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How College Gave My Cultural Heritage Meaning

The cultural heritage my parents taught me as a child never meant much to me. That all changed after I left for college.

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Courtesy of Andrew Neel / Unsplash
Courtesy of Andrew Neel / Unsplash

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It was Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, and my dad was driving me, my mom, and my grandma to the only Buddhist temple near us. At that time, it was a two-hour trip that we embarked on annually. I remember looking down at my shiny black dress shoes while sitting in the back seat of the family’s minivan. I would wonder why I had to wear such uncomfortable shoes if they were ultimately going to come off and be left at the temple’s front door anyways. Perhaps it was the infrequency at which we took these trips that made it necessary to dress up. “We need to be respectful to our traditions,” my mom would say.

When we finally arrived, what waited inside would yet again fail to hold the interest of my teenage self. The service consisted of sitting through what seemed like an impossible amount of time spent chanting, bowing, and listening to the monks speak. After that, I would follow my family downstairs to the recreation center where they would sit me at a table with a bland vegetarian meal before spending the rest of the evening catching up with friends they had not spoken to since the previous new year’s service. It seemed like we were always the last ones to leave the temple, and by the time my parents decided to get going, I had already walked around and seen every corner of the building 20 times over.

My parents, and my mother in particular, made sure we never lost touch with our Vietnamese heritage while I was growing up. In addition to those annual trips to the Buddhist temple, we had an altar to our ancestors on the second floor of our home, my mother would often prepare traditional meals, and my dad would play songs from his earlier days in Vietnam. Additionally, because my grandmother spoke very little English, Vietnamese was primary language used in the house. Growing up, I did not understand why my family valued this cultural lifestyle so much. These things did not cross my mind often, but I remember the handful of times that it did. While I was by no means ashamed of how different it made me from my peers, I simply did not see any of these things serving any purpose. At that age, it all seemed like a useless waste of time.

Homesickness is not uncommon among college freshman, and by the start of my second semester, I was no different. It was only then when I began to discover the value behind the culture I was raised in. After a particularly difficult biology exam, I remember having the sudden urge to pay a visit to the nearest Buddhist temple. There was one about 20 minutes away, and that night, I decided to take an Uber there. When I arrived, the evening service had just finished and the monk and lay people were cleaning up. After I paid my respects to the shrine, a woman approached me and mentioned that she had not seen me before. I introduced myself to her, and she invited me downstairs to join the congregation for dinner. It was one of the best meals I had eaten that academic year. To be frank, the vegetarian food was incredibly bland. But it was just as bland as when I ate it as a kid. The conversations I shared with the congregation, in Vietnamese, were just like the ones I had at home with my family. I had not enjoyed anything like this since I was very, very young. In the Uber on the way back to campus, I could not help but smile. It was not because of any intended religious meaning. Rather, it was the overall experience that I found meaningful — an experience in which my actions had reconnected me not only to my childhood, but also to my home. 

After that night, I have taken every chance to keep in touch with the culture I was raised in. While I do not consider myself to be religious, I keep a small Buddha statue in my room. While I can certainly speak English with my ethnically Vietnamese friends, I take the opportunity to speak in our other shared tongue. While I will gladly enjoy almost any kind of food, I practice making my mom’s traditional recipes when time permits. All of these things culturally ground me and take me back to my home. I have found them extremely valuable particularly when my commitments in college, academics and otherwise, are challenging. The sense of nostalgia these activities bring to me remind me of my heritage, sure, but also of happy and perhaps even simpler times. While one could make the case that looking back at anything nostalgically risks looking through rose-colored glasses, it is that very look back that connects me to who I am. And if it makes me genuinely happy, then so be it. 

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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