Discovering belonging is my choice
Reflections on what it means to belong to a community and what it means to “leave” it, if you ever truly can.
The first time I met John, I was a 23-year-old grad student and he had just graduated from college. We were next door neighbors living in Hanoi, studying Vietnamese, starting our journeys to become scholars of Vietnam. Nearly 20 years later we met again. This time, John was a tenure-track professor at a prestigious university. He stayed on the path that I stepped off.
We reconnected at a small retreat for Vietnamese American scholars of Vietnam to socially connect and build community. Being surrounded by academics reminded me of the life I could have had.
I left academia soon after I submitted my dissertation. I returned home to work for my family’s newspaper. Just before I graduated, my mother said, "I don't understand why you got this degree if you were just going to work in the family business. You didn't have to waste all that time." I didn't have an explanation other than, "I don't want to be a professor anymore."
I questioned the retreat organizer when I first received my invitation. "Why would you want me there? What value can I bring?" Despite assurances from the organizer I felt much trepidation re-entering a community of academics after a 12-year absence.
Have you ever decided to leave a community that once defined you? If so, did you ever revisit the community? Are you in the middle of making such a decision right now?
I felt simultaneous nostalgia, sadness, relief, validation and comfort being around academics again. At first, I saw them as those who stayed and I assumed they saw me as someone who left. I was worried I had forgotten how to speak their language. I was worried I wouldn't be accepted. I was wrong. The conversations I had during the retreat led me to question what it means to belong to a community and what it means to “leave” it, if you ever truly can.
I went into the retreat feeling like an outsider who was given a pass to reenter the community. I steeled myself for the rituals that academics use to size each other up by inquiring about fellowships, publications and proximity to other well known scholars.
Once there, I realized I was the one who had opted out of the community because I was afraid of being rejected for not staying a practicing academic. No one had ever told me I didn't belong. I was the only one who believed the others would question my right to be there. We are a community bonded both by shared practice and identity.
We all knew what it was like to try to prove we were "Vietnamese" enough while also maintaining an "objective" distance as someone who grew up and was trained in the US. We struggled to learn of our own families’ history and culture by digging through archives, literature, and interviews of Vietnamese strangers. We experienced self-discovery of returning to Vietnam as the child of refugees who fled Vietnam. We saw ourselves in each other’s accounts of what compelled us to study Vietnam. The others automatically assumed I was one of them despite my absence.
In my own community-building work I like to ask, “What communities do you belong to?” Some people answer with specific groups of people with whom they directly interact (e.g., “my neighbors," "my team," "my family") and others answer with an identity (e.g., women in tech, philanthropists, those who don't have kids) to describe shared experiences. Behind my question lie these questions: Can you be a member of a community if you don't actively practice what defines membership? Or is it enough just to carry the identity markers of that community? Who determines who belongs in a community?
New questions emerged for me after this experience: Do I wait for others to include me or can I assume inclusion? What value can I as a "lapsed" member bring? What are different ways members can participate that take into account their capacity and needs at different stages in their own lives?
I can still promote Vietnamese history without any institutional academic affiliation or without it being the main work I do. A few years ago, I self-published my college thesis on the South Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam war. Recently, I started giving interviews on podcasts and I participate in the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, speaking to local libraries, community centers, and historical societies about my research.
At the retreat I was surprised to hear some scholars express concern or doubt about their own careers. “I spent so much time doing this. Wouldn't leaving now be a waste?" I was able to offer my perspective as someone who chose another career path.
Moving forward doesn’t have to mean abandoning the past. I know people who used to belong to a community and choose not to bring it up because they feel like they'll have to explain why they left. While I’ve been comfortable talking about my choice to leave academia, I realized I had only been telling those outside academia. I feared how my choice would be interpreted by those still in it. I assumed academics would see my decision to leave as a judgement on their decision to stay. In reconnecting with others at the retreat, I realized they saw it for what it was: a choice. John and all the others respected my decision, as I respect theirs. He was happy for me; I was happy for him, without any regret. I learned our different choices could co-exist in the same community.
Moreover, it’s impossible to deny the impact of our past on our present. Leaving academia wasn't an easy choice. It was all I knew for a decade. In letting go, I thought I had to let all of it go. For a long time, I described historical research as something I used to do. In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate that being a Vietnamese American refugee who was trained as a historian is core to how I approach the world and my work. I constantly invoke different perspectives and challenge the notion of a “right” answer or a single truth. My training as a historian didn’t go to waste even though I didn't stay in academia.
Have you ever left a community because you thought you just didn’t belong? Or left a relationship that wasn’t serving you anymore? What part of the separation did you find yourself focusing on most? Many of us get stuck on the negativity or sadness that come In the wake of the departure. An ending seems easier to accept when we frame it as the necessary closing of a chapter. We then start to disassociate.
Think about people you know, perhaps even yourself, who left communities and now speak about their membership as something of the past. When I’ve been the one to leave, I act as if I was the one who was wronged. I try to justify why I left instead of celebrating the many reasons why I had joined in the first place.
People sometimes choose to reject communities that don’t perfectly fulfill their needs in the futile pursuit of other communities that will. No single community will ever satisfy all needs. However, a multitude of different communities can touch different parts of us. What I’ve come to realize is that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice. Leaving and joining doesn’t have to be permanent. When we understand that we don’t need to accept all the conditions that define membership in a particular community we open up more opportunities to belong.
I used to think any misalignment between me and a community meant my only option was to leave. I discovered that this community wants to include, not exclude, as long as I’m also willing to participate to the degree that I can.
Belonging is my choice.