As a Culture Coordinator and as a VCN director, I’ve done a lot of talking about “starting the discussion”. I took it upon myself to bring this dialogue to people outside of the UCLA community prior to the day of the show.
I had the extreme fortune to talk to a couple of older Vietnamese-Americans recently about mental health, the state of the Vietnamese community, and what they thought about how we can change this discussion for the better. By talking to them, and their experiences with mental health, I hoped to gain more insight into the deeply-rooted issues surrounding this taboo topic in our community.
I learned a lot– about myself as a person struggling with these afflictions, about the community I’m trying to help, and about the people sitting in front of me. It’s very true that everyone has their own story and struggle; it’s just very harrowing to hear from them just how gruesome their stories could be.
I think a lot of Vietnamese parents look at their kids and say, “you’re just a kid; you don’t know anything. Just suck it up and deal with it.” They don’t validate what the kids are going through, and the kids don’t validate their parents partly because the parents never shared their story.
On one side, you have the parents. “It’s so hard to come to a new country,” my friend said. He explained to me that, in very traditional families, you lived and died on the same plot of land your ancestors did. You didn’t just pick up and leave. But when 1975 came around, there was no choice. “While it was hard to even fathom leaving, even those people had to escape– and risk their lives to do so.”
These parents saw so many things– they saw friends and family die, they left people behind; they left everything they knew behind.
These sorts of experiences don’t just disappear. They stay with you forever. They nag at you, over and over and over again, no matter how hard you try to forget.
“From our perspective,” another friend and his wife explained, “people don’t want to talk about it because it may bring shame– you may be seen as weak, or [it can be seen as] something that can be solved with a quick fix like a vacation or whatever.” He went on to talk about how many elderly Vietnamese men spend their days in coffee shops reminiscing with cigarettes and cà phê sữa đá.
My other friend explained it to me a different way.
Người Mỹ uống rượu để quên, người Việt uống rượu để nhớ.
Americans drink to forget. Vietnamese drink to remember.
To him, the first generation Vietnamese are numb to the feelings of the past. They try to forget. But when they drink, they remember. They remember all the things they tried to forget, and talk about them, and grieve. But the second generation Vietnamese– and the American way of life– tends to tout alcohol as a way to forget the troubles of the present; a way to slip into ignorant bliss.
“It’s interesting when I can see the differences not just culturally but generationally,” he said. “And when you get the two together? That’s just amazing.”
But in his experience, he never sees these differences being effectively bridged.
[Vietnamese] culture is very collective, whereas American [culture] is very individual. If you do something wrong, everyone judges the entire family; you’re afraid that if you fail, they’ll look down on your parents too, and your parents have no problem reminding [you of] that.
As a solution to this, he suggests that parents begin to open up to their kids about what they went through and what exactly caused them to leave their country.
I tell my students; I say– your parents won’t tell you because you don’t ask. Details, the story; this doesn’t happen unless you ask. I have students come in saying, “I’ve never seen my dad cry; I never thought my mom was so amazing.” All of a sudden, they have this newfound respect for their parents after they hear their stories. Their relationships with their parents change because they see their parents as more of whole people than ever before.
It is his hope, and ours as a Culture Night, that we promote this sort of open dialogue not just between parents and children but also between children. There’s a power behind storytelling; there’s a power behind showing more than just the confident face you put on when you leave the house.
It’s such a hard thing, but it’s so vital in building strong relationships. And it’s so vital in being able to fix things. To fix something that’s broken, you must expose it; you must recognize that it is a problem. And that is what I hope to do with VCN this year.
UCLA does a very good job [with Vietnamese Culture Night]. Not only is it Vietnamese; it’s cultural. They make a relevant Vietnamese Culture Night that targets both [the older generation and the younger generation]. It’s not just for the praise. It’s not the praise. It’s a service to the community… And it evokes feelings that people don’t want to deal with. It opens dialogue between parents and children. That’s what it should be. I hope it opens up dialogue. I hope it opens up understanding.
A strong penchant among youth, I found as I grew up, was to say, “My parents just don’t understand.” And maybe they don’t. Maybe, in the Vietnamese-American community, they actually cannot understand.
My friend, as a Vietnamese linguist, lamented with me that there is no adequate name for the affliction we in English call “depression”. The closest I could find was “buồn chán“. Boredom. Everything we came up with was some sort of a temporary or trivialized feeling; nothing that quite captured the hopelessness and sheer terror one feels when in a state of depression. Because that was something we both could describe.
… I started going to therapy and didn’t start telling my mom until a few months ago. “Con khùng hả?” Have you become crazy?… I had to explain it… It’s hard for her to comprehend.
I was fortunate enough to have parents who understood; who had learned enough English and had experienced enough Western culture that this concept– this affliction– was not something that made you crazy. But even in our community today, this idea– that being different makes you crazy– persists.
My friend expressed his frustration with the current support in the Vietnamese community for mental health. There is something very real out there that we are refusing to talk about simply because there is no one who speaks our language to do so.
“Where are these Vietnamese doctors, specialists, researchers that are looking to help our community?” He asked to no one in particular. “We need more vietnamese professionals out there– not just realtors, not just family doctors; we need research trying to explain to our community that there are things out there that no one wants to talk about.”
But maybe the first step is to get the idea out into the ring. Maybe it’s time to start talking about depression, and mental health, to not just our closest friends but to our parents, to our elders, to our fellow students. We need to bring this out into the community.
My friend and I agreed on many things. But what he said towards the end of our discussion really resonated with me:
I don’t call myself a traditionalist. I understand the traditions. I know the reasons behind them. But I am western, and I embrace them both. I think it’s possible to be bicultural, and I took the best of both worlds.
And yet, while we understand and embrace them both, we are both free to criticize and discuss them however we want– that’s the beauty of this country. That we, ordinary citizens, are allowed to talk about these topics that are so strange and so foreign and so different that we’ve kept quiet about them for centuries, maybe even millenia.
I’ll be realistic here. I doubt that VCN is going to start a movement, or change someone’s life. But the fact that we are here to create dialogue, to get people thinking– I think that is more than enough because someday, we will have the movements necessary to bring this issue the attention and seriousness it deserves.