From Hanoi to Harvard

Hi, my name is Michelle, and I’m from Hanoi, Vietnam. But I’m not a Communist, so don’t worry” is the shtick I use to introduce myself at Harvard. It makes people laugh, and serves my narcissistic purpose of distinguishing myself from the hundreds of short Asian girls that dominate this campus.

Behind the introduction is a long and bumpy road that led me to Harvard. In fact, I almost didn’t come. Harvard wasn’t my first choice for matriculation, but my parents thought it had better international recognition and my mother semi-blackmailed me into choosing it. Besides, they could not pronounce “Yale” despite my best efforts. It was quite difficult for my mother to brag to her gossipy neighbors about me going to “a certain famous school in the US.”

In retrospect, though, I couldn’t have made a better decision.

I have one of the most unusual and unorthodox Vietnamese families you will ever find. My father is the fifth child of a dirt-poor family with ten children in central Vietnam. He grew up in the 50s and bore witness to two major wars and political and economic turmoil in the country. With a preternatural amount of self-motivation and efforts, he went to college in Hanoi on a government scholarship, and finally earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Germany. It is the classic rags-to-riches story that characterized my childhood and instills in me today an unquenchable sense of pride and affection for my father—to the extent that I am (perhaps too) ready to gloss over his humanly flaws and his unhealthy affinity for alcohol.

My mother is twelve years my father’s junior, and a city girl through and through. She was beautiful and carefree, had a day job as a photo model, and moonlighted as a drama actress. Yet somehow she found herself married to an older man that, at the time, had neither looks nor money on his side. If I could put a caption below my parent’s wedding pictures, it would be Beauty and the Beast,” reminiscent of the classic Disney tale. Standing next to my impeccably made-up mother, my father looked like a gorilla that had undergone a yearlong hunger strike, his horrific, shoulder-length mop of black hair overwhelming his stick thin figure even more. (Funnily enough, he now has a belly and hardly any hair at all.) For all their incompatibilities and idiosyncrasies, they actually make a good pair, like Thelma and Louise, Batman and Robin, and yes, Beauty and the Beast. But most important of all, they were and still are great parents. For one thing, they allow me to verbalize all my less-than-flattering descriptions of them and their habitual antics and actually proceed to laugh with me.

In between Hanoi and Harvard, there was Singapore. There, I spent four years in a public high school under the generous ASEAN scholarship. The opportunity came like a whirlwind. I was invited to try out on Friday night, reluctantly came to the examination on Monday after a weekend away on holiday, knew that I got in via a phone call on Tuesday night, and the papers were signed on Wednesday. Just like that, I was whizzed off to a land I hardly knew existed. I was fourteen years old, stood at 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed a grand total of 90 pounds. As we waited to check in at the airport, my tearful mother was still quite convinced that it was all a scam to trick young children and then sell them off to China or Africa. She reminded me over and again that should anything happen in the next day or two, just call and she would board the next flight to Singapore and escort me home. My father was stoic, as always. He believed that it was never too early to see the world and realize how minuscule I really am. As for me, I was just excited about flying for the very first time.

In the next six months or so, Singapore sprung me around and hit me hard. I came to fully realize the perils of starting a life in a foreign country all by myself without adequate preparations. I could barely speak English. The pace of life was nauseatingly fast, and I was lost. It did not help that in this country, chewing gum was banned, a legal drinking age actually existed, and a hefty fine accompanied eating and drinking on public transportation. It remained unclear to me how I managed to climb out of that muddled mess of pubescent drama, but I did. I made friends, did well in school, and graduated with a shining portfolio. Still, sometimes I found myself frightened by lonesomeness and suffocated by the rat race, and I wondered if being 1,400 miles away from home was worth it.

People often asked how I managed to adjust so fast to life in America (I suspect some had a vision of me as a Marx-spewing, flag-waving, loony Commie), and my answer always involved Singapore. I think of Singapore as a microcosm of America, a model of what America would be like if it were the size of Massachusetts and had a Chinese majority. It taught me to appreciate racial and cultural diversity, to believe in myself, and to survive by myself. Most important of all, it trained me to master the art of bullshitting my way through an essay on a topic that I knew nothing about.

Four years later, I left the Lion City one last time. I was an inch taller, fifteen pounds heavier, and a whole lot more cynical. I traded innocence for maturity and (some) wisdom. But sometimes you just want to be carefree and happy and not having to worry about everything.

As I stood inside Hanoi’s International Airport last August, waiting to board the flight to Boston, it was with familiar sights but wildly different sentiments. It would be a blatant lie to say that I was not intimidated. After all, no matter how many episodes of Sex and the City and Gossip Girl I watched, the real America still held that potential to shake me out of my core and break me into pieces.

My first year at Harvard have been marked by exhilarating highs, like seeing myself anonymously featured for the first time on HarvardFML, and embarrassing lows, like stupidly auditioning for Eleganza and spending the next hour having the last bits of self esteem sucked out of me by the parade of thin, tall, and beautiful Harvard ladies. But I did have a lot of fun. Too much fun, perhaps. I have good friends to commiserate with over looming deadlines and a much-too-crowded iCal, to party with every weekend, and to share profound thoughts and dreams over scallion pancakes at 2 a.m. in the Kong. It still amazes me sometimes that I am here, walking the historic path crisscrossing Harvard Yard, and living among the people that will some day be titans of industry and leaders of the world. I don’t know yet if I deserve my place here, or if something valuable will come out of my stint as “a Harvard kid,” but at least I know I will enjoy myself trying to find out.

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