Grace Henderson ’22 is a senior biology major.
“Ellijay is the apple capital of Georgia. Yes, the apple capital. Just the way that the soil is up there—Ellijay sits inside of a valley in between all the mountains, so it is really fertile ground. And even besides the apples, it’s a huge agricultural economy.
Growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere—everyone’s heard that story. But because it’s such an agriculturally based economy, I spent a lot of time outside. I love Ellijay in the summer and in the fall time. I think that’s the best because there’s so many things that you can do when the weather’s nice. There’s so many little swimming holes you can go to, trails to find, hiking spots, random places to go sit at.
The not-so-fun side of being in a small town, which we’ve got to talk about, is that there’s not a lot of diversity at all. I can only think of two other Asian kids I went to high school with, and one girl was adopted from China. I didn’t really get to share in my own culture growing up, but that was okay—because I got to learn about my friends’ cultures. One of the best things about living in Ellijay was that there’s a large Mexican and Guatemalan population, and I got to grow up within those cultures. I got to learn so much—people invited me to their little cousins’ birthday parties, and I went to so many quinceañeras. So, while I didn’t get to work out my own stuff, it’s such a blessing to me that I was able to learn about and grow up with that. And now that culture is a huge part of my life, too.
I managed to ‘work out my own stuff’ when I moved out of there. When I left Ellijay and came to Oglethorpe is when I really started to thrive, I would say. My dad is half Vietnamese, and my mom is white. My dad was born in 1977—the Vietnam War didn’t end until ’75. It makes sense, then, that my bà nội did not want to pass on her culture when she moved to the U.S.
Bà nội means paternal grandmother in Vietnamese. It’s one of the five words I know. She and my grandpa didn’t really want themselves and their kids to be the most Vietnamese people in the world, you know, because we had just finished the war. I think that was part of the reason that I don’t know much about my culture. I feel like my dad doesn’t know that much either. Like, yes, we have the foods at home, we celebrate certain holidays, but it wasn’t until I left Ellijay and moved to Oglethorpe that I started to celebrate it within myself.
My biggest fear—not my biggest fear. My biggest fear is being trafficked. But my second biggest fear is that it’s gonna end with me. I don’t want all that culture to just end with me, because I don’t speak Vietnamese or whatever, and won’t want to pass it on to my kids. I’m really trying to do whatever I can to keep it within me. I wore my áo dài on my birthday—I’m trying to build up my collection and pass on my older ones to my sisters. I just bought this little pink one that I found at the thrift store that was too small for me, so I gave it to my little sisters. Last February, I celebrated Lunar New Year with my friends. We always used to do that before at my house, but not to a large degree—but this time, I was like, we’re having dinner, we’re decorating the house, you’re wearing red—all of that. I’m trying to show my family that this is me making an effort, so like, what are you going to do to respond to that?
I’m the oldest of four girls. And I am the most Vietnamese-looking within my whole family, even more than my dad. They’re blond, dude—they’re literally blond! My two sisters are blond with green eyes, and then Emma, she has dark hair like me, but it’s more of a chestnut brown. And she has really light eyes, too. People tell me all the time that the printer ran out of ink as it went down.
You would never think that my sisters were any type of anything. I feel like they never really had to look at themselves as Vietnamese; I know that they know it and that they share in it at home, but for me, people always kind of knew. People tell me this all the time: ‘I don’t know what you are, but I know that you aren’t white.’ No one’s probably gone up to my sisters in their entire lives and been like, ‘What are you?’ or, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but…’ or, ‘Oh, I thought you were Hispanic’. And so being the oldest sister, on top of looking the most Vietnamese—I feel like the whole weight of the family is on my shoulders. And I could just be making this all up in my head. It’s just that they’ve never had to think about this at all, I think, because we just don’t look the same.
I have this really cool dragon tattooed in red that wraps around my arm. I got it for two reasons. One, it looks badass. Two, I have this really early memory—which now that I’ve learned about memory from my science classes, I realize that it’s probably fake, but anyway—this very specific memory of being at my bà nội’s house, and she used to have those little Chinese calendars all over her house. They showed the cycle of the Chinese New Year, and she told me that I was born in the year of the Dragon. And it goes into what I was talking about earlier. Growing up, I will say that I hated being Vietnamese. I wanted to be blond like my sisters. I wanted to have blond hair and blue eyes and be tan like the other girls. And thank God I had the tan part down, and that part never went away. I wanted to look like the other girls I was going to school with—even my features, my eye shape, my face shape. I didn’t feel pretty, and I didn’t want to share that I was Vietnamese with anyone else.
And it wasn’t until I came to Oglethorpe that I really met so many different people that live all over the world, and I was in an environment where there were more than, like, two races. I remember going back after that first year, and telling my parents, ‘I have friends from the Bahamas! I have a friend that just moved back to France!’ Or even just having friends that lived in different states within the U.S. It was after being exposed to a diverse group of people that I really learned to love myself because of the fact that I’m Vietnamese, and not in spite of it. And I’ve learned to love my features. My tattoo is just kind of a nice reminder of that. And it’s badass.”