Nguyen: what it’s like to be a Vietnamese-American student


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Jimmy Le Nguyen

“Gentlemen, I give you the Asian— compact, hairless, and fiercely intelligent,” as presented by God on Family Guy. As comical as it may seem, Asians—specifically Vietnamese—are like a lightning rod that absorbs many wrongful stereotypes.

Although I consider myself an American, my Vietnamese heritage is what has really defined me throughout my life. Last year my friend Jared exclaimed, “Damnnnn, you passed trig with an A?! You’re so Asian, bro!” In this scenario, Jared had assumed I passed trigonometry simply because of some “lucky genes” I was inherently gifted with.

In reality, Vietnamese-American students such as me are able to receive excellent grades in school since they worked hard for it. Despite the stereotypes, Vietnamese-American students’ exceptional performance in academics is not due to genetics, but rather, it is because of their socioeconomic status, family influences and high community expectations.

Vietnamese-American students perform exceptionally well in school because of how their socioeconomic status defines them. Rather than assuming all Vietnamese are born “smart,” one must consider how they were raised. A person’s rank in the social hierarchy usually determines how they behave in accordance with the social norm. For example, those who are on top look down upon those below, while those below tend to strive to get on top.

When a Vietnamese child comes from a deprived, poverty-stricken upbringing, they want to break out of it. However, the motivation to break away comes not from the situation itself but from their family. When a Vietnamese child observes his/her parents coming home from work with aches, sores and blisters, they themselves yearn for those agonies to stop.

In order to break out of this social hierarchy and to obtain a better socioeconomic status, one must strive for the proficiency that one’s parents lacked—a formal education. Therefore, Vietnamese-American students are taught that having good grades can lead to a good job, and a good job eventually leads to a good life.

For a better future for themselves and their families, people need to know, Vietnamese-American students set a higher standard for themselves. The Vietnamese-American students are realizing the opportunities their parents had struggled to create for them.

My family had to work extremely long hours in an inhospitably cold factory in order to pay off an enormous debt accumulated from transitioning here and providing for my siblings and I. Debt was such a “Trojan horse” in our lives that even toys became a luxury for me ​personally because my family simply could not aord it. ​As I grew up, the importance of ​having a proper education and a ​strong work ethic was instilled in ​me. It was with much emphasis ​that my family became very conservative and restrictive on anything that did not have to do with ​either of the two.

Consequently, I ​never really did have many friends ​or girlfriends. Like my fellow Vietnamese-American students, my ​sole purpose in life is to break out ​of my lower working class socioeconomic status, and as stated before, to realize the opportunities ​my family has struggled to create ​for me. ​

Vietnamese-American students ​perform exceptionally well in ​school because of how their families have inuenced them. Rather ​than assume all Vietnamese are ​born “smart,” one must consider ​who forced them to become smart. The family is the most important ​unit of society. In order to reiterate ​what this means, family acts as a ​catalyst for inspiring the motivational drive for Vietnamese-American students to succeed in school. ​I interviewed Tyra Le, a fellow ​Vietnamese-American student, ​who told me “I felt like I was living ​in two worlds and there was twice
the amount of pressure set upon ​me. My family would always push ​me to excel in school and try to ​give me the best advice.”

​When you live in a world where ​you are practically a foreigner to ​everybody, you, your family and ​your Vietnamese community be​come a cohesive social unit that ​encourages you to obtain upward ​mobility through an education ​and challenges your mental limitations—how dedicated you can become in your studies.

​Even though family drove me to ​achieve success in life, they also ​did so in an unorthodox way—​comparing me to other Vietnamese-American students. If another ​child attained something higher or ​better than me, I would be questioned on why I did not attain the ​same. ​To me, the pressure was like going ​deeper into the ocean; the deeper ​you went, the more unbearable it ​became. Not only was becoming ​successful important for my own ​livelihood, it also became a competition among the Vietnamese ​community in order to satisfy my ​family.

​When I got an honor roll or a ​scholarship, that was the only time ​my family expressed their approval. Perhaps this was a good incen​tive because it made me focus on ​what really mattered and got me to where I am today. I have my family to show gratitude for that (some ​more than others).​By far, the most inuential person ​in my life has been my mom. She ​has been working for 25 years in an ​inhospitably cold factory at Tyson ​Fresh Meats. Being a single, immigrant mother raising three kids ​comes with high expenses, and the ​debt my mom accumulates seems ​endless.​It makes my heart ache to imagine ​all the sacrices she went through ​for me.

I say “imagine” because I ​once took them for granted. Now, ​becoming successful is how I can ​give back because I want those sacrices to have been worth it. She ​is what motivates me to pursue a ​college education and achieve my ​goal to become the best pharmacist ​I can be to dispense treatment to ​those in need.

​My educational goals for the future ​are to continue to attend the Uni​versity of Nebraska at Omaha to ​major in pre-pharmacy, attain my ​bachelor’s degree, and strive for ​acceptance into a prestigious phar​macy program. I need to become ​a successful pharmacist to pay my ​mom back for the success that she ​helped me to achieve. ​But what does my life say about ​me? Even though I came from a ​rough beginning, I didn’t let that ​stop me because I chose to decide how my life continues from here ​on out. I am a lifelong learner who’s ​willing to take risks, overcome any ​adversities and most of all—persevere.

​“Có công mài sắt, Có ngày nên ​kim,” is a Vietnamese proverb that ​answers, “Have patience in life and ​expect that not everything will go smoothly. It will be very dicult ​at rst but keep going, never give up, and you will become successful.” My own experiences in life are ​worth being told in my own way.

This is is what it is like to be a Vietnamese-American student—the way people see it and the way I actually live it.