Jimmy Tang is a student at American University and hails from San Gabriel Valley, California. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in international relations and business economics with a minor in communication. His research specialization is in economic and social welfare policy, with experience in event management, fundraising, and public outreach.
You can find him leading projects among a diverse pool of organizations, all of which address both global and domestic sociopolitical issues through non-profit work and community engagement initiatives.
WHERE WE MET
An Interview with Jimmy Tang
Francesca: It is 9:15[AM] and I am currently in Washington D.C. with Jimmy Tang. We are at Georgetown Waterfront Park at the moment, and Jimmy, I’m going to hand it to you to tell me a little bit about yourself—just basic background so people know who you are.
Jimmy: Alright, well, my name is Jimmy Tang. I am twenty years old. I am an undergraduate student at the American University of Washington D.C. I study international relations and public communications. Before coming to D.C., I grew up in Los Angeles, California, in the Monterey Park area. I grew up to become the first person in my family to go to college. [I was] raised in a single-parent household and [I am] just spending time in [Washington] D.C. to figure out what I want to do with my life.
Francesca: So the premise of today is for people to choose and discuss a place that was significant to them and their personal history. I know it’s a little different because you’re here in D.C. I understand it would have been a different choice if you were at home somewhere else, so could you tell me somewhere at home you would have chosen instead?
Jimmy: Let me think about that. I definitely feel that I would have chosen the Griffith Park area—the Griffith Observatory area—because growing up in Monterey Park the community was very homogenous. A lot of Asian Americans, Chinese Americans. And I guess growing up there, I always craved to be exposed to different cultures and all sorts of people. Every time I would go to Griffith growing up, that’s where I would see different types of people and interactions with different cultures because everyone there is from somewhere else and that’s what I really like about the community there. That’s why I would have chosen Griffith Park.
Francesca: And you don’t feel like you can find that as much in your hometown or in your own city?
Jimmy: Definitely not. My hometown, as I said before, is very strongly Asian American community. A lot of my peers were the first people [in their family] to go to school in America and it’s definitely nice to grow up in a community with a lot of people that share similar backgrounds with you. But at the same time it’s one of the reasons I chose to come to [Washington] D.C. It was to expose myself to what else was out there and that’s definitely had a really good reverse effect because it has made me really appreciate my culture at home.
Francesca: Is that why you really like the Griffith Park area as well?
Jimmy: Definitely. Yeah, it’s like Griffith Park. I mean, everyone here is from somewhere else. It’s the most similar background that I can think of.
Francesca: That’s interesting, that being in a place that doesn’t remind you so much of your identity helps you strongly connect to your own. What about here [in Georgetown]? Why did you choose this particular area?
Jimmy: Why D.C. or the Georgetown area?
Francesca: Why this specific area, Georgetown?
Jimmy: Georgetown was one of the first places I went to when I came to D.C. actually and I think after coming here, I realized this could be the place I want to spend the next four years of my life. While I don’t really have the opportunity to come here as often, every time I come back I get that sense of curiosity I first had when I came here. Every time I come here I am reminded of why I chose to come to D.C. in the first place and when I get to see all these different types of people, that’s something I enjoy.
Francesca: Do you feel like after coming to D.C. you feel more strongly connected to your identity than when you first got here?
Jimmy: Definitely, definitely. When I first came here, I felt a little overwhelmed because growing up in Monterey Park area, I never really was exposed to different cultures and while I craved [that], I never really knew what it would be like to live in a community where everyone is different. And coming to D.C., yeah, it was overwhelming at first, but over the past few years, I’ve come to embrace my differences with my peers and I definitely see it as one of my strengths now, coming from a different background. And especially in my field of study, it’s definitely good to have a diverse background as well.
Francesca: Is there a greater Vietnamese community here in D.C.?
Jimmy: Definitely there is among the college campuses because D.C. is so close to [the] Maryland and Virginia area. Oftentimes I go outside the city to get into a community with a large amount of Vietnamese Americans. In the D.C. area, not so much. I would say it’s not as strong.
Francesca: It seems the city is [made up of] mostly commuters that come in from other places. Is there a large Vietnamese community where you’re from in California?
Jimmy: Definitely, yeah. Well most of the students in my area are Chinese Vietnamese. Growing up, that was the norm for me—growing up in a Chinese Vietnamese community, which is why this project is so unique for me. Coming here, I never thought of being Chinese Vietnamese as a unique trait. Coming to D.C. has really changed my mind [about] that.
Francesca: How many people [do you know] from home who are Chinese Vietnamese?
Jimmy: Most of my friends are.
Francesca: Just where you grew up or scattered throughout the area?
Jimmy: Mostly where I grew up, definitely. Monterey Park area.
Francesca: Did you think about your identity as Chinese Vietnamese growing up?
Jimmy: Growing up I never really had the opportunity to explore my own culture. I was trying very hard to become assimilated to the American culture because prior to going to school, I didn't speak any English. My mother raised me to speak Vietnamese. I was surrounded by Vietnamese culture constantly. At one point in my life, I didn't even realize that I was American because I never had a concept of what being American was. It wasn't until high school when I had a little more freedom that I started to understand I was different from [everyone else]. I wasn't just Vietnamese, I wasn't just Chinese, I wasn't just American. Then it wasn't until I came to college that I really put the pieces together and had the opportunity to make sense of my identity. I don't really have a grasp of my identity yet, but it's still a lot stronger than it was before.
Francesca: Growing up, did you mostly speak Vietnamese? Do you feel there is a really strong correlation between one's language and one's identity?
Jimmy: Definitely, definitely. One of my friends told me the other day, when you speak to someone in their second language you're speaking to their brain, but when you speak to them in their first language—that’s really who they are. When I speak Vietnamese, I feel like a completely different person. I am much more confident. It wasn't until high school that I got into writing and getting better at the English language. I had to take ESL classes. Vietnamese was my more comfortable language.
Francesca: Did you have to go to Vietnamese school or did you just speak at home?
Jimmy: I just spoke at home. My family, prior to moving to America, owned a temple which acted as the community school and my grandma was one of the teachers there. She was the one who taught me to read and write Vietnamese—English as well surprisingly.
Francesca: Do you feel like your grandmother had a huge impact on how you identify?
Jimmy: Yes, definitely.
Francesca: Is everyone on your mother's side Vietnamese and from Vietnam?
Jimmy: Yes, they are Vietnamese from Vietnam. My grandmother, however, was born in Vietnam but she spent a lot of her life in China because she was moving around with the temple a lot. She's the only person in our family who can speak Chinese, Vietnamese, and English.
Francesca: You said she was traveling.
Jimmy: Yes, she traveled to China a lot as a child so she really got accustomed to the Chinese culture and the language, but she was born and raised in Vietnam.
Francesca: Is all of your mom's side of the family from Vietnam?
Jimmy: Yes, [they are] Vietnamese.
Francesca: Which part of Vietnam?
Jimmy: Southern Vietnam, outside of Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City.
Francesca: How did your family know about Monterey Park or know where to go after they left Vietnam?
Jimmy: My grandmother, while she grew up at the temple, she had worked at the [United States] Embassy as well as an English translator. So I guess she had heard from one of her coworkers who was from America that there was this community full of Vietnamese Americans and it was either going to be Monterey Park or the Orange County, Garden Grove area. We ended up choosing the Monterey Park area.
Francesca: Could you tell me more about the temple and how it influenced the way you understand your identity?
Jimmy: Growing up, my grandmother would take me to the temple in our area every weekend. I would wake up at early in the morning. I used to hate it as a kid. I hated it. I would do it with her every Saturday and Sunday morning: wake up early, go to the temple, and pray with her. When I was younger, I never really appreciated it, but looking back, it has definitely thought me a lot of things that I never expected. It has taught me about patience. I remember having to be there for hours on end. It's taught me how to appreciate just taking yourself out of your current situation and just reflecting. That lesson of reflection has really taught me to become a more thoughtful person in every aspect outside of religion and while I am culturally Buddhist because of my family's upbringing, I don't necessarily follow its traditions. The traits Buddhism has instilled upon me have definitely taught me a lot about other things in my life that are really interesting as well.
Francesca: How so? What types of things?
Jimmy: Outside of the patience factor, I have really been able to appreciate different cultures a lot more because of Buddhism. The one thing that I like about Buddhist is that, while people label it as a religion, I don't necessarily consider it a religion. I consider it to be a way of life to accept others, to focus on self growth rather than praying to a certain god or anything like that. By being able to focus on my own individual self while exploring everything around me, I've been able to take things a lot more differently than other people would in a way that... Let me think about how I want to phrase this. If I'm put into a situation I'm not comfortable with, I actually like that. I like being put in uncomfortable situations because it really teaches me a lot about myself as a person [and] how I handle myself under different types of situations. Coming to [Washington] D.C., I was definitely nervous but I was a lot more excited than nervous. Being surrounded by different types of people, it was scary, but at the same time, it has taught me so much about myself as well. I've come to appreciate it.
Francesca: Can you think of any other situations where you felt that same type of [discomfort] in a different way?
Jimmy: Oh definitely. I guess growing up with a single parent. My mother and I always struggled financially. We moved from house to house and because my mom was considered the stubborn one in her family, she didn't really want to depend on her sisters for help. It ended up being us moving around a lot and I often had to be put in situations where I had to play the adult role for my family—my mother specifically. It was really intimidating at first. My mother had to file for bankruptcy when I was a freshman in high school and at first, I took it in a really negative way. I was like, what did I do to deserve this? What did I do to be put in this type of situation? But because of the lessons of patience—going to the temple—I was able to see a lot of different people and reflect on that. There are these monks who live on hardly any financial means yet they are able to be content with their lives. It's really taught me to look outside of the materialistic aspect of life and appreciate the little things a lot more. By being taught that type of optimism, I was able to use that financial disparity as a way of motivating myself to strive for better things and provide for my family.
Francesca: You said you moved a lot within the same area. How do you think that affected how you understood who you were, because you were so young?
Jimmy: Because I moved around in the same community, it didn't drastically alter the way I thought of myself. It definitely taught me how to accept change as a recurring factor in my life. It taught me to look forward. I didn't really become attached too much because I knew it was—nothing's there forever. But at the same time it taught me to appreciate things while they were there as well and it's something I've definitely been able to utilize in college because you meet so many people and people come and go so many different times of the year. It's taught me to make the most out of my interactions with them while they're here.
Francesca: You said [in your pre-interview questionnaire] that you accredit your hometown to your interest in pursuing your cultural roots but you also said that even though you were exposed to a lot of the cultural aspects, like businesses that have Chinese, Vietnamese signs, you never really felt connected to them. Could you tell me why you think so?
Jimmy: I think growing up in an Asian American community, I always felt, oh, this person's Asian just like me, so I should just be like them, but while I spoke the language and while I understood what they were saying to me, I never really had the time to understand the aspects of my culture—what it is to be Vietnamese, what it is to be Chinese. And because I never had a firm grasp of my own culture, by going to these places, I felt like an outsider looking in. I understood everything that was going on but I didn't understand the background behind it. Like, why did people do these things? Why do they have these customs? I remember going to the temple with my grandmother and praying, but never really understanding why and what these rituals were for and because of that I never really had a firm grasp of my identity until I had the time to do research in college.
Francesca: So you feel like it was only recently [that you felt this way]?
Jimmy: Yes, recently. I had all the tools growing up but I never really understood how to use them.
Francesca: Was it just mostly the other issues that were going on when you were younger that [made it] seem like identity wasn't really important to think about?
Jimmy: Yeah, definitely. I felt like, it would be selfish of me to complain about how I don't feel like I belong in my own culture when my family was struggling so much. I just kept quiet.
Francesca: You said that because you felt disconnected from your ancestors' roots, you tried to put more emphasis on the American aspect of your identity. Could you tell me about that?
Jimmy: When my mother raised me—because my mom, she's a hairdresser—she works in a primarily Caucasian, upper-middle class area and her customers would come in and tell her stories about how their kids were doing so well in school. So my mother always used those models on me and she wanted me to become as American as I could be. And by doing that, I used to associate American culture as success and that's why I had my own certain goals—financial success, everything like that.
Francesca: You said that [being American] was something she wanted for you. Was that something you wanted for yourself or were you not sure?
Jimmy: Because it was just me and my mother the whole time, we became best friends in a way. Even to this day, everything that she says I respect one hundred percent. I guess, because I had to grow up so quickly as a kid, I knew what her intentions were—she just wanted me to financially stable. She was never the type of mother to want me to go down a certain career path. I guess that's another plus. She just wanted me to work hard in school. I guess because she was the stubborn one in her family, she wanted me to be stubborn as well with my own dreams.
Francesca: Does that mean you're an only child?
Jimmy: Yes. I mean, no! That's really embarrassing. My sister is seven. But because she was born so late in my life, I sometimes feel like I'm an only child because she's so young. Yeah, I have a younger sister.
Francesca: Growing up with your sister, did you feel like she identified strongly with being Vietnamese? Does she speak Vietnamese as well?
Jimmy: Actually she speaks Chinese, Vietnamese, and English. It's because, with my half sister's father's family—they're not married or anything—is Chinese but grew up in Vietnam. So, they have the Chinese culture and everything but they also have the Vietnamese culture. And because their family raises my sister most of the time, she is able to have a much stronger grasp of a Chinese identity as well.
Francesca: So she speaks Cantonese?
Jimmy: She speaks Cantonese and Mandarin.
Francesca: From her own experiences, would you say that she identities more with being Chinese or more Vietnamese or half-half?
Jimmy: I definitely think she identities more with being Chinese. She does speak the Vietnamese language, but just because of the situation in the household. She's more exposed to Chinese culture.
Francesca: Do you ever see that as being something that—aside from the age difference of course—separates you from your sister in terms of culture?
Jimmy: Definitely. She has a lot [of a] better grasp of what it's like to be Chinese American than I did at her age. I feel because her upbringing is so different, I am only able to connect with her through her American identity. When I try to use cultural overtones in a conversation and such, she doesn't understand them and I don't understand what she’s saying sometimes.
Francesca: How so?
Jimmy: Like we speak English to each other and the last thing that we do is do things that our family did together. Chinese, Vietnamese stuff—whatever that means. We connect, as I said before, on an American level so we only do things that American kids would do. Like I don't go to the temple with her. She goes to church, which is really surprising to me. But I'm happy for her, she's happy for me.
Francesca: In your own life, have you been able to tell the difference what was more of a Chinese custom, or more like a Vietnamese custom, or is it so fused so you can't—
Jimmy: It's blurry to me because my family mixes Chinese and Vietnamese culture so often that I can't tell the difference sometimes until I hang out and spend time with a Chinese family or Vietnamese family.
Francesca: I feel that way growing up too. I remember once—I always remember this—I had a friend who came over my house in the beginning of high school, and she came in and she looked at the things in my house [and she] was like, "So… are you Vietnamese or Chinese?" And I said, I don't know. I still don't know. It's kind of funny because my parents would mix up Cantonese and Vietnamese phrases.
Jimmy: Same with my family! My grandmother's house has these Chinese paintings of the landscapes, but at the same time we have Vietnamese posters and calendars and stuff. It's unique.
Francesca: Whenever my mom says something to me, I'm like, oh, and then I'd say it back to my friend to try to explain the phrase—
Jimmy: And no one understands it!
Francesca: Have you ever seen your relatives in Vietnam before?
Jimmy: Most of my relatives live outside Vietnam. I have great aunts who still live there, who I've never met before. If I go there, I'm probably going to be staying with them but mostly I'm going to be visiting stuff by myself, traveling alone. I'm been doing that along the East Coast and I really like it. I'd like to be out of my comfort zone.
Francesca: Do your relatives identify as being Chinese or Vietnamese?
Jimmy: I do think that a lot of my family members from my mother's side—while they were raised in Vietnam and everything—they would speak to strangers and often identify as being Chinese not only because of their last name but because within our community, the idea of being Chinese is more associated with success than being Vietnamese.
Francesca: Why do you think they believe this?
Jimmy: If you look at the statistics, the financial factors, Chinese Americans on average are more financially stable than Vietnamese Americans or any Southeast Asians for that matter. And because of the Vietnamese culture, you don't really want to show other people if you're having a hard time. You don't really want the public to know that a lot of the time. I think that's the case with a lot of Chinese Vietnamese people too—the fact that you're inclined more towards one or the other. I wish I could say that I know as much about both backgrounds but that's just not the way it is.
Francesca: Did most of your aunts and uncles meet here in America?
Jimmy: I think my mom and my aunt in Australia are the only two who met their spouses in Vietnam. The interesting thing is, my parents had met in Vietnam but they got separated because of the war and then they just happened to move to the same area in California and ran into each other at a market one day.
Francesca: Wow, that's crazy.
Jimmy: Yeah, it's crazy.
Francesca: Have you ever been to Vietnam?
Jimmy: When I study abroad next year, I plan on going to China—Hong Kong for a semester—and prior to that, during the summer, I plan on spending the summer in Vietnam hopefully and exploring Southeast Asia if I can.
Francesca: Are you going by yourself?
Jimmy: Yes. It's going to be an exciting experience.
Francesca: Are there things you want to do in Vietnam?
Jimmy: Throughout my childhood, it was my grandmother who raised me because my mom worked so much. I never really had the chance to ask my mom about what it was like for her—growing up in Vietnam, like where she used to spend most of her time. I rely mostly on my grandmother's stories and I just plan on exploring a lot of significant things and places for my grandmother. Mostly, I just want to get to know the area on my own terms. Maybe just whip out a map and find out whatever's interesting for me. I don't really have a set schedule yet, but I kind of like that—I'm able to explore things by myself. I think one of the things that I'm looking forward to is seeing how I'm going to feel if I do get to spend time in Vietnam. I speak the language and everything and I have kind of an idea of what the culture is like, but what would it be like to actually be put on the spot? Will I be able to assimilate to the culture there in a quick fashion or am I still going to feel like an outsider?
Francesca: You said you wanted to learn more about your family history. Were there any stories your mother told you about or particular things you want to learn more about if you go to Vietnam?
Jimmy: Yeah, definitely. I would like to visit the temple. I wish I could have gone this summer actually because the temple is being broken down and rebuilt. So the current foundation that has been there for the past few decades isn't going to be there when I go to Vietnam. That's one of the sad things. I wish I could have seen it. But, I would like to see the place where my mom grew up, where she spent most of her time—her school even—or where my parents met in Vietnam. A lot of personal things I'd like to see.
Francesca: Did you ever ask any particular questions about your personal history growing up?
Jimmy: I think that's one of the things I struggled a lot with growing up because while I did speak Vietnamese as a kid, I was not on a speaking level where I could ask complex questions like, "What was your life like prior to moving to America?" Even if she had told me, I wouldn't be able to understand her and that's something I'm basically starting now.
Francesca: Where are you starting now? Are there things you are particularly interested in?
Jimmy: Growing up, you look at your parents as adults. You don't really think of them in another way. But getting older, you start to think about what your parents were like when they were your age and they were different people before they became your parents. Getting to know my mom on that different aspect has not only gotten us that much closer, but it has also taught me so much about what it's like to grow up in Vietnam and how strong the cultural influence is and how much she's been able to grasp onto despite living in America.
Francesca: Have you ever heard any stories growing up about the war that you didn't quite understand or still wonder about now?
Jimmy: I still have a lot of questions I haven't asked yet, but I think one of the things my family benefited from was my grandmother working at the [United States] embassy. She got the news a lot sooner than a lot of residents in the area, so we were one of the first people to leave. Because of that, we were able to avoid a lot of complications in a way and we were able to move to America after the refugee camp in a very fast manner. I plan on asking my grandmother what it was like to go to the Philippines and leaving everything behind. She had to leave her mother behind because she was too old to travel to America. I can't imagine doing something like that. I would really like to ask her questions about how she felt.
Francesca: Where do you want to go from here in terms of understanding more about your identity? What do you want to discover more about yourself?
Jimmy: Like I said earlier, while I have the tools, I don't know how to use them. Putting that in a real life terms, I would like to have a stronger understanding of the foundation behind my culture. I'm starting to learn more about why I did these things as a kid—like why I'd have to wake up and go to the temple every morning, why my family chose to move to Monterey Park versus another city in America. I've been using it as a way to get closer to my family in a sense. While I was growing up, I was surrounded by my family a lot, but I never really felt like I connected with them because I didn't understand them. Now I'm taking a lot of cultural communication classes at my school now just so I can understand how to communicate my ideas with them and understand them on their terms too. I'm just very open-minded to what I can learn over the next few years. Hopefully I am not only able to get closer to my family but I hope I am able to use it to get closer to the greater Chinese Vietnamese community as well. ∎
Jimmy Tang is a student at American University and is currently studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea.
An update from Jimmy
since we last spoke:
Since the last time we've talked, what are some of the major changes that have happened in your life?
I’ve definitely gained a lot more focus on my goals and the steps I should be taking to get there. At the time of our last interview, I was interning at an education-focused non-profit organization which definitely introduced me to the growing problems facing our schools today, in terms of policy and execution. Shortly after, I was fortunate enough to intern with the U.S. Department of Education where I was able to meet several mentor figures who have dedicated their lives to bridging the gaps that separate our best-performing schools from struggling schools. I also came to understand how large this issue really is; you can’t just say you want to fix education because there are so many components that require effort from every party from parents to legislators to the students, themselves.
This past summer, I was accepted into a leadership development program with a prominent API-organization in Los Angeles called Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. It was such a blessing getting to work at home not only because I was able to spend an extended amount of time with my family but also because this opportunity gave me the chance to learn things about my city that I didn’t know before. I learned about the API-community’s rich history in my community and met many API-leaders who really demonstrate what it means to commit your life to making change.
What was the most important lesson you’ve learned since the last time we spoke?
No two experiences are alike. Of course, this is something that’s pretty obvious, but this idea is something I’ve really grasped over the past few years through the relationships I’ve built and the people whose lives I’ve crossed. I used to think that my experience as a member of the API-community was enough for me to understand the extent of the situation, but I’ve learned just how diverse these struggles are and continue to be. When I think of issues facing the Chinese-Vietnamese as well as the greater API-community today, I definitely have a lot more motivation to try to come up with solutions, but I also realize that this is something that can be done alone. It requires coalition-building and community advocacy, both of which have been strongly rooted in the API-movement dating back to the Civil Rights era.
After reading the transcript, what are some of the thoughts on your past state of mind and how you've changed since the last time we spoke?
I can’t say that I’m unsatisfied with my past response because, at the time, I only had so much context to base my answers off of. In terms of how my thoughts have changed today, the experiences I’ve had in the past two years alone have influenced me in so many different ways. Like I said before, I used to think I understood the issues, but it became apparent very quickly that these problems are so much bigger than myself. I also realize that as I’m getting older, my perspective is less-so influenced by my family and more by my experiences as an independent person. This is both good and bad. I’m grateful that I have had the chance to explore my identity and career aspirations independently, but I also realize that we, as minority students, have to maintain that connection with our culture, which is so heavily dependent by our familial relationships.
What does your future hold?
I’m in my final year of undergraduate studies, so finding a job, either in DC or LA is at the top of my priority list. I’m still in the process of finding my place in the realm of API-advocacy and education policy, so whether I end up in the public or private sector, I’m intent on advocating for those issues.