If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my parents, it’s that survival makes you do funny things.
It’s hard for me to reconcile the image I have of them now — one that’s steeped in southwestern suburbia and their achievement of the American Dream — with the stories they tell me of their childhoods spent fleeing their homes in Vietnam, torn between overcrowded refugee camps, rafts packed full with bodies and the turbulent waters of the South China Sea.
As a first-generation Asian American child growing up in the maze of strip malls and cookie-cutter suburbs surrounding Phoenix, my familial roots in a coastal country located thousands of miles away almost seemed to be cloaked in layers of myth.
When I was younger, I used to envision the tropical fruit trees that grew in my mom’s backyard: brightly colored papaya and mango and dragonfruit, a sharp contrast from the dry brush and spiny cacti that define the desert. On the bone-dry days that accompany Arizona’s sweltering summers, I sometimes wonder if my father is ever haunted by childhood memories of tropical summers back home, where the air is so heavy it hugs you with a layer of mist.
When my parents first boarded boats as children during the fallout of the Vietnam War, at the height of the Indochina refugee crisis, to seek fortunes abroad, they lost more than their status and their homes and the many cousins they’d never see again.
Somewhere in the over 8,000-mile-long journey to America, some integral part of our family identity also died. I’m reminded of that permanent loss every time I struggle to communicate with my grandparents in their native language, or bashfully order in English at a Vietnamese restaurant, or ask my parents to describe the so-called home country I’ve never been to.
Because, despite the features on my face and my quintessentially Vietnamese surname, I am not Vietnamese in the way that my parents and grandparents and everyone else in my family are. To my traditional extended family, the marks of my Americanness are branded onto my soul. I can be fiercely individualistic — perhaps even headstrong. My broken Vietnamese is tinged with a flattened American accent, so the words clumsily tumble from my tongue.
And I identify as queer.
It’s still imprinted in my memory whenever I close my eyes — that summer after fifth grade I spent in San Francisco when I interacted with the queer community for the first time. It was one of those summers when time moves slow and sticky, like honey, the entire city awash in a bright, golden haze.
I was a gangly, awkward 10-year-old visiting my aunt in the city. Before then, I was just a kid from suburban Arizona. I grew up spending sleepy Sunday afternoons in Catholic Mass, counting down the minutes until my family would grab dim sum together afterward. I had heard the word “gay” in passing before — almost always used negatively — but I had no real grasp of its meaning.
I’ve now lost much of that first trip to the distorting lens of memory, but I still distinctly remember peering out the car window one afternoon as we crested down San Francisco’s hilly streets, transfixed by the city as it rushed by. As we cruised down Market Street, I watched as the densely clustered Victorian homes and steep sidewalks suddenly gave way to a wide open plaza with a massive rainbow flag planted at its center.
The flag fluttered like a banner in the Bay Area breeze, its bright colors bleeding into the sky. I craned my head out the window to see it in its totality.
“There’s the gay district,” one of my aunts whispered to me — quietly so the rest of my family wouldn’t hear — as she pointed derisively at the flag in the distance. I nodded, feeling as if she had just revealed some dirty secret. Her tone dripped with a certain illicitness — the sense that this was something to talk about behind closed doors — so I withdrew from the window and said nothing back.
We drove on. The rainbow flag disappeared from my view just as quickly as it had come.
While Americans’ attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community have improved in recent years, coming to terms with one’s queer identity can still feel othering. But coming from an international background as the daughter of immigrant parents, I felt as if it were almost an act of cultural betrayal. In fact, many people of color and immigrants never publicly come out for fear of homophobia, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force, a social justice nonprofit.
While my own parents are, thankfully, extremely supportive, queer identity is essentially invisible to much of my extended family due to cultural norms that paint queerness as a white, Western concept.
As a first-generation American, I’ve always been acutely aware I’m a product of the in-between, torn between two different cultures and nations — two ends of the Earth. The balancing act, the conformer, the rebel, the outlier. I may live my life in America, but my heritage lies in a foreign country that would’ve been mine in a different life, if it weren’t for history and circumstance.
Growing up, I felt like a living culture war. Coming to terms with my own queer identity was just another battle among many. My queerness served as a reminder of all that severed me from my cultural roots. I had already lost so much of my cultural heritage — now, would I lose my sexual identity as well?
In Asian cultures, the family isn’t only the cornerstone of society, but it’s also the foundation of personal identity. Life in the West is largely individualistic, but Asian cultures are generally described as collectivist — every person is seen as a cell within some wider organism. Individuals are expected to sacrifice for the good of the whole, viewing their own lives in relation to the greater community. There’s a beauty in family, in feeling like you’re a part of something whole, like a single thread interwoven into a tapestry.
In Vietnamese, your family name is always introduced first, followed by middle name, and then personal name last. I would be Nguyễn Yến Madeline. People would know me as a Nguyễn first, before they’d know me as me.
But even though family is the root of identity in Vietnam, the type of family I’ll have in the future is culturally invisible. Although the country lifted its ban on same-sex marriages in 2015, such unions aren’t protected under the law, or even recognized.
My own future family may not have a chồng — a husband — or biological children. But I hope one day my grandparents and aunts and uncles will still see it as a family nonetheless.
Coming to terms
When Jesse Purice’s parents fell in love in Bucharest, the heart of Romania’s totalitarian regime during the country’s revolutionary era, life had no shortage of challenges. As a teenager, the junior studying computer science would listen as her mother regaled her with stories of her parents’ past in a foreign country. Purice only had the images that her mind conjured up to guide her as her mother recalled memories of the violent Romanian Revolution and the haunting image of the corpse that was broadcasted on Romanian television — the remains of the country’s executed dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.
But after her parents moved to America to escape the crushing uncertainty that followed the crumbling of Romania’s decades-old authoritarian regime, the challenges didn’t stop.
In the years that followed, Purice’s family found that a new country came with new difficulties. Living in America had driven a cultural wedge between Purice’s parents and their first-generation children, and the family struggled to bridge the rift, even as Purice was coming to terms with her identity as a transgender woman.
“In middle school, I started questioning my gender,” she said. “One time, it was just in a dream. I just saw myself as a woman. I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’”
Years later, Purice said she’s undoubtedly found pride in her identity, but she still struggles with being open about her true self when she’s with her family. Only her mom and one of her sisters know she’s transgender, and she’s gone to great pains to hide her gender identity from her dad, who she said is homophobic. The need to change out of the women’s clothes she wears in public to ensure her safety when she returns home weighs heavily on Purice’s mind whenever she goes out.
“If I could dress however I want, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is how I want to dress,” she said, motioning down to her black dress and matching blazer.
Even though Romania decriminalized homosexuality over 20 years ago to qualify for the European Union, the country has lagged behind in protecting its LGBTQ+ citizens from prejudice and violence, according to a 2020 report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. LGBTQ+ Romanians experience the second-highest rate of physical and sexual attacks in the EU, with one in every two transgender Romanians experiencing harassment for their gender identity.
But despite the challenges LGBTQ+ Romanians face, Purice takes comfort in the fluidity of culture. If she was able to reclaim her Romanian heritage over 5,000 miles away in America, she believes Romanian culture can “turn the page” too in how it views the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s not going to happen now,” she said. “But maybe eventually. I know that some people think that things should happen immediately, and that would be ideal, but we should be proud of any kind of progress that we get.”
Laura Loriquer Munoz knew she liked girls when she was barely able to read. But growing up in Colombia, the graduate student studying global management found it difficult to envision any same-sex relationships — especially relationships without any men.
“Colombia is a really misogynist country,” she said. “So if you’re a woman, you have to please the guys — basically serve them. And, well, you keep that in your mind even when you don’t really realize it.”
Colombia’s patriarchal norms have led to a history of violence, according to the Humanitarian Advisory Group, an international aid organization. There, a woman is killed in an act of femicide every two days. Beyond that, Loriquer Munoz said life in Colombia is largely male-centric, leaving the type of life she envisions for herself relegated to the cultural sidelines.
“My mom supports me, but she still has this idea of a family with the girl and the guy and the kids,” she said. “But families aren’t like that anymore.”
Feeling the social pressure to be attracted to men, Loriquer Munoz first came out as bisexual when she was a teenager. Over the years, she’s reclaimed her true identity as a lesbian, but it’s still difficult to be open about her sexuality in the largely Catholic country.
Even though Colombia is one of the 32 countries worldwide where same-sex marriage is legal, religious attitudes still fuel prejudice. A 2020 survey conducted by UCLA found that one in five of the country’s LGBTQ+ people had undergone conversion therapy; for transgender Colombians, the rate is even higher, at roughly one in three.
“I agree with religion, but I don’t agree when people don’t accept you for who you are and they judge you for that,” Loriquer Munoz said.
Despite the issues, Loriquer Munoz has seen attitudes slowly change for the better. She never even expected her mom to support her sexuality, but they’ve come to a shared understanding despite some of the deep-rooted cultural norms her mom still lives by. For all the people in her life, Loriquer Munoz stands as living proof that Colombian heritage and LGBTQ+ identity can exist side by side.
“I embrace both,” she said. “I’m from Colombia, so if I don’t embrace that, I wouldn’t be able to embrace anything else. They go together.”
For decades in America, queer culture blossomed while remaining hidden in plain sight, often just under the nose of mainstream society. LGBTQ+ people interacted in private and lived much of their lives behind closed doors, often only coming out to be their true selves while cloaked in the shadows of the night.
But today, eight years after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, at a time when a record number of Americans are identifying as LGBTQ+, secrecy shouldn’t seem like a matter of survival anymore. I can’t help but feel the bite of shame and a twinge of cowardice whenever I’m reminded that my extended family doesn’t know I’m queer — and maybe never will.
My family is the closest to Vietnam I’ll ever be, the closest to my roots that I’ll ever be able to trace, the closest thing to a home that I’ve ever known. I can’t risk losing that — not when so much has been lost already — even if it means hiding my true self for the rest of my life.
My parents taught me that survival makes you do funny things.
I learned that in my own time too.
Edited by Sam Ellefson, Camila Pedrosa, Alexis Moulton and Greta Forslund.
This story is part of The Spectrum Issue, which was released on April 5, 2023. See the entire publication here.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com and follow @madelineynguyen on Twitter.
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Madeline Nguyen is a reporter for the State Press Magazine. She is a sophomore doubling majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and Political Science.