The Math of Me

Brian Vo-web

“I am 1/16 French, 15/16 Vietnamese.” The phrase rolls off my tongue when I introduce myself, along with my name and where I grew up. Earlier in life, I struggled with this simple descriptor. When people asked, “What are you?” their puzzled expressions seemed to scream, “Where do you belong?”

When I was younger, I struggled with the ambiguity of my visible identity. I was quick to defend my French heritage to avoid the stigma surrounding Vietnam War babies, perpetuated by movies like Full Metal Jacket. I had to balance American mannerisms in the classroom with Vietnamese customs at home. Whereas my classmates got Lunchables and Capri Suns, I got fish and weird looks.

When I was in college, I was active in Asian cultural organizations, but was often asked, “Are you even Asian?” from other Asian Americans. There was an underlying accusation of “yellow fever.” But I felt perpetually foreign in mainstream America, too. Add in the angst of adolescence and I felt “too white for Asians, but too Asian for whites.” This was perhaps overly dramatic, but hey, I was still listening to Dashboard Confessional.

In 2010, I moved to Southeast Asia. It wasn’t until then that I realized “Holy shit, I’m so American.” Living amongst people from all over the world, I felt fully American for the first time and embraced the classic stereotypes: boisterous, tequila shot-ordering, dance-party inducing, (not so) borderline obnoxious.

N-037As I took on that stereotype, I found myself also yearning for an acknowledgement of my Vietnamese heritage and the deep-rooted connection I felt to the people I lived among. A typical taxi ride in Vietnam would go something like this:

“Your Vietnamese is excellent for being here only 3 months.”

“I’m Vietnamese.”

“No you’re not.”

“Yes I am. I’m 15/16 … ”

“Oh, in that case, your Vietnamese sucks.”

After three years in Asia, my journey back to the US forced me to re-confront the labels with which I had struggled with before. I went from receiving feedback of “Brian, you’re too aggressive with clients. Tone that shit down,” to “You need to demonstrate more presence and assertiveness.”

While I came to Wharton for pretty typical reasons, school has also given me the ultimate petri-dish for cultivating my understanding of identity. Connecting with classmates of different backgrounds has afforded me a richer understanding of others’ struggles and motivations. This has forced me to dig to a deeper level of introspection.

“I am 1/16 French, 15/16 Vietnamese.” I’ve come to embrace the duality of my ethnicity and nationality. Yes, I am 1/16 French and 15/16 Vietnamese—but I’m so much more. I know as I experience life, there will be more moments that help me peel back further layers. But it will be a journey. Through my time here at Wharton, I now see that journey as the end itself.

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