I forget how in San Jose, you can see miles into the sky. Unlike in LA. In grade school, I looked into the hills of Silicon Valley and debated with my friends whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them. I believe it was these hills which cultivated the imagination I so heavily rely upon now in my writing: creative and academic work.
Though since I’ve been back, I’ve found it difficult to work despite the relative quiet I have here.
Over dinner, I asked my nephew how things have been and in between the threads of new workout plans and attempts at resume building in his everyday life are the six shootings that happened in our neighborhood in the last three months. I am arrested by two things: how violence is his quotidien but moreso, how I’ve forgotten that this was mine as well — I am shocked by my shock. I ask him whether one of them was the murder-suicide I heard about in the beginning of the year, and he says to himself, “Oh, I guess that’s eight then.” And continues to ask me whether the pasta he was having was a simple or complex carb.
My father asked for a minute of my spare time and I tore myself away from my work to go through some legal documents he needed help interpreting from English. “Does she want the property?” He asks. Going through the papers my mother served him over a year ago, all I can interpret is irreconciliable differences and I see her signature — the same one that signed my permission slips and sick notes in grade school — and the attorneys she must have gone to during her work day and how they had Vietnamese and Japanese names and how they interpreted the entire process for her and how she had to deliberate in secret for months and planned her strategy in the times that they didn’t see each other. Maybe that’s what was irreconciliable — how they didn’t see each other in the end anyway. I also imagine my father’s desperation to keep the house, constituted of many reasons: the one I see most is his investment in maintaining the normative kinship represented by the house. Leaving here would mean moving into something smaller, signifying his body as unmarried man as it now stated on the legal document.
“So, does she want the property?” But the five to six years I spent cultivating my imagination and arriving at reasons predicated on race, gender, immigration, and sexuality doesn’t translate a word for these documents. Not a single fucking word.
“Sorry dad, I don’t know. You should see a lawyer, I can’t see anything about the property. I don’t understand it.” But he responds, oh, are the documents in Vietnamese? and takes the papers from me to inspect it again.
“No, they’re not. I just don’t understand it.” But they’re in English! How could I not?
But it’s not English.
I tell him all that I know about the documents, that she doesn’t indicate whether she wants the property or not and he lets me go unsatisfied and I wonder what he thinks about my four years of a BA at UCLA and two years of an MA at the same institution if I can’t even read English.
I return to my room where I am midway through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for my graduate seminar in Asian American Literature and Culture and reading about the violence of visibility never felt so incongruent. I put my highlighter aside in this bare bedroom in the corner room of my father’s house, where I grew up for 18 years, spent looking into the miles of sky and debating what lay in the hills and beyond them.
By forgetting its familiarity, I notice their differences. Ear-splitting booms sear for miles into the San Jose sky. Nobody stops moving because it’s either firecrackers or a gunwound but I still need to catch my bus to work. My dad shuffles papers and it’s either the Vietnamese newspaper or the divorce papers or something different all together, but he’s always shuffling through them. These sounds melt Foucault in front of me and reassemble into something else altogether: the hills and the miles of sky and the debates as to whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them.
I want to address this message to incoming UCLA Asian American students. If you don’t identify as Asian American, ask yourself how you are a part of this as well, as we are all linked to one another in both deliberate and unsought ways.
Dear Incoming UCLA Asian American Students,
You’ve stumbled upon this because you’re wired in, as has been quite an important way for our community to communicate in the last few years. Whether you came across this message on your dashboard, through searching tags, or other means I have yet to master, I assume you’re reading this because you’re curious to learn all that you can about the school that will constitute a significant part of your life for the next few years.
Congratulations for getting in. You checked the box and now you will be a part of the roughly 38% which comprises the entirety of campus. Given this number, this makes you a majority minority on this campus.
But what will that mean for you?
As soon as you step foot upon this campus, a thousand arms and more will reach to grasp you: dance teams, choruses, youth camps, religious groups, cultural organizations, political campaigns, professional societies, fraternities, sororities, student government, and multitudes that I can’t even begin to name or imagine. But as you fend some off and choose to follow others, I want you to think about what arms aren’t reaching out to you, what backs turn when you walk past them.
Why might this be happening?
It could be many things and I will not deny you of that. I will respect your standpoint and how you came to be there. But my purpose here is to turn your attention to one reality you must reckon with on this campus and in everyday life: the inescapability of your skin. Whether you believe it to be true or not, race has real impacts. Your Asian American-ness sticks and will forever stick to you as you pass through this time and space, shaping how others know you and how you know yourself. Heaving beneath your feet will lie decades of Asian American memories, souls, tears, and bodies who have tread the same earth beneath you and as you step upon them to make your way to Royce, Powell, Kerckhoff, Math Sciences or wherever you go, their breaths will escape their lips long quieted in order to strengthen yours.
But are they there? Do you even feel it? Can you see them? Do they even exist?
Unruly spirits are exorcised from the place that cursed them and UCLA is an unruly campus indeed. You might have heard some ugly things going down at UCLA in the past few years, and if you’ve forgotten, I’ll briefly conjure their names so you do not forget:
In 2010, a video was released by a UCLA student full of hateful slurs toward Asian and Asian American students on campus, dehumanizing us as uncivilized and improperly educated “hordes”. Only a few months ago in 2012, Asian American offices were vandalized with racist and sexist slurs in the very space which inclusion and social justice was supposed to be upheld. In 1992, Korean students were driven out of Los Angeles as the city burned in their name. In 1990, Asian American freshmen on campus had slurs burned into their dorm doors. And the history continues further and further…
These are only the most public gestures of struggle, however. I want you to listen to the private moments on this campus, the ones that occur when only the walls are there to witness them. You will feel struggle and frustration, if not within yourself then within somebody else’s voice. How do others look at you? Address you? Are they surprised when you speak English, with or without an accent? Do they make you feel welcome, or are you just another one? How many times do they ask you where you really come from, or say something in “your language”? Do men say things to you, harass you? Where can you practice your dances, your languages, your instruments that you hope to explore? Who will act surprised when you speak up in class, in a meeting, if they allow you to? Will you wait for a permission that will never be granted? Will you fight for your voice, or will you lose it to the fists that try to beat it out of you?
And when they say, “Wow you don’t really act Asian”, how will you feel? Proud? Ashamed? But the question I’d like for you to ask is: how are you expected to feel in response to that statement?
Or will it come uttering from your own mouth, after years of being dragged across the pavement — “No, I’m not really Asian at all.”
But you are. And you always will be.
Incidents of race, gender, and sexuality predicated upon the multiple -isms of our lives occur every day, for decades now, in different registers on this campus, in every space. These incidents are not surprising, but they are shocking all the same as they are a part of a legacy of Asian American that we carry with us and can never escape from. Though with this pain comes a powerful history of strength in the UCLA Asian American community that can be found nowhere else. Where do we stand when this happens? Where will you stand?
I turn back to our numbers: thirty-eight percent. What does it mean? What connection are you supposed to have to each other, and to the other sixty-two percent?
As I first walked across this campus as a student five years ago, I didn’t see the ghosts of Asian Americans and other people of color who gave up their breaths in order to strengthen mine. But as I was gradually worn down from the slurs and the feeling of alien-ness that came with being Asian American on this campus, their voices spoke to me from my elders, mentors, and peers who came before and who will come after. Graduating after years of organizing on campus with the Asian American community, I hope to lay my back for you to tread upon. How will you lay yours down? Or will you let it be lost to the fists that beat it out of you?
My purpose of this message was not to send you away from UCLA, but rather the exact opposite. No other place could I have learned the things I have learned and experienced the world as it is. It is a unique place with a powerful history and you should take the time to listen to the breaths that strengthen yours as you walk across this campus for the next few years. Here, using technology, I wish to help amplify some of these Asian American voices on campus. They were helpful (and continue to be helpful) in my time and I hope you take the time to explore them as you come to this campus:
- UCLA Asian American Studies Department (Rolfe Hall) - http://www.asianam.ucla.edu/
- UCLA Asian American Studies Center (Campbell Hall) - http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/
- Asian Pacific Coalition at UCLA - http://apcla.org/wordpress/
- Multiple Asian American and Pacific Island student organizations at UCLA - http://apcla.org/wordpress/about-us/member-organizations/
Last night, my dad talked to me about how much it meant for my extended family that I finished my undergraduate education. For my 40+ extended family who have relocated to the States, I am positioned as an indicator of whether our family, our community could truly thrive in diaspora. We survived, we can manage an existence, but can we really make something out of nothing?
I am at a crossroads of multiple generations and waves of movement. I have only three other cousins who are in the same life era as me, with the rest of my cousins well into their adulthood or just beginning elementary school. This means that I am oldest of the children to have begun my educational journey in the states, and yet I am of the youngest to have experienced it at all. I benefited from the mistakes that my older cousins have made and the troubles they’ve experienced: every time one was incarcerated, we learned to avoid his/her decisions.
As he went through each family members’ names, he would point out to me how much difficulty they had making it through school, if they had made it out at all. It got to the point where he pointed out that of the ~30 of us who experienced the American educational system, I was one of the minimal few who had successfully completed his/her undergraduate education.
Now, I would be the only one in our multi-generational family on the path toward a post-bac degree. Looking at the fact that all family before us were in Vietnam, I would also be the only one in our ancestral lineage who achieved such education. This was more significant to my family than I had ever realized: they looked to me as hope that yes, our family, our community could “make it”, could be “successful”, could make something having been given nothing.
With a loving tone, he instills faith in me to pursue a Ph.D because I am already so, so close. I am their only shot at this, he feels, because everybody else had so much difficulty with school and nobody will ever come as close as I am now. My entire family, my grandparents and their parents are all watching, and hoping, and praying. I am grateful for their love and support.
Yet rather than this fueling my sense of purpose and drive, it twists me inside to hear how much they find significance in what I do.
But how do I tell him that my Master’s is not a guarantee of any mobility?
How do I tell him that my education will not translate to any sort of concrete stability?
How do I tell him that my knowledge, in this economy, does not hold as much value as he believes?
How do I tell him that there are significantly more candidates out there than there are jobs for people like me?
How do I tell him that I’m not sure?
That I don’t know?
That I’m doing this out of love and urgency?
But that I’m fucking terrified of screwing this up?
Heaving, I hold up the world of Vietnamese American hopes and dreams upon my buckling shoulders and I fear that one day, I will crumble beneath its immense weight.
Want to make a difference in this year’s election while earning a scholarship?
Want to learn how to engage in the political process?
Want to work with your communities, campus, and peers to create change?
Here’s your chance.
API Equality-LA’s EMPOWER YOU(TH)! Student Civic Engagement Internship serves to provide Asian and Pacific Islander (API) students (ages 18 – 25) the opportunity to do on-the-ground civic engagement and political power-building work with their peers. 2012 is a crucial election year, and it’s vital that API youth are out in numbers and force to vote for progressive causes. This internship will provide interns the knowledge and skills to mobilize their communities for the upcoming election. From student fees and loans to minorities’ civil rights, 2012 is a year that can (re)define our movements and work, and this internship will train student leaders to make a difference.
About the Internship
API Equality-LA is a Los Angeles based civil rights organization that organizes in the API community for LGBT equality. API Equality-LA’s EMPOWER YOU(TH) Internship:
- Is open to any undergraduate student (18 – 25) who is passionate about engaging, educating, and organizing API students around voting and building electoral power for progressive causes
- Awards a $500 scholarship
- Lasts 10 weeks from Friday, September 7, 2012 to Thursday, November 15, 2012 with a commitment of at least 15 hours/week
- Will be based at the intern’s academic institution and at API Equality-LA’s office in downtown Los Angeles
- Can possibly earn academic credit, depending on the institution
To apply or for questions, please contact Brian Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
check it out!
I wonder what was going through my kindergarten teacher’s mind when I first told her my name — a thick, dense sound coming from a small five-year-old Vietnamese child, a sound pushing out at the front of the mouth that stops in quietly summoning of the abrupt strength of the back of the mouth.
I wonder whether she asked me to repeat it, whether she thought I was mumbling in native tongue, whether she wondered if she would have another ELD student in her class, whether she felt none of this.
“Chum”; it’s hard to describe. “Cham”; it sounds different. “Jum”; there’s a lot of ways to say it. “Chrung”; I don’t wanna explain it again.
My name was my first insecurity. How it was meant to be spoken by my parents and their ancestors was shamed, taught wrong, domesticated, and re-programmed by necessity. My parents sounded it one way at home, but everybody else around me sounded it a different way. I lived a constant internal struggle day to day as one world would clash with the other.
The way it was transcribed onto paper (“Trung”) was a product of colonial tools onto a colonized people, therefore the sounds approximated the speech of one or a handful of men who needed only to travel uni-directionally. Would it ever be expected that the colonized would one day confront its colonizer (and its later master) and expose it in all its lies, broken promises, and vulnerabilities on its own (stolen) territory?
So when I came here with all my heritage and all my history, my name presented the first confrontation of the traumas of imperialism (the beginnings of which I would feel the rest of my life): “how do we pronounce it? and what is the correct way?” My name would be (re)presented to me in its “proper” interpretation given what was wrought by school and the outside world and not lived until it was reconfigured into a gargoyle of a name that not even my parents recognized. In my name’s mutilation to become more like the dominant, I inflicted violence upon my internal self.
I lived with this (mis)interpretation of my name for a long time. There were times when the weight of this jostling exposure would be too great, that I would feel its strength in the form of small resistances. For example, I fought most urges to “change” my name to something more “American” even when many of my friends were beginning to do so. But it wasn’t until recently where I truly began to feel angry about this.
For 21 years, I lived a colonial interpretation of the letters that poorly attempted to locate the tongue of my grandmothers and their mothers. This realization then became an attempt to recenter the intentions of my family in reconfiguring the tools that were presented to me.
What was translated as a “Tr” was better approximated by something thicker than a “Ch” as in “church” and almost a “J” as in “javelin”.
What was translated as a “ung” was better approximated by something between an “um” as in “decorum” with the end of “ng” as in “ring”.
So in total, my name as my parents intended for it to be spoken and heard has been described and transliterated by many as “Chum”, “Cham”, “Jum”, or “Jomb”, when really, there are no words that may approximate how it was meant to be said. To know it, you must live it.
I used to be embarrassed and ashamed of speaking my name as it was intended by my parents into the public sphere. But when within I found it lay the palimpsest of failed imperial projects, I found the exact opposite of shame toward my name — rather, strength from its counter history and intimate center.
Now, I stand confidently enough to liberate myself from my branded (mis)interpretations and rather, allow the sounds of my ancestors to guide my practice. While these newer revisions — Chum/Cham/Jum/Jomb are not perfect and never will be, they are the best way I could allow my parents to guide me into the world again and root myself in the strength of where I came from and who I am.
I’m quite grateful and humbled to get to this point. Looking at my journey through education, there were so many places where I could have fallen through the cracks.
But it’s official. I’m an MA Candidate at UCLA in Asian American Studies. One step closer to being one of the few Vietnamese Americans in Ethnic Studies research.
Now I just gotta make sure to get through these last two quarters…senioritis is hitting me bad.
Looking back, 2011 was full of interesting things. Let’s review in pictures (aka me posting the cutest pictures of mine)!
Jan, 2011: Vietnamese Culture Night
I’ve been a part of VCN as a performer (actor, designer, dancer) since my second year — it was truly where I developed my confidence. This year was particularly special as I was here in the role of a modern dance coordinator. It was really a a rags to riches feeling for me: having been on stage only the year before as a beginning dancer to now helping the team as a leader was an experience I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
March 2011: Asian Pacific Coalition Internship
This year, I had the opportunity to be the Leadership Development Coordinator for APC — meaning I would craft the curriculum of and facilitate the APC Internship. This photo is a Team Builder I had all my interns do the first day that they met — one of the challenges was to take a photo with every body in the picture and post it on my Facebook wall. It was fantastic watching my peers develop their critical lenses and become the confident API leaders that they are now on campus. Plus, it let me pretend to be an Asian American Studies professor ;)
April 2011: Southeast Asian Admit Weekend
Access and education are really the two things which define me as an organizer. Yes, there is always advocacy and community development, but at heart I am truly an educator and SEA Admit Weekend attempts to confront the issue head-on in Southeast Asian communities. I’ve always been involved with SEA Admit weekend but this year I took a step back to return to my passions and become a workshop coordinator, allowing me direct access to the students rather than directing the program as I’ve done in the past.
May 2011: Community Programs Office Banquet
This is a photo of myself with Asian Pacific Coalition Staff of 2010-2011. We were small but powerful. We helped revitalize a community that few had faith in and my experience with APC will define my career for a long time. Seriously, this was the definition of a bomb-ass team if I ever knew it. We tackled fucked up immigration policy, deportations, voting registration, and fucking Alexandra Wallace at the battle zone. If anything, we became family. I had some of my favorite drunken nights, intense intellectual conversations, challenging moments, emotionally wrecking and uplifting experiences of my life thus far.
June 2011: Santa Monica Pier
This here is a homo-erotic picture of myself with my roommate Derick. Fucking Derick. Hahaha. This is the year we became roommates. We’ve done some ratchet ass shit, seen some nasty stuff, and done some crazyass things. You frustrate me sometimes but I can’t seem to live without ya. You’re like a brother to me now — including the fact that I can get annoyed with you as much as I love hanging out with you sometimes haha. You’re always welcome here in SJ but next time make sure you triple check your departure time LOL. Also this photo was taken by my bro. He’s great huh.
June 2011: UC Berkeley Southeast Asian Student Coalition’s Summer Institute 2011
I’ve always been jealous of UC Berkeley’s Southeast Asian organizing space and community. If I had known about this in high school, I might have picked to go there instead of UCLA (…well realistically no, but whatever). To this day, I always wonder, “what if?” Anyway, this memory is particularly significant because it gave me the opportunity to work directly with students again in a development space — so much of my four years of organizing was defined by working behind the scenes. I thought I knew it all, especially being a Mentor for the program, but this experience proved to me that I will always be able to learn something new about myself.
July 2011: UCLA Travel Study to Hawaii
Fuck. When I think about the last time I was blissfully happy, Hawaii memories always come back to mind. I was with an amazing group of individuals, experienced some awesome shit, saw some crazy community stuff, and realized how much I loved the brown of my skin. I felt beautiful there, both inside and out. It was amazing academically as well — one of the few ways I was able to practice Ethnic Studies in conditions vastly different than I’m used to with multi-layered and multi-dimensional complications of API identity. I also got to meet one of my idols: Prometheus Brown from Blue Scholars.
August 2011: Garlic Fest
This is around the time I turned 21. My first Garlic Fest. Made sisters for life. If you don’t know, then I can’t say. Hahahaha.
August 2011: Asian Pacific Coalition 2011-2012 Staff Retreat
After such an amazing year of being on APC, I didn’t think another year could top it. It just wouldn’t be as great — how could it? However, after our first retreat (which incidentally was the first time we all met) at Lake Arrowhead, I was astounded. In some magical universe, I managed to have the privilege of working with some of the most passionate, critical, outspoken, and talented young folks. This year has been amazing so far — I see great stars in this team and I can’t wait to see what folks do after.
September 2011: Tuesday Night Cafe
I’ve written poetry for a long time. I have journals and journals of angsty shit dating back to the early 2000’s [middle school] haha. I won a slam contest in 8th grade. Over the years, my style has changed dramatically and spoken word wasn’t something I experimented with until college. I remember, my first live spoken word event also coincided with my first API organizing event: CAPSA in 2009 goes to Tuesday Night Cafe. There, I saw my [future] mentor perform a piece about being Queer and I was…liberated. I thought to myself: damn, if I could ever do that, I could die happy. Turns out, two years later I would. I’ve got a ways to go to be the performer I want to be but thank you TNC for that opportunity.
October 2011: Occupy Los Angeles
Alright, this doesn’t look like an Occupy LA photo, but trust me it is. We (Asian Pacific Coalition) were the first group from UCLA to roll a student group out to Occupy LA, which was quite significant for us as we were concerned with the lack of PoC (esp. API) in this movement. We marched in with an API community contingent (for whom I was able to perform a Philip Vera Cruz piece —- “Human Dignity”). While things didn’t quite meet our expectation, having this event meant a lot to us and our community.
November 2011: Repeal Prop 209 Rally
2011 was a highly political year, especially concerning students who have intimate stakes in PoC communities. It comes after a decade of attacks in institutional and societal forms but enough was enough this year for many folks. Proposition 209 was being considered again during this time and we students felt it necessary to speak. Here, I am helping hold up a banner on behalf of the API community’s stake in this matter, whether opinions have changed in the last decade or not.
November 2011: API West Coast Coalition
There have been regional API student organization networks in the past. Many lived, thrived, but all died. Some died within months of their development. We on the West Coast have not seen one in a while, begging the question of: is it necessary? It brings up great points of how vibrant our communities have become (especially on the shoulders of previous organizing) but in light of a shattering society, it is necessary now. This is what we came to at Students of Color Conference 2011 and I’m honored to be a part of developing this. We all have high hopes, let’s hope it delivers.
November 2011: UC Regents Rally
Occupy Movements, Proposition 209, Police Brutality, all are connected. Here, I am a part of the UC Regents Rally in protest of how they are cutting budgets (ie bleeding students). This message is clear: we will not be silent.
December 2011: Vegas
Alright, kind of a combo breaker here since the last few were so political but damn this is the first time I’ve been to Vegas! No, not as just a 21 year old but in forever! Also, being 21 in Vegas is awesome! I really can understand why people go here now. However, I didn’t party as hard that weekend (I’m realizing my party stamina is low low low) as I’m getting old but I reminisce about it now. I definitely get a craving of going again as long as it’s with the right people. I spent a lot of time surrounding myself with many people, but who were the right people? And in Vegas, I realized, you gotta make an effort to make the right people with who you got. Definitely a great time.
Woo. That took a while. What a self-wanking spiel. 2012 sees some interesting highlights too: graduating, grad school (maybe?), returning home, coming to terms, health advocacy, age. Damn.
I had the wonderful privilege to speak to the UCLA community about Proposition 209 yesterday. I would like to share with you all my speech. My hope is that somewhere, this will make sense to somebody. And we stand in solidarity with you.
I am ashamed that it has taken over ten years for us to get to the point where the ban on Proposition 209 is now back in the hands of the courts. Over ten years – long enough for a generation of youth of color to grow up without mentors and without seeing figures who look like them in institutions of higher education. In one fell swoop, a golden legacy borne out of the assertion of millions of transformed minds and decades of empowered work cut shamefully short.
However, I am even more ashamed that we live in a time where the public blinds itself to the systemic injustices that Proposition 209 has actively addressed and sought to correct. This was not the California which I was raised to believe in.
What kind of place do are we in today where a public education sought is a public education denied? What kind of place are we in today where the overwhelming majority of our public high schools are more effective as a mechanism to marginalize and criminalize youth rather than serve as a mechanism to liberate, empower, and reaffirm a human life and experience? What kind of place are we in today where so-called ‘merits’ and ‘indolence’ are wrongfully conflated with the underlying issue of inequitable distribution of resources and access as navigated through race, national origin, gender, sexuality?
The fight for affirmative action is not about quotas, merits, or unfair preferences as you might have been wrongfully told. Rather, the fight for affirmative action is a fight for a more just and equitable America that recognizes why it was a pursued solution in the first place: in order to liberate education from its cages in the hands of the few and privileged in this country and allow those who are most separated
from it the chance to pursue it.
At the cusp of a great social upheaval as we are today where teachers join hands with freedom fighters in order to rise up to critique our economic structures, now is the time to act as those who do not act are just as culpable as those who actively resist change.
So today, I stand here in solidarity to repeal Proposition 209 not because of statistics, facts, or any other quantitative reason. Rather, I stand here in solidarity because repealing Proposition 209 is simply the right thing to do and I urge you all to exercise your right to democracy and ensure the future is bright for our generations to come.
-Trung Nguyen, UCLA Asian American Studies, Asian Pacific Coalition Director