Interview: An Thien Nguyen on Being Vietnamese and American

An Thien Nguyen is a student at Georgia Tech majoring in business and finance. In this interview, An discusses, among other things, her family, her heritage, and her insights on culture and language. Additionally, An had the opportunity during the summer of 2019 to visit Vietnam, the country in which she was born and lived until age three.

Tell us about yourself. What is your name? Where are you from? What are you majoring in at Georgia Tech? What prompted that decision?

I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. My birth name is Nguyễn Trang Thiên Ân, but when I immigrated to the U.S. at three years old, someone along the way decided to change it to An Thien Nguyen. Since then, I’ve been in a perpetual identity crisis.

To the question of what I wanted to be when I grow up, my earliest answer was a religious sister. This was very much influenced by my two aunts on my mom’s side who are nuns, and my favorite uncle who’s a monk. Although I eventually decided that career path wasn’t for me, familial influence did play a large part in my current concentration in finance.

After my architecture phase in fifth grade, engineering phase in sixth grade, and psychology phase in seventh grade, I was worried I would never settle on a career choice I would be happy with for the rest of my life. It was the summer before senior year when I sat down to confess my worries to my Aunt Linh. Being a Vietnam War refugee who fled the country at sixteen, alone, penniless, and not knowing a word of English, Aunt Linh was able to put herself through high school and university to become an accountant. She was my professional role model. Together, we worked through what I was looking for in a career. At the time, I was so afraid of becoming a corporate zombie I didn’t even bother to explore the more traditional office careers, but after hearing about my aunt’s experience and learning how meaningful an office job could be, I decided to look into the business major here at Tech.

I’ve been noncommittal in my interests and relationships for as long as I can remember. but a constant I won’t ever give up is my family. They support my aspirations wherever they can, but they also keep me focused when I’m losing my way. Neither of my parents has even graduated high school, but without their advice and encouragement in my high school years, I wouldn’t now be at one of the best universities in the world.

Where are your parents from? What brought them to the U.S.? What stories do they tell you about Vietnam? Or do they talk about it at all?

My parents were both born in south Vietnam, six months apart and barely more than six miles apart, my dad in Bình Dương and my mom in Bình Long. Both families moved around once the war started, so ironically, my parents didn’t meet until they were coincidentally living in the same city as teenagers in Bà Rịa, Vũng Tàu. My father was fortunate to leave the country after Vietnam fell under communist rule, but because they weren’t yet married at the time, my mom and I didn’t come to the U.S. until I was three.

My dad has always said we moved to escape the corrupt Vietnamese government, but obviously there was a financial reason, too. His family was moderately wealthy before the war, but during the land reform, the Việt Cọng repossessed their property. Both my mom and dad’s families had trouble finding work. I don’t think the country as a whole really recovered until the 2000s. My parents don’t talk about the Vietnamese economy, though, because they don’t follow the news over there anymore. Any time they do talk about Vietnam, it’s usually to complain about the Việt Cọng. My dad hates the Vietnamese government so much he hasn’t been back in over 15 years.

What was it like growing up with parents whose first language is not English? Would you mind sharing any memories that capture the complexity of your childhood or adolescence?

I started preschool without knowing any English. In my first week, I went to the restroom without asking because I didn’t understand the instructions that I had to ask first, but even after I learned English and started raising my hand to go to the restroom, I didn’t stop speaking Vietnamese at home until my younger sister became fluent in English.

It started off innocently enough with just English names. Then we started using English verbs that were hard to translate into Vietnamese. Eventually, we spoke complete English to each other. My parents are afraid we’ll forget Vietnamese after they die, and a small part of me is afraid, too. The possibility seemed unimaginable as a kid, but seeing my progression, I’ve been making an effort to speak more Vietnamese to my sister and other Vietnamese speakers.

I still talk to my parents in Vietnamese, but sometimes, we throw in so many English words, it’s not even Vietnamese anymore. In fact, one time on a call with my mom, my friend Rheanna was able to guess that we were talking about picking up my sister from school. I’d never noticed before how much English I speak with my parents, especially my mom, who has a limited vocabulary.

Both my parents have thick accents, and you have to learn to understand what they’re saying. They learn bad pronunciation from each other, too. My parents used to pronounce “rest area” like “rest uh-REE-uh.” We forget how much English my parents actually know because English speakers usually have a hard time understanding them. My sister and I have learned all their weird conventions, and we translate for them whenever we go out.

Do you have a favorite word or phrase in Vietnamese?

My parents joke that they sacrifice learning English so me and my sister can practice our Vietnamese. We don’t regret the decision. My parents have learned plenty of English from work and simply living in the U.S. while many Vietnamese families at our church have forgotten their language.

My favorite word is a little silly. Quẹo means to turn. It’s pronounced like “quail” without the “l” at the end, but my dad likes to pronounce the “qu” like a “w.” A memory I still have is one with my dad driving and my mom navigating. Instead of asking if he was to quẹo there, he asked if he should wẹo. I guess they were in a good mood because my mom teased him about it and said yes he should wẹo there. After that, my sister and I kept singing wẹo wẹo as we drove along. I don’t know what day it was or even how old I was. I just remember that weird word and how happy and carefree I felt that day.

Do you have a favorite author? What attracts you to their work?

I’ve always been naïve, but I didn’t realize the United States had any flaws until junior year of high school because my parents constantly tell me how good we have it because we didn’t stay in Vietnam. When I read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, my world view splintered into a million pieces.

At its core, the book is the worst kind of dystopian novel—the kind without a happy ending. The book jabbed at every part of my life from school to church to the food I ate in the cafeteria. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve read books about how bad the world can be, and I pay attention in history. It just didn’t occur to me that the system was broken currently.

I’m not sure I read enough to say I have a favorite author, but I do love Margaret Atwood. Even though she’s known for her dystopian books, she maintains an optimistic perspective on life. Even when she can see how divided our society has become in regards to socioeconomic status and educational opportunity and mobility, she’s still able to Instagram about a colorful scarf her sister made her and how happy it makes her feel. I appreciate Atwood’s attention to detail and her ability to see the beauty in life.

At the end of Oryx and Crake, Atwood doesn’t give us a bad ending. She hints at a vague beginning with the slightest glimmer of hope. I know it’s depressing to say my favorite author is one who made me more cynical, but what Atwood actually did was teach me realistic optimism and true patriotism. What good is optimism if it’s reinforced by ignorance? The first step to fixing something broken is to know it’s broken, and Atwood taught me that no broken system is beyond repair. The United States may be broken in countless ways, but I’m willing to be part of the solution.

How has speaking one language at home and another one outside of it transformed who you have become? How has it shaped your perceptions of the people and culture more generally? What are some of the challenges, opportunities, or responsibilities that come along with that? Can you elaborate on some of your experiences?

My trip to Vietnam this summer significantly changed my cultural identity. Before, I never truly felt “American” because I didn’t grow up with the same childhood and family experiences as my classmates, but over the summer, I realized I identified with the loud, laidback Vietnamese culture even less. I’m part of a distinct Vietnamese-American culture, and from this vantage point, I have the opportunity to see the differences and similarities between the two cultures.

The differences that set the Vietnamese community apart also set me apart throughout my school years. Starting elementary school, I was loud and talkative because that was the type of behavior encouraged back in Vietnam. Because kids are generally loud and talkative, this didn’t become a problem until the third grade when the other girls started to think I was annoying. In middle school, my parents didn’t let me attend sleepovers or pool parties simply because they didn’t know the kid’s parents. I eventually stopped getting invitations. By high school, I started hearing gossip about the nail salon. They make fun of our language. American nail salons are predominantly Vietnamese-owned, and most let their newly immigrated employees speak Vietnamese freely. I once caught a girl openly imitating a Vietnamese woman, claiming that’s how she sounded when the woman made fun of her feet. Before I could say anything, my own friend chimed in in agreement. I was horrified. I thought that being my friend, she would know better than to let that girl ridicule Vietnamese like that. When I did speak up, the girls profusely apologized, swearing that they didn’t know I was there, but that meant they would have kept going unapologetically if I wasn’t there.

The sad part is those girls weren’t entirely wrong. The workers probably weren’t commenting on their feet, but there’s a good chance they were talking about their kinky hair and dark brown skin. It didn’t matter how long those employees have lived in the U.S. They still held onto the stereotype that black clients were the dirtiest, rudest, and stingiest. When a black client gives a big tip, she was perceived as a shining exception. “Probably grew up with white people.” I went to a predominantly black school, but I never told my parents. I always mitigated the situation somehow. I would say most of my classmates were mixed (that counted as something), or the student body looked dark because there were so many South Asians and Middle Easterners.

There is no singular American culture. I’m as American as my black classmates, yet we take turns framing each other with ridiculous assumptions, trying to prove to ourselves who’s more of an outsider. My hope is we’ll eventually realize how pointless it’s all been.

What influence does your cultural background and heritage have on your choice to attend the university and seek a certain career path? How will it continue to influence you, say, 10 or 20 years from now?

As I’ve mentioned before, my decision to go into finance was inspired by my Aunt Linh, but besides that, my family isn’t strict about what career I choose for myself. I understand Asians stereotypically go into medicine and law, but my parents just want me to get a job and have goals. They trust me to succeed in the path I choose to follow. I don’t expect this to change as I grow older because parents lose control over your career once you get your first real job. By then, they’ll only nag about me getting married, but we’ll worry about that when the time comes.

I want to say there are more Asian parents like mine than we realize. They just don’t make the headlines and screenplays. I think the image of the strict Asian parent is unfair. It’s even perpetrated in the Asian community. Crazy-ambitious parents exist, but is that proportion any bigger in Asians than any other race? These kids say their parents would kill them if they don’t become a doctor, but our parents just want us to be happy and be financially stable. Is that wrong? I don’t think good parents get enough credit.

Note: The photographs appearing on this page were contributed by An Thien Nguyen.