When people ask me where I am from, I don’t think twice. I’ve grown up with so many Vietnamese traditions and values that I am not from New York, I answer them, “I’m from Vietnam”. Vietnamese culture is engraved in my mind like a scar that won’t go away; it is something I can never let go or be embarrassed by. Judith Ortiz Cofer, the author of El Olvido, brought forward a striking question: what is the importance of culture? Culture is a very prominent factor that shaped me to be who I am today. It taught me to be open minded to all kinds of food and to be respectful to not only my elders but to everyone around me. My culture taught me to be grateful of the roof over my head and a family that loves me no matter what. In the poem, Cofer stresses the dangers of forgetting one’s culture, more specifically, choking out “the voices of dead relatives / when in dreams they call you / by your secret name.” I asked myself, what did the author mean by ‘secret name’? I immediately thought, Thảo, my Vietnamese middle name. I couldn’t imagine a time where I would reject my “secret name”, my identity. Thảo isn’t just the Vietnamese name my parents gave me when I was born, it is the smell of phở when I come home from school, the lì xì I receive during New Years, or the red áo dài I still have in my closet when it was Cultural Day in elementary school. Lastly, it is a part of me I can never forget, but can this be said for all people? At what point is Cofer’s claim invalid? My parents, for instance, had to assimilate to American culture when they immigrated to New York. It wasn’t because they disliked Vietnamese culture, it was because, in order to succeed and fully reap the benefits of the American Dream, they needed to forget Vietnam and the war they escaped. Of course, not entirely, but enough to understand and focus on the new world they entered. My dad came to New York by himself, without his mom or dad and without his brother or sister. Vietnamese culture was definitely not something my dad mainly valued when he started his education in America. His heart may have belonged with his parents back in their small home in Nha Trang but his reality was right in front of him: learning English from scratch and the Statue of Liberty. My dad knew that his family sacrificed so much for him to come to America that just as my middle name is my identity, my dad’s identity was forcefully altered. The same can be said for my mom who had 20 dollars in her pocket when she arrived in America. At the time, in order for my mom to be respected by her co-workers and her boss, she had to partially forget her culture.
Tracy Pham '20 (BHSEC Queens)
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