Dilemmas and Struggles From My Almost-One-Year in the States

December 22, 2011 I landed in the land of the “American dream.” Since then, I have discovered tons of dilemmas about life in America. Here are some of the things I’ve struggled with during my almost one year in the States.

The weather makes my nose run every morning

LAX airport in California welcomed me with a big rain. My uncle aunt joked that I brought rain from Saigon to America. I should explain this joke to you. Saigon, where I come from, is the old name of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Vietnam is a tropical country where it rains most of the year. Before going to the U.S., actually, I had no idea what to expect about its weather, but the big rain on my arrival gave me the first anticipation of what the weather here might be like.

California is known for having a great climate – more sunshine, cooler in summer and warmer in winter. The amount of rain this year is considered unusual. However, having been here for a pretty long while now, I have experienced various forms of climate in California. For example, in the summer, you can walk around the house in a bikini, but at night you should bring a jacket to go out.

Also, the weather varies widely depending on where you are in the state; southern California’s weather is way different from northern California’s. I remember my summer visiting the Bay area (near San Francisco). The weather there is a killer. Most of the time I was living in Silicon Valley, where the weather is a bit colder than where I study in Orange County. But I was really freaked out to find chill-to-the-bone weather in San Francisco – a big shift from Silicon Valley in only about an hour’s drive. How strange!

Such strange weather has affected my health. The worst is that I often get a runny nose whenever I wake up in the morning. Because I am allergic to the cold and windy weathers, I keep sneezing badly, and even more badly if I get caught in the cold. I think that my body needs more time to get used to this climate, but as many people said, I am luckier to be in California where I don’t have to fight with extreme weathers as in other states.

Even so, one thing I really wanted to see here is snow. The idea of a whole dark sky suddenly whitened by falling snowflakes, has urged me to see that “magical” moment once in my lifetime. I had touched snow when I traveled to France, but I had never seen it start falling from the sky. It never snows in Saigon, and it never snows in Orange County either. “Let it snow in California,” I once whispered when I looked outside a car’s window at a night. But luckily and finally, I saw snow falling when I traveled to Ohio to visit my friend. In a very early morning at my friend’s apartment, it was wonderfully snowing outside the window as I was waking up. I did not know how to express my feelings at that moment, and just hurried to take out my camera and capture its beauty.

OCTA Route 153: Home-school-home

I passed my driving test a couple of days ago, after more than 5 months struggling with driving a car. Yes, I got a California driving license!

As a matter of fact, I always feel carsick and headachy while I am in a car, so I have no intention to own or drive a car. Back in Vietnam, I used to be able to go anywhere I wanted on my bike. I could ride to work, to hang out with a friend, to go shopping or even just run around the city center to do sightseeing. But here, it is impossible for me to get around by bike because distance between destinations is very far and the road system is built primarily for car users.

Even though I finally got a driver’s license to solve my transportation difficulties, right now I am taking a bus to and from school. I do not want to deal with the worries that go with possessing a car, such as paying insurance bills, filling gasoline, or doing maintenance.

I’ve been finding the public transportation here (called OCTA in Orange County) pretty bad and limited. If I miss a bus, I have to spend an hour waiting for the next bus. I’d rather just walk back home, which just takes me 30 minutes. This reality is totally opposite with my imagination about America’s conveniences, which I thought would be like the New York I had seen in American movies: yellow taxies, high-speed underground subways, or classical “British-look” trolleys every place. But comparing California’s transportation with the transportation system of other countries such as Hong Kong or Singapore, I would give it a lower rating.

Looking for an appropriate and affordable accommodation is a headache issue

When I first moved to California, I was living with my uncle. But due to the time it took to travel back and forth from there to school, I decided to move closer to school. At first, I had no clue how to find a room within my budget. Thanks to my classmates’ suggestions, I used online resources like our school’s roommate database and Craigslist, and, eventually, I moved into an old apartment not so far from the school.

It’s fun as we are all international students: 3 Germans, 1 Swede, and 1 Vietnamese and “we live happy ever after!” (I am just kidding). Their lifestyles surprise me while my foods amaze them. They are open in discussing issues like love and sex, and enjoy a party-filled social life.

I remember I was a bit uncomfortable when my roommates brought home some boys they had just met that night. Actually, they had good intentions of letting the guys stay over to save a hotel charge and taking them to the airport the next day, but still it was strange for me. Or, my roommate invited me to go to a Jacuzzi with them, and it turned out that we were sharing the Jacuzzi with other male friends. I was shy and perplexed in that situation.

Meanwhile, they usually ask me to explain things to them when they see me cooking my traditional dishes. Once I scared one of my roommates while baking a dried squid to eat as snack, since she had never seen or eaten squid before. Somehow, I felt guilty seeing her fear. Indeed, life is full of interesting and different things. People come from different parts of the world; we meet by chance; we exchange our cultures and then we get to understand our differences much more.

I know the actual living situation is not as good as staying with my uncle. I am actually staying in the living room, opposite to the kitchen, which saves money on rent compared to having a real bedroom. Living here I am having to think about things I had never given a thought to when I was home in Vietnam. I have to brainstorm which food I should buy to make my daily meals. I have to cook and wash dirty dishes every day, and do laundry every week. As you may know, in Asia children normally live with their parents, even past the age of 30; hence, mothers are the ones who always look after these things for us.

Living independently is not a big matter for U.S. young people, but it is somehow still for Asians. It’s not always that easy, but I can feel myself growing mature, which I enjoy.

Little Saigon – the biggest Vietnamese community in America

Back in Vietnam I felt somewhat negative about Vietnamese people living in the U.S, who we call “Viet kieu.” Many of these overseas Vietnamese try to show relatives in Vietnam that they have a perfect life in a heavenly America and criticize poor living conditions in Vietnam. I don’t mean to generalize about all overseas Vietnamese, but I totally do not agree with those who always compare Vietnam to America in a negative way.

Now I am living near “Little Saigon,” the biggest Vietnamese community in America, and I find it hard to get myself to fit in with the Vietnamese community here. But I also understand more where their mentality towards Vietnam comes from. Honestly, most of them are from the older generation and their ideology about a better society for Vietnam is different with mine. I feel like these overseas Vietnamese are pursuing an “American dream” of having a house, car, etc. – material things. Americans, including these Vietnamese-Americans, seem to accept that money brings people richness and authority. They eventually see the American dream as related to material possessions, and it’s that mentality that makes people look down on poor countries.

I was disappointed to know this practical side of the American dream. In my thought, the American dream should be more superior – it should be a dream that you can do something bigger, something that you only dare to dream, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement regardless of social classes. If that is your dream, it opens your eyes to see that Vietnam, or any poor country, is a new developing country where everyone can find mutual opportunities.

I have more stories to share with you, but let me pause here. I will come back in the next entry to update my life and tell you more about America. Stay tuned!

7 comments

  1. Dear Thuy

    I find it is interesting of how you adjust your new life in the US. Your conclusion about how materialistic about America and American dream seems misplaced however. Americans can be very kind and carings. And no, they don’t look down on poor people. They want to help them much more than how rich Vietnamese are treating their own people. How can you fault Vietnamese Americans in pursuing their own dreams? Isn’t this the reason you want to study in the US so that you would have a better job in VN and better life. Deep inside, trust me, they are not much different than you. Ask your family when they first arrived in the US how difficult it was to build a life here at the same time sending home money to loved ones in Vietnam without all the supports that you are taking for granted. The difference is that they have not been brainwashed by communist ideology like most young Vietnamese that I have met. Best of luck to you.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your interest in my post. Perhaps, my English is not good enough to elaborate my thoughts of Americans and Vietnamese Americans. I don’t mean to criticize that either Americans or Vietnamese Americans are not kind and caring, but it is ironical to accept the fact that American dream is nowadays understood as more related to material possessions rather than its other values. I understand how struggled the older Vietnamese generation had to face when they first came to the U.S. I heard from my relatives here many stories which are really painful to know and I did cry for those facts too.

    As a Vietnamese, I really wish that oversea Vietnamese and Vietnamese inside the country would have the same voice, the same direction to develop the country for a better future. Remembering things in the past and want those things to be applied for the present and future, I think it would be not appropriate to improve the country. Also, I hope that oversea Vietnamese who are willing to visit motherland and help the country to grow would have a positive mind-set to recognize how Vietnam has changed so far.

    Communist or Democracy ideology, its self is not totally good or totally bad from my point of views, but we, citizens of the country will decide the country’s destiny. Especially, if young generation has more opportunities to go aboard and exchange ideas with the world, they would learn so much from those experiences.

    Thuy

    1. I enjoyed your article and it is an interesting read. However, I will disagree with you that the American dream just involves money, and being rich and materialistic. The goal of the American dream is for an individual to be self-independent, and able to contribute to society. I will admit that Americans may seem a bit too materialistic at times. But, that could be due to a clash of cultures. What you might see as materialistic may be done out of need. In America, we have a quote that sums this up perfectly, ” There is no free lunch”. Nothing is free. Literally nothing.

      As for the Vietnamese-American community, I feel that it is unfair how you kind of portray them in a negative light. You do know that after paying for all their expenses over here, they are still expected, yes expected to pay for their relatives in Vietnam. Do you know how hard that is? And if you don’t they say that you are greedy and selfish. You do know how hard it is to make money over here right?

      I am not going to be a pessimistic, but the Overseas Vietnamese and the Vietnamese in the country will never have the same voice. They will have the same voice in that they want to improve the country, want to help the people, and make Vietnam become a better place. Besides that, there is nothing else. You have lived in Little Saigon right? The name says it for itself. Little Saigon. This is not only because of the older people. Although some are still bitter. It is also in the way they got here. Remember, a majority of these people are refugees not immigrants. And you know that Vietnamese people really love their homeland and would never leave unless they have too.

      I have visited Vietnam too, in 2005 and I found it a really wonderful place. It’s just that the culture was different, there were some things I liked. Shops close by, easy to take a walk and not starve to death. 🙂 And there were some things I didn’t like.I couldn’t stand the food etiquette though. Or that almost always, there would be someone smoking. Yes, some Viet Kieu might look showy, but if you don’t look somewhat nice, they say that you are a “failure”. And God knows that that is one word Vietnamese people hate to hear.
      It’s cultural. I have an aunt who was an international student. And we are both really close. Though sometimes she still bugs me because well, we think differently. 🙂

  3. Hi Thuy,

    I am really interested in reading your blogs, especially this life-experience one. I am glad to know that you’ve been living in America appropriately the same period of time as me. I am also taking the graduate program at a State School in Oregon. Admittedly, reading your blogs seems to seeing a part of me. Thanks for sharing and Keep doing the good job. If possible, could i make friend with you:)

    Best,
    Trang

  4. @ Will: I appreciate your sharing. I am living in Fullerton, CA, not far from Little Saigon. I have my uncle here, and I know what he and other refugees had been through. I do thank for what he did for our family back in Vietnam, but it is another story. I agree that we all think differently and that’s why I love to listen to your different opinions 🙂 Also, I am eager to see other aspects of American dreams when I am still in the U.S
    @ Trang: I’m glad to be friend with you. You can add my FB account for further chat/meeting-up 🙂 https://www.facebook.com/thuy.pham

  5. Hi Thuy,

    Wow, this post was awhile ago but I just found this blog on VoA and it is a joy to read! I’m also Vietnamese-American by the way so just to build off of what you said previously: yes, I do notice a disconnect between Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans. Sometimes I feel that there is a great rift between us but honestly, I did grow up in this country and not Vietnam so it would be understandable if I don’t see Vietnam in the same way you do. I respect it but it’s always a little strange to me sometimes during Vietnamese family gatherings since I have rather strong American tendencies and sometimes they come into conflict with the “Vietnamese” side of myself. Having one voice would be difficult- again American individuality may not make that so practical. Anyways, that’s my two-cents and I hope to be able to read more of your experiences in the future!

    -Chris

  6. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for visiting my blog.

    I understand your opinions and share the feelings too. I found it very difficult to answer you. To be honest, sometimes I found myself isolated, lonely, and strange between the young generation of Vietnamese-Americans like you and the old generation of Vietnamese-Americans immigrated to the States after wars when we have a family gathering. I feel I have both sides in me, and I don’t know how to act properly.

    Actually I stop writing for VOA a year ago. But I would love to write more.

    Thuy

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