A few weeks ago, one of my teachers, Jennifer DeBortoli, gave me a copy of a book titled, A Different Pond by Bao Phi. She left it on my desk with a note that just said, “Don- I think you’ll like this book”. She was wrong. I loved this book.
A Different Pond is a story about a young Vietnamese American boy who wakes up in the wee hours of the morning to go fishing with his dad. They go early because his dad has a second job to go to later that morning. They fish because, “Everything in America costs a lot of money” and they are recent refugees in a new country. They fish, not for fun but for survival. The book shows a family unit that works together to make ends meet. Already looking exhausted, mom and dad are both headed off to work and leave the kids to take care of one another later in the morning. At dinnertime, the family reunites and gathers around the table. They tell funny stories, talk about their day and homework, and eat some rice and fish.
When I was a young kid in school, I would’ve loved to have read a story about other Vietnamese people. To be honest, I would’ve loved to have read anything remotely close to representing any Asian American experience. The only time during school we read about Asians or Asian Americans was the chapter in social studies when we learned about World War II or the Japanese Internment. That was usually about a page…and these weren’t even the stories that celebrated my culture or history. Far too often, we neglect to tell the stories of the people who make up our schools and communities. When we do that, we are sending the message that you are not as important as others, that you live in the margins of the mainstream…that your story is not worth being told.
After reading A Different Pond, it took me a while to process what this story meant to me as a reader, a Vietnamese American reader. I connected with the characters in ways that I’m not sure I can explain. But, here’s my shot at it:
I knew exactly what the boy felt like waking up early in the morning, excited to spend some time with his father, and hoping to contribute to the dinner table. I remember fishing with my family. I remember the red and white floaters, the excitement of catching a fish. I remember those times as part of the joys of childhood, not so much the struggle.
This book reminded me that my story is forever weaved together with that of my parents. I reflected on my parents’ refugee experience- a journey to a new and unknown country to escape war and persecution. I can’t imagine the fear but marvel at the courage to learn a new language and culture. I look at family pictures from our first few years in America and can see the exhausted looks on the faces of my mom and dad and am reminded of the beautiful illustrations from the book (Thi Bui is the amazing illustrator of A Different Pond). The bags under the eyes of the mom and dad in the book depict more than characters who are tired from their daily struggles. To a reader who has lived it, they represent sacrifice, perseverance, and hope for a brighter future.
If you have a hard time understanding my perspective (of course not everyone shares my history and background), indulge me a bit and imagine you taking your family away to live in a country that is very different from America. You live in this foreign land for decades and your kids go to school there. They learn the new language and adopt the new culture. You are a citizen of this new country now but you still have your American roots. You look different and, in some ways, you are different. Everything’s good except there are not books or stories about Americans who live in your new country. No stories about Thanksgiving or the celebrations that may reflect your past (or present). No stories that include people who look like you or share your experiences. Would you start to feel less important in that society?
The picture above is with one of my students- Colin. He’s one of our few Vietnamese American students. He’s in Ms. DeBortoli’s class and after she read aloud A Different Pond to the class last week, Colin said to her, “I can’t believe they said Vietnam. That’s where my family came from. I just loved it”. Decades later, we are still looking to see ourselves represented in American culture…to see ourselves in the stories that make our country great.
This is why diverse books are important- not only because they make us feel important but because they make us important.
Colin and I just started our Vietnamese American Book Club today.