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Vinh Ma

42, San Francisco Chinatown, California

Hometown: San Francisco, California
Birthplace: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

About Vinh


Vinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam to Teochew parents. Vinh, his parents, and his three younger sisters left Vietnam in 1979 by boat and eventually ended up in San Francisco, California, where he grew up and has been living most of his life. Vinh has four younger sisters and a younger brother now. His youngest sister and brother were born in San Francisco.

Like most Asian Americans who immigrated to the United States at that time, Vinh tried hard to fit in and assimilate into American culture and society. He never cared to question his identity and family history until one day in 2003 he found a group of people online who started a website to discuss anything about Teochew language, culture, and people. In 2005, he helped co-founded Gaginang, a non-profit whose mission is to preserve and promote the Teochew language, culture, and identity. Since then, Vinh has always been passionate about learning who he is and where he came from.  He believes that in order to understand oneself, one must understand his past.





An Interview with Vinh Ma


Francesca: It is July 10, 2014 and it's almost 6:00PM. Today I am with Vinh Ma and we are meeting in front of the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco's Chinatown. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background to start off?


Vinh: Sure. I was born in Vietnam — Saigon, Vietnam. My parents are ethnically Chinese. Originally they are from China. They immigrated to Vietnam and that's how I was born there. My parents then — my family — left Vietnam in 1979 and immigrated. We were one of the boat people [who] left Vietnam and went to Singapore and stayed there a few months. And then we got a sponsor to the U.S. This is around 1979. Well first, we went to Salt Lake City, Utah. We stayed there for about three months and we didn't really like it there. The weather — we weren't used to it because it was snowing and we were from Vietnam. A friend of ours told us about San Francisco and that's how we came to San Francisco. I've been living in San Francisco, grew up here ever since. Been 35 years now in the San Francisco Bay area. 

My parents speak a dialect called Teochew, which is a dialect that's spoken in Guangdong province in the Southwestern area. It's considered an old language compared to Mandarin and Cantonese. It's pretty old. Outside of China, not a lot of us still speak this language because most Teochew people who left China and immigrated to other countries try to assimilate into that country, so a lot of the younger generation slowly forgot the language. Parents grew up in Vietnam. Me and my sibilngs — I have two siblings who were born here in San Francisco, four siblings who were born in Vietnam — all grew up in San Francisco and now one of us is in Australia, one's in Southern California, and the rest are in the Bay area. I'm still trying to learn more about my history — my family history — about the Teochew culture, the language, the people. I'm all about trying to find out more about your past and your parents' history so you can learn and appreciate who you are right now because of what your ancestors and parents have gone through.


Francesca: You said you were born in Saigon, Vietnam. Do you have any memories of the journey here?

Vinh: Um, yeah. I think I have some memories. I actually remember the boat — the experience on the boat. It was pretty horrible. It was really stressful. I remember being very seasick and throwing up and all my siblings looked really pale and sick. Everyone on the boat was very tired and just really sick. It was dangerous too. I remember that the waves were really big. I was a little kid, six years old, and everything looked really big and scary to me. I remember not being very happy because we had to leave Vietnam. I was sad. Like "why did we have to leave our grandmother?" And all that. Even though I was only six, I felt like I already got used to Vietnam. It was kind of strange looking back. I didn't realize I was already so used to Vietnam.


I’m all about trying to find out more about your past and your parents’ history so you can learn and appreciate who you are right now because of what your ancestors and parents have gone through.

Francesca: Would you say you were really connected to Vietnam back then?

Vinh: I think when you're a kid, especially when you're five or six years old, you're comfortable being where you are and being taken away from that environment — your family, your grandparents, aunts and uncles — and having to leave late at night and being on a boat full of strangers, you're probably wondering what the hell is going on. Yeah, I think that's how I was feeling back then but I just didn't realize it. 

Francesca: It seems like you're very connected to the Teochew culture. 

Vinh: Yeah, I am. I feel like I can say I'm one of the few people who are really proud of the Teochew culture and really keeps talking about it. There's a few of us that I've met through the Teochew organization, Gaginang, through events. And a few people are really good friends. I would say these few people feel the same way I do, where we're really curious and proud and also want to promote the awareness of who we are and try to connect more people who are curious of our culture and language.

Francesca: I was looking over the questionnaire that you sent back to me and you said that you still can't say quite where your hometown is. But if you had to choose, you'd choose San Francisco. Is there a reason you feel that way?

Vinh: Uhh yeah. I guess I say that I don't know where my hometown is because I feel like the U.S. is where I grew up. I grew up in San Francisco. I know the language here — English. I'm used to the language. The culture here, I understand. But I still feel like I'm not really 100% accepted into American culture. They're still things that keep you from moving up in the U.S. But on the other hand, I don't feel like China would be somewhere as my home. I wasn't born there. I didn't grow up there. And I feel the same way about Vietnam. I can hardly speak Vietnamese. I left there when I was six years old, so I don't have much memory of Vietnam. I'm not sure where my home is, but if I had to choose I'd choose San Francisco because my family's here and I grew up here. Even though I don't like San Francisco too much anymore because everything's so expensive, I'm still trying to get used to the weather. I mean, I've been here for 35 years but I still hate the weather. Maybe it's because I'm getting old or something, but people are not friendly and everyone's in a hurry now. It could be because of all these tech startups. Within the last five years, there's been a lot of tech startups here. It's becoming the tech city here. I think, yeah, I'd have to choose San Francisco.

Francesca: Did you view it differently when you were growing up here?

Vinh: Yeah, I felt San Francisco was more my home when I was younger. Maybe because I was younger, life was simpler. You don't have a relationship to deal with. You don't have car payments or student loan payments. It's just going to school and going to Chinese school and that's it. Doing your homework. I felt when I was younger, San Francisco was more.. welcoming. I felt like I could really get to know people. It wasn't as difficult as now to get to know people. I felt like, yeah, when you talk to people, they're willing to stop and talk to you. Now I feel like it's harder to meet people. Maybe because when you're older, it's harder. I don't know. 

Francesca: At home, did your parents ever speak Vietnamese?

Vinh: No, they never spoke Vietnamese to us. We speak Teochew to our parents. Well my siblings would sometimes throw in a few English words because they don't know how to say something in Teochew. Vietnamese is only spoken by the parents if they are talking about us or something they don't want us to know. They'll use Vietnamese for that.

Francesca: After you left Vietnam, you never spoke Vietnamese again?

Vinh: I actually heard that I did speak it when I first came to the U.S. I think I had a few Vietnamese friends when I was a kid. Once I went to public school, everyone was speaking English and I stopped speaking it. I actually forgot a lot of Vietnamese. I think that's what happened.

Francesca: Because you don't speak a lot of Vietnamese, is that another reason you don't feel particularly connected to Vietnam or Vietnamese culture?

Vinh: Yeah, I think that's part of the reason. I don't speak it anymore. My parents don't speak it to us. Actually, my parents don't speak it with each other. That's why I don't feel connected to the Vietnamese culture. I think my parents may feel differently because they grew up in Vietnam. But for me and my siblings, we don't feel like we're Vietnamese at all. When people ask us, we say we're Chinese. The other reason is that my parents are ethnically Chinese. And growing up in Vietnam, I heard stories about local Vietnamese people not liking Chinese because I guess Chinese were all business owners or something. There's always a conflict and that's why I don't want to associate myself with being Vietnamese.

Francesca: What did you hear in these stories growing up?

Vinh: I hear stories from my parents and also through friends. It's not just parents. It's the same kind of experience — they're also Chinese, grew up in Vietnam, parents are from Vietnam.

Francesca: Was there a lot of kids with a similar background to you growing up in San Francisco?

Vinh: Yeah, I would say at least fifty percent of the friends I grew up have a similar background. We're ethnically Chinese, parents immigrated to Vietnam and they were born in Vietnam.

Francesca: Wow, fifty percent. Which part of San Francisco did you grow up in?

Vinh: First, we lived in the Mission Hill district, which is mostly white and few Asians. But the elementary school I went to was pretty diverse.

Francesca: Has that changed a lot since then?

Vinh: No, I don't think it's changed a lot. The neighborhoods are still pretty much ethnically the same.

Francesca: Do you still live in the same neighborhood?

Vinh: No, I live in the Portola District, which is a southern part of San Francisco. It's very different from where I grew up.

Francesca: You said you don't feel very connected to San Francisco or China or Vietnam. Have you been to China or Vietnam?

Vinh: I've been to China many times. I went there first for just travel. The first time I went to China was in the year 2000. It was only three years after college or something. It was the first time I had a job and I can afford to travel and I went to China. I like China. I was actually very surprised and shocked. It wasn't what I expected to be. And then I started another job that gave me the opportunity to travel to China a lot. And then 2011, I quit my job just during when the recession — the economy was just bad — came in 2010. I quit my job and went to Taiwan and lived there for one year. When I was there, I was traveling around Asia. I went to Vietnam in 2012. First time going back to Vietnam since I left in 79'. 

Francesca: What was your impression?

Vinh: I was very surprised in a good way. It was more fun than I expected. I still have relatives there — my uncles and aunts. It was nice. I liked going back and just seeing the house where my parents were living. It was still there, but my uncle lives there now. I like going there to visit.

Francesca: Was that mostly in Saigon?

Vinh: Yeah, I visited my relatives in Saigon and I did go to Hanoi for a few days. It wasn't that a long trip. But yeah, I did go to Hanoi too.

Francesca: Did you think going back to Vietnam since you left made you feel closer to the place?

Vinh: Going back to Vietnam made me appreciate Vietnam I guess and the culture. Like I said, growing up I was always hearing these negative things about Vietnamese people. But going back, I started to appreciate the culture more because my parents grew up there, my relatives are still there, my cousins are there. I still feel connected. I have family there. Actually, going back made me feel like oh okay I still have family here. I'm actually connected. I have cousins there and I haven't seen these cousins. When I left Vietnam, I think they weren't born yet so when I went back it was the first time meeting these cousins. It was nice.

Francesca: Were there any stories that your parents told you about Vietnam that you felt like you understood better when you went back to Vietnam?

Vinh: That's a good question. Yeah. When I went back in 2012 to visit I visited the war museum in Saigon and looking at those pictures actually brought back memories of stories my dad told me. Cause' my dad was in the military during the Vietnam War. And then, growing up in San Francisco I was watching these documentaries about the Vietnam War. When I went back there, it all totally connected and it just made me more.. more appreciative of my history. I was born in Vietnam and the Vietnam War happened when I was still alive. I don't remember it or [didn't] experience it, but I was still alive during that time. Looking at these pictures in the museum, I was just really.. I don't know how to describe it. I was pretty emotional. I guess I was appreciating my parents too for leaving Vietnam. I felt more appreciative of my dad — he was in the army and telling me these stories. He still gets emotional when he tells these stories. So I guess I kind of knew what he was feeling. I understand his feelings more about the war and all that.

Francesca: Even though these stories aren't necessarily your own, do you feel yourself fitting into them or distant to them?

Vinh: I do. I do feel like I'm part of the story too. The refugees, the boat people, all that. We were one of those people — boat people. I feel like, yeah I'm part of the story, my parents are part of that story, my siblings are [too]. I think they remember bits and pieces of leaving Vietnam too. The boat experience. To be honest, I don't know the whole story about the war but I still want to know if there's any documentaries on it. I still want to learn more about the story — what the war was about and why we were fighting and all that.

Francesca: Sometimes I feel like there's just so much out there to learn.

Vinh: Yeah, I'm sure a lot of people hear about the war and they don't know the whole story. 

Francesca: Even seeing it from the Vietnamese side, it's so much more different than over here [in the U.S.] and what they have available to us.

Vinh: And the documentaries are different than hearing stories from someone who actually was in the war, like my dad. He was telling me about these Viet Cong and how if someone talks shit about Viet Cong or something, and the next day, you don't see them anymore. He tells me these stories. Like oh wow okay. I didn't really believe it. But now when I go back and see pictures and documentaries, [I think] oh okay he wasn't bullshiting. My dad always talks about the war. When I was younger, it was like yeah whatever. He's always complaining and whining. I understand why he still talks about it. More like, he never really moved on from his past. He had a brother who died in the war, so maybe that's why he's still not able to let it go. 

Francesca: What about your mother? Does she talk about the past much at all?

Vinh: Not as much as my dad. My mom — she'll talk about it once in a while about Vietnam. She usually talks about her mother, my grandmother, and how she was treated. Apparently, [she was] really, really strict. If I tell you the stuff she did, you would be shocked. My mom would talk about stuff like that because she wants us to appreciate our life here. She's always comparing our lives to her life when she was in Vietnam. She'll talk about Vietnam and [how] she had to wake up really early to go sell vegetables. She'll talk about stuff like that, just to make us feel appreciative of her. That's why she'll talk about Vietnam. She'll talk about good stuff in Vietnam too — like the weather, family there, siblings. Actually, my parents were doing really well in Vietnam and they have a candle business. They all say, "We left all that for you guys for you kids to have a better future." They'll talk about stuff like that — why they left, how it was for us. 

Francesca: Your mother and your father still have a lot of family in Vietnam from both sides?

Vinh: My dad's siblings are all in Vietnam. My mom's siblings are — except for one — all in Vietnam. One of them is in San Francisco. A lot of relatives still there.

Francesca: You said your father was born in Vietnam and your mother was born in China right?

Vinh: Yeah, my mother left when she was a teenager. She left with my grandmother — left China to go to Vietnam.

Francesca: Do you happen to know the reason why they left?

Vinh: I think it's because times were bad. Maybe they were trying to look for better opportunities in Vietnam. I think it was hard to make a living. They left during the Cultural Revolution in China and my parents met in Vietnam.


Vinh outside the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco's Chinatown.


Francesca: You mentioned growing up in San Francisco didn't help you understand your own identity and background as a Chinese Vietnamese American. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Vinh: I think I say that because I felt like growing up there was a lot of Chinese in San Francisco and a majority of them speak Cantonese and Toisan dialect. There are Teochew people, but I didn't know that when I was younger. They're all trying to assimilate into the culture even though they are Chinese. I have this thing where I now realize that a lot of people are afraid to show who they are. Their language is not that common so they feel like they're a minority. People tend to neglect that and blend in with everyone. They start learning the language — whatever's popular — and forget their language. The older generations probably don't forget it but they don't put the effort to pass that onto their kids or try to promote it, so that's why growing up I felt like I knew I was Chinese but no one else spoke my dialect.

Our Teochew culture is also pretty different from other Cantonese people. I think we're more conservative. Our food is a little different. Our language is very different from Cantonese. Growing up a lot of my friends spoke Cantonese. None of them really understood what Teochew language is. I still felt different. I know I'm different, but I felt like I don't know how to show people I'm different. I felt a little frustrated that no one understands where I came from and no one has ever heard of the Teochew language.

That's why I never really understood my identity until I found out about Gaginang. We have a forum online and I started reading more about these discussions. I started to learn more about my culture and the Teochew people. That's where I realized, hey it's okay to be proud of yourself and to want to know more about your culture. I always felt kind of embarrassed when I was a kid to talk about my culture. Nobody else knew about it. That's why I felt embarrassed. But now, I actually feel proud of talking about it. If anyone asks about it, I like to go into details. I like to promote it and share my knowledge with anyone who's interested about this culture and language. I'm proud of being Teochew, but I'm also still trying to learn more about it so that I can share more with other people and Teochew people who want to know about it.

I know I’m different, but I felt like I don’t know how to show people I’m different. I felt a little frustrated that no one understands where I came from and no one has ever heard of the Teochew language.

Francesca: Would you say you'd stay in San Francisco?

Vinh: I'm only staying here because my parents are here. If it weren't for my parents, I would try to live somewhere else to be honest. I kind of prefer the suburbs, like Freemont and South Bay. I like the weather there better. Only because my dad's pretty old — he's in a nursing home right now — and he has dementia and he's blind. That's why I need to stay in San Francisco, in case I can help out. But if it weren't for them, I think I would live outside San Francisco. It's so expensive here, the weather sucks, people aren't friendly. I still have friends here. I would still stay in the Bay area. I guess it depends on my career. I'm still trying to start my own business, so I think it depends how it goes. Ideally, I'm considering living in Taiwan too. Living there in 2011, I loved Taiwan. I was telling my girlfriend, if I don't have any kids, I would consider retiring in Taiwan. I never realized I would like living in an Asian country, retiring in an Asian country. I guess Taiwan is pretty comfortable. It has one of the best healthcare systems. It's very safe there. That's why I'd consider living there.


Francesca: Is there a reason, besides Taiwan being a comfortable place to live in Asia, that you'd like to live in a place where you have no personal history in? Did that play into the decision to want to live there?

Vinh: Yeah, I like Taiwan because.. I guess I first got introduced to Taiwan from the previous job I had. My previous boss was Taiwanese American. So I had to correspond with our supplier in Taiwan and I still keep in touch with him. We're actually in the process of going into business together. This is from 2005, when I met this supplier. Now he's more like a friend. And so that's how I got connected to Taiwan. And even though we weren't doing business with his company anymore, I still kept in touch with him. And then in 2010, I quit my job here because I was tired of the economy and the start-up companies failing. So then, I decided to go live there. Take a break. I lived there and that's how I fell in love with Taiwan. The thing was also, I didn't have to work. Not having to work, [I had] a lot of free time to just appreciate living in a foreign country. I feel like people want to take care of each other in Taiwan. So I think that's why I would consider living in Taiwan. It's very comfortable living in Taiwan. It made me think about where I want to live. I realized I don't always have to settle down in San Francisco. When I was younger, I thought I would grow old and retire and just live in San Francisco for the rest of my life because my parents are here and my family's here. Now as I get older, I realize that my parents aren't going to be around forever and my siblings are going to be moving all over. When you get older, people move around. I figure, hey, it's always possible to live in another country. You never know if things will change.


Francesca: You mentioned you have a few siblings.

Vinh: I have five siblings. Six of us. I'm the oldest. 


Francesca: How do they choose to self-identify? Do they identify similarly to you?

Vinh: Definitely no. They don't really care about finding out about who they are, where they came from. I feel like they don't feel the need to. I think it's more like there's no need to learn about your languages. Especially they feel like it's not practical to speak it, so why put so much effort in trying to learn and remember it when no one else speaks it? Most of the people in China speak Mandarin nowadays. Why need to learn another dialect? There's no use. Just learn Mandarin. My sister, the one in Australia, has kids and she's trying to teach them Mandarin. Speak Mandarin with them in addition to English.

My siblings — I guess I'm kind of sad that they don't care and they're more Americanized. They're very Americanized. I have to say that. They don't feel proud of being Teochew. I don't know why. Maybe cause' they don't know much about it so they don't have a reason to be proud about it. So yeah, they know about my organization that I've been a part of. They know I'm very active, but they don't have interest in it. They don't join any of the events. Two of my siblings have in the past. Maybe once or twice. Most of them don't see anything interesting about the culture. I don't know why. I just don't understand. It still bugs me — how come I'm the only one who feels so proud about it?


Francesca: Do you think it's just a personal difference in interest or does it have to do something with their upbringing?

Vinh: It's very interesting. I thought about this too. Why am I the only one from my siblings who really care? To be honest, even my mom doesn't think Teochew is all that. She thinks it's useless. "Stop spending so much time with your Teochew friends. It's not going to get you anywhere. Focus on making money." You know?

I feel kind of sad that my siblings, my mom — they just totally lost, forgot. They don't want to go back to who they are. I actually thought about this. Is this because there's something that happened to me as a kid that I maybe forgot? I grew up in a very nice neighborhood when my parents came to San Francisco, so I never felt ashamed. I never got bullied for being Asian or anything. I don't know why — why I still cling a lot to this curiosity of wanting to learn about myself and my past, my roots. I've thought about that. 

I still remember this one day in high school or middle school [when] my siblings were really into Christmas. We left Vietnam and we came to a new country and we learned about these holidays — Christmas, celebrating and all that. I remember I was against buying a Christmas tree. I was telling them, Why the hell are you trying to be so American? This is not our culture. I think I was still refusing to blend in, to be like everyone. I think maybe because I was still angry that we left Vietnam. Maybe I was really close to my grandmother. I remember I was my grandmother's favorite grandkid. Maybe that's why I never wanted to try to fit into American culture. I was angry that they bought a Christmas tree. Like what the hell? Why are you buying a Christmas tree? Why are you trying to be white? Even my grandmother — when she was alive — she came to our house. I saw in her face — she was totally angry. Her face turned black. "What are you guys doing?" My heart felt like it was being squeezed. She felt really hurt. She was angry we had a wreath on our door. I thought, oh wow. I think that's why I never really wanted to blend in and assimilate into the culture. I like to be who I am and be proud of who I am and not feel the need to pretend to be something just so I can be accepted. 

It still bugs me — how come I’m the only one who feels so proud about it?

Francesca: It seems like at first, you weren't really sure why you wanted to fit in.

Vinh: Yeah, I think it was hard because when my family first came to San Francisco I did have a problem with English. I was struggling with the language probably. And looking back, I was having a hard time with the language. I remember having to go to this ESL class just to improve my spoken English. I think I totally forgot about that — that it was hard fitting in because of the language. I think I was, also at the same time, I refused to blend in or to try to be like everyone. That's why I never cared about changing my name. Like all my siblings who were born in Vietnam changed their name. They have American names now. I think their teachers gave them these names. The teacher asked me, "Do you want to change your name?" I was like, No I don't need to. I don't know why I'm the only one who refused to go along with everyone.


Francesca: Do you feel like you still are trying to actively refuse —

Vinh: Yeah, I'm still like that! When it comes to sports, I feel like what the hell. I was telling my friend about this, about the Superbowl. This one guy emailed the whole office about this bet. I don't know what they call it. You put in $10 and guess who's going to win. I'm like, What the hell.. Just because you like sports doesn't mean we all have to like it too right? I think every country is like that. Everyone in their country just goes along with everyone and you just get used to that. You assume that there's a norm. It's hard to just be yourself and be different because you're viewed as weird or whatever. I still don't watch sports. I don't follow it. I don't care. But yeah, that's one thing. The other thing about holidays I think I'm already accepting. I do like Christmas now. I'm okay with it now. There are still a few things I refuse to accept and go along with. 

There are still a few things I refuse to accept and go along with.

Francesca: Could you name a few of those things?

Vinh: Like language. When I was going to Chinese school when I was a kid, it [felt] useless. Being bilingual is actually nice. I realized that. Most Americans are not bilingual. They just speak English. The other things I refuse is just culture. Just be authentic. Be who you are. Why do you need to change? Maybe it's just me. Maybe I think too much or worry too much. I'm too stubborn. [laughs]


Francesca: I don't think it's a bad thing to care about.

Vinh: Sometimes I wonder [if] I learned this from my dad. Because my dad's like that too. He has a lot of things to say about everything in America. I remember he used to complain a lot about American culture. He refused to accept the American culture. He's a very old-fashioned Chinese father. Growing up, if there's someone kissing on tv, he feels embarrassed. He'll turn off the tv. It's just kissing, right? That's how old-fashioned he is. He feels like American culture is just too much for him. It must have rubbed off on me. I wonder about that myself — why am I bothered by so many things? Why do so many things make me angry?

Nowadays, my mom throws in some English now. When we were younger, it was all Teochew. I think she's trying to be more American or hip or something. She'll say to my nephew and niece like "I love you!" I've never heard these things growing up. We never said "I love you." She'll say things like, "How are you?" She's trying to speak English more now. My dad — before his dementia — he spoke all Teochew. He doesn't speak English at all.


I wonder about that myself — why am I bothered by so many things? Why do so many things make me angry?

Francesca: How do you feel about your mom being more accepting of American culture?

Vinh: I mean, it's fine. It's fine to be accepting of the culture where your'e living now or planning to retire in. I mean, yeah, this is where they're going to be for the rest of their life. America. It's fine to assimilate into the culture. That's totally fine. I mean, I feel the same way. I want to assimilate, but you should not forget who you are and where you're from. Everything before you, everything in the past makes us who you are. Even though people don't know about it, things that happen in the past got you to where you are now. Most people don't know why they owe these people in their past. Just appreciate others. I'm sure Americans are proud of America because of the founding fathers and all that. It's the same thing. You should be proud of your ancestors and what they did to get you to where you are now. That's how I feel.


You should not forget who you are and where you’re from. Everything before you, everything in the past makes us who you are. Even though people don’t know about it, things that happen in the past got you to where you are now.

Francesca: Would you say doing these things are a way of reconciling with the past or something else entirely?

Vinh: It's not guilt. I think it's more like trying to understand who I am. I got to say, I still struggle with trying to fit in with everyone even though I've been in this country for thirty-five years or more. I still feel like I'm always still trying to fit in. And I think it's about trying to learn more about the culture. It's still something I'm trying to work on. Maybe it's not just a culture thing. It could just be my personality. I want to fit in but also remember who I am and not forget. I'm just like everyone else but I'm different. That's all I'm about. 


Francesca: Is there anything else you want to discover more about your identity?

Vinh: I think I do want to know more. There's one thing that I forget to do or didn't have a chance to — to go back to the city where my dad's parents were from. My dad was born in Vietnam, but my grandparents were born in China where the Teochew people are all from. The city where his family's from — I want to go there and see what it's like. I think I believe that seeing the city where your grandparents or ancestors are from might help you learn about your parents — why they behave in certain way, why they speak a certain way. That's what I want to do.

I still want to visit the city and even the city where my mom grew up in in China. I didn't get a chance to visit when I was there. I went to the bigger cities, but I didn't get to go to the small ones where my parents are from. I still want to learn more and I actually am thinking about, when I have time next year, organizing a trip for our Gaginang to go there. There's actually a lot of people who have never been there. They speak the language, their parents speak it, but they've never been to Teochew City in China. I still want to organize a trip there. I visited Teochew City before and met a few friends there. They're actually really surprised we care about learning about our culture and roots. My hope is that we can have some kind of exchange or something. We can go there, they can show us around, and teach us about the culture, food. One thing I really like about my culture is the food. Teochew cuisine is actually known to be pretty famous in Asia, in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong. That's one thing I want to learn more about and explore — Teochew food. I want to learn more about it. What exactly is Teochew food, how to cook Teochew food too. There's always a lot of things I want to learn about my culture.


Francesca: At this point in your life right now, what does it mean to you to be Chinese Vietnamese in America? 

Vinh: What it means for me here is — I'm proud of who I am. You can still fit in with the mainstream and with everyone, but you can be proud of your origin. I guess that's what it means to me. Hey, this is my life now. I'm in a Western culture. I need to work on my future and try to learn how to get along with everyone in this country. But also, I feel like understanding myself has helped me understand others of different backgrounds. Being able to know who you are helps you understand others. That's what it means for me. ∎


Vinh Ma resides in San Francisco, California.



An update FROM Vinh
since we last spoke:

Since the last time we’ve talked, I got married, and currently trying to save up to buy a house outside of San Francisco. An important lesson I have learned is that I need to just be content with myself and with my current situation in life. Cherish the present. I can’t change others, but can only change my perception of things. I really don’t know what my future will hold. Anything can happen, and I can be living anywhere in the world. Who knows.