Duality: the quality or state of having two parts
Dichotomy: a difference between two opposite things
My entire existence has only known duality. I speak it, constantly code switching between languages, compromising abridged versions of my expressions. I look it, a westerner in Vietnam, that foreign gait with an eagerness for smiling. An American in the States, but the where are you really from kind.
At times, it was definitely a dichotomy that I hadn’t learned how to navigate. I know that sounds like a deep, lofty statement, but I think it rings true for most people. It may be in the form of work/personal, ethnicity/nationality, gender conforming identity/actual gender identity. For some, these two parts may be opposing one another and maybe for others there’s space for negotiation.
But here’s the thing: as a kid, it may be difficult identifying these opposing things because you have no word to describe the experience. Or rather, what if, one aspect of your identity is being validated and the other part requires growth, maturity, and self-love to even acknowledge?
Growing up, I felt so much of my culture was discounted until an English word validated it. I was seven years old when I vaguely remember doing my spelling homework and the word was pray. My dad used to sit and wait for me to finish my work that year in particular since I wasn’t doing so hot (I used a calculator for 80% of the school year until Mrs. York shamed me, and I will forever be grateful for that). My dad doesn’t speak much English but he knew the word pray.
He then said to me, “See. We pray too. Like this” and placed both his palms together, the same way I did every Sunday morning at the Buddhist temple. Enthralled, this realization somehow made me feel more worthy of myself, legitimized even. I remember thinking this counts since I was able to invite this word into my other world-the one where attendance, certificates, sticker charts existed. Pray could sit with the cool kids. I could talk about praying. When I prayed Sunday mornings, it carried more weight. But the other things that lacked an English expression? Buddhist rituals, Vietnamese foods that aren’t pho, folklores, aphorisms-well they all stayed behind in the shadows.
I wish I had known then that it had always counted, mattered, deemed worthy regardless of its translation.
It was one of my earliest memories of making a connection between two different worlds-this dichotomy that I was just learning to understand. Let me be clear: I understood there were two aspects of my life between home and school, but I hadn’t quite understood how diminishing the other part of my identity felt because the dominant language, the one taught, validated, heralded as an immigrant success story, could not and would not encompass my other experience.
I write this as a reflection of the shame I felt as “the other” growing through these growing pains. It’s just my way of processing. Listening to Barry Jenkin’s speech and interviews has reminded me of the power in writing one’s narrative.
The struggle with language for me today isn’t regarding acceptance-that, I had to come to terms on my own and speaks more to the culture of inclusivity. I’m more interested in exploring how we make sure another child experiences more “I matter” and “this counts” moments.