Growing Up In-Between: Living with 2 Identities

Michael Trịnh
7 min readOct 29, 2018

I sat in the back of the room of my seventh grade class, everyday.

Beside me sat a familiar face and skin: a skinny, black-haired boy named Qian. I knew the guy vaguely since first grade, but that year when he was in my class, I drew myself to him. I never knew why we got along back then: I didn’t like what he liked, he found my jokes weird, and we didn’t have many mutual friends either.

But around us were a different face and hair color: the kids from in and around Little Portugal. The common identity, pride, and unity that the Portuguese kids in my school had, was something Qian and I never felt with them, nor was it something we could ever understand.

So that’s how it played out that year: the two Asian kids in the class cohesively stuck together, despite how different they were. What did it mean to be “Asian”? I didn’t know myself, despite me falling into the label. But it was while I got to know Qian, did I first ever think of myself as Asian, rather than a just another kid. We talked about the distant places our families came from, rejoiced in our mutual love for the “weird” snacks and meals we would bring to lunch, and mutually assured ourselves that we weren’t the only kids in the world who would get their asses kicked for doing something wrong at home!

It was in this year did my chubby pre-teen identity really develop. I was Asian and proud: it made me unique from the rest of my Portuguese classmates. This was my introduction to race, and the idea of my own race has lingered in my head and soul for years since then. Even as I write about my past from this perspective, my eyebrows sometimes twitch and my heart feels uneasy.

At the time, I was a taekwondo-enrolled, piano-playing, honor roll student, who sang K-pop, watched dramas and anime from time to time. I grew up speaking Vietnamese, harvesting plants that to this day I don’t know the English name for, and cooking delicious meals from rice, fish, and special meats. I felt like the cool Asian kid in a sea of white, and I was proud of what I believed was myself. Whenever the kids jokingly called me Kim Jong Un, I merely laughed and embraced how I was unique from the rest of them.

But a part of me felt different, even from Qian: the only kid in school who I felt I could relate to whatsoever. If I was Asian that meant my parents were also Asian, but this was only half true.

When I spoke to Qian those days, he talked about his experiences growing up in a Chinese Immigrant family, and I could happily relate as I grew up being raised by a traditional Vietnamese immigrant family. But what I didn’t do was mention my dad: a round, smiley man with a grey array of curly hair, from Chile.

I don’t look exactly like my full-Viet cousins, nor do I look like your everyday Chilean. It had never occurred to me that you could be a fluent mix of one or the other, I always believed things like this were binary: you were Asian or you weren’t. No stronger have I felt that emotion than when I was at my cousin’s wedding a couple years ago.

Surrounded by a sea of red decorations, suits, and fancy gowns, I was bored out of my mind. Walking up to one of the ladies in the other table, I struck a conversation with her in my mother tongue, Vietnamese. Being relieved of my punishing boredom, I spoke loudly and happily, gaining the attention of one of my distant aunts who exclaimed:

“I know he’s a white boy, but his Vietnamese is so good!”

I pretended to not hear what she said, and continued laughing and playing cool. Yet my soul felt like someone just pulled a rug from under my feet. It never occurred to me that I could be seen as a foreigner in my own family; the one place everyone should be able to call home with 100% confidence. You may think it’s weird that the Asian-Latino kid was being judged as “white”, but in a culture that doesn’t know much about South America, the concept of being Latino might as well be white.

So from this point it began: a constant fight with myself over my interests, my emotions, and even my train of thought:

“What he/she said sounds so white.”

“Are you even Asian? What the hell are you?”

This constant tug of war between identities was an on-and-off thing for me. My face doesn’t emanate a single culture or flag, so these thoughts would intensify the more I got confused for other races and cultures based on my appearance. It’s funny how a “white-ish” appearance of my face and voice in the eyes of a few people, made me ponder if I was part of a racial group that I never even considered before.

Add this mid-teen identity crisis on top of other high school worries like petty crushes and marks, and you had my psyche for the majority of my high school years. I was constantly at odds with two different identities, yet still immersed in the identity I’ve known all my life; Vietnamese culture.

Call it a sense of racial insecurity or however you may, but I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere for the longest time. The downpour of anxiety continuously trickled on my mind, continuously making me conflict over what I was.

I would introduce myself as Vietnamese in response to “Where’s your family from?”, not mentioning my Chilean side as if I were hiding some secret life of mine. Only when people asked if I was mixed, would I mention my other half, recollecting it like a racial amnesia.

This was how things played until out of all things, a movie came out to the big screen. The movie was Crazy Rich Asians, and you can bet that I was pumped to see it! Being able to see familiar faces on the screen without having to go through all the martial arts fighting, broken English stereotypes in the process, was a refreshing experience.

But what was even more lightening for me was the star of the show: Nick Young. The so called “Asian Bachelor” was played by a biracial Malaysian-British actor and fan-favorite, Henry Golding.

Henry’s dashing looks and charisma already made him a physical role model for the fitness and fashion goals. But more importantly, Henry Golding starring in a movie called Crazy Rich Asians, resonated with me like nothing else before. He was conceived from to two very different worlds like myself, but was accepted in both because of who he was, not what he was. He’s a bad-ass, handsome, Asian star, who also wears his background as a mixed-raced person with pride.

In the words of the man himself: “You gotta own your identity.”

Since following Henry on social media, watching many of the interviews where he reflects on being mixed race while growing up, and watching him star in this Asian blockbuster movie, I have begun to internalize his words myself. For any of you reading this who felt or maybe feel this way about yourself, take this to heart as much as I have:

“Own your identity Michael. You’re a Vietnamese-Chilean, but above all, you’re a human. Be grateful for the fact you are even alive to be insecure of these things; now go do something actually valuable for yourself! The world is truly, your oyster.”

It’s been around 5 years since I last sat in the back of that seventh grade class, where I learned what race was. Taking the idea that both sides of my background can live harmoniously, my life feels like it has a new dimension of freedom now. What I do and like does not make me more or less Asian/Latino than the next person, and it is up to me to own that with a brave and confident soul.

By no means was this article easy to write from a personal standpoint, as I am basically exposing an insecurity that has plagued my head for years. Yet putting myself in this position of vulnerability has at the same time, freed me from my self consciousness. If you feel the same way about something else in your life, I recommend you take the anxiety down by the horns yourself, and write about it. Being vulnerable is not as bad as it may seem!

me being a dork, circa 2018

Yes I like Kpop, Taekwondo, Anime, and Bubble tea with a passion. Yes I speak Vietnamese decently, yet can’t speak Spanish to save my life. Say I look like whoever from wherever, but the reality shall never change: I am who I am.

So what’s the moral of all of this? As cheesy as this sounds: know who you are, and love it. The world isn’t binary, so why should you be?

Do your thing, own your identity, and most importantly of all: strive to make a positive change in someone’s life.

From a fellow human being to the next, stay awesome!



Michael Trịnh

Undergraduate builder & researcher @UofT in the crossroads of bioinformatics, immunology, and genome engineering.