Viet Nguyen

My broader Vietnamese community has always been a source of groundedness and calm in the hecticness of life, work, and the GSB.


My grandaunt had her poker face on. She looked me dead in the eyes with a focus that only decades of bluffing at family gambling nights could teach. Pausing just a bit longer, for dramatic effect, she phonetically sounded out her guess: “Ah-brah-hm Lin-con.” I looked up from my deck of cards and squinted my eyes. “Are you sure?” my 9 year old self teased, but it was too late; my smile had given it away. She triumphantly slapped the table and beamed the same toothless grin she would give every time she won our family Chinese Checkers tournament. “I win!” she boasted in Vietnamese.

The summer before 4th grade, I took on my first teaching role. It was my responsibility to prepare my grandaunt, who had immigrated to the United States a few years earlier and knew only a handful of English words, for her American citizenship test. As the only native English speaker in the family, I eagerly took on the challenge. For two hours a day, 3 days a week, I got to drag my grandaunt away from her soap operas to study for the imminent test. For 3 months we read, quizzed, and, on more than one occasion, bickered as teacher and student.

My first approaches to teaching were failures. Our challenges were rooted in the language barrier between her and the material. She had trouble reading the questions on the flashcards and when she could, she couldn’t pronounce her answer. With every question she answered incorrectly, she grew more and more defeated. It was clear that my approach, using flashcards and constant quizzes, was taking a toll on her morale. As the weeks went by, her toothless smile showed less and less. Three weeks in, she asked if we could stop.

My grandaunt is a proud woman. She had grown up in rural Vietnam, the daughter of two fishermen. To put herself through school, she sold lottery tickets at night. Despite her background, she was always top of her class and prided herself on her academic ability. They called her the poor girl with brains, a backhanded compliment she wore proudly.

Recalling this story, I was able to fully contextualize why she wanted to quit. This was about more than a citizenship exam for her. It was about her perception of her self worth in a society that views linguistic ability as a reflection of people’s intelligence. Every “incorrect,” every “sorry, that’s wrong,” that I gave my grandaunt was another reminder that the title she proudly wore growing up had been stripped away once she entered America. It was a reminder that here, she was just the poor girl.

Understanding this pushed me to change my method to a more assets-based approach. Gone were the traditional quizzes and rote memorization. I quickly found ways to tie the two things she loved most into each lesson plan: gambling and dramatic TV shows. I found that Vietnamese-subtitled episodes of The West Wing showed her how to pronounce the vocab terms she was learning, while incorporating her gambling skills into quizzes sharpened her competitive edge and kept her positive even when she got answers wrong. By the time of her test, she knew more about American history than most of my friends. She aced the exam and we celebrated with a game of cards, which I, of course, lost.

My relationship with my grandaunt and my broader Vietnamese community has always been a source of groundedness and calm in the hecticness of life, work, and the GSB. When I get swept up in the stresses of day to day life: the grades that don’t matter, the failed interviews, etc, I think about my community. I think about why I came to the GSB and who I wanted to help as a result of my time here. In a world of shiny toys and new opportunities, they keep me focused on what matters to me and remind me of my purpose. And for that, I am forever grateful.