Vietnamese American author Caroline Hatton Interview - Children's Story of Two Cultures

By Allison Martin

Interview with Caroline Hatton, Vietnamese American author

You wrote about the intersection of the two cultures, Vietnamese and French, in your children's novel Vero and Phillipe. Could you share some of your insights on this?

Caroline Hatton: The cultural mix in Véro and Philippe's family life is the way it was in mine: finely woven. A generation of Vietnamese parents like Véro and Philippe's or mine received their higher education entirely in Vietnam, but entirely in French. This is because when they were students, Vietnam was a French colony called Indochina. A Vietnamese mother who had emigrated to France might have served to her family beef and noodle soup, a northern Vietnamese favorite. This might have been followed by French pastries, but only on Sunday, a very French custom. Families between two cultures lead a rich existence. Some of Véro's experiences, such as keeping a pet snail, appear unusual, but deep down it is universal: kids everywhere want to keep as pets whatever they can catch! In contrast, the command she hears more often than she would like -- cross your arms, bow your head, and ask for forgiveness -- is purely Vietnamese. Not all habits are identifiable: I don't know if splitting bananas in half with bare hands is a Vietnamese or a French custom. Maybe it is just something Véro and I do. As a Vietnamese-French kid, I rarely saw Asians outside my immediate family and unless I looked in the mirror and stopped to think about it, I mostly forgot that I looked different.

The two cultures are forever deeply connected because Vietnam was a French colony called Indochina. But there is more to it - an affinity, mutual fascination and fondness between some individuals. And there are specific products of the intersection of the two cultures. A favorite Vietnamese cocktail delicacy is pâté chaud, a very French pastry stuffed with ground meat flavored with with nuoc mam, the very Vietnamese fish sauce! A favorite southern Vietnamese, tropical cooler is prepared by dripping expresso over ice cubes and sweetened condensed milk; the latter definitely introduced in Vietnam by the French. Neither purely Vietnamese nor purely French, these are products of the merging of two cultures. O.K., so you've caught me thinking with my stomach! Speaking of stomach, as a kid, I knew that the love cry of a Vietnamese mom is "Eat!" Growing up, I discovered that it is also that of Croatian neighbors, Jewish mothers, aunts of Armenian colleagues, relatives of Egyptian friends, and somebody's parents in Ghana. It's a universal mom-thing.

Question: What Vietnamese cultural traditions would have been continued for a French Vietnamese family?

Caroline Hatton: The most important Vietnamese holiday is Têt, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It's on the same date as the Chinese New Year, but of course the Vietnamese don't call it that. A Vietnamese family in 1960s France might have celebrated it, or not, or it might have started celebrating it when the kids were eight, ten, or twelve years old, after the parents had had some years to first adapt to life in France, or as Asian goods became available in Paris.

Véro and Philippe's experience of Têt (not described in the book) might have included pink plum and bright yellow forsythia blossoms all around the apartment, an altar to honor deceased ancestors, party foods and happy banter for days, lucky money, and watching grownups play Vietnamese card games.

As kids in 1960s France, Véro and Philippe might have seen customs shift from one generation to the next. If their grandparents had visited from South Vietnam, their grandmother might have dressed every day in a traditional tunic over pants, her long hair in a turban wrapped around her head, her smile big, bright, and black - her teeth lacquered, a thing of beauty in early 20th century northern Vietnam. She might never have worn western clothes. In contrast, Véro's mother would have worn a traditional outfit only to attend weddings and Têt celebrations, and not every time. Véro's grandfather might have worn only western clothes, especially if he had worked in Vietnam, but in a French context, before retiring. Something Véro and Philippe's parents might have done, that Véro and Philippe might not do when they grow up, is celebrate the Têt. Or perhaps Philippe would start celebrating it as an adult and Véro wouldn't. Every sibling, family member, family is different!

Beyond the foods, language, songs, and dances, any culture comes with common expectations about acceptable roles for individuals within their family, community, and society. My impression of the Vietnamese culture is that expectations are heightened, with a larger emphasis on obeying parents and a smaller emphasis on independence. This is some Vietnamese parents' idea of children's own good at any age!

Just because I look Vietnamese, that doesn't automatically make me an expert on the Vietnamese culture. This is because when I was a kid, I didn't know very many other Vietnamese at all and my parents didn't go about life identifying what was Vietnamese, French, or just something our family did. When pressed for details about Vietnam, I look for answers in the library or on the Web, ask other Vietnamese people, or ask Vietnamese culture scholars (no matter what their ethnic background is). Sometimes I just say, "I don't know!"

Rather than pretend to be purely and completely Vietnamese, I savor the rich diversity of my patchy Vietnamese, French, and American experiences. I enjoy complete freedom to pick and choose topics of interest from any culture.

Question: What advice would you have for adoptive parents in the United States, France and other countries, who are raising children adopted from Vietnam?

Caroline Hatton: One experience I have shared that they might face as they grow up is their encounters with others. Some people will see a "little Vietnamese" and tend to assume that they know alot about Vietnamese culture. Some children will know about Vietnamese culture because they are interested in it or because it is their choice. But others might not; they might be students of Greek, Irish or their parents' culture. This is something that I've become aware of because it was happening to me - I was catching myself making assumptions about others. Now that I am older, I am getting better.. In my mid-twenties I went to a fellow student's engagement party. She was a Japanese American friend but her mother had made baklava to eat! I was so confused.. I thought baklava was Greek and her mother looked Japanese. As it turned out, she was Japanese but she loved to cook, as well. I was making assumptions.

It works best to respond simply and honestly, by providing people with the facts that they need to discover about us. What information do they need to know to deal with us correctly? This might mean describing to others what is Vietnamese about us and where it ends - who we really are and what our interests are.

Many people are interested in Vietnamese culture, I have noticed this since I started writing for children. This gives us something that we can bring to people, that we can offer to them that is interesting. It provides an excuse to promote awareness of other cultures.

Caroline Hatton was born in Normandy to Vietnamese immigrants and raised in Paris. With a pharmacist degree from the University of Paris and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from UCLA, she became the Associate Director of the UCLA Olympic Laboratory for a decade and a half, testing athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. Yet she never lost sight of her desire to write, so in recent years, she rearranged her life to fulfill it. Caroline's first, humorous, multicultural novel, Véro and Philippe made the Los Angeles Times Children's Bestsellers list. The book is about sibling rivalry turning to teamwork between Vietnamese-French kids growing up in Paris.