A different perspective: An account from a Vietnamese Italian adoptee
“I don’t know” is the answer I use when people ask me about my biological parents.
This feeling of the unknown has always stopped me from exploring my roots further. I don’t know where to start and I never have. Nothing is known about my Vietnamese parents except our village of origin, Can Tho.
I’m not afraid of what I might find, I’m afraid of what I won’t. Let me tell you about what I do know.
Looking at my name, you would not think that I am Vietnamese. Looking at my face, you would not think that my name is Andrew Pandolfo: a quintessential Italian name.
Young Andrew. Courtesy of Pandolfo Family.
At three months old, I was adopted by an Italian American family from Wethersfield, Connecticut. It’s a small-town next to Hartford, yet another small city that’s relatively unknown. So, I’m Italian, American and Vietnamese. In that order! When you hear of Vietnamese people in the United States, you’d imagine they’re from California or Texas. Not me, I’m from Connecticut. I grew up eating meatballs and spaghetti.
My family is amazing and I’m privileged having been raised by them. But, I have always been different from my family and I knew this well because I am ethnically Vietnamese and look nothing like them. Brown skin, black hair, dark almond eyes.
Andrew and parents, Lou and Lori Pandolfo. Courtesy of Pandolfo Family.
Embracing what makes you different.
Since I was a child, I’ve been aware of my difference because I didn’t resemble my mom or dad. I noticed that my skin color was different than theirs. In fact, when my parents had to attend parent-teacher meetings in elementary school, they would always know where I sat because we had to draw a self-portrait to place on the "chables".
My mom always smiles when recalling these memories and says to my dad, “we always knew where you sat because you were the brown drawing.” Yes, the crayon I chose to color my skin was brown. Not skin color, it was brown. At least I was self-aware.
One of my fondest childhood memories is in first grade. My parents came to my school for Appreciation Day and one of my classmates asked me, “why don’t you look like your parents?” I told him I was adopted. Of course, we both didn't know exactly what the word adopted meant, but I was proud of it nonetheless. My parents, Lori and Lou, were always honest and transparent with me. They told me at 8 years old that I was adopted from Vietnam and I’ve always embraced that fact.
Young Andrew with Nana, Lou and Lori Pandolfo. Courtesy of Pandolfo Family.
Such acceptance came from the realisation that I was blessed. I am blessed, blessed with an amazing family that has supported me and given me more than I could have ever asked for. I am honored to be a part of this family and I am proud to be a Pandolfo.
Yes, I am 100% Vietnamese and I know that I am also Italian because of how I was raised. Andrew Pandolfo, proudly Italian and Vietnamese.
Culture shapes your values and identity: Italians are not so different from Vietnamese.
I love that I was exposed to Italian culture all my life. Who would be upset with homemade pasta, meatballs, sauce, and Sunday dinners? It wasn't quite like the movies or tv shows, but there are some similarities to envy.
My mom who is the glue of our family and has been such a positive influence for me. She is the most selfless person I know and has always put the needs of others before her own. Even after her ten-hour shift at work, she would prepare home-cooked meals not just for me and my dad but for my grandparents as well. Her free time is spent helping others in my family.
Drawing any similarities? If you grew up in a Vietnamese family, you may relate to my Italian family!
My dad is equally amazing. I know I’m raving, but it’s the truth. He has shown what resilience is, especially in the face of my differences from our family, neighbors and friends.
My nana has been a force to be reckoned with and has always been there for me. She always gave me her time and attention. My nana and I have a bond for which I am extremely grateful. It’s hard to put into words what she means to me, the best way I could describe it is she makes me want to be a better person. She is the reason why I am a financial advisor, because of the financial struggles she went through and not having a person she could turn to for help.
Andrew and Nana on Graduation Day. The University of Connecticut. Courtesy of Pandolfo Family.
Family is a strong force that helped shape my cultural identity and my understanding of my tricultural self. The best example I can share with you is our family postponing our Christmas celebration until April 24th.
We were all so busy but knew it wouldn’t be quite right if we couldn’t’ celebrate this holiday together. Being able to celebrate these events with our whole family makes them even more special.
One of the most impactful influences I took from our Italian culture is the importance of family. To me my family is my everything, I would drop everything to the family. Looking back, I realise how close this is to Vietnamese culture. Who knew? My parents unconsciously raised me with Vietnamese values whilst being Italian. This value is at the core of who I am and how I live my life. All the credit goes to them.
Discovering Fish Sauce for the first time.
Growing up in Connecticut, I wasn’t consciously exposed to Asian culture let alone Vietnamese culture. My parents tried to introduce me to Vietnamese culture as best they could and were always supportive. They even got me gifts on each Vietnamese public holiday!
My parents always allowed me to explore my roots, but I never really knew where to start. In Wethersfield, I was usually the only Asian kid and all of my friends were Caucasian.
It’s hard to put in words, but I always felt like a unicorn. A horse nonetheless and I felt a kinship with my white friends but with my Asian-ness (my horn) I felt something was not quite right as I could not connect with my Asian peers in the same way.
One of my best friends, Jerry is Laotian and he introduced me to the uncharted waters of non-Italian culture. He had a large rice cooker on the kitchen counter where sticky rice would be steaming for us after school. The first time I had a bowl of sticky rice with fish sauce, the real soy sauce, not that Kikkoman stuff you get at a Stop and Shop, I thought, “Wow. THIS is the best thing ever”. I scarfed down endless bowls of rice and fish sauce.
Excited and seduced by my discovery that awoke the Vietnamese inside of me, I announced that we should get a rice cooker just like Jerry’s to Lori Pandolfo, my mom. “Absolutely not! I’m not having a big ass pot on my counter. If you want carbs, Andrew, I’ll cook you pasta.”
That was the end of my efforts to integrate my ethnicity into our Italian household. I’m sure we would’ve gotten a rice cooker if I had cared to push harder, but my mom was right. I did like pasta better in any case. But my mom and dad truly helped me find the answers I was looking for. They respected and loved the fact that I wanted to know more about Vietnam, unfortunately, they also didn’t know where to start looking.
How my embracing both my Vietnamese and Italian culture made me a success.
Being a young professional in New York, working in financial services. My job requires frequent interaction with people and presenting to a crowd. I almost always know how I am going to start my presentations, it’s with this:
“I know what you all must be thinking, how does the person standing in front of me have the name, Andrew Pandolfo. So let me address that, I was adopted at 3 months old from Vietnam by an Italian American family. So I know exactly what Spaghetti Bolognese is.”
Poignantly highlighting my difference before it becomes the sole focus of the conversation. That will usually get some laughs because it’s so unexpected. My unique circumstances have afforded me the opportunity to connect with people from various cultures and backgrounds.
Andrew, now working in New York. Courtesy of Pandolfo Family.
"Who knew? My parents unconsciously raised me with Vietnamese values whilst being Italian."
Often, I still get questioned on my identity because people are baffled that I can both be Vietnamese and Italian. Though, I do identify more with the latter.
I’ve never really experienced Vietnamese culture and can only guess how my biological parents would’ve raised me. But I’ve always felt the pressure of making my parents proud like many of my Vietnamese peers. It's always been my number one priority in life. Almost every decision I’ve made, everything I’ve done and tried to accomplish has been to make them proud.
That pressure could be a byproduct of being a Vietnamese. Being raised by another culture doesn’t mean I can’t embrace another, but will this make my Italian parents proud? My parents always allowed me to embrace being Vietnamese, and they continue to be proud of it. They understand the two cultures are what makes me who I am today. This bi-cultural aspect makes me different and this uniqueness makes me who I am. Your uniqueness as a Vietnamese person is what makes you who you are.
Being Vietnamese is an asset.
That’s why I’ve always felt like there was something missing in my life: the connection to my Vietnamese heritage. This year, a new experience made me realize that something was amiss.
A stranger told me to, “go back to China” during the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. It blatantly reminded me that I was not just Italian American, but on the outside, I will always be Vietnamese. This is not the first time nor will it be the last.
My physical attributes do not define who I am but it plays a big role in my identity. I needed to understand where I came from. I needed to learn about Vietnam.
That is why joining the Overseas Vietnamese has been great. I am not the most well versed in Vietnamese culture. I know that I will continue to pronounce things wrong. But it is the connection to the group that makes me feel like I am finding what I’ve been searching for my whole life. As someone who didn’t know what it meant to be Vietnamese, OV has helped with my journey in finding my Vietnamese voice and identity.
My full name is Andrew Nguyen Pandolfo. Growing up I thought my middle name was pronounced “Win”. It’s a mispronunciation but I have always won because regardless of my Italian upbringing, I was always in some way, connected with my Vietnamese roots.
Note from Andrew:
Thank you for taking the time to read it and I hope it gave you a different perspective. I want to thank OV for allowing me to share my story with all of you. It’s been a pleasure being a part of this community and meeting many amazing people. I’ve had a different background than most of the people in this community, which is why I believe I was asked to write this article. Please feel free to reach out to me or ask me anything you would like, I can certainly share my homemade Italian recipes too!