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 species that do not have diversity cannot adapt and will become extinct.
Everything is not black or white.
When I was in the fifth grade, the Vietnam War ended. I became a refugee and ended up in Pennsylvania. In school, there was a math quiz. I was supposed to circle either “T” or “F”. I did not know that “T” stood for “true” and “F” stood for “false,” nor what those words meant.
From this, I learned that we can solve problems, yet we cannot answer a question unless we knew what the real question was. That people get the wrong answer, not because they are stupid, but because they speak a different language or see the world differently. That we have to answer the questions posed by powerful people to get where we want to go. But we should ask why did they get to ask those questions
Do we have control over our destiny?
In high school, I played football and stopped thinking in Vietnamese. I was bleached. When I got into Harvard, I bought a trunk because that was what people did when they went to college in the books I read. I cannot imagine what my roommates thought when they saw me in my refugee clothes dragging an old-fashioned trunk in from the subway.
At college, there were a lot of rich and powerful people, most of whom were white, and it was hard to fit in. It made me think about where I came from and about my parents. In 1954, when my mom was 17 and my dad was 20, they got married and moved from North to South Vietnam while carrying only their clothes and wedding rings. By 1975, they had a comfortable living. When the Vietnam War ended, they lost everything. They laughed when I asked them what they thought their destiny was. I do not believe in destiny, only action and change. But to know what we have to do, we have to know where we came from.
What is heritage?
My mom was sick while I was in medical school, and I realized that doctors 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 Asian American health. What did we find out?
That Asian Americans have cultural beliefs different from the mainstream, but those beliefs did not prevent Asian Americans from being healthy. That having a good education, health insurance, and a doctor who cared kept them healthy. That people can engage in healthy behaviors if they were taught in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. That to understand why people did things that were bad for their health, we have to know about the things that they did not control. For example, people sometimes do not take their medications because being poor forces them to choose between buying food and buying medication.
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. If history is written by the victors, then it is the record of the forces and events that happened to minorities. American history is what powerful white people did to Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, immigrants, and 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. Heritage is the soft power of minorities. Segregation created Chinatowns and Japantowns, out of which came foods that changed America.
“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?”
To be or not to be?
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 appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), I saw it as a chance both to make history ― by creating the forces of change ― and to build on our heritage. The Affordable Care Act insured two million Asian Americans. We helped to train Asian American small businesses to get federal government contracts. Asian Americans were empowered to connect with their government. The biggest lesson that I learned was that we look to the government to solve our problems, while the government looks to us.
So, what should I do when our government now tries to take away health insurance, the lack of which kill about 45,000 people each year? Should I do nothing when our government creates policies that lead to the deaths of many Syrian refugees, who are basically like me and my parents? I resigned from the Commission and we started PIVOT-The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (pivotnetwork.org) to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans to create a just and diverse America. I also helped to create the AAPI Victory Fund (aapivictoryfund.com) to mobilize AAPI voters for progressive candidates.
Others suffered from history but persevered to create a country in which we can celebrate our heritage. What we do now will determine the heritage our children see. So, for those who are not AAPIs, thank you for helping us protect our heritage. And for those who are AAPIs, the best way to honor our heritage is 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.