Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by Making History

May 31, 2017

Tung Thanh Nguyen, MD

People used to talk about America as the melting pot, which sounded either scary or unappetizing. Immigrants were supposed to assimilate, which meant becoming white. I call it the bleaching of America. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month means we can celebrate what makes us different. The diversity, not the singularity, is what makes us stronger. As a scientist, I can say that this is true. Species that do not have diversity cannot adapt, and will become extinct.

Everything is true or false.

When I was finishing the 5th grade, I was so excited to go on summer vacation and was a little worried about going on to the 6th grade the next year. Except that I was in Vietnam, thought in Vietnamese, spoke Vietnamese, and ate Vietnamese food. Then the Vietnam War ended, and a lot of the things that are on television about refugees happened to me. Long walks, boat rides, dead people.

When the fall came, I was going to school in Pennsylvania, where I was the only minority person in the class. I had learned only a little bit of English. One day, the teacher gave a math quiz. I did not understand the instruction. On the quiz, there was a series of equations.  On the right side, there were two columns. One was labeled “T” and the other was labeled “F”, and I was supposed to circle one of them. That was confusing. Who knew that there were only two answers to all the math questions? I guess my Vietnamese math teachers didn’t know American math! Of course, I did not know that “T” stood for “true” and “F” stood for “false,” and even if I did, I did not know what those words meant. So, I guessed, randomly checking T for some and F for others.

For years, I told this story as an example of how dumb I was, and yet, I have learned many important things after asking a dumb question or doing something dumb. I learned that we can solve problems, yet we cannot answer a question unless we knew what the real question was. That sometimes people get the wrong answer not because they are stupid, but because they speak a different language, come from another culture, or simply see the world in a different way. That sometimes people in power asks us to answer stupid questions, like whether something is true or false, and in order to get to where we want to go, we have to answer their questions their way. But that once we get to where we want to go, we should ask why did they get to ask those questions the way they did, so that a lot of people who see the world differently get it wrong and fail. 

I did get 60% right. So, I also learned that I can get a passing grade by guessing!

Do we have control over our destiny?

By high school, I had been bleached. My parents worked 12 hours a day every day except for Christmas and Tet so they left me alone as long as I got good grades and did not go out on dates. I played football in high school. And hung out with non-Asians. I stopped thinking in Vietnamese. I even wrote a Declaration of Independence asserting my individuality and freedom from family and community.

I wrote that Declaration because I had a great English teacher who encouraged independent thinking. She was also the one who suggested I apply to Harvard. I had no idea what that was. If I had, I would never have applied. But ignorance is not always bad. I applied. And got in. And decided to go, mostly because I wanted to get away from my parents.

I knew nothing about Harvard. In the books that I read, people brought their stuff in a trunk to college. So, I went and bought a trunk and loaded all my stuff. I got off the plane and dragged my trunk-this was before they put wheels on everything- to the dorm. Everybody was there with their parents helping them to move in with suitcases from fancy luxury cars. I cannot imagine what they thought when they saw me in my refugee clothes dragging an old-fashioned trunk in from the subway, because I could not afford a taxi.

And that was my Harvard experience. I worked several jobs, including cleaning my classmates’ rooms and bathrooms, to get through school. I learned that there were a lot of rich and powerful people, most of whom were white. That if I wanted to fit in, I had to act like them too, but that if I did, I would still not fit in. I tried. I roomed with a white conservative guy from Georgia for 4 years! What helped me survive was that I found a couple of Asian kids to hang out with. That forced me to think about who I was. To do so, I had to learn about my parents.

When my parents were born, they lived in poverty in Central Vietnam. In 1954, when my mom was 17 and my dad was 20, they got married and moved to the South carrying only their clothes and their wedding rings. By 1975, they had a comfortable living, but then the Vietnam War ended and they lost everything. A lot of lucky things had to happen for us to come to America. They laughed when I asked them where they thought they would end up when they were young.

I no longer believe in destiny. I only believe in action and in change. But I do not think we know what action to take, or what change we can hope for, if we do not know what happened. To know where we want to go, we have to know where we came from.

What is heritage?

My mom got very sick while I was in medical school, so I was exposed to how doctors treated patients. And I realized that not just the doctors, but medicine itself, did not know how to take care of people who are poor, or do not speak English well, or are immigrants, or Asian. I set out to do research on Vietnamese and ultimately Asian American health. From the time I started with that idea to the time I obtained my first research grant was about 15 years, so there was a lot of wrong turns, bad role models, and failures.

What did we find out? We showed that the idea that being from Asian cultures may lead to certain beliefs that are different than mainstream American culture, but the beliefs were not what determined whether Asian Americans are healthy. That what kept them healthy was having a good education, health insurance, and a doctor who recommended the right things to do. That we can teach all kinds of people to do the right things for their health if we designed the lessons appropriately in terms of language and culture, and if we treat them with respect and empower them to ask for the care they need.

And sometimes, in order to understand why people were doing something that was bad for themselves, we have to know what happened to them, about the things that they did not control. For example, why people sometimes do not take their medications because being poor forces them to choose between buying food and buying medication, and being too ashamed to tell the doctor why they do not take the medication. Or why white rice, which is bad for their sugar, and fish sauce, which is bad for their blood pressure, were so essential to who they were.

Heritage contains both good and bad things, both of which influence how people act. To understand people and to help them, we have to know and care about their heritage.

What is the difference between history and heritage?

When I was young, I did not care much for history, which smelled like musty old books, or heritage, which felt claustrophobic, like a preserved room in some famous person’s house. Neither had relevance to me nor what I wanted to do or to become.

Here is my definition of history. If history is written by the victors, then it is the record of the forces and events that happened to minorities. American history could be read as what white people did to Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Jewish people, LGBTQs, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and now Muslim countries, It is also what rich and powerful people did to poor people, including poor whites. Asian American history is the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese American Internment, and the Vietnam War.

Heritage is what minorities keep or make in response to history. Those who oppress us can write the history books, but they cannot come into our family gatherings and take away what was ours and what we have created.

America’s key strength is its soft power through the export of its culture—American movies, music, fashion, materialism, and democratic ideas. Heritage is the soft power of minorities. They wanted segregation? Fine, but we will get our revenge when their kids are listening to rock and roll, which is a poor imitation of African American rhythm and blues, and their grandkids are deep in hip-hop culture. They want to exclude Asians? Well, we will make their kids line up around the block to eat sushi and phở. They won’t put Asians on TV? Well, we will make their kids watch Asian American YouTube stars and listen to K-Pop.

To be or not to be?

This is the question that Shakespeare asked of us. He also said, “be true to yourself.” Actually, he said ‘To thine own self be true.” Growing up, I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was. Was I Vietnamese? Was I Asian? Was I American? Was I a good person? I eventually came to realize two things.

That who I am is determined a lot by my family, my community, and my heritage.

But who I am is also determined by what I do.

When I was offered the chance to work for President Obama to help Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I saw it as a chance both to make history-- -by creating the forces of change-- -and to build on our heritage. We did get a lot done. We passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and made sure that Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans got health insurance—nearly 200,000 Vietnamese and 2 million Asian Americans. We helped to connect and train Asian American small businesses to get federal government contracts. We went to Asian Americans and told them that no matter their age, language, or economic status, this is their government, and they have a voice in it that they have to make sure is heard.

What was the biggest lesson that I learned working for President Obama? It is that everyone outside of the federal government looks to it to solve our problems—at least, everyone who are minorities, or not well to do. And to whom does the government look to help them solve our problems? Us. 

And I believe that the reason that we are celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is because other people, Asian and otherwise, suffered from history but persevered to create a country in which we can live our lives, have our liberty, and pursue our happiness. So what if that happiness means wearing clothes that are a little weird, or eating foods that are a little smelly, or listening to funky music?

So, what should I do when we have a government that tries to create policies that take away people’s health insurance, so as to prevent poor people from having life?  Because about 45,000 people died in this country each year simply from the lack of health insurance before the ACA. Am I going to sit still when our government creates policies that may lead to the deaths of many Syrian refugees, who are basically like me and my parents?

The answer for me is no. I resigned from the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in February. I felt that as someone who is a minority and who was a refugee, and who benefited from so many government programs, it would have been both hypocritical and self-defeating of me to work for a government that opposes all of those things. After I resigned, we started PIVOT-The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (pivotnetwork.org). Our mission is to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans to create a just and diverse America. I also helped to create the AAPI Victory Fund (aapivictoryfund.com), which is focused on mobilizing AAPI voters for progressive candidates.

Here are a couple of things we need to know about heritage. It is always changing. What we do now will determine the heritage our children see later. And when we celebrate the heritage of one group or another, we have to understand that we all rely on each other to ensure that our own heritage is sustained and improved. That to ensure that our own heritage is celebrated, we have to celebrate everyone else’s heritage. Because otherwise, there is fear, that other people are coming to change what we value the most, our heritage.

So, for those who are not AAPIs, thank you for celebrating with us and helping us protect our heritage. And for those who are AAPIs, please remember that the best way to honor our heritage is to act to protect everyone else’s.

Dr. Nguyen is Director of the Asian American Research Center on Health, Founder of PIVOT-The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, and formerly Chair of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs.