Who am I? It might seem like a simple question, but we cannot pare down an entire person into a few simple words. The current list I could use to describe myself is: female, queer, Asian American, Ex-Angeleno, martial artist and instructor, community activist, writer, part-time model, travel junkie, founder of a fashion- tech startup company, and neuroscientist studying therapies for Parkinson’s disease at the University of Minnesota.
As children, we learn group behavior — how to define ourselves and interact in ways that convey gender, race, height, shared interests. This is a learning curve for all kids and even adults. The rules change about who is “in” and who is “out.”
I couldn’t be “in” if I paid for it. I don’t have permission to belong. I think most of us want to be socially seamless — to go anywhere and be given the benefit of the doubt without having to explain ourselves. I myself would prefer to be as fluid as the environment that I’m in. However, that’s not an option for me in a state where the majority of people are as white as the snow. I happen to be two shades of melanin too dark to blend in.
Growing up, I needed to learn how to survive in different spaces. There are millions of different versions of myself, each suited to blend in depending on the group, with various degrees of breathing room for comfort. Most of the spaces I inhabit are different shades of white (and male): neuroscience, engineering, business, martial arts, and politics.
I learned at a young age, after watching my mother be disrespected by clients because of her accent, that “properly spoken English,” pronounced like a white person, would garner respect. My mother knew this as well, so she dressed me in expensive clothes and helped me with my accent. The goal was that I would not be seen as her — the poor, immigrant woman. I would be “basically white.”
The problem was, having to constantly prove myself worthy of respect was suffocating.
My immigrant parents were not able to prepare me, or themselves, for what it means to be Vietnamese American in Minnesota. I can’t simply call myself American, which is usually understood as being white. To me, being American is synonymous with having amnesia — our individual pasts are forgotten and we are blended into a melting pot of indistinguishable beige.
Culturally, I am Vietnamese first. It is my first language and the culture that resonates with me most. An important aspect of being Vietnamese is being part of a large, close-knit family. There is deep value in thinking beyond oneself for the benefit of family. Having family support is as liberating as it is constraining. Nothing is about just you. From this perspective, the individualistic, competitive nature in America is selfish and lonely.
Yet the freedom of my “fully” American Vietnamese for America. peers to explore and express themselves as individuals also is enviable.
I have been able to watch other people be American, but I have not been allowed the same carefree level of being American — because I am not part of the “in” group. The way I look will always be a factor of otherness. The way I act is otherness. I’m “American” only by paperwork. No matter how much I try, I will not have the privilege to erase my history and blend in as “just” American. There will always be distinction via a modifier preceding American.
Despite being born here, I will always feel more immigrant than citizen.
In other words, I am not Vietnamese enough for Vietnam, and I am too Vietnamese for America.
I’ve decided to define myself as someone who is simply in a state of constant evolution.
Joan Dao is is currently the CEO and founder of Ilesovi Inc, a wearables startup company that creates fashionable anti-theft smart purses. Joan also is a community activist, a sensei in Shoryn Ryu Karate, and a graduate in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota who is studying Deep Brain Stimulation for Motor Disorders.