My introduction to the United States was as part of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to inhabit the historical Alice Street in Oakland. I grew up listening to the world beats that echoed from the Alice Arts Center across the street from my home. What is not to love about this wonderful city? After all, this is home of the Black Panthers, the Bruce Lee martial arts center, and Fairyland.
Oakland can also boast being the most racially integrated city in the nation. Because, while cities like New York City and Los Angeles also has racially diverse populations, much of the groups are segregated. Conversely, in Oakland, you have people from every part of the world, from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, generations, and sexual orientations – all coming together for dialogue. I see it everyday walking the city center’s Lake Merritt or riding the public transportation. The Catholic, organic food grocer will chat with the Muslim wholistic doctor about issues ranging from immigration to welfare reforms. This is my Oakland. But, you do not have to take my word for it. In 2012, the New York Times listed Oakland in the top 5 out of 42 places to go. My experiences in Oakland helped cultivate my love of the Bay Area.
I also had the opportunity to live in the South Bay and witness its dynamic growth as the Silicon Valley. I resided in San Jose when it was still mostly orchards, and there was only one Asian grocery in my part of town. Decades later, this same area would have three major Asian malls. As part of the Vietnamese Americans refugee and immigrant community, our families all struggled to find a place in our adopted country, while facing racism and economic downward mobility, but also opportunity. San Jose’s population is now 10% Vietnamese Americans and has a Vietnamese vice-mayor.
For college, I returned to the East Bay to attend UC Berkeley. It is with some irony that in a racially diverse campus, I was most aware of my racial identity or lack thereof. Like so many young people of the day, I went on a personal journey to discover my ethnic roots. I joined the mixed race movement of the 1980s, while also exploring my Vietnamese ethnic background. My activism in these communities led to research projects and even publications. With a B.A. in Political Science and minor in Asian American Studies, I decided I would pursue graduate studies. But, first I wanted to service my ethnic community.
After graduation, I postponed graduate school to conduct community work. I worked as a Youth Program Coordinator for the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement (CSEARR) in San Francisco. The Youth program was established to meet the needs of Southeast Asian Youths during the post-resettlement period. The program targeted Southeast Asians youths between the ages of 15 and 23 and worked to provide job placement, tutoring, as well as peer counseling.
I then worked as counselor and instructor for the St. Elizabeth Youth Employment Program in Oakland. The program employed approximately 1,500 youths per year and offered job-training programs in areas like computer programming. I counseled inner-city youths who were embarking on their first jobs and monitored their progress weekly. Also for this program, I ran a course especially for youth who tested poorly in school.
I began graduate school at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Asian Studies program and finished in San Francisco State University’s Ethnic Studies program. I then returned to UC Berkeley for the PhD program in Ethnic Studies. While researching about the Vietnamese American community, I also served as a Youth Program Director for the Hướng Việt Community Center’s Gần Đèn Thì Sáng Youth and Parent Empowerment Program (GDTS). This program’s goal was to instill self-esteem and cultural awareness for “at risk” youths. We utilized a multi-pronged approach to helping the youths improve academically as well as survive socially in a racially diverse, low-income, inner-city environment. GDTS communicated and worked closely with the youths’ parents, teachers and peers. As the first director of this program, I created the framework of the project, organized an after-school program for Vietnamese American fifth and sixth graders, supervised over twenty mentors and four interns, and wrote grants.
With fieldwork in Viet Nam and postdoctoral work in Boston, I did not return to the Bay Area until just before beginning my tenured track position with UC Davis. Once back though, I continued work on my manuscript that required additional research within the Vietnamese American community. I also focused on ways to connect my academic work with my passion for the arts. For this endeavor, I served on the board of advisors for the Association for Viet Arts (AVA). This group worked to “foster cross-cultural understanding of artists of Vietnamese American heritage to the Bay Area community.” My contribution included connecting Bay Area artists with artists in Viet Nam and in the diaspora.
My passion for the áo dài, Vietnamese national dress, on personal, artistic, and academic levels led me to curate the 2006 Áo Dài: A Modern Design Coming of Age exhibit, in partnership with AVA and the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The first exhibition of its kind in the U.S., it explored the evolution of áo dài and its representations of national identity, nationalism, modernity, and femininity. Featuring over fifty historical and contemporary garments, many never before seen in Viet Nam or the U.S., this exhibit drew primarily from top designers and private collectors. This is further elaborated in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, which I edited. To continue with my passion for the a, I now consult for the Áo Dài Festival group of San Jose. They host an annual day-long celebration of Vietnamese culture and arts with the áo dài theme.
Contributing to the arts has been one way for me to promote positive change within the Vietnamese American community. Political activism is another way to achieve this. When the beleaguered San Jose councilwoman, Madison Nguyen, faced threat of a recall from her own ethnic community over a business naming issue, dubbed the “Little Saigon” controversy, I was compelled to assist. Having known Madison since we were both graduate students, I wholly supported her progressive political agenda and viewed the attacks against her with much suspect. I wrote an editorial piece, “Nguyen takes stand against tyranny,” in the San Jose Mercury News stating these views. The grassroots campaign resulted in the defeat of the recall efforts in 2009 and her re-election to city council in 2010. Much of this time is documented and analyzed in my book, Transnationalizing Viet Nam: Community, Culture, and Politics in the Diaspora.My roots in the Bay Area run deep. Wherever I go, the Bay Area remains in my heart.