My love affair with the East Coast and particularly New York City began when I was 19. At that time, I had the great fortune of receiving the Ethnic Studies graduate student travel grant to attend and present at my first Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) conference. I was still an undergraduate at the time, so attending the conference in New York City was such a thrill. I felt an instant connection to the people, culture, sounds, smells, and fast pace. Being a fast talker myself, it dawned on me that maybe I landed on the wrong coast from Viet Nam and that New York City is really home. From this point on, I made every attempt to return to the East Coast.
A year later I won a scholarship to attend the traveling Southeast Asian Studies Institute (SEASSI), then located in Cornell. I loved the small town of Ithaca and the Ivy League environment in general. That time in Cornell solidified my desire to pursue graduate studies in Southeast Asian Studies. From then on, I made many visits to the East Coast and in particular, New York City. I call it my home away from home.
My next big adventure in the East Coast was when I received the Rockefeller grant to research further on Viet Nam-Vietnamese American community relations in 2001-2002. The resident grant meant I would live in Boston, Massachusetts for the year. But, even before my arrival, a controversy was already brewing. Apparently the cohort that also received grants that year included a European American woman and two Vietnamese nationals. Some in the Vietnamese American community took offense to this because they did not feel that Vietnamese scholars from the “enemy” state, should be funded to study the Vietnamese diaspora. The protesters began an international campaign to correct what they perceived as an injustice. Arguably, they made some concessions, because in subsequent years, more Vietnamese Americans were given the grant.
The protests initially slowed down my entrance into the Vietnamese American community there, but ultimately I still managed to work and conduct my work within the community. Individuals, and in particular, those affiliated with the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (Viet-Aid), quietly brought me under their wings and introduced me to a variety of key community members. I worked mainly in the Dorchester area where Viet-Aid was located and where there existed a large concentration of Vietnamese Americans.
I arrived in this community during a historic time, when Viet-Aid was embarking on the development of the first full-service Vietnamese American Community Center in the nation. This multimillion-dollar center now houses 11 programs ranging from childcare to small business classes. I directed supported their early efforts to build the center when I joined a small group called the Planning Committee for Vietnamese Community Center fundraiser. I was put in charge of organizing a spectacular fundraiser attended by community members and VIPs of Boston. I conceptualized the theme for the event, Unsung Warriors: Celebrating Vietnamese Women’s Experiences, as a tribute to the women who were instrumental in getting the center project off the ground. I wore many hats at this time including: recruiting volunteers, supervising staff and volunteers, serving as a spokesperson, and working on the financing and execution of the fundraiser event. It came together beautifully and was one of my proudest moments.
Through this, I also joined the Vietnamese Boston Women’s League. Most notably, their senior members were instrumental in getting city government support for the building of the Vietnamese American Community Center. I made many connections with colleagues and community members in Boston during this period. One became my best friend to this day. I feel honored to be a part of the Vietnamese American community in a small way and witnessed its maturity.
Though a proud Cali girl, the East Coast left an indelible mark on my life. I continue to visit New York City and Boston numerous times over the years. Each time I land, it feels like home.