Monthly Archives: October 2015

Stop Stereotyping Me: I am not Chinese

If I got one pound for each time that someone said “xièxie” to me, I would have enough money to travel around China. There I would try the food in all 34 provinces and regions as well as learn to say in as many dialects as possible that I am not Chinese. Well, I am not sure if the language learning would help, but I really hope people would stop stereotyping me. I’ve received my fair share of xièxie”, and I am actually not Chinese.

I was born and raised in Vietnam by a Vietnamese mother and a Vietnamese father. My father and I are so much alike that there is hardly any room for scepticism. My passport says I am a Vietnamese citizen and in my heart, I am proud to be one.

I don’t like it when people just presumed that I was Chinese without any fact-checking. It is not that I am going around, speaking Chinese to people, and confusing them. I don’t speak Chinese, and I speak English with an accent that is not remotely similar to the stereotype of Chinglish, joking aside. All the same, many would just “xièxie” me.

The other day, I was standing by the beer aisle at a supermarket and considering whether I should break up a pack of six bottles or not. A helpful staff approached me and offered help. In plain English, he told me that it was possible to break a full pack if I only wanted one. We talked on for a minute then he helped me take down two bottles. I thanked him in Dutch (dank je well). In reply, he said: “xièxie”. Here we go: I am on Modern Family again.

Before you accuse me of doing the same thing that I am ranting about, let me give the conversation more of a context. We were in Amsterdam and inside a Dutch supermarket, not an M&S or a Chinese equivalent (which I can’t tell you a name because I am not Chinese). All staff speaks Dutch at the counter when you pay unless you struggle to understand them then they kindly switch to English. Thus, Dutch is the norm and Chinese is not, yet somehow he thought it’s appropriate to speak Chinese to me.

Did he think that I look Chinese? I have dark brown eyes and jet-black hair, which are the features more commonly found among Asians than Europeans. But they don’t make me Chinese. By the look, I can even pass for being a Filipino or someone from North Korea and fail for being a Vietnamese at the same time. I look more like my friend, Asel’ Kadrykhanova, from Kazakhstan than a Vietnamese colleague whose hometown is 100-km away from mine.

So, I am spelling it out: there is no one typical look for being Asian, being Chinese or even being Vietnamese. Do you know how big China is? I looked it up. It’s 3,700,000 square miles, only 200,000 square miles smaller than the whole Europe continent. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two widely spoken languages, but there are arguably about 200 dialects. I just found out yesterday that even Cantonese speakers don’t say “xièxie” though they understand it perfectly fine.

And do you know how big Asia is? Here is a hint: it’s bigger than China.

In the case of Vietnam, we are a pretty small country if you compare us with China. Regardless, we have 54 ethnic groups who sprawl all over a land roughly one thousand miles from the northern border with China to the southern coast line . Even us Vietnamese don’t all look the same.

I know an Italian guy who lived and worked in Vietnam for years. He spoke Vietnamese fluently and called himself half Vietnamese. So that is the identity he chooses, not the one he was born with. You probably know one or two people like him too, I reckon. The world that we are living in is getting more and more diverse because boundaries are being taken down one by one. It is easier than ever to choose where you want to live and who you want to be.

I want to tell you a bit more about myself: I am Vietnamese as you already know, and my partner comes from England. We like to move around, but currently we live in Amsterdam. Let’s say we settle in this beautiful lowland and have a baby girl. Who will she be: Vietnamese, English or Dutch? When she grows up, she might fall in love with China because of a Chinese boy or some delicious Chinese food, who knows. If one day, she decides to call herself Chinese, I would have to be ok with it. I don’t know how much Chinese an English-Vietnamese mixed race girl would look to you but you definitely could say “xièxie” to her then. I wouldn’t be offended because that would be her choice.

People choose their identity. Some stay with what they were given by their parents while many others would adopt different identities throughout their life. Whatever it is, it’s their choice to be made. Perhaps I do have a Chinese look if there was such a thing, but that is not at all the identity I choose and want to be associated with. Let me speak out first before you try to tell my story on my behalf.

If you want to thank me for anything, here is a list of options. You can use the universal language: a friendly smile. You can also speak to me in your mother tongue. I am sure I can tell a genuine “thank-you” in Arabic or Portuguese even though I don’t speak those languages. Besides, English is always good whichever accents you have. If you determine to thank me in my mother tongue, could you mind asking about my origin first? The word “xièxie” is probably much more widely—known than the word “cam on” (which is “thanks” in Vietnamese). So if you only know the former, but not the latter, it is ok. There is no need to push. It would be sweet to hear “cam on”, but a smile would do the job perfectly well.

Now I have spoken out, please stop saying “xièxie” to me or any stranger who you think might have a Chinese look, again if such a thing even existed.


If You Drink The Water and Breathe The Air, This is About You.”

It was the last weekend of September in Amsterdam so we packed blankets and woolen gloves for the late outdoor screening we were going. Even though 2015 is on track to be the warmest year on record, we’ve learned that mid-autumn evening could still be cold in this part of the northern hemisphere.

We went to buy some nice bread and wine before cycling to the event organised by Greenpeace. It was a gathering to watch “This Changes Everything” — a documentary made from Naomi Klein’s book of the same title.

“The middle-class way of protesting”, we joked.

The last sunlight had gone out by the time we arrived at the site of the screening. It was a big field next to a building churning out huge columns of smoke, which we had noticed on the way long before reaching its source. Soon enough had we realised that it is a coal power plant and it would be used as the projection screen for the documentary about fights between fossil fuel companies and people who want to protect their habitats. The irony stroke a powerful message.


However, I didn’t go to there to learn about the fights and what they represent. I had read the book. To be more precise, I had struggled through the book for the same reason as why I no longer get on a roller coaster. I am afraid that my heart would give out, physically on a roller coaster and emotionally with the book.

It first gave me hope and then despair because the Blockadia stories are inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. I felt small, powerless, indignant, and ashamed when I read about the greediness and selfishness of many people. I also felt small and ashamed when I read about the bravery and sacrifices of some others because it didn’t seem to me that I have done enough to move from the former group to the latter. I pushed myself through the book, day in, day out looking for answers about the climate crisis.

Then one day, I just had to quit reading. I realised reading other people stories was not enough. If I want to make a positive change, it is time to write my story because this is about everyone. This is just not about the people who live around Alberta tar sand mines or about the polar bears.

 “If you drink the water and breathe the air, this is about you.”

So if you care, make it personal. Change the discourse. Make it YOUR story. You don’t need to a story of a superhero, a more environmental-friendly version of a life story you would tell grandchildren would do amazingly.

In the meantime, you are welcomed to read mine.

Does it count if I have it easy?

Since 2013, I have been living in the Netherlands — the safest place in the world for cyclists thanks to the perfect cycling infrastructure that can be found throughout the country. On the contrary, it can a life-threatening experience if you go out with a bicycle in Hanoi, my home city. So when I changed my way of getting around from the back of a scooter to the front of a bicycle, it almost sounds natural. My daily carbon footprint has dropped, but others might say I have it easy because I live in Amsterdam, and it’s a fair point.

I also have it easy because my partner dedicates himself to living green. As a couple, we can afford to pay more money for low carbon footprint products like free-range meats, locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables. We even grow our own chillies. I know it sounds like a comfortable middle-class way of living more than anything else, yet I am glad we are able to stick with the better choice.

We’ve made more and more choices that entail using fewer fossil fuels. We take much more train journeys even if it means longer traveling time and higher prices. Last summer, we traveled about 2,000 km by trains (and buses) so we could go places without having to take more than one flight. I know it is probably no sacrifice at all because it was still a holiday. But everything counts.

In June, I started working for Fargreen, a social enterprise in Vietnam. We aim to save rice straw from burning, which releases greenhouse gasses, and use it to grow organic mushrooms instead. I haven’t yet gone to the paddy field on hot summer days to do the hard labour of collecting straw. I only do what I enjoy: writing. Maybe I have it easy again, still my work at Fargreen is another block of my story.

And in September, I went for the screening of This Changes Everything.

When things get tough

I have about four years before the biology clock strikes the warning for the health of my future babies. Four years to see if bringing another baby or two onto this overcrowded earth is a sensible or moral choice. That would be a very tough decision to make.

Things are good in Amsterdam, but my family are in Hanoi, which is at least one long-haul flight away. Unless planes start to use renewable energy soon, I’ll make as big a part of the problem as what I can do to help.

So this is the story I am writing: things that I am trying to do and what I might fail. I know it is not the story of a superhero, but I believe writing it out helps.

Besides, the story doesn’t stop here. It’s hardly the beginning. Next week I am going to Rome to learn about food security. Next month I am going on a Climate Parade here in Amsterdam, and in Paris during the UN Climate Change Conference. Next year? I am not quite sure yet but I will keep writing.