Understanding a clash of cultures

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Crammed at the bottom of a small fishing boat, rocking back and forth to the sway of the ocean, a group of anxious Vietnamese refugees huddled together, escaping a life under communist rule. This was the second attempt for one 20-year-old woman who had already been to jail for a previous attempt.

Hundreds of miles later, she landed in Indonesia, where she spent more than six months in a refugee camp before finally making it to the United States.

Out of resentment toward her changed country, that 20-year-old woman buried her Vietnamese heritage for almost 40 years, when it was revived by her daughter, Michele Bendall.

Bendall is a graduate student at BYU who recently became a Foreign Language and Area Studies scholar, a scholarship created by the U.S. Department of Education and awarded to only the most prestigious of foreign language students.

Bendall with two friends at the Latter-day Saint church in Saigon, Vietnam.
(Photo courtesy of Michele Bendall)

“They want someone who’s going to take this opportunity and run with it,” said Program Adviser Brenda Christensen, and that is exactly what Bendall has done.

Bendall’s passion for Vietnamese language and culture grew out of a mild identity crisis. She was born to a Vietnamese mother and British father who divorced when she was young. When she was almost eight years old, her mother remarried a man from Peru, who helped raise Bendall and taught her Spanish and introduced her to Latino culture.

As a Vietnamese-British-Peruvian American, she was left wondering where she belonged, until she came to BYU.

“BYU helped me really become really engaged in the Vietnamese community,” Bendall said. “Right when I came I joined the Vietnamese Student Association. At home I didn’t feel very accepted by the Vietnamese communities, but here I did and they were very helpful. It was here that I really began to learn about my Vietnamese history and culture.”

Bendall took every Vietnamese class the school had to offer and, in her spare time, trekked through Central America on a backpacking trip, taught Bolivians how to start their own small businesses and helped refugees during an internship at the U.S. Department of State.

When Bendall returned to BYU to begin her graduate studies in sociology, she learned about the Foreign Language and Area Studies Program. She knew that she would have to make sacrifices to be part of the program, but it was the doorway to fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“There’s a lost generation of refugees that doesn’t have a connection with (Vietnam) anymore, and I want to be part of building that relationship again, and restoring that even if it’s just the second generation,” Bendall said.

Bendall and her great-aunt in front of the Latter-day Saint church in Saigon, Vietnam.
(Photo courtesy of Michele Bendall)

To make that dream a reality, she spent three months in Vietnam earlier this year. She had the opportunity to fine-tune her language skills and be immersed in the culture, but other parts of her trip were even more special.

“Being in Vietnam was really amazing because I had a chance to go back and see my grandparents’ villages,” Bendall said. “This was where our ancestors have lived for thousands of years. I got to go and visit the headstone of my (12th generation) grandfather.”

She engaged in family history work while overseas and had the opportunity to do temple work for her ancestors with her mother when she returned home.

Bendall’s enthusiasm for Vietnamese language and culture has already changed one life: her mother’s.

“I think her seeing me wanting to embrace this culture has opened her up more to it and heal from that,” Bendall said. “To see that Vietnam today isn’t what it was in 1975 after the Communist takeover.”

Bendall’s unique experiences have also had an impact on her husband, Matthew. He says he was initially attracted to Michele’s ambition and enthusiasm, but it was more than mere attraction that brought them together.

“I’m also (mixed),” he said. “(I’m) half-Taiwanese, half-American. It’s something we’ve bonded over from the beginning.”

For those who struggle with understanding their mixed-culture identity, Michele said, “You know what, being Asian doesn’t mean that you have to speak the language or that you have to look a certain way, and I think just showing that the way we define race or ethnicity is changing,” Bendall said. “It’s fluid. You don’t have to be defined by others. You can define yourself.”

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