Photo illustration of people celebrating over food and drinks with paper lanterns behind them

Who has a right to AANHPI Heritage Month?

A Vietnamese adoptee from Appalachia shares their complicated feelings around Asian American identity—particularly in May

How do we decide who gets to celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month?

Photo illustration by Ryan Quan

Words by Mailé Nguyen

Every May, I am forced to consider who has the right to cultural heritage. Narratives of what it looks like to grow up Asian—passed-down food traditions, celebrating immigrant parents—permeate the celebrations of AANHPI Heritage Month. But that’s not what it looked like for me to grow up Asian.

Coincidentally, this month overlaps with the anniversary of my adoption. At four months old, my brother and I were irrevocably separated from our cultural heritage in Vietnam and we were brought up in a Christian military household in the United States—not altogether an uncommon adoption story. According to the Population Reference Bureau, international adoption rates nearly doubled in the 1990s when my brother and I were adopted. Among the reasons for the drastic increase, international adoptions proved quicker, cheaper, and less legally complex than domestic adoptions. In his book, The First Amerasians: Mixed Race Koreans from Camptowns to America, Yuri Doolan explains that the current laws allowing international adoption in the United States date back to the 1950s and 1960s when mixed-race Korean babies fathered and abandoned by U.S. soldiers were adopted en masse. Adoption advocates of the time argued that the laws be simplified so that babies could easily be adopted and “rescued” from post-war aftermath. Since the dubious development of these laws during the Cold War era, the United States has staunchly held the distinction of adopting more children transnationally than any other country, according to a 2009 study from Peter Selman. Though my immigrant story is different from those fleeing the wars of our history books, it’s that same history of militarism that brought me here.

The history of Asian transracial adoptions is inextricably linked to the Asian American history we learn during AANHPI Heritage Month. The first usage of the term "Asian American" came about in protest of the Vietnam War in 1968. Originally, identifying as Asian American was to be unapologetically critical of the U.S. empire. Just four years before the first APA Heritage Week in 1979, thousands of Vietnamese babies were airlifted out of Saigon in Operation Babylift and Operation New Life, where they were adopted into American families. Much like the mixed-race Korean babies of the 1950s and 1960s, Vietnamese babies became the next target for U.S. imperial sympathies as displaced war orphans in assumed need of loving and providing American homes—naturally disregarding the foreign military involvement that made them orphans in the first place. The resulting systemization of Vietnamese adoptions after the war would not be the first time the United States would exercise its nascent status as a global superpower, nor would it be the last. I was adopted 20 years after the war, but the same Cold War-era laws that Doolan highlights are what facilitated my immigration to the United States. It is also the persistent, perverse narratives of the United States as a “benevolent” global superpower and Vietnamese as unfit to care for their own babies (see: Miss Saigon) that crafted the transnational adoption industrial complex as we know it in Vietnam.

As a Vietnamese adoptee, I am uniquely positioned within the modern history of the empire as a long-term result of war. Despite my adjacent history with other Vietnamese Americans, I have felt distanced from the community because I was adopted, both from Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike. So who gets to decide my claim to Asian American identity? Though my parents aren’t immigrants and I have been pushed towards proximal whiteness, do I have a right to celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month, too?

Predominantly Asian protesters in face masks stand together, holding up signs about anti Asian hate.

Participants at a youth-led anti-Asian violence rally in San Francisco.

Sheila Fitzgerald

AANHPI Heritage Month is becoming more of a battleground in which AANHPIs collectively shout for equal representation within the U.S. mainstream. This federally sanctioned time of recognition leaves many rushing to ensure that the representation is done “right”—that everyone’s complex ethnicity is seen, heard, and shows up on-screen. But these complex ethnicities rarely seem to include adoptees; I regularly feel that I need to yell a little louder, both to be heard in the mainstream as well as within AANHPI spaces. We are positioned awkwardly in AANHPI movements as a result of asymmetric international relations. As an example, the most recent Stop AAPI Hate campaign left many AANHPI adoptees voicing disillusionment with the movement, not fully sure how they fit into the narrative. Activists’ attention was fairly focused on their Asian elders and arguing that despite their cultural upbringings they were American too. The sentiment was powerful, but I felt disconnected from the message—my white American upbringing and lack of Asian family were at odds with my undeniably Asian face subject to the same potential violence. The mental gymnastics I struggled with during the Stop AAPI Hate movement similarly reflect how AANHPI Heritage Month has previously made me feel like I have to earn my right to AANHPI identity.

In a never-ending chase for the perfect acronym to encapsulate all Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians, the quiet exclusion of implied, shared cultural “heritage” is often overlooked. I grew up far removed from the Asian Americana of the bicoastal urban elite. Learning how to be Asian in the Midwest offered little in the way of accessibility, but was also further obscured by the Vietnamese people I grew up with, who made it clear that being born Vietnamese was not the same as growing up Vietnamese.

When I speak with other Asians who grew up in Appalachia, we have a lot of unique collective memories of our own. Unfortunately, the assumption of otherness is a near-universal experience for non-white kids existing in predominantly white spaces, and one we often share. Though I received the clichéd “Where are you really from?” question too many times to count, I was 13 when the question began taking a different accusatory tone. A Vietnamese friend of mine was introducing me to his acquaintance when they asked, “So where are you from?”

“I was born in Vietnam, so I’m Vietnamese,” I answered reflexively.

My friend then interjected, “But you’re adopted and your parents are white, so you’re like, only half-Vietnamese.”

Learning how to be Asian in the Midwest offered little in the way of accessibility, but was also further obscured by the Vietnamese people I grew up with, who made it clear that being born Vietnamese was not the same as growing up Vietnamese.

Without saying explicitly, he made it clear that his Vietnamese identity outranked mine. It was the first time I felt ashamed of being adopted, as I had always been eager for this friend’s approval. He was the only other Vietnamese friend I had at the time—alongside my brother, we had grown up together as the only Vietnamese kids in school. In our elementary school days, he had tried to teach me how to count to 10 in Vietnamese, but we both gave up because my tongue couldn’t embrace the tones as it should.

The continued ethnic exclusion from my Vietnamese friends deeply affected me as I struggled to find my Asian American identity. Multiple academic studies have found that transracial adoptees struggle with cultural identity formation. The National Association of Black Social Workers has further opposed transracial adoptions of Black children into white homes for fear of children not getting the racial socialization needed for BIPOC to survive in the United States. In my case, I didn’t have Asian relatives to model after, and asking my Asian friends why they did simple things like washing their rice was too embarrassing. My parents supported me the best they could, but unfortunately, none of us knew much about what it meant to be Vietnamese. So I had to learn how to be Asian elsewhere. As a teenager, Asian YouTubers of the era became my gospel—Asian creators in South California like WongFuProductions, David So, and the Fung Bro’s parodies of Asian stereotypes outlined the rules of Asian identity. The method was flawed, and though I tried my best to perform the part, learning how to be Asian on YouTube only offered a limited perspective on what it means to grow up Asian.

It has become easier for me to find cultural entry points upon which to build my identity as Asian faces become more visible in popular culture and Asian exported media begins to carry more social currency. After all, isn’t that the point of fighting for representation? Though it is a start, popular media can only offer a surface-level understanding of my intersecting identities as an adoptee and Asian American. Adoptee narratives in popular media are few and far between, but learning more about the overlapping histories of international adoption and the Asian American diaspora builds my confidence in claiming AANHPI as a social and political identity. The same war that brought thousands of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States laid the groundwork for the same transnational adoption industry that brought me here 20 years after the fact. Though they were somewhat violent, our connected pasts underscore a potential for solidarity.

The support of the adoptee community and the mentors I found within AANHPI spaces ultimately helped develop my racial consciousness. As a teenager, I was made to feel that I didn’t have a right to my Vietnamese heritage. But it’s that distance that now allows me to think critically about my own positionality within AANHPI spaces as well as our community’s collective power. The AANHPI communities I have deliberately built in Appalachia and beyond have generously welcomed me to their tables as I learned that being Asian is not a final destination, but a lifelong learning opportunity. Through them, I have become more confident in identifying as Asian American and celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month as an adoptee. In my experience, identity is deeply personal and cannot be gatekept by external forces. This month-long celebration shouldn’t be about people earning a right to their heritage; it should instead be used to genuinely celebrate narratives of hybridity and remember the histories that brought us together.

Published on May 30, 2024

Words by Mailé Nguyen

Mailé Nguyen (they/them) is an Appalachian-raised Vietnamese American adoptee based in Chicago. A bit of a chaotic academic, their research interests include queer Korean literature, adoptee media, and transcultural consumption of gendered aesthetics. You can find them on Instagram and X @mileynwen.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.