Squares of faded colors and silhouettes catch my eye as we cycle down the streets of Bergamo, a small town in the north of Italy. A split second impression was enough. My intuition was correct; hidden behind the awning, above the wall calendars lining the windows, was a sign: Vietnam - Africa Market.
A man with salt-and-pepper hair looks up when I step inside. I greet him in Vietnamese. His eyes widen, his grin grows, Oh! You’re Vietnamese?
There are approximately 3,000 Vietnamese people in Italy, a fraction compared to the population of 1.6 million in the United States. In the ten years that they’ve owned the market, the man, who I call Chú Minh (Uncle Minh), and his wife, Cô Hà (Aunt Ha), have rarely seen a Vietnamese tourist, and never one on a bicycle.
We immediately jump into a friendly conversation.
Speaking Vietnamese has given me unexpected experiences all over Europe, such as when I stopped by a restaurant in Germany and was invited to stay with the workers in an attic apartment above the kitchen for three days.
I have met people from the Vietnamese community that I am familiar with—people like Cô Hà and Chú Minh that arrived in their host countries as refugees after escaping the new communist government in 1975.
But, I have also met Vietnamese that came to the former Eastern Bloc through worker exchange programs and stayed, others seeking economic opportunities in Scandinavia, students in Austria, and most recently, Vietnamese nuns practicing Catholicism in Italy.
Each of these groups recognized me as one of their own, regardless of my height (so tall!), my marital status (so single!), my bicycle (so strange!), and my limited vocabulary (so what?)
They recognize me as one of their own and in turn, I feel like I am among kin. English, the language of my thoughts, of a thousand beloved books, of just about every meaningful conversation that I have ever had, does not have the same visceral resonance that comes from hearing and speaking Vietnamese. After all, it is the language that I heard through my mother’s belly and out of my father’s mouth when he told me bedtime stories.
At times, this familiarity—as it does at home—begins to rankle. The questions, Why aren’t you married? What do your parents think of this? How much do you earn in America? are deflected again and again.
They are genuinely curious, but when I attempt to answer, I can see that they are unable to fathom how a person that looks like me can make such unconventional choices.
Our culture and values differ, but regardless of this, cans of coconut and lychee drinks and packages of instant noodles are piled in my arms and I am sent off with sincere wishes of goodwill.
It is no different in Bergamo: Cô Hà scoffs when I offer her money, “I know you can pay! But we are Vietnamese, understand? Consider me your mother or your aunt.”
Thousands of miles away from mother or aunt, I accept, and return to the shop to hear more of her story.
Cô Hà’s four older sisters fled Vietnam on a boat and was picked up by an Italian ship from a Malaysian refugee camp. Cô Hà, her mother and youngest sister were sponsored and flew to Italy, skipping the dangerous journey by sea.
“When people found out we were on a plane bound for Italy and not America, they felt sorry for us; to them America was paradise, but my family wanted to be in Italy.”
Her family heard that there was freedom in America, maybe too much of it, especially for the young—they felt that Italy would be a better country to raise their families. It is a decision that has worked out well. Italy has a tradition of close extended families, many people live near their relatives, frequently in the same building. The sisters, their husbands and children have remained close. Cô Hà feels that Vietnamese people have no major cultural differences from the warm and friendly Italians. Still, she misses Vietnam, a country that she has only visited once in nearly 30 years.
When I comment on the similarities between the Vietnamese people I know at home and those I’ve met abroad, tears fill her eyes, and she says,
“Being Vietnamese is a feeling, it is a choice, no one can force it away from you. When I go outside my home, I act Italian, but inside my home, I follow my heart.”
I give her shoulders—the exact size and shape as my mother’s—a squeeze and I know exactly what she means.