Caught between two worlds


Posted Fri, Mar 19, 2010

BOULDER — A small, wisp of a woman darts and weaves in between people as she speed walks on the University of Colorado campus.

“Sorry,” she called back behind her, “maybe I walk a little faster than the usual, but I’m late for this meeting,” she said, sounding like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

She carried herself much like that White Rabbit throughout her meetings, bursting into the first shouting, “Sorry I’m late! I was taking care of business downtown.”

This tiny Vietnamese woman speaks with confidence, and just enough nervous energy to highlight her bubbly personality.

Her name is Diemtrinh Tran, a double major in architecture and psychology, and senior at CU.

Tran may seem like a normal 21-year-old American woman, albeit one with a Type-A personality and tendency to write everything in a home crafted planner/journal.

“I would be completely lost without this thing,” she said of the planner.

But if you hold a long enough conversation with her, the subtle grammatical errors clue in that English is her second language.

“I haven’t always been this comfortable with who I am,” she recounted after her meetings. “I can remember being lost.”

Tran was talking about being lost between her Vietnamese heritage and her American one.  She was born in Vietnam to a business man and his small-village-farm wife.

“I’ve heard stories that we lived on a boat at one point, but I was too young to remember,” Tran said of her time in Vietnam.

Tran, her older sister and her parents emigrated to America when she was 5-years-old.

“None of us knew English,” Tran said.

In fact, Tran didn’t even know how to correct people who mispronounced her name, so when a teacher said it as Dim in the first grade, it stuck.

It was only after high school she started to introduce herself as Diem (pronounced like the phrase carpe diem) which is still a mispronunciation, but closer to being correct, Tran said.

Her name was not her only struggle Tran said, just her first. She had initiative to learn English – and did, but she also became the appointed liaison for her family toward the rest of the American world.

“My sister didn’t want to learn English, she went to high school here but only socialized with other Vietnamese students so she wouldn’t really have to learn,” Tran said.

“I can remember being picked on my first day of high school.” Tran said of her own educational experience. “There was a Vietnamese boy in my class who ridiculed me for being ‘too Americanized,’” she said.

“He asked me why I was trying so hard to be white. Why I was denying my heritage.” She said with a slight smirk. “But, to me, I wasn’t denying anything. I was raised here. I didn’t purposefully choose my friends or choose to not have Asian friends,” she said.

In fact, Tran had not lost her heritage as the classmate said, she went to temple, practiced Buddhism, spoke and wrote Vietnamese, and traveled back to Vietnam with her family every few years.

Tran said some Asians, especially in high school, were less perceptive to her, “it felt very much like a clique and if you weren’t ‘Asian enough‘ they had no interest in getting to know you.

“But what is funny to me now, thinking back, is that guy was faking his Viet accent, so he was denying who he really was.” she said.

Tran said it was then she would get more involved with Asian organizations in college, “but I’m so busy!” she exclaimed, “I can’t fit another activity in, and give it the time it deserves.”

So she stopped at one extracurricular Asian organization, one that helps Chinese kids of all ages identify with their dual cultures at a heritage camp she said.

“Its great, I can help these little kids get to know both sides of their culture, I can understand that, and I’m happy I can help.” Tran said.

“By the time I was their age, I was already handling business for my family, making doctor appointments for my parents, translating for them.” she said.

“So I didn’t lose any of my Vietnamese heritage by speaking English, I’m helping my family.”

Tran is in no way a stereotype she said, with a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humor  “I wish I was like an Asian stereotype sometimes, super smart.” A huge friendly grin spread across her face. “I don’t mind now when people tease me about being an Americanized Asian.

I’m happy with who I am. I have bigger things to worry about than how some may think of me. Like grad school.”


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