I was an overexcited child. Even now, I get excited over the smallest things, such as the prospect of an aubergine for dinner or a fuzzy blanket. So when I learned all about the nifty Anglo Saxons in Year 4, I was SO EXCITED to tell my parents about it.
So, that evening as I sat in the bath and I heard the front door open indicating that my dad was home, I screamed from the bathroom: “Hey dad! Guess what! I learned all about our ancestors the Anglo Saxons today!”
To which my dad replied: “No baby, we are Asian.”
So yes, the first time it truly dawned on me that I wasn’t English, was at the age of about 8. Just like Archimedes, my Eureka moment came in the bath.
You, as the reader, might be shocked. I have black hair, brown eyes and other Asian features. Why did it never occur to that little Vietnamese girl that she was different from her peers? I guess it’s because I didn’t feel different. I always felt extremely welcome in this country. I grew up in a multicultural society, and I’ve always been surrounded by people from many different countries. My best friends at the age of 11 were Sri Lankan, Albanian, South Korean and Jamaican. Now, at the age of 20, my closest friends are even more diverse.
I used to think that I was untouchable. I was born in this country, I’ve never been to Vietnam. Hell, I don’t even speak the language. I don’t belong to that country, I belong here – with the English. I love England, for all its cute quirks and oddities. Yet, as I have learned through the act of growing up: No matter how much you love something, it might not love you back.
People in my community would gossip. About so called “foreigners,” but they liked me. They gave me chocolate at Christmas and birthday cards at Birthdays. I felt included, and fearless. People at school were also equally tolerant. I had a predominantly happy and welcoming childhood.
Then I became the target. On one normal day on a normal bus trip to school, I had my earbud plucked from my ear by a schoolgirl and asked why I looked so sad. Before I could say anything, she said “Oh right, it’s probably because your VISA has run out and you’re going to be sent back home.”
Home? I thought England was my home. Wait. So is Vietnam my home? How could a country that I have never stepped foot in, never seen…how could I belong there and not here?
My experience is minuscule compared to what scores of “foreign-looking” people have to endure on a daily basis. I’m an overly sensitive person, and something little like what happened to me deeply affected me. When people nowadays ask me “Where I’m from?” I find myself not knowing whether to reply with “Surrey” or “Saigon.” I was once the girl who stood on the sidelines, and for the first time I was in the firing line. I thought it would never happen to me.
In every situation, there is usually a bystander. If you are a bystander, you are part of the problem. There’s no point saying, “I’m not the perpetrator. I didn’t say anything. I’m not guilty.” I always used to think, that at least it wasn’t me. Like a fly in a web, hoping the spider doesn’t see them or is decidedly less ravenous than it thought it was. The fly is spared…today.
It’s so difficult to see abuse when it isn’t happening to you. It’s so easy to choose to be oblivious rather than facing up to it. Do not think it could never to happen to you, so that you don’t care. I used to think like that.
The following quote is what really made me come to realise this. It’s probably the most important and haunting lesson I had in school.
“FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS…”
By MARTIN NIEMÖLLER
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.