In Northern Philadelphia, east of the Schuykill River, east of the art museum and the penitentiary, there is a Buddhist temple. My family has been making pilgrimage here for as long as I can remember. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It’s easy to miss even if you are. There is no grand pagoda, no gilded lions or hanging lanterns, no zen garden. It is housed within a modest, industrial building whose color palette matches the surrounding working-class neighborhood: cinder block and concrete. Inside, there is a simple kitchen, and on Sundays some women serve vegetarian food for anyone who comes in the door. All furniture, all kitchen supplies, all food is donated. It is dark and a little cold, and toward the back there are five or six long tables and benches for sipping your soup. But we take our shoes off and climb upstairs, where it is a kaleidoscope of light, color, and glowing incense.
In many ways, the life of the temple mirrors mine. The teacher in residence, Ong Thich Nhu Truyen, moved to the United States in 1990, the same year I was born. In 1992, he purchased the property on Ridge Avenue, at that time a textile factory which traced its lineage to the sails on Dutch colonial vessels. By the time Ong Truyen had acquired the two-story building, cleared out the sewing machines, and replaced them with giant Buddhist sculptures imported from Taiwan, my family was just settling down in New Jersey.
It was my uncle who first learned of the temple, in 1993, around the time my grandmother died from pneumonia after encountering winter in America. Ever since then—that is, for almost all my life—we have made the hour-long drive to Philadelphia roughly once a month, a trip that connects us to the very cornerstones of our Vietnamese heritage: faith, food, and family. It always entails a visit to the temple followed by lunch at the incomparable Pho 75 on Washington Avenue. Then we duck into the colorful, chaotic Hung Vuong Supermarket to stock up on rice paper, bok choy, pork belly, and various Asian pantry staples. Our final stop is a cemetary. Ten years ago, the city of Philadelphia ordered that the urns of the temple community’s deceased relatives be relocated from the building’s basement to another site. So on our way home, we drive to a cemetery in Camden to pay tribute to my mother’s parents, and to my cousin Linh.
My parents strove to instill a sense of rootedness in my sisters and me, despite our American surroundings. We studied English Lit and European History in public schools, we went to the mall and the diner and the roller rink with our friends. But we came home every night to have dinner together over a Vietnamese meal, speaking the Vietnamese language—usually with Jeopardy! on in the background.
Ever since I left my parents’ house for college eight years ago, my world has been fully colonized. The dorm room, the classroom, the office, the group home I shared in Washington, D.C.—they were all marked by whiteness. This is not to say I have felt uninvited or unwelcome. In fact—and here is the irony of a child immigrant’s experience—I feel more comfortable in these white American spaces, which form the spangled backdrop of the great majority of my life, than I do on the dusty streets of Saigon where I feel I’m an outsider. Even in my own apartment, in which the aesthetics are entirely of my choosing, there is no trace of my Vietnamese heritage, save for the photos of my family and some food my parents’ brought me, in the fridge.
The truth is, while I feel at ease in my identity as an Asian American, I am perceived as an outsider wherever I go. The only exceptions are my parents’ home and those particular landmarks during our visits to Philadelphia, which remind me not only of where I belong, but of what belongs to me. The smell of incense. My mother’s voice. A plate of basil and bean sprouts and lime. Soy sauce and fish sauce and Wesson vegetable oil. Bags and bags of rice. My father playing folk songs on his guitar. The patter of mismatched chopsticks. My grandparents’ names etched in stone. A pile of shoes left at the entrance. Red paper and polished gold. Fruit and candles on the altar.