The Boat People SOS (BPSOS) building is unassuming despite being a rather tall edifice right off of Leesburg Pike. Trung Nguyen, BPSOS’s Youth Coordinator, works out of the lowest level of the building. We entered into a simple setup of a receptionist’s desk and other long tables and chairs stacked off to the side. It was quiet, as most volunteers and workers do not come in on a Saturday morning. The classroom where Trung holds his after-school program has comfortable office chairs surrounding mismatched tables in the center of the room. A hodgepodge of items including a box of artwork, a ladder, and a fan fill the room in various corners. And yet, these items speak to the confidence with which Trung runs his program; the essential items are all that he needs to teach and guide his students. We sat down to start the interview with questions about his parents’ refugee experience and his work at BPSOS.
PYD: You had previously mentioned that your parents had come to the United States in 1975, both when they were really young. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Trung Nguyen: My dad was in the U.S. Navy in 1975, and my mom immigrated here in 1975. My dad was 19 or 20, and my mom was probably like 13 or 14. My dad helped sponsor the rest of that side of my family to come over. I know my mom’s side was sponsored by a church in Minnesota, so they lived in Minnesota, then moved to Chicago, and eventually made their way down south.
PYD: Do your parents or family talk much about their experiences of coming over to the United States?
Trung: My parents, they never really talked about it. I think some of my dad’s side fled by boat. I know they were in the Philippines -- that’s where one of my aunt’s sons is from. My uncles just talked about the military chocolate on the aircraft carriers and how they really liked it, but that’s all they remember. And then my aunt remembers being on the copters. But neither side of my family had too bad of a time adjusting -- they already had money, they were already educated. That’s also how my families met. They were like the only established Vietnamese families when they were in Atlanta. So my experience was pretty different compared to others. It’s probably similar to the older families in the Northern Virginia area – the families of diplomats.
PYD: What was your experience like growing up in New Orleans?
Trung: The Vietnamese community of New Orleans is kind of broken up into two areas. One is out in New Orleans East, which is what most people know of or study. That’s what everyone thinks of when they think of Vietnamese in New Orleans. But I’m from the other side of the river. There are two big churches and a temple. There’s still a pretty significant Vietnamese population. I had tons of schoolmates that were Vietnamese while growing up.
PYD: When did you become interested in learning about your heritage/the Vietnamese culture?
Trung: When I was a junior in college, I had no idea what I was doing. After I got discharged from ROTC the summer before my junior year -- I had spent the last five years wanting to be in the Air Force so it was kind of a change. And then my professor told me about an institute to learn Vietnamese. I’d taken a semester of Vietnamese before, but it was taught by a volunteer or like just a community member from Vietnam. It was still a college class, and it’s usually taught by someone from Vietnam, but it wasn’t particularly rigorous.
So when I went to SEASSI [Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison], I only knew the very basics of reading and writing when it came to Vietnamese. And then all heritage learners were technically supposed to go to the second year class, which was broken into 2A and 2B. I was on the higher end of 2B. All the other classmates in the second year class were Caucasian American except for me. Because of my background, I could understand numbers, I knew what cilantro -- I knew all the food items. So I could just pick things up instantly.
PYD: Have you ever visited Southeast Asia? If so, what were your impressions?
Trung: I lived [in Vietnam for a few months after I graduated college. I lived in Quận 1, so I lived in District 1. I lived right by the zoo in Saigon. I lived close [on the main thoroughfare Lê Dương] -- I lived like right in the middle of the city, which isn’t where foreigners usually live. One of the culture shocks was that I was significantly taller than a lot of people. I was just bigger.
A lot of Vietnam reminded me of home, New Orleans – the air felt the same, kind of smelled the same. It just felt very close to Southern Louisiana, which is why I can see why there’s so many Vietnamese in Southern Louisiana or along the Gulf Coast. It’s just very similar.
PYD: How did you become the Youth Coordinator for BPSOS? And what are your goals for BPSOS?
Trung: I came here for a lobbying job but I didn’t like it. I was going to move back home but there was a hurricane, so I couldn’t go back home just yet. I saw that a position for Youth Coordinator for BPSOS was open, ended up interviewing and just staying. I really love the community here. I didn’t know Falls Church was as diverse as it is. I just love working with my students and the community in general. While I started out just doing the youth program, now I do like a lot of other things within the community.
We’re about to finish up our fourth school year. I have some volunteers – I recruit volunteers as part of my position. But all the curriculum development is on me. I administer the program as well, so I see students like four days a week. We have two after-school clubs -- after-school Vietnamese culture clubs. We work in partnership with a couple of schools and Fairfax County to tutor students. And then I have after-school tutoring twice a week here and at the library.
Our tutoring program is project based usually, so they have an idea, they plan it, I pay for it. With most lesson plans it’s really easy to dictate like “We’re gonna do X minutes studying Vietnamese, X minutes doing this, X minutes doing that.” It’s not -- I don’t feel like after school is meant to be like school so I set it up in a way that they get to really explore. It’s little things like leaving the classroom to let them talk to each other about something. It’s something that they never really think to do. The first time I do it, they’re like,“What do we do?” They just kind of look at each other. And the first time they realize they’ve changed something -- that’s the best part. They’re like “Oh, we did this.” I’m like, I literally did nothing. I brought things and you did the rest. And they never think like that so…
We also focus on leadership development, especially within the Vietnamese community. I did a lot of student government stuff and military stuff during my educational years and still now. Never really saw a lot of Vietnamese people doing those things or were in leadership positions. I want my students to feel like they can make a difference, which is why we are working to make sure the Vietnamese community makes their voices heard. So right now, I’m part of Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia (CAPAVA) and we’re just trying to get people to show up to like little the Fairfax Delegation of the General Assembly. I was one of like two Asian people there.
When I started out, I didn’t really know anything. I didn’t know nearly as much as I should’ve. But it’s different. You have to go out, you have to make your voices heard, and eventually you pick things up. Like now, going to the White House, that’s not anything out of the ordinary. My first day at BPSOS, I interpreted for Secretary [of Labor Hilda L.] Solis in the White House team. That’s an actual cabinet member. And I’ve met a couple other ones, and that’s what we should do. Even then, I don’t even think it’s nearly as close to like -- in terms of success, I don’t think that’s successful. I think what I do with my students is actual success. It’s a million times better.
PYD: What do you think about trying to incorporate more Vietnamese history into the American curriculum?
Trung: We’re actually working on that. With CAPAVA, we’re pushing for an increased Asian-American presence in the social studies curriculum, and we’ve gotten good traction in the last couple of years. [It’s moving] as fast as it can. There aren’t a lot of objections to it. It’s little things like having more than a paragraph on like the killing fields of Cambodia. Or talking about Korematsu. We went with Karen Korematsu and the Korematsu Foundation for education in Richmond a few weeks ago. And The Washington Post just ran an article about our organization CAPAVA.
PYD: There are a lot of issues in the Asian and Southeast Asian communities that are considered a bit taboo to discuss, such as mental health, domestic violence, sexuality, abortion, and even politics. Does BPSOS and your work encounter any of these conversations?
Trung: We run a domestic violence program and a healthy marriage counseling program here at BPSOS. Those are specific partnerships we have with the government, with grants. I actually just recruited somebody to help with mental health in CAPAVA, so that’s something on my radar too. When I became president of CAPAVA, I was very clear about our outlook and the things we want. For example, number one is a voice. Number two is more community action, including mental health. It’s so stigmatized and not really handled well. And you only see the after effects; you don’t address the underlying concern. Mental health is something we specifically address with CAPAVA. BPSOS has tried to do some of that work. We used to have a clinical psychologist on staff but I don’t think we have that grant anymore.
We [BPSOS] do a lot of human rights work and we don’t really encounter [LGBTQ] issues where it is like, “Man, that person was really persecuted for being a part of that community.” Instead, we encounter a lot of cases involving religious rights and those trying to get political asylum. I don’t know if it’s just the people that come to us, but I think LGBTQ issues are probably a bigger deal within the Vietnamese-American community or the Southeast Asian community here in the U.S., which is pretty conservative socially.
Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). This is a landmark Supreme Court case regarding Japanese individuals in internment camps and the citizenship of those descendants. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/asian-americans-growing-in-number-struggle-to-emerge-from-political-shadows/2016/02/16/91a5836c-ca8b-11e5-a7b2-5a2f824b02c9_story.html?postshare=3651455712095866&tid=ss_fb-bottom