A U.C. Berkeley student’s reflection

Bùi Văn Phú

U.C. Berkeley is one of the best public education institutions (Photo Bùi Văn Phú)

One afternoon in early April 2009 I was on campus and Sproul Plaza was full of students, many carried ASUC election campaign plascards, walked back and forth between Sather Gate and Sproul Hall to show support for their peers. I noticed several candidates with Vietnamese last names running for different positions, Tu Tran and John Tran for vice presidents and NhuNhu Nguyen for the Senate.

On Telegraph Avenue, once well-known as the Hippies Avenue, I saw the name “NhuNhu Nguyen” written in chalk on sidewalk and thought it was a creative way to get attention.

That year all three Vietnamese-American candidates were elected.

Last May when 2009-10 school year ends with graduations I wonder what happened to the Vietnamese-Americans in ASUC. Searching the internet I found NhuNhu Nguyen’s email and contacted her. She agreed to share her experiences at Cal.


Bùi Văn Phú: You just graduated from U.C. Berkeley. In which field did you study?

NhuNhu Nguyen: I studied integrative biology and South & Southeast Asian Studies

– What made you choose double majors which are so different from each other?

For biology, I chose it so that I can be better prepared for graduate school. For South & Southeast Asian Studies, I chose to study about this area so that I can help this region and the diaspora of this region in the future by understanding its past and culture. Southeast Asian immigrants are fairly new to the United States. We are still trying to make this new land a home for us. And I really do think that the future of the world lies in the hands of Southeast Asia because the industrialized countries are reaching its peaks.

– What is the most challenging course required for each major? And how did you handle it?

For biology, I would say they are all challenging in their own way because it is a lot of material to digest in such a short amount of time. The best way to handle Cal’s academic rigor is to have a solid study schedule and actually stick to it. Do plan in eating, gym time, relaxing as well.

– What is your plan for the near future? And your career plan?

I’m going to be interning at the local hospitals and hopefully be applying to graduate school in a couple of years. I am going to try to see how I can help the uninsured Southeast Asian population. In the future, I see myself in the healthcare profession. I also want to try to organize some kind of community center to preserve the Vietnamese culture for the progeny of Vietnamese-Americans.

– What did you like about campus life? What you didn’t like?

I liked everything about campus life. I really appreciate the diversity and depth that Cal has to offer. There are many, many things to become involved in and through them, you can see yourself evolve. Very gratifying. As for things that I disliked, I would have to say that I disliked eating out. I really missed Mẹ’s home-cooked meals.

– Besides studying, what other activities on campus did you take part?

I am part of Cal VSA, an Asian-interest sorority member of alpha Kappa Delta Phi (aKDPhi). I was a Senator of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), a mentor of Let’s Rise Mentorship, an Alumni Scholar and part of the Biology Scholars Program.

– Can you share those experiences?

Growing up in Hayward-Union City area, I did not have the luxury of being part of a large Vietnamese community, like San Jose or Little Saigon. A few of my best friends were Vietnamese, but that was about it. It was also hard to really embrace our Vietnamese culture when there’s no encouraging space for it. At my high school, we had a VSA, but it wasn’t the type of energy that I was looking for. It was based a lot around fundraising and dancing, not history or culture. That’s why the first thing I did at Cal was join its VSA. Some of the friendships that I’ve formed through VSA are definitely going to be life-long, I can feel it.

After a year at Berkeley, I still felt that there was something missing from my life: friendships amongst girls. Through VSA, I met two girls who were very fierce, cultured and nice. It turned out that they were both part of the same sorority aKDPhi. The Fall of my second year, I joined aKDPhi as well and it was life-changing for me. I met a handful of girls who are true gems in this modern sea of plastic. They mentored me, loved me for all that I am and allowed me to grow into much of the person I am today. I owe my Senate seat to my aKDPhi house; without them, I would not have been able to serve in the ASUC.

My fourth year at Cal, I was a Senator with the ASUC. There were 20 senators to represent the 33,000 students at Cal, making up the 500+ student organizations. I learned a lot being a senator. Among the many, many things, I understood the importance of having access to resources, having a political voice, being strong in maintaining moral grounds when issues become contentious and to always have civility in controversy.

I was a mentor of the Let’s Rise program. This program served middle school students at a poor, low performing school in the urban areas. The program gave students somewhere to go after school to keep them out of trouble, provided homework and emotional support and made them aware of how important higher education is to not only allow them to have a better future than their parents, but also to empower their communities.

I am a recipient of one of the Cal Alumni Scholarships, so I was involved with the Alumni association throughout my years of Cal.

NhuNhu Nguyen in the campaign mode (Photo NhuNhu Nguyen)

– You were elected an ASUC senator in April 2009, what made you to run?

After being avidly involved with many student organizations on campus during the first three years, I realized that the heart of student life at Cal was in the hands of the ASUC. Our student government is one of the few standing autonomous student governments nationwide that controls a $1.6M annual budget, in addition to a plethora of effective resources and opportunities to enhance student life at Cal. I wanted to ensure that the communities from which I am part of and the “silent majority” are fairly represented and had access to these resources.

Additionally, the Asian Greek and Greek Community needed a representative it in Senate. I saw that none can really represent the best interests of our Greek community as well as one of our own. There are many misleading stereotypes that the Greek Community faces and as one of their senators, I sought to redefine the image of the Greek community to not only the campus at large, but also to the Administration in addition to my senatorial duties.

Most importantly, in the ASUC every year, there are always a couple of Southeast Asian or Vietnamese senators. Often, these Southeast Asian senators are extremely liberal that they, unknowingly, become conservatives. Having only these kinds of Southeast Asian political representatives is not truly reflective of the majority or entire Vietnamese community, whether at Cal or at large. I ran to enrich the definition of a Southeast Asian political voice to appeal to the pragmatically progressives and the Administration on campus. I ran to prove that we can be leaders among leaders as well; leaders of not just the minority, but also of the mainstream.

– And your experiences of being an ASUC senator?

Being an ASUC senator was the most rewarding experience I was fortunate enough to partake in during my Cal-lege years. It was very satisfying to be able to help the many student organizations navigate the bureaucracy, serve as a “consultant” to the student organizations about how and where to find funding, equipment etc… and to turn their passions into a reality.

NhuNhu Nguyen and U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (Photo NhuNhu Nguyen)

Outside of the resource based realms of Senate, the most intense sessions of senate were the political debates that mandated public disclosures of one’s stance. When contentious issues are being debated, there’s going to be people who are strong advocates for both sides. Not one is better or more worthy of another. It is more of a question of “Of what to whom, from whom” and whether the answer to that question is parallel with or perpendicular to the best interest of one’s constituent, in respects of being citizens of the United States. To be able to answer the aforementioned well, every issue needs to be well researched and understood. And I’m not just talking about understanding on a superficial levels, it needs to be thought out analytically as to how this issue can affect the campus and surrounding communities in both the near and far future. The political stances that we take as Cal’s student body hold more weight than one would think. Because we are the #1 public education institution in the United States, our stamp of approval or disapproval is heard around the world.

Another lesson that has been ingrained into my head is to always maintain civility in controversy. No matter what the topic is at hand, always take the higher road. It doesn’t matter what the opposing side does, if one knows better, then one must do better. At the end of the year, people are going to remember how you carried yourself through the many 12+ hour meetings, not the issues of the meetings itself. And this lesson is not only applicable in Senate, but also in all interactions in life. At the end of the day, the fight, the lifetime, one is remembered mostly for their character and how they treat others in all situations.

Honestly, any ASUC elected official can probably talk about their experiences for days on end. However, everyone can say that they walked away really understanding why certain positions in society are called “civil servants.” I have of a lot of respect and appreciation for the politicians of our country on every level. They really dedicate their lives to serving the people of this nation.

– Last year ASUC also had two Vietnamese-Americans as its vice presidents. Vietnamese usually do not like politics, how come at Cal there were several Vietnamese-Americans running and got elected?

I don’t know if I can agree with the statement of Vietnamese people not liking politics. Life is controlled by politics, which is controlled by economics. Politics is intertwined in everything that we do, wherever we are. And if we don’t like to be taken advantage by or overlooked by the system, we have to become the system. Vietnamese people do not like to be taken advantage of or being under-served.

To me, this growing participation of Vietnamese-American in the ASUC is definitely a demarcation of the evolution of the Vietnamese diaspora. I think earlier generations may not have been as involved because they didn’t have the means to make it. Getting elected takes a very strong foundation of networks and good communication skills; two things that may not have been strong points of the past generations. A good example of this can be illustrated by a short chapter titled “Accent” in Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams. This is a story of a 44-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who came to America, went back to school, got his BA and JD, but this life of his ended there. He could not practice law because of his heavy accent; no one wanted to hire him. It is not that the Vietnamese were not capable or uninterested, it is that they will be hindered by their limitations due to their short history in the States. And being the practical people Vietnamese people are, they will choose pathways that will ensure a stronger sense of security: the hard sciences, where the concepts and languages are universal.

As time passes, the Vietnamese diaspora’s mentality will shift from purely settling and trying to survive to thriving and trying to make these new lands a place to call a real home; a home that will fit them as a glove. In order to do so, we will need people who understand the history, the current events, society and how we can ensure that Vietnamese-Americans are actually treated as Americans. This is when the humanistic majors come in and become the social engineers to make the visions aforementioned possible, and what better way to do this and be at its forefront than to be politically active. Not to mention the fact that Vietnamese-Americans now no longer face cultural or lingual barriers as before. In addition, we also need people in the arts to popularize what is Vietnamese, in a positive way, in this American dominated culture. A day when there still lacks Vietnamese presence in the arts and entertainment, is a day we cannot yet call this homeland a real home. Because how can it be our real home if our presence is not recognized?

– You consider yourself a Vietnamese or an American? In which way?

I strongly consider myself Vietnamese-American.

I am not purely Vietnamese because I grew up in America and have an American education. Although my first language and mother tongue is Vietnamese, my native language of competitive and educated literacy is English. Even if my Vietnamese was on par, I would still consider myself Vietnamese-American because of my American education. And I can’t be just Vietnamese anyway because in present day Vietnam would not fully embrace me for who and all that I am: con gái trưởng của một vị Sĩ quan Hải quan của Việt Nam Cộng hoà – the oldest daughter of a navy officer from the Republic of Vietnam.

I am not American because I cannot and will not forget my Vietnamese heritage. It is a big part of who I am. I grew up in America, but with Vietnamese traditions and standards. I grew up in America, but rice and nước mắm – fish sauce – are my staple foods. I grew up in America, but my roots are from Vietnam.

There’s a motto on all US currency that goes “E Pluribus Unum” which means “out of many, one.” And essentially, it describes what being an American is. I just feel that if there is no ethnic prefix to that American base identity, it becomes that much easier to forget about one’s ethnic origins, history and struggles– which would detract from an individual’s overall identity. It is our ethnic background that sets us apart from every other American out there, because being American is all about “What makes you different” and “How do you stand out.”

Students protest fee hike (Photo Bùi Văn Phú)

– Vietnamese-American community as you know of, what are the positive things about it and which areas need improvement.

We are not as tight knit as a community as other communities, like the Jewish. I feel like we’re too competitive against each other within our own people, we don’t feel the urge to help other Vietnamese Americans succeed as much as other communities. I do understand that competition makes one stronger and better, but I think we need to compete against other ethnic groups and help our own. We are only as strong and as prestige as our weakest link.

We don’t try hard enough to make sure that our progeny is not white washed. We continue to speak English in the home to our young ones. If we continue this trend, we will lose our mother tongue within this next generation, for sure.

We don’t try hard enough to embrace our culture and our identity. We think that being American is better than being Vietnamese or Vietnamese American. We think that it’s better being just Asian, rather than being Vietnamese. We don’t have enough pride in our roots. This needs to be addressed at a young ages, this lesson needs to originate in the mentality of the parents. No matter what we do, we will always bleed Vietnamese blood, so I don’t understand why so many are in a rush to forget their roots, language and ancestry. It really does not make one a “cooler” person.

On the positive notes, we try our best to commemorate April 30th, the Fall of Saigon.

We push our children to succeed. Though many families may need federal assistance in the first generation in coming to the United States, I can confidently say that this trend will decrease tremendously, to a negligible percentage within the next generation. This cannot be said for many other races. We teach our children to be respectful to elders.

– When did you come to the USA and by which means?

I was born in Vietnam. I came here when I was almost 3 years old in September of 1991. My family was granted asylum as political refugees since Bố was a Prisoner of War for 6 years, or if you want to be politically correct, he was in the “re-education” camps for 6 years. We flew here on a plane.

– Have you ever visit Vietnam since you left?

I have gone back to Vietnam in the winter of my 4th grade and in the summer of 2006, after I graduated from high school.

I think Vietnam is breathtakingly beautiful. Everything about it is just really comforting. Although I grew up in America and have an American education, I still feel very close to the motherland for some reason. I definitely think it is the culture. Though a far and distant land, physically and emotionally, I cannot deny the fact that we share much in common: we all have Vietnamese in us. Therefore, I am still able to connect with Vietnam whenever I visit her on a very intimate level.

– What come to your mind when thinking about Vietnam?

When I think about Vietnam, I think about its suffering people, I think about the corrupt government, I think about the extremely skewed wealth distribution and I think about how China is devouring us and spitting out the bones to be picked up by the Vietnamese diaspora.

When I think about Vietnam, I think about my family, I think about the beautiful land, and I think about the delicious cuisine and fresh fruits. Out of the many, many cuisines that I’ve tried, I have to say that our Vietnamese cuisine remains #1. Our cuisine is very flavorful, rich and diverse. None other can really compare to it; it truly is a class of its own. One of my good friends said that our nước mắm is a world class sauce, and we all agree that it is among the best, if not the best.

But mainly, when I think about Vietnam, I think about us, the diaspora, and the challenges that we face due to our displacement. My close Vietnamese friends and I talk about the sacrifices that our parents have made in order for us to have the lives and opportunities that we do. We worry about how much of the Vietnamese history we actually know well enough to transmit to the next generation, how much of the traditions, the values, the proverbs, the customs, the cuisine, the language, etc… Just how much Vietnamese have we really mastered ourselves to be able to transmit to our progeny when many of us are illiterate, speak broken Vietnamese or even ashamed of being Vietnamese? We understand that the future of our Southern Vietnamese history, our sophisticated and untainted culture and sense of academia, nobility lies amongst the current youth of today. We discuss about how we can find that equilibrium of being both Vietnamese and American, so that we can thrive in this new homeland, but also remember our “nguồn gốc” – roots. We think about it a lot and we thank God that there are renown and successful Vietnamese diaspora in America and internationally to be good role models for our youth; to add pride in being Vietnamese worldwide, to add hope in a world of hopelessness to those whose paths are distorted.

– How is your Vietnamese?

I think my Vietnamese is okay. It’s not where I would like it to be, but I think I have a good foundation. My conversational skill is much better than my literacy level.

– Where did you learn Vietnamese?

I owe my Vietnamese competency to my parents. Bố has a zero tolerance rule for speaking English in our home. We watch a lot of phim Tầu growing up, so we learn the basic 4 words – tục ngữ, ca dao. Our family loves to have dialogues in Vietnamese about different social issues – such as racism – literature, education and, of course, anti-communism. Mẹ consistently helps us with the Vietnamese vocabulary when we struggle to find the Vietnamese word for our thoughts or actions.

When I went to Berkeley, I also took four of Thày Trần Hoài Bắc’s Vietnamese Classes. This was where I learned to read and write well. There are two lecturers who teach the 4 introductory courses at Cal, Thày Bắc is the very highly recommended one. He not only teaches the language, but also the culture. He is our father figure here at Cal. The tục ngữ, ca dao that he teaches us all have underlining reminders of being a good child, a good student, a good sibling, staying healthy, etc… Best of all, he provided us a space where it was cool to be Vietnamese and speak Vietnamese. The relationships fostered between students-students in those classes often manifested well outside of the classroom.

It’s hard to find an instructor who is able to teach culture on a deeper level and love teaching the Vietnamese culture the way he does. In Thày’s class, we really learn about the history of our country and our culture through proverbs and their origins; unlike other classes that portray Vietnamese culture so superficially as “mặt đẹp là khuôn mặt trái soan, môi trái tim, mắt bồ câu, mũi cao, da trắng v.v…”. Cal is truly blessed to have such an amazing Vietnamese teacher as Thày Bắc.

– Can you share your most memorable moment or activity at Cal?

Cal is too awesome to just choose one particular moment or activity. I would like to say what my most memorable “experience” at Cal is my personal growth throughout the years. I owe this to the organizations that I’ve dedicated myself to and in turn, they have dedicated to me, in order of level of growth from these organization: ASUC Senate, aKDPhi then VSA.

NhuNhu Nguyen (Photo Bùi Văn Phú)

– What would you advise a coming freshman?

For any freshmen, I would advise the following:

Take the minimum amount of units for as long as possible.

Try new things, have fun; but do not forget that you are in college to get a good education, your GPA needs to remain the #1 priority. Although many may say that the worthwhile lessons cannot be learned in the classroom, remember that it is what you learn in the classroom that gets you your first step into the door.

Have a schedule and stick to it. Schedule in time to be lazy, to watch TV, to go to the gym, going out and STUDY!

Start studying for all exams at least one week before, especially for science majors.

Friends are the family you can choose: choose wisely. There are a few sayings that hold very true like “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are” or in Vietnamese: “Gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sang.”

Find your balance; know your limits. Moderation is the key to a successful and healthy college life.

Take Thày Trần Hoài Bắc’s Vietnamese classes: Viet 1A, 1B, 100A, 100B

– Please spell your Vietnamese name, full name with its marks and your legal name if it’s different from the Vietnamese one.

In Vietnamese: Nguyễn Như Như. In English: NhuNhu Nguyen.

– Thank you for taking time to share your experiences at Cal. I wish you successes in your future endeavor.

© 2010 Buivanphu

About Bùi Văn Phú

Bùi Văn Phú is a community college teacher and a freelance writer from San Francisco Bay Area. He worked with Peace Corps in Togo, Africa and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeast Asia. Bùi Văn Phú hiện dạy đại học cộng đồng và là một nhà báo tự do sống tại vùng Vịnh San Francisco, California. Trong thập niên 1980, ông làm tình nguyện viên của Peace Corps tại Togo, Phi Châu và làm tham vấn giáo dục cho Cao ủy Tị nạn Liên hiệp quốc tại Đông nam Á.
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