What It Means to Be Vietnamese

4 min readAug 14, 2020

By Gina Le

I am privileged to have been born and raised in Little Sài Gòn, the ethnic enclave that Vietnamese refugees carved out of the heart of Orange County, California, and transformed into one of the largest Vietnamese diasporic communities in the world. Here, in the sunny suburbs of California, I was privileged to have never been an anomaly; I grew up surrounded by kids who looked and talked like me. Just the “Nguyễn” section in my high school’s yearbooks consistently spanned hundreds of names. I even wrote about Little Sài Gòn in my college admissions essay, opining at length about entire blocks of small businesses without a single sign in English, and about the practice of Vietnamese American code-switching that came to me as easily as breathing.

(Clearly, someone found my love letter of an admissions essay promising, since I’m now in the last stretch of my undergraduate career at the George Washington University.)

Coming up on almost four years of that trial by fire (because, yes, attending a predominantly white institution as a first-generation person of color is just as great of an ordeal) has given me a wealth of time and space to reflect on my community. There are times–more frequent than I’d like to admit–that I’m homesick for a steaming bowl of truly good phở that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, or for the sound of aunties gossiping in rapidfire Vietnamese.

But the benefit of time and distance is that you can gain some semblance of objectivity–or at least, a perspective that’s less myopic than it once was. I like to think that I’ve struck a solid balance between being grateful for everything that growing up in Little Sài Gòn taught me, while also recognizing the serious issues that existed when I was too young to name them, and continue to exist today.

Politics is a tricky topic for probably every family in the United States, but it’s particularly fractious for Vietnamese Americans, whose every political maneuver exists in the long shadow of our arduous and traumatic journey to the United States. I am, of course, talking about the War (whose very name is a source of controversy, and with good reason).

What often only takes up a few pages of your average American history textbook under a subheading titled “The Vietnam War” is the…


A national civil rights organization that empowers Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities to create a socially just and equitable society.