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So where do you come from?

The German-Vietnamese author Khuê Phạm writes about questions of home and identity after a trip to Singapore.

Khuê Phạm, 08.02.2022
Khuê Phạm
Khuê Phạm at the Frankfurt Book Fair © picture alliance/dpa

The best airport in the world, the most lavish food markets ever to be immortalised in a film: for me, Singapore was always a city of superlatives, somewhere between Asian authoritarianism and Western democracy. I was in Singapore once many years ago when I stopped over on the way to my relatives in Vietnam. The British English spoken by the inhabitants, the spotless streets and the architecture ranging from colonial English to hyper modern gave the city an international sophistication which I had not come across in Ho Chi Minh City, Beijing or Tokyo.

It surprised me as I was sitting in the plane heading there at the beginning of November: we were in the middle of the pandemic, this was my first trip in almost two years, and the whole thing felt as adventurous as a space mission to Mars. I was to visit the Singapore Writers Festival and, on behalf of the ifa, speak about my work as a journalist for DIE ZEIT and about my debut novel, “Wherever You Are” (“Wo auch immer ihr seid”, btb / Random House.), inspired by my family, which lives in Germany, Vietnam and the United States. I myself was born in Berlin, Germany, and grew up there.

How do I explain the contradictions within me to others?

I never suspected that this trip would turn out to be a great surprise for other reasons as well. In Singapore of all places, 9,900 kilometres from my home town of Berlin, Germany, a great many people are asking themselves questions similar to my own: what does it mean to feel both Western and Asian at the same time? How do those different cultures fit together? And how do I explain the contradictions within me to others?

First, I spoke about this with the author Parag Khanna, whom I met the day after my arrival at a lunch held by the German Ambassador, Norbert Riedel. Khanna was born in India and grew up in Dubai and the USA. Most recently, he wrote a book about migration called “Move”. In fluent German, he told me that he moved to Singapore nine years ago with his family because it is the 'capital of Asia'. Normally, it is possible to fly from here very quickly to Delhi, Shanghai or Hong Kong. However, he does not find Singapore to be typically Asian. On the contrary, he enjoys the multicultural environment: apart from the large Chinese community, there is also an Indian and a Malaysian one.

“Do you have a special relationship with the Indian community because you were born in India?” I asked him. Khanna shook his head. For him as a global intellectual, the particular attraction lies in not committing to one culture, but in overcoming one-sided categories. I could well understand that, because I, too, had often been annoyed when others asked me whether I called myself “German or Vietnamese”. Sometimes I would answer, “Neither nor,” and sometimes, “Both.” For me, both answers amounted to the same thing: an identity which is fluid.

Naturally, the question about what home is still remains complicated. On the following day, I met Bridgette See, who was to host my talk at the Singapore Writers Festival. She is third-generation Chinese. She ordered our drinks in English and explained that she always did that, even if the person she was with looked Chinese, because one could not assume that he or she also spoke the language. She has an ambivalent feeling about China, the homeland of her grandparents. While travelling there as a backpacker in the early 2000s, she wanted to take the train and was irritated when passengers pushed past each other when getting on so as to reach their seats quickly, even though they had reserved them. 'While I could speak the language and communicated well with the local Chinese, I realised that they had a very different psyche from me. We were alike ethnically, not culturally. So, I didn't feel I was “home” in China.'

Between closeness and alienation

Bridgette asked me about my attitude towards Vietnam and I told her that I felt the same way about it. The longer we spoke, the clearer it became to me that both of us belong to the Asian diaspora and, therefore, we share an ambivalence: on the one hand, we were familiar with both the Chinese and the Vietnamese culture and the language. On the other hand, we lived in Singapore and Germany, which has shaped us just as much, if not more. Is this feeling of being torn between closeness and alienation simply part of life in the diaspora? Probably.

This is another reason why events such as the Singapore Writers Festival are so important: to bring together authors who reflect on these contradictions and transform them into poems, short stories and novels. The day after I had coffee with Bridgette See, I spoke about this on a panel with two poetesses who joined online from Canada: Hoa Nguyen, a woman born in Vietnam who speaks no Vietnamese because she grew up in the USA, and Souvankham Thammavongsa, who comes from a Laotian family but was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. I was amazed to hear how much we had in common, even though our lives had been so different.

On the day of my departure, I made a detour to the German European School Singapore. I was taken to a small, but modern library and was surprised to see that “Wherever You Are” was already on the shelf, catalogued with a light-green label on which “LIT PHAM” could be read. If someone had told me a year ago that my novel would travel all the way around the world and end up in this library I would have thought this to be utopian. But in this school, which teaches children from more than 66 nations, they were glad to have it, because the story of my main character, Kiều, who cannot pronounce her own name and prefers to call herself 'Kim', is one which many pupils can relate to.

“True home”: is there such a thing?

I sat down beside two girls and a boy who had already read the book and wanted to ask me some questions about it. The boy had Vietnamese parents and a German name, but the only home he knew was Singapore. Next to him was a classmate who had grown up in Germany and been living in Asia for years. And next to her was a pupil with a Vietnamese father and a German mother. From their remarks, I heard that they sometimes wondered where their 'true home' was.

“When I was younger, I also struggled with my identity,” I told them. “But now, I regard having more than one culture and one homeland as a gift. It was the reason why I wrote this book.” They nodded slowly and I could see their thoughts rattling inside their heads.

As I sank into my seat on the plane that evening and it took off on its route to Berlin, I felt as if I'd been travelling for two months rather than just five days. I still couldn't quite believe it: I'd flown to the other side of the world and met many like-minded people in a foreign country. And I had learned from my readers what was most wonderful about writing. Perhaps that's the magic of travelling: that you learn so much about yourself when you're far from home. I had almost forgotten that in the last two years.

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There this story was published first.