Alexander Nguyen was asked at the first session of a summer mentorship program why he was there. Seven weeks later, standing in the backyard of the Viet Museum on a blazing hot Saturday, he said he finally found an answer.
“For 10 years, I have shut out my community,” he told a crowd of about 20 people. “This has been a healing process for me.”
Growing up in one of the largest Vietnamese enclaves in the U.S., the East San Jose native said he didn’t feel welcome by his own community.
“Because I never spoke the language, they said I’m not one of them,” he said.
Nguyen’s journey to unravel his own conflicts with the Vietnamese community began when he joined a mentorship program hosted by the Vietnamese American Roundtable, a community organizing group.
The summer program, called Student Engagement and Education for Development and Success (SEEDS), is part of the roundtable’s annual initiatives to encourage civic engagement among Vietnamese youth between 14 and 24. The sessions began in June and ended on Saturday with a student showcase.
“This year has been a success,” said Philip Nguyen, recently-appointed executive director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable. “We almost cancelled the showcase because of new COVID-19 cases, but I’m glad we’re able to pull it together… This has been the most fun that we had.”
Started in 2018, SEEDS is designed to address the lack of a leadership pipeline in San Jose’s Vietnamese community, Philip said. The goal is to train and grow future community leaders in the Bay Area, providing resources and lessons on professional development, entrepreneurship and careers. A group of about 10 students met every Saturday for seven weeks during the summer.
“SEEDS is the first place where I see young people come together and talk about issues in our community,” participant Candice Phan said.
‘Representation is very important’
To help students better understand the issues facing Vietnamese Americans, the program organized a theme for each session, ranging from the history of refugee settlement to grassroots organizing and career pathways. Guest speakers included a number of roundtable board members, city officials and others. The roundtable hosted the program at the Viet Museum and in Little Saigon.
Student participants and volunteers received scholarships of $100 at the end of the program. The group also celebrated the completion of the program over home-cooked hủ tiếu.
Alexander Nguyen, who’s on track to be a social science teacher, researched how Black activist Bayard Rustin advocated for war victims in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. He said he wants to teach ethnic studies in East San Jose.
“When you hear about the Vietnam War, all you hear is the massacre and Agent Orange,” he said. “Some of us didn’t even learn about (the Vietnam War) in school.”
Phan, a sophomore at Evergreen Valley High School, was the youngest participant this year. She asked to join SEEDs earlier this summer to her parents’ delight.
“I have known about this program for a few years now,” said Tanya Tran, Phan’s mother. “I think it’s so important to learn about our roots.”
Phan aspires to be a health care worker, teacher and journalist. She focused her showcase on Vietnamese representation in the media, especially in books and social media. She saw her journey of finding and forming identity through three phases, “nghe lời” (following her parents’ guidance), “khám phá” (exploring) and “thực hành” (applying).
For her presentation, Phan complied a list of books written by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American authors.
“Representation is very important, I think that’s how we could fight anti-Asian racism,” Phan said. “We need more representation in movies, films, literature and even politics.”
Thao Truong calls herself a “con gái đích tôn” in her family, which she interprets as “successful daughter.” Her project surrounds the importance of her family, as well as the pressure to achieve the American dream for her parents.
“My family has always been so important to me,” Truong said. “Through this program, I get to understand more about my parents and the struggles they went through… It has been eye-opening for me.”
Truong’s family left Vietnam with little money when she was six. Her parents often joke about when Truong will buy them a house, she said.
“It’s stressful,” she said. “But on the other hand, I want to give back to them, thinking about all the sacrifices they made when they left their whole life back. I’m happy to give them the American dream.”
Truong, a full-time college student at De Anza College, works at Panda Express and runs a plant shop, called Appa Plants.
“I have always felt connected to plants,” Truong said. “The garden culture connects with a lot of Vietnamese families, and it’s also my dad’s dream to have a garden.”