Trying to find your identity: Wondering who you are in your 30’s, the struggle of straddling two cultures

Did you ever question your identity?  Who are you?  Which labels define you?  I never did before, but maybe it’s because I’m in my 30’s and truly soul-searching and trying to figure out who I am.  This past year, I’ve started to question myself a lot and I know speaking with many of my other friends, I am not the only one.  Am I American, Vietnamese, or Asian-American?  Was I made for more? Am I happy with the career I have?  Am I happy with the life I’ve created?

I grew up in a small town in Utah and we lived an extremely sheltered life. My parents migrated there after fleeing the Vietnam War and graduating as engineers.  They are the model definition of what you would consider someone living the “American Dream.”

I have never stepped foot in my home country nor have my parents wanted me to.  Some may think it is odd, but I get their perspective.  They escaped a war-torn country and struggled to come to America because of the fall to communism and until it is independent, my parents don’t want to step foot back to a place that did them and their family so much injustice.

Why am I questioning now?  I think the more years I add onto my life, the more places I have traveled, the more people I have met, I realized I am missing something. I think many people during my age group who were raised as first-generation Americans feel the same way.  We are all slightly confused.

Some people were confused growing up, so by 30 they know who they are, while others like me were never confused.  I grew up believing I was Mormon by association, 100% American, and that there was only one type of people in the world…Caucasian.  I also believed everyone in the world lived the same moral belief system that Mormons and conservative Asians did.  I had a very simple life in my bubble and I was very content, never needing anything more.

It wasn’t until I entered university that I started to understand I am Asian.  There were other people who looked like me, other cultures, and other types of beauty.  You didn’t have to be blonde, blue-eyed, and extremely light-skinned to be considered beautiful.  I saw extremely beautiful girls from all around the world in all shapes and sizes.  I also realized, there are people who drink alcohol, who party, and swear.  And during that time I discovered coffee and how much I love it.  I even joined a sorority.

I have always had a feeling like I was missing my heritage.  I think being raised by immigrant parents, you are constantly confused about who you are.  Your parents expect you to fit in, succeed in your education and be the best at English.  My mom would always tell me that I had endless opportunities because I can speak the language perfectly and I did not have an accent.

Since I was so immersed in the American culture, I lost pieces of my Vietnamese culture and I would be told that I am “too” American.  I would also be told that I was picking up all the bad American habits, such as talking back to my parents.  On the other side, being Vietnamese was not fully accepted where I grew up either, so to fit in with my friends, I didn’t have a choice but to adapt.

People joke that I am part American, part Asian, part Persian, and now my friend Prachi and Mayank joke that I am part Indian.  I think because I lack my own identity, I thrive on learning and accepting all other cultures.  They joke that I can come to any ethnic party and be accepted because I am a melting pot. I envy that my Persian friends are so strong with their traditions, their language, that even after generations of being here they never lose their culture.  I even celebrate Nowruz with them every year.

Our parents were so concerned about building a life in America without the help of technology and a more open-minded society that we live in today and raise their kids to be better than them at any cost.  Immigrants today struggle, but not as bad as our parents.  I am still in shock and awe when I think of my parents.  America was a very different place and immigrants were not widely accepted, speaking a different language wasn’t always considered a positive thing, and when you hear the phrase “starting from nothing” was a reality for many.  There weren’t centers to help guide immigrants through every process, English translators at the hospitals or schools, and access to Google to answer every question.  It wasn’t that long ago that the computers and smartphones were a standard staple in everyone’s life.

Phases of my life and why I question my identity now:


I had a wonderful childhood.  We grew up in a bubble.  We lived on Disney movies and we were taught that life was only sunshine and rainbows.  I think that’s where I got my positivism from, actually I know it is because to this day and many lottery tickets later my mom still believes she will one day win the lottery. 

When I was a child, my parents struggled financially and even at a young age, I understood our level of poverty.  My mom told me when I was a little over one year old, I could only count to 10. Anytime I ever asked for anything, my mom would tell me it is 99 cents and immediately I would put it back because 99 was so much money.

By the time my two sisters arrived, my parents were in a much better spot financially and my parents bought their first home.  The first half of my life we lived in that house.  We were the only “minorities” in the neighborhood, my entire circle around me was predominantly Caucasian.  My only other childhood friends who were not Caucasian was my family friend Debbie, she was half Caucasian/Filipino.  Economically, the area I grew up was considered lower-middle class.

Then I got accepted into a specialized academic program for the district at that time called “Spectrum.”  It’s similar to an advanced program where you get accepted by testing in. At that point, my parents moved our family 15 minutes from our old house, but into what is considered a more “affluent” neighborhood. My parents were so excited because as part of every American dream, it also includes building your dream home.

Being Bilingual

I am very ashamed to say that I am not bilingual.  I can understand Vietnamese, but speaking wise, I am probably at a 2nd grade level.  I know how to say most of the food in Vietnamese and part of the culture, but when it comes to more complicated conversations, I give up.  If you play me a Vietnamese song, I’ll only understand 15%.

I actually didn’t speak English until I went to Kindergarten.  I could understand everything because while my mom finished up school, she raised me on television.  I didn’t have any friends when I was young because I would mix English and Vietnamese and that scared all the kids.  When I went to school, the teachers tried to put me in ESL, which at that time was considered a program for kids who were “slow,” not what it is today.  In today’s world, ESL is very common and does not have a negative stigma with it.  But after that my parent’s got scared and said no more Vietnamese.  Within the next few years, I lost most of my Vietnamese and here I am struggling to try to learn Vietnamese again.


As I have traveled the world and lived outside of Utah, I have seen a whole new perspective that I never knew.  My upbringing was completely different from many of my friends around the world.  I was a minority in a predominantly Caucasian community, at least if I grew up in California or somewhere in a bigger city, I would be exposed to more “real life” scenarios.

Utah is primarily a Mormon state, which created a unique bubble in itself.  99% of my friends were Mormon, as I grew older, I would go to girl’s camp, young women’s activities, and even church with them.  Since the Mormon religion does not allow drinking, smoking, any type of bad vices, not even coffee, I followed the same standards. I never said a swear word in my life, watched Rated R movies, even some PG-13 movies were not appropriate.

I never was exposed to kids who did drugs, smoked, or had sex who spoke about it.  Typically, the goodie-goodies or nerds were not considered the cool kids in high school, in my school, we were.  The student body officers, choir, and those in academic leagues were “cool.”  I don’t believe there was one person in my class that got pregnant or didn’t graduate.  As I grow up, I realize how lucky I am to be raised like that because in reality a lot of kids don’t graduate high school.  While most kids learned about certain aspects of life in high school, we played red rover and night games in the park, but there was never any naughty business involved.

On top of that, my parents were even stricter.  I could never date in high school, I could not even shave my legs until I was 14 years old I believe.  I never even knew until 23 years old that you couldn’t get pregnant by kissing.  Yes, I know it’s so hard to believe, but the first guy I ever went on a “non-date” that apparently was a date, I was showing a friend of a friend around Salt Lake and next thing I know, I tripped and he caught me, dipped me, and kissed me.  I dropped him off at the airport and called Julie crying.

Between being raised in an ultra conservative state dominated by the Mormon religion and super conservative Asian parents, I will fully admit I was a late bloomer in all aspects of my life except school.

Here is a picture of me and my childhood friends


Our entire family went to public school and I had a great education.  I always excelled in school.  I was the girl who sat in the front seat and wrote down every note.

I was involved in almost every extracurricular activity, I won so many scholastic competitions, and I was very well liked by my teachers and classmates. Almost always a 4.0 GPA.

I won everything from local academic awards to national ones that I don’t even remember entering.

I was nominated for Sterling Scholar.

For two years, I won this in the mid-west region.  To be honest, I have no idea why.

I won this from Nestle for Academic Excellence

And last, but not least, I was shocked to find this in my certificate book…I somehow received the Presidential Award for Academic Achievement signed by Bill Clinton.

I took every AP class possible and the only one I failed was AP Physics and I was on the path to be a doctor or pharmacist.  I graduated high school with an Associate’s Degree and basically nearly a free ride to university.  

But one thing ruined my parent’s plan, which was the fact that I was deathly scared of the cadaver lab.  My dad spent a few weeks and came to me with two options.  I can either do Finance and get an MBA and work for wall-street or Accounting and get my CPA.  I picked Finance and did my MBA just like the plan and finished everything by 24.  I was the youngest in my MBA class and I always carried a pink backpack with everything pink and bedazzled and at that time I had braces, I remember I went to one of my classes and the teacher told me I was in the wrong class, this was for graduate students only.

This is how I looked my first yearGraduation Day!

This was a year after I graduated and when I started discovering who I was.

Now, I wonder if I could have done something different and if it is too late.  And the answer I come up with daily is I don’t know.  I’ve been on this track, this field for so long…how do I give up my salary and being a senior analyst to start over?  How to I give up the potential of being an associate director and eventually a director of finance in maybe 5 to 10 more years?


I am a typical American worker-bee. I got my first job tutoring the day I turned 16 and I always worked odd and end jobs to make some side money.  I worked my first professional job at age 19 and I haven’t stopped working ever since.  I have only had 2 breaks since then, one was for a month before I decided to move down to DC and then a quick 4 month break after I got laid off last year. 

Here I am at age 19 with my first manager, friend, and mentor to this day…Megan

I never made it to wall-street and I never regret that decision.  I started working at the corporate headquarters for a well-known bank in Utah.  After I finished my MBA, I was offered a few internships out of state, but I was too scared to move.

A year later, I realized I needed to break free. I needed to see how other people live, so I started sending out my resume to California, Texas, and DC.  I got the most bites in DC, so I headed there and have been there since.

I moved through several different jobs in DC and they have all been very stressful.  I have always excelled at my job, but eventually I get burnt out very quickly.  My parents never warned me about this when you go into Finance, anything dealing with money and budget…equals a high level of stress.

Trying to break the cultural expectations:

As I get older, my circle of friends has expanded from 99% Caucasian to 99% Asian, Desi, or Middle Eastern.  For whatever reason, I find myself being drawn to them and connecting with them more.  Maybe it’s because we all came from very similar backgrounds, I spoke to Maryam who is Iranian about the same issue.  She is wondering the same thing, who is she, what could she have been if she had not followed a path laid out or felt the pressures of being so Persian to make sure to be a great representative in the community. 

Growing up, all of our lives were drawn for us.  You study very hard in school and go to college.  You become a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer.  I believe I broke everyone’s heart when I decided to go into business and my aunts and uncles still cringe at that today.  They will tell my parents what a waste of talent I am.

Once you finish school, you are immediately expected to get a really good job and make a lot of money.  And for a girl, at that point, you better get married and have a family.  All of this should happen before the age of 28 years old, if you hit 30 years old, it is inconceivable.  Surprise, I am not married, I don’t have a family and now I’m told I’m picky versus that it is very hard to find a quality man these days.

Also most people got one, maybe two jobs in life and settled in one place. Jumping jobs or even changing careers is not well accepted and maybe because our parents worked so hard and went through so much instability, they chose a life of stability and expect us to have the same life.

Nowhere in that equation is happiness.  Obviously money is important in life, but I think all of us first-generation children have tried to fit ourselves into this one path, that we’ve forgotten how to think outside the box, how to be unique or different.

Success, wealth, and happiness can be defined in 10,000 different ways.  Everyone’s path is different.  Now I have hit this fork in the road in my life, I am wondering who I am.  I wonder what I want to do with my next 40 years, maybe even more.  I wonder how I can help others, how I can feel more fulfilled in life.  How to I connect with my origin?  I still feel the need to travel the world, meet people from all over, and take a gap year.  All of that is insanity as an Asian and that is when I realized, it is OK to be a combination of both.

I may not be 100% American or 100% Vietnamese, but I am a combination of both just like I need both my right hand and left hand.  I would be lost without the other.  I may not fit in one mold, but all the all of my qualities and experiences make me the person I am today.  I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I don’t need to try and fit in a mold and its OK to be different than the stereotypes.  One final piece of my life I have accepted, life never goes according to plan and you will always evolve and like I’ve said before, there is no road-map and we are all taking wrong turns and sharp curves together.

I may be in my 30’s, still pondering where my next steps are, and how to be better, but I feel like even as I’m finding myself, I’ve never been more content and sure of who I am and hopeful compared to the 20-year-old me.  So…below is a snapshot of me and who knows what my 30’s will have planned.

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