10 years ago was the first time I stepped foot into Wisconsin. My mom and I were living like nomads, traveling from place to place after a few years in search for a home that felt just right. For years we lived under temporary roofs and “homes” that didn’t last longer than two years. I was originally born in Boston, an only child to Chau Phan and Nga Nguyen (who later changed her name to Kimberly Yim). After my parent’s divorce, my mom took me and we traveled… a lot. I was a confused and lost child, and the constant moving didn’t help. First, we moved to Virginia and lived there for a couple years, then we moved to San Diego and lived there for a year and a half, then moved back to Virginia, this time to a different city, and settled there for a few more years. Finally, at twelve, going on thirteen years old, I moved to the wonderland of Racine, Wisconsin, where no one knew what kind of creature I was. To say I had a rough childhood was an understatement. I witnessed numerous fights that led up to my parents divorce, and the fighting continued through the divorce years and after. Not only that, I never made any real friends because we were constantly relocating. I can’t say I have any “childhood friends” and my “childhood memories” were made up of night terrors of screaming and crying. Throughout middle school I was often bullied, sometimes for being Asian, other times for being smarter than my classmates, and most of the time for not defending myself. In high school I went through an identity crisis. I went to a high school where my graduating class of 500-600 students consisted of 5 Asian kids, including myself. The rest were made up of majority whites, some blacks, and some hispanics. 5 Asian kids. I think i was the only Vietnamese student that year… now you can see where the identity crisis came in. I still believe that I was verbally bullied from time to time for being Asian, being called “yellow”, “chinky”, and even “uncivil” by an ex-boyfriend because I use chopsticks. We don’t speak of him anymore. Cliques of teenagers would yell out “ching chong” in the hallways when I walked by, and I would just look down, ashamed of the label I wore as an Asian American.
Throughout middle school and high school, my race and culture were not important to me. I was hesitant about inviting my white friends over because I was afraid they’d make fun of the way we eat, or the types of foods we eat. I was afraid of speaking to my mom in Vietnamese in public because of the stares we’d get. I was afraid of embracing my culture because I thought assimilation was the way to go. But I was dead wrong, and I didn’t realize that until I got to college. I NEVER knew it would be possible for Asian Americans to have such a voice in the community today. Although I still believe it is difficult for Asian Americans to be strong in a small, predominantly white region/neighborhood/town, I know we’re making progress and a little goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong, I made some good friends, some I still talk to today, during my senior year in high school. Regardless of how close we got, I still felt different, outcasted at times, and targeted. I was the “token” Asian in my group of friends. So often times, Asian jokes and microaggressions were targeted at me, and although it was hurtful at times, I never said anything. Even at 17/18 years old, I never said anything. Why? Because I didn’t know it wasn’t okay. Because they were my friends. Because they were “joking”. But now I know those jokes are ignorant, stereotypical, racist, and acts of microaggressions that perpetuates how outsiders view Asian Americans.
How did I get here? VSA.
You all can think it’s cheesy, corny, cliche… whatever you want to call it. But VSA dramatically changed my life. It was the window of opportunity that led to so many other opportunities.
I entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 2009 as a freshmen. At the time, I was still friends with the same high school kids that liked to call me out for being Asian, speaking in the broken English accent that my grandparents and parents used to survive in America, saying “love you long time” and “uh oh hotdog” (I still have no idea what that means). My first year, I was still searching for myself. i was amazed by the amount of students there were, the types of people I could be friends with, the chances were endless! Then, one fall day, I went to the Student Organization Fair and made it a mission to get to the VSA Booth (I swear to you, you can ask Eric Nguyen and Alyssa Cryer about this— shoutouts to you both). I forgot how I heard of VSA, but I remember knowing that I had to get to that table and put my name and email down and join this organization. VSA allowed me to meet other Vietnamese American youth just like me, it allowed me to network with other people who shared my culture, and it allowed me to feel at home. It was the first window of opportunity. However, I was not very involved with VSA my first semester. I attended some meetings, participated in the annual culture show, helped out here and there, but I wasn’t “close” with people or the organization itself. I also had a boyfriend, then I became single, then I went freshmen crazy for awhile. It wasn’t until the end of fall semester that I became really involved, and my interest increased by 100%.
How did this happen? UVSA Midwest.
My first UVSA Midwest experience was Leadership Retreat at Northwestern in the fall of 2009. We can say that the VSA/UVSA Midwest involvement began here— the newly birthed Jessica Phan that you know today, kinda. Leadership Retreat was a very unique experience for me because it brought together many Vietnamese American youth from all over the Midwest region to one place. It allowed me to meet other VSA folks, network, and learn about the Vietnamese culture (this is very true). Most importantly, it taught me to embrace my Vietnamese heritage. It was amazing seeing people my age being so involved, taking on leadership roles, and trying to give a voice the Vietnamese youth community. I went to workshops about leadership skills and recruitment. We talked about how we could all make our own organizations better, whether it be VSA or not. We discussed how we could improve recruitment. What methods could we use in attracting incoming freshmen? How can we sell ourselves? How do we get others to become interested in VSA? Then there are questions like, what kind of leader are you? What skills do you have? Here’s a scenario, solve it. Yep… I still remember the details of that retreat. Another reason why that experience was so impactful and life changing was because I met my best friends there. I can honestly say that VSA gave me the close friends that I have today. Without VSA, these people wouldn’t have come into my life, and I know for sure that these are lifelong friendships (you know who you are <3).
The VIA-1 Experience.
My first VIA-1 was at UW-Madison in the spring of 2010. I was a family leader (shout out to the squirrel family and all the family leaders that year!). By that time, I became very close to my VSA in Madison, especially after we put on a spectacular Tet show for the community. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, my first VIA-1 was my best VIA-1, and I hope that everyone’s first VIA-1 experience will be just as amazing, memorable, and inspiring as mine was. I met more people than I did at Leadership Retreat, I got to see the conference planning process (somewhat), I was surrounded by extremely inspirational people, and I got to network with people like me, people who love everything and anything Vietnamese, people who weren’t afraid to walk around and show off their culture, their language, their Viet pride. After this conference, I knew I had it in me to be more than just some freshmen girl that loved to party and meet boys (you can ask Eric all about it).
To sum up the next few stages of my VSA life, the following year I was the Public Relations Coordinator for my VSA in Madison, then the year after that I became President of my VSA and the Wisconsin State Representative for UVSA Midwest (shout outs to all the State Reps!).
VIA-1 at UIUC in 2011 was when I decided to be more involved with UVSA Midwest. I realized that I could be more and do more if I just get more involved. I felt my passion growing from the inside out. And no, it wasn’t from some extraordinary event that happened. It was simply from seeing the people around me, seeing the community that we share, and seeing that we could really make a difference. My CoSR days were probably the best, and the people I was surrounded by, that I’m still surrounded by, are some of the most inspiring and amazing individuals you’ll ever meet.
For the next few years, I became more active and engaged in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and dove deeper into the Vietnamese community, this time exploring real issues that we face. While i was the Wisconsin State Representative for UVSA Midwest, I also was a part of the original team that organized the Vietnam Human Rights Day Commemoration in Washington D.C. There, I learned more about the issues our Vietnam country faced. Our people against our people was what tore me apart about the country that I grew up hearing stories about, the country I grew up loving— torn by bloodshed and government terror. That experience was what led me to be more engaged with international human rights advocacy (which I’m not as active in anymore, but still a significant part of my life. I went on to do more advocacy work for the AAPI community through various student organizations and an amazing summer internship during the summer of 2012— shoutouts to OCA!). In the summer of 2011, I attended my first UNAVSA Conference in Denver where I ended up being the Hospitality Director, which allowed me to build on my leadership skills— I definitely made some mistakes and it wasn’t my best performance, but I learned from that experience. I later came back and took on the position of Programming Director for the 10th Anniversary VIA-1 Conference in Cincinnati, where I also ran for UVSA Midwest President.
Here is something not many people know: I was on the fence about being President of such a large organization. I didn’t believe in myself at the time, and I didn’t want to disappoint those around me if I led the organization down the drain. My biggest fear was letting everyone down and not nurturing the organization, not having enough strength to take it where it can go. I didn’t have faith. So I didn’t actually apply until 10 minutes before elections. When I filled out the application, I cried. I selected EVP instead of President, and then cried. I’m not sure how to explain it but it was one of the toughest moments of my “adult” life. When it came my turn to give my speech, I didn’t prepare. And I realized 5 seconds into my speech that I didn’t need to. I spoke from my heart, and in that moment in time, I knew that this was what I was meant to do. My passion spoke for itself for the duration of my speech. I compared UVSA Midwest to a relationship with my one true love; there are tough times, ups and downs, and frustrations, times where you want to give up, but in the end, you don’t, you keep working at it and you keep fighting for it because the love is endless, and when you love something that much, you don’t ever let it go. It was sort of a Cinderella moment for me. It really was…
So, that’s how I got here. That’s how I’m still here.
If you take anything away from my story, let it be this: This is not an exaggeration of my VSA/UVSA experience. This may be cliche and cheesy, but I don’t care. VSA gave me a home. UVSA Midwest opened doors of opportunities for me. This organization has inspired me in so many ways I can’t even count it on my fingers and toes. Seeing people my age, who are just like me, embrace their culture, in a society where being a person of color means you have no voice. UVSA Midwest solved my identity crisis. It taught me to love and embrace my Vietnamese blood, to speak a little louder when I have something to say, to lift my head up and share my culture with the world, whether it be language, food, or how we do things in this traditional Vietnamese family. UVSA Midwest showed me that the Vietnamese American community does have voice, it taught me to stand up for myself when people objectified my ethnicity, and it allowed me to grow as a leader, and as Jessica, the average Vietnamese girl from Racine, Wisconsin. I no longer look down when people yell “ching chong” on the streets. I no longer stay quiet when people tell me to go back to my country. I stand proudly against anyone and everyone who targets and threatens my community and allies, and I will keep fighting for the social justice issues that our Vietnamese American/Asian American community faces. So how did I get here? How did this passion ignite? Well, you can trace it back to the good ole VSA days. Because a little goes a long way.