What is your story of strength?
Looking back, my college years were a really transformative time for me. I think growing up through 12th grade I was so certain about what I wanted to do with my life. I had this ten year plan about wanting to be a doctor and studying biology. I knew I wanted to save the world and do all of these ambitious things. I was so set on it and it never really occurred to me that this wasn’t going to work out for me. So I went into college with that plan in mind and I was hit in the face my first year of college. My classes were extremely difficult and I found myself studying and studying and nothing was absorbing for me. A lot of times I felt stupid and dumb. And it felt like my peers around me were doing so much better than I was and I was like, “What am I doing wrong? What am I doing differently?”
It took awhile but by the end of my freshman year I realized this path wasn’t meant for me. I went on a volunteer trip where I was able to work and interact with children. That experience just sort of transformed me and made me realize this (studying to become a doctor) isn’t the path that I was meant to be on. In a lot of ways I was struggling with the idea that if I changed my major and changed my career path, I was giving up and taking the easy way out.
I realized that by changing my route I was shifting into the path that I was called to be on. Education is all encompassing and I knew, once I learned about the power of education, especially for women and girls, I knew this was what I was called to do. And that was how I ended up changing my major to English and Education. I think that was something really difficult for me that demonstrated strength. For so long I had this idea of who I wanted to be and also this idea of what I thought people around me wanted me to be. I thought if I changed my major I was not only disappointing my perceptions of myself, but also my family and the people around me who’ve I told this dream of myself to over and over again.
By the end of the year I made that difficult decision and I’ve been so much happier and more joyful because of it. Even though it was difficult for me to negotiate, looking back I really appreciate all the things I had to think about and all the support that I had. I think that is my story of strength.
What does being a woman mean to you?
When I think about this question, I immediately think about my mom and my sister. I think in so many ways they embody this idea of resilience. They were survivors of war. Starting with my mom, she actually lost her first born, my oldest brother, when he was eight due to pneumonia and because they didn’t have access to medicine and healthcare at that time. It was just before the Vietnam War had broke out in their village. My mom was a teacher too, she was a 5th grade teacher back in Vietnam. Once the fall of Saigon happened in 1975, she and her family had to leave everything behind. She was forced out of her career. She could only take a few belongings. She had to take my sister and flee to safety. I think my dad was in jail at that time, he was a prisoner of war.
I think about her when I think about what it means to be a woman to me because she has been able to bounce back from so much loss and grieving in her life. And I think about the kindness and the generosity that she exudes to everyone around her. Sometimes it makes me wonder, like wow, looking at her you wouldn’t know that she’s been through this. I think that’s what women do. We go through things, we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, we do what we have to do, and then we bounce back. We take the ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary and we move on from it.
Can you tell me about a time in which you struggled or disappointed yourself?
I think when this happened I wasn’t disappointed at the time. It wasn’t until I got older in college I realized I was really ashamed of myself for doing it. I grew up in a very predominantly white community and I went to a predominantly black school. I was constantly this outsider. I didn’t really fit in with the white community and I didn’t really fit in with the black community. I grew up for a long time feeling ashamed for being different. In elementary school I actually used to lie about being Vietnamese because no one really knew where it was or understood. I think their only familiarity with Asian countries was China or Korea or Japan… So I actually used to lie and say I was from Canada (I don’t really know why I chose Canada!).
For a long time I just kind of almost wished it away. I never wanted to talk about it, never wanted to acknowledge it. I wanted there to be a very clear boundary between my house and the second I stepped outside in the world. I kind of just wanted to not be Asian and not be viewed differently. For a long time I tried to deny my culture and tried to suppress it in any way that I could. I didn’t really hang out with any Asian kids because I almost felt that they were beneath me. I tried really hard to assimilate in so many ways, especially in high school.
It wasn’t until college when I started hanging out with other Vietnamese American and Asian American students that I started to feel ashamed about how I had treated my culture. I started realizing what my family had sacrificed and that made me reevaluate how I viewed my heritage and the importance of understanding my history. That’s when I started feeling proud of my culture. Being around other proud Asian Americans kind of strengthened me. I had a lot of Asian American women around me at this time as well. I think they made me feel empowered and emboldened to share my stories a lot more.
Looking back I think it’s kind of funny that I tried so hard to be different and that’s something that I now value. I think that’s a perspective now a lot of people value when I’m in the conversation. I feel like the Asian American voice is left out — it’s not really acknowledged in history books or in literature. I remember it wasn’t even until college that I read a book with an Asian American character or Asian American author. So that really opened my eyes to so many things.
How can women better support each other?
I think for women to continue supporting each other it’s important to realize that our freedom and our liberation is all tied to each others’. I think a lot about what Audre Lorde says, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” I think about that a lot. I think about the responsibility that women have to help each other once we have made it it or have been successful. I think it’s really important for women to continue giving back and supporting other women as much as we can.
I think we have a tendency to compare ourselves — or at least I do, it took me a long time to get over the insecurity of feeling threatened by other women’s successes. Now it’s kind of shifting into that place where I can be happy for other women. It’s like, “Wow, she’s made it and is a really strong, resilient woman that I can look up to.”
I think being accepting of ourselves and celebrating the successes of other women will continue to move us forward.