Explorations in Identity: Hyejin

11,596km away from Vietnam, her and her mother’s home country, 8,493km away from her estranged father’s home country of South Korea, Hyejin lives in the pacific northwest state of Washington. While I was in Washington this summer, I met this vibrant young woman through her brother. In our first meeting, I was flung into an introduction to her immediate family in Vietnamese. I already knew she was learning Korean, but I then saw her speaking Vietnamese as well. Three languages under her belt at the age of 20, not such a normal feat for the average American. ’How can someone so easily shift between these different roles and languages at the drop of a hat?’ I wondered.

Loud, opinionated, and with a mouth that my mother would have punished me for, the more I saw her, the more I saw her firm belief in who she was as a person. Her opinions were straightforward. Her face hid no emotion. All was out for the world to see. Her confidence and sureness in self - which far overshadow my own - led me to want to learn how she ticked. How were her language skills beyond what I expected? What type of past did she have to even make her this way? One evening, as we shared a dinner of leftovers, I decided to prod her with questions about her language learning, and I ended up learning much more about her past than I expected.

Hyejin’s Deep Roots in a Vietnamese Lifestyle

Born in Southern Vietnam, Hyejin had always grown up surrounded by her Vietnamese family. Even when she relocated to the U.S in elementary school with just her mother, her grandparents followed soon after, strengthening her Vietnamese ties.   

“I had to totally learn English when I got here. It was fucking difficult,” she told me. But she did it all. She learned English, made friends, made a life in the U.S., but never left behind her Vietnamese roots.


At home, Hyejin is surrounded by a Vietnamese-American lifestyle. An altar to Buddha stands prominently in their living room; her grandmother’s dinners stem from traditional Vietnamese cooking. The air is filled with the animated chatter between her grandparents and mother, mostly in Vietnamese, only occasionally switching to English . Her family even goes to visit their extended family in Vietnam every few years, keeping her family unit strongly tied to their home country and culture. Stepping into her home life even for just the day made me realize how different life is in a home with immigrant family members. In a life so removed from my own, Hyejin’s family had constructed a way of life that was rich in two cultures. And extraordinarily, Hyejin’s family considers my friend, who has no Vietnamese heritage, as a ‘brother.’ To them, it doesn’t matter what lineage he was born into, it matters that he was accepting of their culture and way of life.

 Hyejin and her brother, Jake.

Hyejin and her brother, Jake.

Hyejin’s Budding Discovery of Her Korean Heritage

For an extensive part of her life, Hyejin did not seek out anything Korean.

“My father basically abandoned our family and went back to Korea,” she said. Since her father had left the picture at a very young age, why even try to learn about the place where he had come from?

Only during high school, with the growing popularity of Korean dramas and KPOP, did she develop a curiosity towards her other heritage. Through popular media she learned about Korean culture, eventually teaching herself Korean by watching dramas. Her friend network began to center around Korean Americans and those who had an interest in Korean culture. Even now when I see her snapchat stories I hear the chatter of Korean-Americans in the background. It seemed as if she found a part of herself that she had hidden for a long time. By finding Korean culture she was able to accept herself more as a multicultural person. She fit better in her own skin.

 Hyejin's friends

Hyejin's friends

From what I gathered, Hyejin now embraces her Korean heritage more than ever before, and what is extraordinary is that she immersed herself in Korean culture not from the expected avenue of  her family, but through popular media and friends. She discovered a part of her identity through  her own initiative. Even though Hyejin had shunned her Korean heritage in the past, she embraces it now with a passion of  someone who feels deeply rooted to their culture.

Her Life Now

Towards the end of her interview, Hyejin remarked about how she felt a better understanding of herself. For most of her life, she trusted in her Vietnamese side and was left wondering about who she was as a Vietnamese-Korean-American. She felt lost in her childhood, but with time and curiosity she had discovered not only her place as a Vietnamese-American, but also found a place as a Korean-American. There is a triplicity in her life that is remarkable and worth reveling in. Some children of immigrant families may feel torn between their home culture(s) and American culture, but Hyejin proves that a person can be more than one thing.

Hyejin isn’t just a girl from Vietnam. She isn’t just a girl with a Korean father. She isn’t just an American woman. She is Vietnamese, Korean, and American all at once. Her identity isn’t confined to the simple constructs that we may normally think of. She doesn’t have to be tied down to a singularity. She is free to be herself and discover what her identity means to her. Hyejin is the inventor of her own identity.

 

Author

Raquel “Rocky” Reinagel is a MA candidate and graduate assistant in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; former president of Hanwoori Hawaiʻi; and Co-President of the Second Language Studies Student Association (SLSSA) at UHM.