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The Freedom to Be Yourself

How can you overcome prejudices and the social pressure of being somebody, when you're only 20? From Decat o Revista. by Alexandra Tipter 8 March 2019

For the past six months, since I started working at the Origo café, I’ve been waking up around five in the morning. This is a way of being able to enjoy the little free time I have. I usually start the day with a positive thought; I thank the universe for the day ahead of me, and I set a goal. Lately, this goal has been to be happy, and to make other people happy, too. It’s something that keeps my body humming with energy the entire day. I sometimes talk to George and Geani, my plants in the kitchen and living room. I don’t know what kind of plants they are, but one thing that makes me feel that I will be lucky in the coming month is seeing George sprout a new seedling.

 

I get to the café around 6:30 a.m. and put on some music, usually something full of energy. I’ve been listening to Sonny’s “Run Around” lately, and while I’m getting the café ready for opening time, I might also dance. I feel a bit strange when I dance in front of other people, but being stared at is a familiar feeling, so I prefer to ignore them.

 

Ever since I went to school I've always stood out, although it's the last thing I wanted. I was born in Bucharest 20 years ago, but I am Vietnamese. My nose, my small eyes, and my height make me look different, and stop me from integrating as well as I would like. I’ve always been torn between my Vietnamese side and the place I grew up in. Each time I changed my environment, I also had to change: at home I always had to be the well-behaved child, who cooks, cleans, and takes care of her brother who is five years younger. Meanwhile, at school, and even at university, I would argue with professors, who were fascinated by the fact that I was Asian, and with my classmates, who would see me as different from them. But the most difficult thing was walking down the street, and having children make fun of me. That’s why I wouldn’t wear too colorful clothes or dresses, because they would attract attention, and I was already in the spotlight.

 

People would call me “China,” “China Town,” “the Japanese” – and not a day would pass without somebody whistling after me in the street. I didn’t feel comfortable with who I was. And walking this way through life, trying to work out how much of yourself is what they say you are, and how much is the actual you, is quite frustrating. Even my parents are sometimes afraid of going out in the city, and of being judged because they don’t speak Romanian properly, as if they are doing something wrong.

 

 

While studying at the [prestigious] George Cosbuc High School in Bucharest, at the suggestion of my head teacher I became part of Learnity, a community for high school students promoting self-knowledge and development, which is part of the Alternative University, an informal educational project in Bucharest. This was where different projects of educational management have been born, along with therapy through contemporary dance and through theater. This was also the place where I came into contact for the first time with LGBT people and other marginalized groups.

 

My passion for Learnity turned into a passion for changing something in education. At Learnity, we were even thinking of starting a revolution and looking for methods to achieve personal development and autonomy; that meant looking for what you really liked and wanted to do in life, outside of subjects taught in school. I even became part of the marketing and events team. I [later] realized that what was important was not to destroy and rebuild, but to make the most of the little you have, and to model it so that it becomes some help for others, too. Because of my schedule at Learnity, I had less and less time for school, and all I did in 12th grade was focus on passing. Then the conflict with my parents started.

 

When I was 18, I decided to enroll in the Entrepreneurship Academy (EA), without my parents’ knowledge. EA – a university where the professors are entrepreneurs, and young people should run their own, real businesses – opened the year I applied to get in. I knew the key people at the university after meeting them through Learnity, so it was easy for me to make the transition from education to entrepreneurship. Besides, it seemed to me that the two went hand-in-hand.

 

After a period of time in which I hardly saw my parents at home because of our schedules – which gradually caused me to stop speaking Vietnamese (at home this was the language we used for talking to each other) – one day, I met my parents at a restaurant. I told them that I had enrolled in that university [EA], and that I would be starting school in September. They made a nasty scene then, and they said they would look into that university, which seemed unreliable to them, given that it was operating from the same building as a comedy stand-up club, and that my future left a lot to be desired.

 

In spite of all this, I decided to attend anyway. My mom came to the opening ceremony; I saw her coming out of the director’s office. She hadn’t even told me that she was coming. My mom was looking for answers about the university and was disappointed in what I was going to learn there, in what it looked like, in its lack of avenues for my future, and she told me to give it up. I was supposed to leave for Amsterdam on 18 September – we use the European academic calendar – to start the EA program, but I hadn’t said a word about that to my parents, out of fear.

 

In the end, I gathered my wits and sent them a message telling them that I was flying to Amsterdam the following day and needed some money to get settled there. On that day, another scene took place. My dad said something about emotional blackmail – although I’m not sure how I remember that, given that it was in Vietnamese, and I don’t know what that expression is, in Vietnamese, but I’m sure he said it. That I was “emotionally blackmailing” my parents and I was the kind of child who, when she didn’t like how things were going, marched to the beat of her own drum. And they told me not to come back to their house anymore, and that hurt even more. They both left, slamming the door in my face, and when I woke up, there was no money on the table, no written message, and I realized that for the first time they were really doing what they said they would.

 

 

I’d never had a good relationship with my parents or with my brother. My parents came to Romania one by one: first my dad, in 1995, then my mom, a year later. My dad came as an employee of the Europa store [a shopping mall in Bucharest employing Asians], where he sold socks and pajamas, and his goal was to put money aside and marry my mom. My mom used to work as an accountant in Vietnam, and I’ve always admired her for how smart and independent she was back then, from what she told me. I admire my parents and I am proud of what they have accomplished, of how they found their place in a foreign country, and sometimes when I cook I remember them, because we used to do that together.

 

Despite all this, I’ve always been a rebellious child, who expressed her point of view and put up resistance when she didn’t want something. And Vietnamese children usually have the opposite behavior. My childhood was made up of days spent with nannies who would never show any interest in me, and weekends at the Red Dragon [another shopping mall in Bucharest employing Asians], where my parents had a clothing store. It would happen that, after a long day working, my parents would beat me up, make me kneel, put my hands together, and ask them for forgiveness. They would take sticks or wooden spoons from the Red Dragon, which they would hide behind the sofa. It was always a game of cat and mouse, but a game with beatings. My mom would start by threatening that she was going to beat me. She would go to the sofa, and I would hear that terrible sound as she took the spoon out. I would go to my room and hide, but my mom would come after me. I would go to school, and have to take part in PE classes, and I would have bruising stretching the length of my leg, because of my mom. I would look at it in the mirror, and it looked like a galaxy. One time I was brave enough to take a stick from that stash behind the sofa, break it, and throw it in the trash. It was the most liberating moment I’ve felt in all my life. These beatings were normal in Vietnamese culture, so there was always something keeping me from telling those around me what I was going through, because I knew my parents wouldn’t stop.

 

***

 

I went to Amsterdam with the 200 euros ($246) I had put aside from my high school stipend, which I had received up until the 12th grade because of my high GPA. I left thinking that when I was back I would have nowhere to live anymore. In Amsterdam, I would cry every night before falling asleep. I shared a room with Buti and Miruna, two friends who went to the same university, and, somehow, I would hide underneath clothes and blankets so that nobody would hear me cry. I didn’t have money for food. In the first few days, I ate whatever my colleagues ate, but it was too costly. So I would eat noodles every other day, using warm tap water and noodles that cost 0.49 euros, and, on a good day, 0.47 euros. I would open a little bag, fill it with water, shake it a little, and borrow a fork from my friends. I would then sit in bed and eat the noodles. It was a time that taught me to be more responsible, to get by in difficult circumstances, and be content with my choices and with myself.

 

After two months, I returned to Bucharest without a job and without a home, but with the support of a friend, who let me stay at his place until I found something else. I was also without a Romanian ID, because it had expired, and I kept postponing its replacement. I took several trips to Vietnam on my own, because some acquaintances were getting married, and then I went to Italy to teach English, because I didn’t like university anymore. In the end, I gave up on university because a lot of what they were teaching was how to make money.  Having a background in education, I had imagined entrepreneurship as something social, something you could use because you wanted to make a difference. I couldn’t make money, or think of a business concept that had a social aspect, yielded a profit, and that I could complete by the end of my first year of university. I just wasn’t able to do it at that age, with the mind I had back then. And I could see that I couldn’t bring any value to the team. Shortly afterwards, I also gave up Learnity, and I became just Lihn, who doesn’t really know what she wants to do anymore.

 

I was very anxious about what other people would say. I always had the reputation of being able to excel wherever I went – because I was involved in Learnity and in other education projects, because I got good grades at school until 12th grade, because I already knew people working in the education and entrepreneurship fields, and I had this opening. And then, when everything came to a standstill, I couldn’t really understand what I actually wanted. I had moments when I simply didn’t feel like getting out of bed, and felt like all I wanted to do was sit still and contemplate, and when I couldn’t think about myself anymore, I would cry and argue with myself because of what I was doing and who I was and because of my lack of motivation to get up. And I kept going like that for a long time.

 

Until one day, when I ran into my dad again, and this reminded me of my plan to exceed his expectations. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a year, and it wasn’t an emotional meeting, but when I got home, I was filled with inspiration. His words had hurt, so I cried, and I wrote on my blog “I’m a fucking failure,” and my readers wrote that they felt the same as I did. Then I enrolled in a program of modern languages at the University of Bucharest, to study English and Croatian.

 

I got a job at Origo, although I had previously given up a similar job working as a barista in a café. I had written a nice CV that I was very proud of, and had sent it to the people at Origo, and just two hours later, they asked me to come in for an interview. And I didn’t expect anyone to care that much. I went there the following day. The place was full; I didn’t know who was supposed to interview me, so I sat down, took my notebook out, and started drawing, until a man with a hoarse voice came up to my table. I found out his name was Mihai, and that he had read my CV, and he would like to work together with me. And this is what I’ve been doing ever since. I like to know the story behind the coffee, and about all the eccentric flavors contained within it: fruits, tea, and apple juice. I began to create my own combinations of coffee or tea at home, too.

 

If I were to look back, I don’t regret any of the choices that I made. I know those moments worked for me and helped me grow. If my parents had given me the freedom to do what I wanted, maybe right now I would be working in a corporation. And that is not what I want. But I’m happy that a certain period in my life happened as it did. It would be stupid to say that I was glad about my parents’ beatings, or that other kids picked on me, or that I would admit to myself how much pain I was in. Now that I can draw a line, I see this as the best growth experience. The most dramatic, but the most beautiful, because right now I can empathize with almost everyone, and understand myself so well. If I ever have my own child, he or she will be the coolest person, because I will know when to give him or her freedom, when to impose responsibilities, and how to direct his or her growth.

 

I live on my own right now, in the Colentina neighborhood, in an apartment that I rent from my parents, and I’m trying to get over the fact that they want to get a divorce. We still don’t have a very good relationship. I spend more time than I should at Origo, and I'm still trying to draw something apart from hearts in people’s cups. I don’t want to keep studying modern languages, even though I’m already a sophomore. My dream is to study global learning, and learn things ranging from literature to critical thinking to computer programming, at Minerva, a private university in San Francisco. Before that, in January I will go on a trip that will include Vietnam, and the city of Nihn Binn, where I will stay at my grandmother’s place and teach English to local children. It’s my way of changing something in the educational system back there.

I'm Alexandra (Ale) Tipter. I help people find their voices and speak more about the things that are so close, but we don't always see.

 

This article was originally published in Romanian in Decat o Revista, a quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania. Reprinted with permission. Translation by Ioana Caloianu. All images via Decat o Revista. 

 

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