Interview with Jessica Nguyen

Jessica Nguyen is a second generation Vietnamese Chinese American who is constantly on the go in search for new goals and passion projects to work on with her current one being Project Voice, a Podcast series dedicated to empowering Asian women across the With her main interests in social justice and identity politics, Jessica hopes to continue creating digital content that will touch and inspire the lives of many. She is graduated from Smith College in 2016 with a major in economics.

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Spearheaded by the voices of Asian/Asian American women, Project Voice is a Podcast series dedicated to increasing visibility on narratives from Asian America. As the host of Project Voice, I hope that this series will act as a digital space where members of our community can go to for guidance and resources.
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My younger sister and me during a trip to the Chicago Museum of National History! I was probably unaware about how important and long-lasting relationship would be.


As you can tell from our clothes, this was another photo taken on the same day. I honestly wasn’t sure what photos were in my reach to share, but I think this photo definitely adds a little more character to our relationship as sisters. This day was important not just because my sister was there with me, but the people behind the camera (the rest of my family).


Sound recording


Angela: Okay Hi welcome to the Diaspora Narratives. So first off, tell me about yourself – how do you see yourself, how do you describe yourself…tell me about what you want people to know about you

Jessica: Hi my name’s Jessica…Jessica Nguyen that is…I would identify myself as a second generation Asian American, more specifically Vietnamese American or Vietnamese Chinese American because back in sixth grade, I learned that I was a quarter Chinese. Yes it took me that long to finally realize that and It’s funny because I often joke that every Vietnamese has some Chinese blood in them, and who knew that I was one of them? So….that’s that. I also identify myself as queer or pansexual…either works. I also recently graduated from Smith College and I find that I often still identify myself or affiliate myself with my school because I think Smith has made a huge impact on me. Having a private school education really changed my life…especially uh when it comes to what I’m doing now. It’s definitely propelled me in the direction I’ve wanted to be…a socially active, socially conscious person uh very gung ho about social justice [heh] if you’re listening to this, you’re probably very gung ho about social justice as well! You know, passionate about identity politics and what other people’s stories are like…yeah that’s me

Angela: Okay yeah! Cool cool thank you so much for that. So bringing it back to the project, first off I’m gonna ask you a bit about your family. So tell me a little bit about your family.

Jessica: Yeah! So I grew up being raised by a single mom. I have a younger sister, I’m actually pretty close to my family…we have a pretty small family as you can tell! I’m actually pretty close to my parents…both dad and mom. And my sister, she’s my best friend. So my parents [pause] are immigrants from Vietnam so they immigrated here as immigrants from the Vietnam War era…that was years ago…they came here during the 80’s so [I] grew up hearing the stories about the war and making it here or succeeding, or carving out the life that they dreamt of here in spite of all the obstacles…it’s something inspiring and something that’s constantly uh everyday uh maybe not everyday but now and then…but their stories have a ….they’ve been through a lot for me to be here

Angela: Mmhmm…so did your parents come here as immigrants or refugees?

Jessica: Yeah, both of them came as refugees…My dad…so he graduated from high school and around that time, he was constricted into the Northern Vietnamese army and he didn’t want to join their forces…he was from Saigon now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Southern Vietnam, and he actually didn’t know what his future would be like because after the government uh split into North and South, there was a lot of tension, the war still going on…a lot of young people as old as him were fighting…spending their lives…some of them even committed suicide because their lives were ruined after. You know, but the Northern government took over…well for me dad…after he realized that he had to fight, he made plans to run away. Um by boat actually, so he was one of the boat people that you nowadays hear about in Vietnam and he ran away with his cousin and he didn’t even let his friends know about it. They had a low key party and it was actually a goodbye party…so after the goodbye party, he just left with his cousin by boat and they were on the boat for nine days straight…um they drank water whenever it rained…they would just try to catch it whatever they had…they had potatoes to eat I think that was all they had…literally dying from starvation…they scariest part of his journey was his boat…the motor died so the boat was left in the ocean, just swaying back and forth and they were just going along with the current, so he really thought he would die but on the ninth day, the boat fortunately landed in Malaysia, so he was there for a while, and eventually he got transferred to the Philippines, and that was where he uh stayed for a refugee for a while, learning English. Uh I could have been Canadian because [he] actually had to go through this test with Canada and um he knew French back then but he was so nervous with the Canadians that he forgot his French so he didn’t pass the test so he had to redo it with the U.S. instead. So after basic ESL education [he] passed and moved to Chicago. And after that it was just amazing to hear all that happening knowing he got to college after that…got a bachelor’s degree in computer science and got a job afterwards and started from there…as for my mom, she um you know it was hard for her too, in Vietnam her family and her [pause] they would be running away, constantly moving, house to house [mumble] areas that were in danger of being bombed uh her family received news that her older brother was missing…that he died, but in actuality he signed up for the U.S. army and so when he did, he uh you know…that allowed her whole family to come over to the U.S. but before coming to the U.S. she actually flew over to the Philippines and um had her ESL education there, and all of them immigrated to the U.S. and her life was pretty hard too because she came from central Vietnam, so where the North and South meet, and that’s where a lot of the warfare happened, a lot of the bombing happened…I mean with Southern Vietnam, yeah there was war but it didn’t encounter as much violence, as much violence as Vietnam…as central Vietnam where she grew up. So yeah both of them met in Chicago and I’m here now because of them [laughs] so that was a really long story

Angela: Yeah but a really incredible story…um I never knew that about you before and it’s also something that when I’m interviewing my friends, we’ve never had the chance to talk about but yeah it’s incredible how our families and our parents have um gone through so much and how much that looks different for us. So you mentioned that history about your parents and I’m wondering if um your either of your parents have influenced some of your views on life or your goals for yourself growing up…

Jessica: So in terms of…well because of the hardships and struggles they’ve experienced back in their country, knowing how hard it is to earn money, they didn’t really have that stability…financial stability um growing up so they really emphasized that as a goal for their children…as an expectation for their children to meet. When I say that, I mean that they want…like many Asian parents…us to get a good job, a very lucrative job, you know, earn enough to be happy and take care of ourselves….that’s what they care about…and growing up I understood that. I didn’t know that I knew what college was in Kindergarten…so I looked back at those worksheets and I was like wow they talked about college even then so they emphasized the importance of education, so um in the household, you know I hear all the time from not only them but my extended family because um many of them didn’t have the opportunity to uh finish their education…it was seen as a privilege…you know I definitely understood where they were coming from and I felt this pressure to…to make them proud and also just succeed um achieve that education and um find that job that will not only make me look well good in front of other people, to make them proud…I find that um growing up Asian American my parents had to deal with this inner conflict of mine…part of me I really wanted to make [mumble] um don’t want to make them feel that all their hard work have gone to waste but I do have my own personal interests…I’m aware that I come from a privileged background where [its] allowed me to have more freedom and do what I enjoy..and many of these interests may not be practical or lucrative, but it’s made me happy like um you know I wanted to be a fashion designer…a teacher…and neither of those career paths were what my family wanted me to pursue because um they didn’t meet the standards of just not being a doctor or lawyer or whatever so going to Smith you know I was dead set in majoring in Economics and I never changed that major really…I’m that type of person where I did a lot of research on all the options…I just dive into one and stick with it…I think looking back on this position…knowing what I do now I probably would’ve changed my major…I probably would’ve majored in English or art history…

Angela: So did you pick majoring in economics because you thought it was the most lucrative at that time?

Jessica: I thought it was practical, solid as a major that um I thought it would compromise different areas of my interests…I thought it is a belief that I would obtain a very lucrative job majoring in economics although that is not true but at the same time I was all over the place too, having many different types of interests…I thought that economics would be a great tie because global south development…I wasn’t quite sure where [mumble] I just felt that economics was the right choice…also my dad was helping me pay for a college education so I felt obligated to uh listen to advice…I felt obligated…yeah again I really wanted to make my parents proud.

Angela: Mhmm yeah um right. I can identify with a lot of what you said…um I’m wondering so you talked about some of the compromises between you and your parents and I’m wondering if you could talk about what exactly compromises um I guess what some of what you want for yourself and some of what your parents want for you?

Jessica: Compromises…

Angela: Yeah just what are some of those compromises?

Jessica: So one really good example is my decision to go out of state. Honestly it was something that I felt very lucky to experience going out of state to pursue my education because I know a lot of my friends parents who are Vietnamese American as well, they are don’t they’re not allowed to go out of state…they’re not allowed to go out of college far far away from their family…my parents are different…they took that risk and allowed me to go away from the family and I felt very grateful for that but in return it was…yeah I felt that there was this unspoken agreement that I would listen to them in terms of what my decisions will be when it comes to education and career…so going back to pursuing economics…that is a gamble of a compromise I made…just promising them that I will be able to take care of myself when I graduate…I can be independent and self-sufficient and [breathe] and be able to make money…the more the better to them [laughs] but as long as I’m happy, they’re happy.

Angela: Um yeah so I’m wondering like…if you wanted to talk about national identity and how you think that sort of plays out among you and your parents and how you might identify as someone who’s Asian American, and your parents might identify as something else…can you talk about that?

Jessica: I do, actually it’s interesting to see [pause] how different my parents are in terms of how they feel about living in the U.S. Like my dad after he went through all of that as a refugee, he felt like he couldn’t go back to Vietnam anymore, that it was a home that he left, and the U.S. is his new home and he plans on living here until he dies…and he…no interest in going back and he loves it here…he identifies as an American while my mom, she’s different. Now and then I would hear her constantly wanting to go back to her hometown, her country, and there’s this longing to go back, and it’s interesting because she hasn’t been back since ‘95 it’s been a long time for her, and you know like her I want to go to Vietnam too. I want to go back. Last time I was there, I was two, so I don’t remember anything [chuckle] so in terms of national identity so I went about identifying myself as Vietnamese, so the term Asian American was relatively new for me…um I didn’t start using it until college, my first year, when I took this first year seminar course called growing up Asian American by professor Floyd Cheung, and that course changed my life. And uh I don’t think…[mumble] I could finally connect with people with similar experiences as mine…and uh now I see myself as yeah as Vietnamese American, Asian American…very proud as identifying as that. And it’s like two cultures

Angela: Yeah yeah I feel you…so I’m gonna throw a tough question at you. What do you think it means to be American?

Jessica: Yeah that is a tough question [laughs] uh what it means to be American? [pause] honestly it means to be…when it comes to my podcast, what I’ve learned from interviewing people…is that every story is different…every one of their narratives is different, and I think I’m going to apply basically one of my responses….being American is as generic as whatever you think of it…uh honestly growing up being Asian American I never felt conscious of my American identity although I was self conscious about my Asian-ness whenever I was with my non-Asian friends. And um I was talking to another friend about this…we paint these entities as very separate entities hehe while in actuality they’re intertwined… I can’t be American without my Asian side…I think being American means that you have a very special story to share because the U.S. is such a diverse place to grow up and I’m very grateful for that…and hmm being an American uh I’m very proud of the fact that I grew up believing we have certain rights that we are entitled to have…uh freedom of speech, freedom of expression…uh that’s freedom of speech…uh yeah freedom of speech is something that I find is integral to the American identity…not everyone in the world has the opportunity to do everything they want. At least here I feel safe…actually I take that back. [laughs] Not all the time that I feel safe but growing up here there are a lot of different types of emotions, yeah we are taught that we have…to like

Angela: Yeah sorry technical difficulties…can you repeat that important sentence you said?

Jessica: So I’m…just in case you haven’t heard..I’m going to repeat myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like a true American, I feel like I’m not American enough, especially growing up not being part of the majority, really, not really seeing as many Asian students in school…having a hard time connecting with people because of my own [mumble] so I always thought that I had to do certain things like watch certain TV shows, movies that pertain to American culture or better my English because when I was younger, before high school, tenth grade I had a hard time speaking. Even now I have to pause and think about it and trip over my words…it’s hard because this is an interview but English was a struggle for me…having to deal with two languages…I had a lot of issues with it…grammar that was…a challenge not really having a proper or formal education with English grammar…on English grammar so I always get self conscious about speaking…language that I use every day…but in a way there are pre-conceptions about what it means to be American…I’m Asian! I’m clearly not white so I felt like I had to compensate…not being white by not doing something else…conforming to white culture…watching a lot of plastic TV shows…J-pop music…I used to listen to Asian music a lot. And then I remember a friend of mine teasing me about it and I got really self conscious about it and I stopped. Afterwards I started diving more into American culture and um because I felt like I needed to do it…not saying I wasn’t interested in it…not saying I wasn’t into what everyone else was into but at the same time, I also felt like I was forcing myself to do that. Um so now I now that I’m aware of this uh mentality I had I think I you know like many people I have internalized racism against my own people so that um my subconscious decision to avert myself from Asian culture or being part of the so and so quote Asian bubble, that was a sign, those were signs of me internalizing that racism against my own community that hated myself for being Asian, a person of color, but now I realize that being a person of color is just as American as any white American, and I think that’s something everyone should keep in mind. Everyone has a place here in the U.S. I think it’s a message we need to perpetuate especially now really yeah so being American, it’s you, I mean like it’s you! Are you an American?

Angela: Yeah I think that depends on each person answering the question and what background you come from…although I think if you’re part of the mainstream and a cisgender person and if you’re white then it’s a lot easier to answer since a lot of things are sort of designed for you already…um yeah so moving forward I wanted to ask you about the photos you sent me…so I’m pulling them up now, can you tell me about the first photo? The one with the background of rabbits and I think it’s um you and your sister and one of you is in a yellow shirt with bunny ears? Can you describe that really shortly?

Jessica: So yeah that was on a trip to the museum in Chicago and it’s really precious to me hehe I mean I remembered it and it’s one of the few pictures I remember when it comes to photos of my sister, and it was a family trip…my dad’s friends were there…my mom’s friends were there…we were in a museum…I’m the older sister, and I’m three years older than her so I’m the bigger kid in that picture…yeah I can definitely tell it’s 90’s fashion right there

Angela: yeah it’s very cute, very precious

Jessica: [laughs] that is something a lot of people joke about…[mumbles] I thought it was cute on me so I’m gonna embrace it so I did but uh you know it’s interesting really being me and my sister in that photo because at that time I was really set on myself…a really self-absorbed child

Angela: so no room for your sister?      

Jessica: Yeah no room for my sister and you know but for her, she loved to cling onto me…yeah she would follow me around and ask me constantly…questions and she would just you know…she was there not worshipping me per se [laughs]…she was there to…she had a really strong emotional attachment to her sister and you can definitely see our family value through these photos

Angela: that’s really sweet.

Jessica: yeah family is important…

Angela: so is that reflected through your second photo as well? That photo where you two are behind um no not behind but in front of the flowered bull?

Jessica: yeah definitely! There both just pictures of us so there was a huge stress on our relationship…just our parents constantly reminding us to take care of each other…

Angela: ever since you were little?

Jessica: ever since we were little and I didn’t think it was because I was an older sister, although I didn’t think I was an older sister until I was much older, and I was like oh wow yeah I’m the older sister I need to look after Joanne so it took me a while to realize how serious it was…how important it was to be the older sibling to spearhead what it’s like growing up as an American I didn’t think really…but for me it was oh wow we’re the only two who look like each other so I had to make a good example…look like myself so other people can see it is possible to fit in and to get good grades and to be happy and you know, be successful even at a young age.

Angela: So wrapping up the interview, my last question is…if there’s something you can tell someone who’ coming across your work who’s never has met you before? Like someone you’ve never met before what would you tell them? By this work meaning this interview

Jessica: What do you mean by work…as in?

Angela: Um yeah just coming across this article, this interview, now that they were a stranger and now that they’re read this…what would you like to end with and tell them?

Jessica: Oh wow. What take away would I want them to take away from this…I would say that my story is one of many and that they should definitely listen to all the narratives that you’ll showcase…I think my story is very special and everyone should feel this way…everyone should feel proud of where they come from and it’s something that I want to stress to my other friends…to talk discuss identity politics with…just being proud of where you’re from and not really caring of what other people think of you…again very generic but every narrative is unique but you know, I just feel like there’s so many stories…like for me, my parents’ story as Vietnam war refugees…there are millions of people out there who are war refugees but you don’t hear that many of books…a lot of times you hear about Vietnam and there’s the war, and I actually have to take the initiative to learn more about my parents’ country’s history…but sadly enough I don’t feel like I know enough…I shouldn’t feel guilty about not knowing about it. I should feel guilty about not knowing where they come from. [chuckle] because again you make the best out of your environment um where was I going with this? So as a content user myself, I think more and more people should take the time out to create…watch Netflix, it’s okay to watch TV shows but take the initiative to create something that will impact the world…little things make an is beautiful…something that you can call your own is something that you can pursue that path, whether it’s a career or as a hobby so yeah, that’s that
Angela: That brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you so much, Jessica.


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