Growing up is tough. Period. But having to do so in another country where you don’t know the language, your parents are incredibly strict, and the environment at times feels downright hostile doesn’t make it any easy.
CJ knows this firsthand, and had to mental and emotional scars from the experience are very real. But despite having extremely strict parents who at times, whether they knew it or not, only made the process feel harder, CJ shows us what is possible when you use your trauma for triumph, and you redefine your life on your own terms.
There was a certain definition of masculinity I had to be defined to. I was taught and raised that as a male there are certain things you can only pursue and there are things you shouldn’t pay attention to. That is restrictive to your imagination and life style. It took me a while to discover myself. To create the person I am today. I think a lot of what I have become is as a result of self-discovery and a continual learning process. Ever since I moved out of my parent’s home, I was able to discover myself and become the person that I want to be.
I grew up in Texas with conservative Vietnamese parents. They didn’t want to modernize their parenting techniques. Growing up in a different country, I was stuck between two values; the value I wanted to pursue and the one my parents wanted me to pursue. When I was young, it was really difficult living with them. I didn’t have the freedom to express myself and do things I wanted.
I moved a lot. I went to 13 different schools and moved over 17 times. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of friends because I kept moving so much. In seventh grade, I got to the States. It was a huge shock. I didn’t speak the language. I remember they gave me this test to determine my vocabulary. They gave me all these pictures and I had to name each of them. I could only give one response which was “dog.” That was the only one.
Another difficulty was the culture. American teenagers act very different. They were not very accepting. It was very racist. Seventh grade was kind of bad, but eighth grade was better. I was able to pick up the language quickly. A lot of people say English is difficult, but I don’t think it was that hard. Then the years flew by really quickly.
I was very shy. I still am, but not to that extent. I had my hair combed to one side and coke bottle glasses. I was a nerd in school. I didn’t play sports, I was only about reading and learning. I didn’t know how to dress or have social skills. I was the definition of a loner.
In seventh grade, I got here. It was a huge shock. I didn’t speak the language. I remember they gave me this test to determine my vocabulary. They gave me all these pictures and I had to name each of them.
In high school, it was tough, too. I’m very resilient so that got me through the difficulty that came during that time period. I had my own group of friends, and they were pretty nice. They were more welcoming, fun, and we were able to joke and bond together. I was in a small ESL class. I tried not to go outside of my group because I didn’t really blend in. Bullying happened here and there but we avoided it. There were white, black, Asian, and Middle Eastern. The town was really small, too.
Peer pressure was tough. To be cool. To have friends. And that was really difficult for me. My language skills at the time weren’t fully developed. My parents didn’t allow me to go out or socialize. They were always worried that something would happen like a shooting or me being kidnapped. Because of that they didn’t allow me to go out. There was no such thing as sleepovers, which negatively affected my social skills. I couldn’t really hold a conversation with anyone. And that was really difficult for me.
I remember high school kids were all about putting pressure on each other. They expected the guys to act a certain way, dress in a certain way. To participate in certain activities like sports, clubbing. All of the boys had these obsessions about acting like adults. Having cars, jobs, making money, and girls. I didn’t understand it at the time why it was so important to them to live like adults. For me, I only wanted to make good grades.
I always knew I liked to socialize. I knew I liked to talk and connect. But I wasn’t able to do that. I remember that in the morning when the school bus would pick us up all these kids would find partners to sit next to, but the majority of the time I would be sitting by myself staring out of the window. I didn’t know anyone at the time. I needed people to talk to, but I couldn’t find anyone who shared the same upbringing. All the problems I encountered, I had to find my own solutions. I didn’t have any advisors growing up.
I thought it was really annoying that I was under constant scrutiny from my parents. They wanted to make all the decisions related to my appearance: my hair, clothes, etc. It was really bad. I didn’t develop hatred but I really didn’t like my parents. I still don’t because I always told them they grew up in a different way and culture.
The US was a different culture. I didn’t want them to continue to force me to learn the ways and standards they were taught. At one point or another, I wanted them to realize it didn’t sit well with me. I wanted them to change. I still remember my mother refused to change, even when I got to the age of 23. She told me I didn’t know about life. She eventually changed, but I saw it as too late.
Because my parents restricted me from going out, I battled with depression. I thought about suicide a lot. I had to go seek treatment and get medication for it. Even though I told them about it, they still prevented me from going out…Thus, I had to lie to them a lot just so I could escape.
When I was 18, I transitioned into college, which was a lot nicer because I had my own car. I was able to drive and escape. The most annoying thing was that my mother kept wanting to go everywhere I wanted to. She is very controlling. She wanted to know who I hung out with, where I was going, and what time I was going. Attending college in Texas, on top of paying for my tuition, they also gave me stipends which gave me money. I was also able to work part time, which gave me money to be social.
Because my parents restricted me from going out, I battled with depression. I thought about suicide a lot. I had to go to seek treatment and get medication for it. Even though I told them about it, they still prevented me from going out. For the longest time, way into college, I still wasn’t able to escape the heavy influence of my parents. Thus, I had to lie to them a lot just so I could escape. It was a very unhealthy environment to grow up in.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. First I wanted to be a politician, then an astronaut, then a doctor, and finally an architect. After the first year of trying to pursue architecture, I realized it wasn’t my passion. One day, I decided apparel design was something I wanted to do. My parents opposed, of course, but it was what I wanted.
I moved to NYC in 2009. I’ve been here almost nine years now. Being away from my parents really helped because I had the freedom to buy the clothes I wanted and I could control my schedule. I go to the gym, eat whatever I want, everything. I control my appearance the way I want to. There isn’t anyone telling me what I should and shouldn’t do.
Ever since I moved to NYC, being on my own and independent gave me the freedom to explore and discover. I didn’t feel the pressure to pursue what I wanted to. I didn’t have my parents next to me to judge me for my actions. I was really unhappy in my early 20s because I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t really embrace myself. I just turned 31 this year and I am more happy in my early 30s than in my early 20s because I feel more comfortable in my own skin, sexuality, and the way I express myself. The way I dress and act. I don’t try to please everyone. If other people don’t accept me, that’s fine.
I’m settling in NYC for now. I see myself coming to NYC with my goal accomplished. I majored in the apparel design industry as a menswear designer and it is one of the toughest industries. NYC is the most difficult cities to live in. The fact that I was able to make it in the industry to work and acquire the experience I wanted, was a big accomplishment. I know a lot of people who came to NYC and failed. I didn’t learn everything I needed to learn but everything I wanted to learn. I’m very proud not having to go back to Texas looking like a loser. I’ve built a life here. I’ve found myself. And I’m still growing and living.
I was really unhappy in my early 20s because I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t really embrace myself…In my early 30s, [I’m happier] because I feel more comfortable in my own skin, sexuality, and the way I express myself.