Every week during May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, HuffPost’s #UpNext Series will highlight Asian Americans who are on the rise in public service. This is part two.
In the mornings, particularly ahead of a big day on the Washington state Senate floor, Joe Nguyen (D-Wash.) will get into his car, turn up the volume and blast Eminem’s “Lucky You.”
Rapper Joyner Lucas’ coarse vocals hit the sound system. There’s a crescendo with each passing bar.
“Y’all been eatin’ long enough, it’s my turn to cut the food. Pass the plate. Where my drink? This my day, lucky you. Fuck you, too.”
The freshman state senator regularly indulges in that personal ritual to hype himself up ― a pregame of sorts. For Nguyen, the track serves as a confidence boost as much as it does a reminder that it’s about time a minority holds a seat at the table. And in our conversation, it’s evident he believes that.
Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese refugees, is not only the first Asian American senator in the state’s 34th District — he’s also the first person of color in that seat.
“It’s talking about how, ‘I’ve been starving for so long. You guys have had enough food. Time to make space for other people as well,’” Nguyen animatedly tells HuffPost of the song. “I come in every single day, and I’m just fired up and I’m like, ‘We’re doing work today because these folks have had their time to eat for too long.’”
Nguyen understands that his presence can be uncomfortable for a legislative body that’s unused to seeing someone from an underrepresented community in his seat. On top of that, his personality runs counter to the tired stereotypes long attached to Asian Americans.
People simply do not see Asians as leaders. Look no further than the tech industry to see the manifestation of that belief. A study from Ascend found that while Asians made up the largest racial cohort of professionals in the Bay Area technology sector, they remained the racial group least likely to become managers and executives.
But Nguyen has never existed within the confines of these stereotypes. He’s really into motorcycles. He actually understood my XXL Magazine Freshman Class reference. And most importantly, he’s a “loud” Asian.
It surprises non-Asian constituents and colleagues alike. His fuck-you energy, he admits, is not always well-received.
I come in every single day, and I’m just fired up. Washington state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D)
The thing is, Nguyen doesn’t really give a shit. He says he’s refused to shy away from his identity because that’s the very thing that pushed him into public service in the first place ― a hyperawareness of how Asians and Asian culture are rejected in the U.S.
“Growing up, I saw very clearly that Asians were not seen as equals. Asians were seen as lesser,” he said, reflective. “Even when people said things like, ‘Hey, I have an Asian friend!’ it wasn’t as if they saw themselves equal to them, it’s because we’re so tokenized.”
The 34-year-old’s origin story begins with his parents’ escape from Vietnam by boat following the fall of Saigon. Nguyen’s mother and father spent two weeks at sea before the Coast Guard plucked their group from the waters. His family eventually relocated to White Center, Washington, where they lived in public housing.
When Nguyen was 7 years old, his father got into a car accident that left him paralyzed, and the burden fell on his mother to support the family. They were by no means privileged.
But Nguyen’s family was incredibly loving and supportive, his childhood best friend John Tran says. And they helped shaped Nguyen’s personality, which remains a lot like it was back then.
“He’s always been a hard worker and sticks up for what’s right,” Tran told HuffPost. “He’s not afraid to call you out on your b.s.”
Nguyen was always involved in many activities ― from sports to student government. He was also a huge music fan ― a hip-hop head who loved Jay-Z but could also appreciate a little Kenny G. Though Nguyen may have not called it himself, Tran said his friend’s life in public service is one that “most of us probably saw coming a long time ago, even if he didn’t want to admit it himself.”
Through much of his life, the freshman senator never had grand political ambitions. However, he eventually felt the weight of the community on his shoulders and the dire need for more Asian Americans in public service.
A sheriff’s deputy’s fatal shooting of unarmed student Tommy Le in 2017 confirmed the need for Asian representation in Nguyen’s district. The deputy killed Le just hours before the 20-year-old was set to attend his own graduation from Career Link, an alternative high school completion program at South Seattle College.
While it was originally reported that Le had been wielding a knife or “sharp object,” the student had only been holding a pen.
The case shook Nguyen to his core.
“Things like that start to piss you off,” he reflected.
“As Asians ... you stay in your lane, you do your thing, because you’re trying to survive,” he says. “But at a certain point, your survival is incumbent on your community’s survival as well.”
As Asians ... you stay in your lane, you do your thing, because you’re trying to survive. But at a certain point, your survival is incumbent on your community’s survival as well. Joe Nguyen
Nguyen knew his parents wanted him in a field with higher earnings — their memories of instability as refugees colored their vision of their children’s futures — but he said he “never felt self-worth in becoming what my parents wanted me to become.”
“I found self-worth fighting for people in my community who I felt were oppressed.”
Now that he’s in office, he’s in the thick of it. While so many interpret policy as a debate between two sides, arguing a point, the fight is actually more fundamental than that, he explains.
“In the legislature, there’s three or four thousand pieces of legislation that come out every single year. Only two or three hundred actually get passed,” he said. “It’s making sure it’s worthy of being discussed. And as Asian Americans, our issues have never been [perceived] as worthy of being discussed.”
In many ways, representing Asian Americans is an uphill battle. Recently, Nguyen made the news when Republican state Sen. Phil Fortunato and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler mocked him for his Vietnamese last name on the state Senate floor last year.
Though freshman senators are typically roasted after passing their first bill ― a tradition in the Washington state legislature ― racism is not usually part of the fun. The incident was indicative of what Nguyen feels he’s up against.
“Any time you minimize somebody’s existence whether it’s through their name or other means, it’s detrimental for the community. ... It’s one of those things where it’s so fundamental to the core that if you don’t take the time to learn somebody’s name, it doesn’t give me much faith that you’ll fight for that community as well,” he told HuffPost at the time.
Oftentimes, Nguyen will glance over at the giant photo hanging in his office of the boat his family used to escape Vietnam. It helps him cut through the noise.
“On social media, you only see the happy parts ― the support, the lights. A lot of it is very lonely, it’s very tough, you have to make decisions that impact peoples’ lives. It wears you down,” he said.
“Whenever I’m feeling down, I’ll look at the photo, recognize how far we’ve come and how far we have to go,” Nguyen continued. “People died for me to be here. My mom almost died. I almost didn’t have the chance to do the work. I want to honor their struggle, I want to honor their sacrifice.”
If you don't do it, nobody else will. Someone has to step up. We've gone far too long and we've worked too damn hard to not have people represented in these halls. Nguyen on Asian American representation in politics
As important as it is for him to serve his district, the freshman official says reelection isn’t his priority. He doesn’t spend nights plotting his next campaign or strategizing how to win over voters.
It’s not about his name in lights, Nguyen says. He just wants to see more people of color in office and more Asian Americans bucking stereotypes for a life in public service.
“The laws that we’re creating right now will impact our generation and generations to come, and if we’re not at that table helping to decide how these laws are crafted, we’re basically giving up,” he said. “We’re not at a point where we can then make sure our future is inclusive, it’s for the community, it’s one that makes sure everybody gets a fair shot.”
“If you don’t do it, nobody else will,” Nguyen added. “Someone has to step up. We’ve gone far too long and we’ve worked too damn hard to not have people represented in these halls.”