“Where you from?” is a question we often get as we travel throughout Southeast Asia. But in no other country has this phrase been uttered so often by locals and fallen upon our English- (and German-) trained ears as it has in Vietnam.
First, you have to imagine the scene as we make our way around the cities we’ve visited. A family of six is hard to miss, and it’s clear we’re not locals because of our dress and that look of “we’re not in Kansas anymore” that tends to give tourists away.
Being Asian, I tend to blend in a little more, so I think the first person most people notice is probably Vivian. A woman with a head of flowing red hair and fair skin coated with a galaxy of freckles is not that common anywhere except Ireland really, so she tends to stand out. Add to Vivian a string of four dark-haired girls that clearly have something Asian going on in their blood and the wonder wheel starts to turn. We have no idea what the Vietnamese are thinking or saying to each other as we walk by, but we can tell they are wondering what kind of family we are. Their eyes look at Vivian, then me, then the kids, then back at Vivian, then the kids again, then me once more… Is she the mother? Is she a friend or the nanny? Is Lillian the mother? (which wouldn’t be the first time people have made that assumption) Are the kids adopted? Which ones are twins?
For those who can speak some English, just asking me where I am from is the safest way to begin to get an understanding of our family dynamic and to make sense of it all. So wherever we are – walking on the street, at the market, shopping at stores, in a taxi or enjoying a meal, I get this question a lot in Vietnam. Since we’ve been in this country I think I’ve been asked this question an average of probably five times a day. Inevitably, after explaining that my parents were born in Indonesia, I was born in America, and that my ethnic heritage is Chinese, I always hear back “You look Vietnam.”
And after an older Vietnamese lady tried to start a conversation with Lillian and was immediately surprised that I, her father, hadn’t taught my daughter Vietnamese, it got me thinking that I really must look Vietnamese. What do you think?