countries. Vietetera had the pleasure of chatting with Ngoc Nguyen, France-based author of Weird Culture Kids (to be released on 7 December 2020) about her memoir on what it means to be a kid who grew up in a multifaceted world while attempting to navigate the many identities she came to develop.
What does it mean to be a “weird culture kid”?
“Weird culture kid” is a term that I coined to describe people who, like me, do not fit into any one specific cultural standard. They create their own "weird culture" in which they take bits and pieces from the traditional and nation-state ones they’ve been exposed to and mix everything together to create their own culture.
“Weird” - a word with a somewhat negative connotation - describes my experience growing up when not fitting in fully anywhere made me feel all sorts of negative emotions. Rootlessness, unbelonging and “some sort of other” were the most dominant ones. Almost as if it was a handicap that I couldn’t get rid of.
Now, as I am approaching my thirties and reflecting back on my many relocations throughout the years, I realize that this weirdness has always been, in reality, my superpower.
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We live in a world where many people come from all walks of life. What inspired you to write the memoir?
I was compelled to write Weird Culture Kids because I am one of those kids who grew up in an extremely multicultural environment and have always felt like I never fully belonged to any place. I was born in Moscow and grew up in Hanoi where I had to navigate two cultures simultaneously: the French culture at school and the Vietnamese one at home.
I left Vietnam at the age of fifteen to attend a boarding school in Connecticut and since then the “Where are you from?” question has been a constant in my life. But I have never believed that we should—could?—be “from” one place.
And I am never sure what type of information the interlocutor is after. Are they trying to figure out where I was living before arriving here? Where I was born? Or which sets of beliefs dictate my behavior? My default answer used to be based on my passport, which is from Vietnam. But although I do feel extremely Vietnamese, this answer simply doesn’t encapsulate all the places I feel some sort of loyalty towards.
And the more I traveled, the more I realized that there are so many people like myself out there who are equally confused. So I decided to write this book to not only reconnect with the weird culture people I’ve met over the years, but also to connect with complete strangers who were generous enough to share their life stories.
Through my conversations with them I learned that I can belong to people and cities and memories. I can belong to a shared habit, a favorite song or a dance routine. I learned that there are so many different ways to belong these days. And all of these weird culture kids have taught me so much about different coping mechanisms and ultimately the power of acceptance.
Born in Moscow but raised in Hanoi by Soviet-educated parents and French-educated grandparents. How did you come to shape your own identity? What parts of each culture do you associate with?
I believe that identities are ever-evolving, but generally I tend to have the “other” culture expressed in me more strongly. While attending a French school in Vietnam, for example, I felt more French than Vietnamese. In retrospect, I believe that was due to France's system of assimilating foreigners into society: there is a specific set of criteria you are expected to meet to be recognized as French. You are either French or you are not. It's very black and white.
Thus, while in the States you can have a hyphenated identity (Vietnamese-American, for instance), in France, such mixed identities do not exist because, socially-speaking, you should only say that you are “French” (until you are asked “But where are you really from?”, that is).
Ironically, here in France, where I moved at the age of 15, I am referred to as the “American girl” and am often coached by my French friends to not smile at strangers, post fewer inspirational quotes on social media, and go easy on exaggeratedly positive words such as “awesome” and “amazing”.
But rather than being confused by all these contradicting forces, I simply pick and choose the parts of each culture that feel like me: I have a penchant for heavy and cheesy food (who doesn’t like raclette?), an addiction to late-night talk shows (and queen Ellen Degeneres), and an OCD need to take off my shoes before entering anyone’s home (but especially my own).
Why is it important to discuss identity and belonging? What do you hope to achieve from your memoir?
My hope for this book is for the weird culture kids around the world to feel less alone now that they know of the existence of a huge community of people exactly like them out there. I hope you find some sense of belonging while reading these words, just as I did when I was writing my thoughts down.
This book is a tribute to and a celebration of all of those lonely moments in which we didn’t fit in and of all of those conversations that we couldn’t be part of. I invite you to not only acknowledge them but also embrace them, for these instances will eventually be what sees you through the sleepless nights of your identity-quest.
Secondly, this book is also a tribute to the parents, teachers and my support system. Thank you for planting in us this curiosity to discover the world, sometimes with you and sometimes for you.
Thank you for offering us such rich opportunities to experience life from such a unique angle and subsequently, for accepting us fully, with all the cultural weirdness that was forged as a result of our unique upbringing.
Thank you also for your unconditional love and unreserved forgiveness for the countless times we blamed you for our identity crisis and our rootlessness. We, too, forgive you for not fully understanding our cultural complexities and multifaceted identities.
Lastly, this book is also a teaser for all of you expats-to-be. I hope that you will love (and often hate!) your experience abroad as much as I did and still do. I hope you engage in weird conversations, adopt odd local rituals and clash violently with the newness that surrounds you. Soon, these elements will be your norm. Soon, these will be the things that you long for. Soon, these will be the details that you carry.