By Michelle Dixon
“You’re a defective Asian.”
Britney Nguyen was struck by those harsh words from a boy in middle school band class. She didn’t excel in math or science, so she was deemed as defective. At almost every class assembly, her last name was mispronounced by teachers who didn’t care to learn it. Though she was Vietnamese, she was mistaken for Chinese or Mexican. From kindergarten to high school, her identity was marked by prejudiced statements and ignorance.
“I just saw myself as American,” Nguyen said. “I grew up here, so I am American, but I lost my Asian identity.”
Nguyen struggled to discover who she was and accept her identity as an Asian American woman. She was the only Vietnamese student in the rural small town of Whiteville, North Carolina.
“Most of the students in my class were white,” she said. “And then there was me.”
Nguyen was grouped under one ethnicity, Chinese.
“I think it was just disregarded because everyone saw Asians as the same,” she said.
In first grade, one of her peers had mistaken Nguyen for Chinese, so the girl rejected Nguyen’s friendship.
Nguyen said the girl told her, “I thought you were Chinese, so I thought you were weird.”
For a Christmas presentation in second grade, Britney wore her “áo dài,” the traditional Vietnamese dress, to school. She was showered with compliments, and for a moment she was proud of being Vietnamese. But an internal battle started. One side glorifying her distinction and the other side resisting it.
This internal battle continued in middle school. Nguyen began to notice the prejudices of her Southern Baptist town. The desks in her middle school gifted class were mostly filled with white students, and it wasn’t her test scores that made her peers assume she would succeed. It was her race.
Nguyen said, “I didn’t excel in math class, so people would say ‘Oh I thought you were supposed to be good at this.’” She laughed with them agreeing with the bigoted statement.
“I just laughed everything off,” she said. “And I think that’s just because I didn’t really want to defend myself, and I really can’t trace that back to anything just that I was used to it for a long time.”
The model minority myth
Dr. Dana Griffin, associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaches a class on racial and ethnic identity. Griffin said it’s a positive stereotype to assume that Asians receive the highest test scores.
“That’s the model minority myth,” she said, “and this is something in the Asian culture only, where Asians are supposed to be smart in math and science, and if you’re not, then you are that ‘defective Asian.’” She said people who don’t meet those stereotypes can internalize it and believe they’re inadequate.
Griffin said it’s normal for people of color to experience “internal oppression” against their own ethnicity.
“It’s having pride in who you are versus how society views you,” she said. “If no one is there to validate who you are as an ethnic minority and the messages you receive are negative, you will start to believe that for yourself and try to distance yourself from that ethnic group.”
Nguyen’s prejudices against her race were revealed most at the Saigon Market, the Asian market in Wilmington, North Carolina. Nguyen would eagerly wait to purchase her favorite snacks from the market — shrimp crackers and dried squid.
But her excitement eventually turned into embarrassment. She walked in the market with her head down, barely speaking to anyone.
Nguyen said, “I was cringing on the inside, but also really excited. It’s kind of like inner turmoil again with the whole I want to get all this stuff, but also being embarrassed that I was able to get dried squid or shrimp crackers or something weird like that. I just didn’t identify as Asian,” she said. “And I’m still not very comfortable with that. And I think it’s just because my whole life I was trying to get rid of that part of myself.”
Nguyen would fantasize about her dark brown hair turning blonde. She thought maybe then she could pass as American.
But Nguyen knew that was wishful thinking. Each time she looked in the mirror she was reminded that she was Vietnamese. She returned home from high school, speaking to her parents in English while her mother responded in Vietnamese. Each year she celebrated Chinese New Year. Before she ate dinner, her family prayed in Vietnamese.
Nguyen couldn’t escape who she was.
Embracing your culture
Britney Nguyen’s mother, Tara Nguyen, said, “I told her you have to embrace your culture.”
Tara Nguyen wanted to share the language of her homeland to her daughter. She said when Britney Nguyen was a child she read bedtime stories to her in Vietnamese. She bought a DVD of a popular little girl in Vietnam who spoke Vietnamese, but it didn’t interest Britney Nguyen.
Tara Nguyen said she regretted leaving Los Angeles, which is where most of her family is. If she stayed there, she said her daughter could have been introduced to more of their Asian culture.
But in Whiteville, Tara Nguyen said “it’s lonesome.” Nothing in Whiteville reminded Tara Nyguen of who she was.
When she was younger, she came to the United States to escape the Vietnam War with her family, so she wasn’t able to learn much about Vietnam. Tara Nguyen and her siblings attended school in Los Angeles where they were teased by other students.
She said, “Everybody was scared when the children looked at you and point at you when you don’t understand what they are saying, but Britney has an advantage because she can speak the language.”
A story shared
Learning the English language as a child influenced Britney Nguyen’s passion for writing and civil rights. By 2016, Twitter was a civil rights platform where people shared their personal stories of bigotry.
Through Twitter, Nyugen saw that her past was similar to so many other stories. This sudden realization forced her to reflect on the times she ignored the remarks made against her.
But this time she didn’t normalize it. She finally put a name to the words and comments her peers and school administrators said to her about her race.
Their words were racist, and she was able to admit it.
“I should’ve said something,” Nguyen said. “And I should’ve defended myself better even though I was in elementary school or in middle school or younger.”
It was a recent realization for Nguyen. She spent most of her life ignoring the painful words thrown at her.
But now if you see her at the Saigon Market, you will see her interacting with other Asians and proudly buying dried squid. If you talk with her at Whiteville, she will speak more openly about her traditions. If you talk to her in class at UNC-CH, she might seem shy at first, but just ask her about her history, and she’ll open up.
Nguyen is still processing, but she’s making steps toward accepting who she is.
Edited by Janna Childers.