Go Marcel Nguyen! diaCRITIC Jade Hidle gives us an Olympic take on Vietnamese identity using Marcel Nguyen, the Olympic silver medalist in gymnastics, as the launching point. At the same time, Hidle turns inward and and gives us a beautiful reflection on her own struggles as a mixed Vietnamese.
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On August 2nd, Vietnamese German gymnast Marcel Nguyen won a silver medal at the London Olympics in the men’s Individual All-Around. Straightaway, a friend—one who jokingly, tenderly calls me “halfer” for being Vietnamese and Norwegian, or “Viking,” as he would say—sends me a text message that asks, “What’s up with a German named Nguyen?” I know he is, in jest, ventriloquizing the ignorant, confused questions that strangers always pose to me about my mixed identity and my seemingly misplaced last name. But I know so many of the millions watching the Olympic Games must have been asking similar questions, in earnest, about a Nguyen representing Germany.
So I let my thumbs began to pound the texting keyboard on my phone to deliver a snapshot history of Vietnamese in Western Europe: The French! The 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale featuring “Indochinese” people on display like circus attractions. And in WWI? Nearly a hundred thousand Vietnamese soldiers! And don’t forget about Philipp Rösler, the Vietnamese-born current Vice Chancellor of Germany. Recognize, yo! And what about me, the mixed Viet girl with a Norwegian last name? Would murmurs of my ethnic makeup cloud the shine of my silver medal? (Obviously, I would only earn an Olympic medal of any color in some alternate universe operating on a fantastical time-space continuum à la Star Trek.)
Seriously, though, Marcel’s medalling opens up a good opportunity not only to draw attention to the diversity in Germany, a country haunted by its past, but also to how worldwide the Vietnamese diaspora has been and continues to be. And, of course, it’s important to point out that “Vietnamese” can and does look like Marcel and like me.
But what do Marcel and me look like? As for Marcel…that hair! The smile that has girls in the Tumbler- and Twitter-verse declaring their newfound plans to move to Deutschland! And have you seen his arms? … (Sorry, reader, I had to take a moment to properly swoon.)
This post, of course, is not solely to drool over Marcel. In watching my overseas, mixed-Viet homeboy compete and medal, deeper thoughts began to rouse. As he flew and flipped and swung, I thought, “that dude is at work right now.” His career is dedicated to his body, training it to perform feats that showcase the human specimen at its most impressive. Given the obvious fact that Việt Nam, among numerous other countries, cannot afford representation at the Olympics and all the facilities and training of a national team entails, seeing a diasporic Vietnamese athlete win a medal is a landmark in possibility. (By no means do I intend to suggest that possibilities only lie outside the borders of Việt Nam; on the contrary, I found that that very sentiment, common among young Vietnamese I met while in Việt Nam, to be rather heart-wrenching and wish that more possibilities will be opened within the country of such ineffable resilience, to say the very least.) When I think of Marcel and possibility, I turn inward, to the point at which memory and muscle meet.
Athleticism was not at all an avenue of pursuit when I was growing up. That’s not how I was raised to see my body, as being able to go above and beyond. It was about surviving.
My grandmother excused herself every afternoon to go “exercise,” but all this meant was her standing on the back porch, waving her arms in windmill fashion, but not swiftly enough to unsettle the cigarette dangling from her lips.
When I told my mom that I wanted to join the girl’s softball team in junior high and again in high school, she said, “No! So stupid ball break your face?” Sports were an unnecessary danger in a world my mother found to be so threatening and unpredictable as history had proven it to be. She added, “Why do you want to run when no one is chasing you?”
Before my sprouting height and swelling chest (thanks a lot, Norwegian genes), not to mention my overall lack of coordination, dashed my childhood dreams of becoming an Olympic gymnast, I catapulted over my mother’s couch and attempted handstands on the coffee table (read: balance beam) until the cheap “wood” paneling clung to my sweaty palms. To the sight of her firstborn daughter’s gangly legs launching airborne across her living room, my mother would quickly ground me with reminders of the household responsibilities we shared in being on our own and both being students. Cleaning. Homework. Alleviating each other’s loneliness. Cooking. Eating. Eating. Surviving.
It may be so familiar to some that it sounds cliché, but my mother used to get me to finish the food on my plate by telling me stories about her hunger in Việt Nam. That on some days during the war-time curfews, she resorted to eating insects she spotted crawling around the house. Though enthralled by these stories of my mother as a girl-survivor, they began to ring empty for me, who at the time only knew America. Despite growing up on welfare in a housing project and occasionally knowing hunger, I surely never had to eat bugs. There was always a can of something I could jimmy into when my stomach started to growl. So, my mother resorted to other tactics to ensure that food never went to waste. “If you eat this, I will love you,” she only had to tell me once. And, for better or worse, this worked.
I ate and ate and continued to eat long after my mother and I no longer lived together, shared meals, or even talked. I ate through my loneliness for my mother, my string of pained relationships, the stress of a graduate degree and then another. I ate to celebrate in good times, in bad times to “reward” myself for simply getting through the day.
Though I started eating to get my mother to love me, I got too big to wear the dresses she and her consistently ninety-pound body deemed beautiful, too fat to attract a husband that her old-school values expected of me to find by age twenty-five. In feeling her disappointment in me, rather than her love, I began to instead eat for that reason, as if to spite her by getting so big my body no longer remotely resembled the figures of any of the Vietnamese women in my family, to get so big that the last time she hugged me, my mother remarked that I was “big” and “soft like a pillow.” She reminds me that my collarbone cracked during birth because I was so big and she so small.
When my mother bought me maternity clothes one Christmas, I got angry and returned those too-comfortable pregnancy threads. Admittedly, though, when strangers have asked me how far along I am in my pregnancy, sometimes I go with it. I tell them a number of weeks in the way that pregnant women measure time, though I have never been, and may never be, pregnant.
By the time I visited Việt Nam for the first time in 2010, I was at my heaviest. A picture from this trip shows my body, not effectively hidden by my intentionally baggy clothes, hanging heavy on the back of a motor scooter, eclipsing the body of the driver, my friend Vinh. From my hotel room window, I watched the elderly play badminton in the park before the sun beat too hot and men balance a nap on top of their motorbikes.
At a tailor in Chợ Lớn (Sai Gòn’s Chinatown), a woman with soft skin offered to make me an áo dài. Without thinking, I told her I was too fat, that I eat way too much. I cringed inside, realizing the nasty American privilege of my statement. She responded, “That means you’re well-fed, prosperous. That’s a good thing. It’s beautiful.” She smiles and rubs my arm in a way that I feel a mother would. Nevertheless, I felt ashamed. And confused. I caught myself mid-twist in the oscillations of how to view my own body.
As the medals continue to be hung around bowed necks at the London Olympic Games, I push through the most excruciating yet healthiest exercise and diet regimen to which I have ever committed. Nausea and fatigue knot in my stomach even now as I visualize Jillian Michaels’ disturbingly non-sweaty face as she talks (she has enough breath to talk while doing these moves!) me through painful squat thrusts and chest flies and other oh-my-god-I’m-dying exercises. I incessantly download podcasts in hopes that the voices of Kevin Smith and Adam Carolla distract me from the absolute pain of “working out” in hopes of achieving some (im)possible medium between my mother’s skinny and her wishes for me to eat, eat for love. I know my mother would shake her head if she knew that I no longer eat white rice or the bánh bò or đâu hũ that I’ve loved ever for as far back as my taste buds anchor my memories. But, the generation of survivor that she is, she would be happy I’m (slowly but surely) slimming down to a single-digit clothing size to attract a potential husband. She forgets that I, generation of survivor that I am, take care of myself.
So when I watch Marcel Nguyen and the ridiculously impressive physical specimen that he is as he performs the world-class feats of the human body, I wonder about the possibilities of the body within our cultures, our memories. Will it be possible for me, as a Vietnamese American woman, to be happy with my body at any point? Is it possible for me to order the vegan menu option without feeling guilty that my relatives across the Pacific don’t get the luxury of choosing to eliminate animal fats or carbs for dietary purposes? Will there be a day that my mother will be okay with the fact that my body was born of hers? If I ever get to wear maternity clothes for their true purpose, what kinds of hunger will I foster in my children? How loudly will I scream from the stands?
I grapple with these yet unanswerable questions about this body I should know as my own, settling to watch the Olympic athletes’ bodies on television and then inspect my slowly changing one in the bathroom mirror during commercial breaks. So without resolution, I was thinking about ways to end this post, and then I found another picture of Marcel. In it, he is shirtless (settle down, dear reader), and the tattoo across his chest reads, “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever.”
The pain of sweat and burn and food and hunger and war and survival and my mother’s brand of love and feeling ugly in the dark and being the only Vietnamese Hidle and strengthening and of writing this at all. Of all the possibilities. The pain and the pride of tireless, inconceivable possibilities.
Herzlichen Glückwunsch, Marcel.
Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and is working on a PhD in literature at UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.
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