Dr. Joy Garcia Tiên, my life-long mentor, asked me to take her back to my middle-school journey. She also wanted to know what divided us and what held us together. To answer her questions, I wanted to go all the way back to my first experience living in America.
I started sixth grade at Lafayette Elementary School with limited English. I spent half a day in my regular classroom not understanding what my teacher and my classmates said. I felt out of place. Fortunately, the ESL (English as Second Language) classroom was my comfort zone. All of the ESL students shared a similar circumstance and our goal was to improve our English. Our ESL teachers, Mrs. Susan Hurlburt and Mrs. Sue Kresge, had done an excellent job of making us feel comfortable and welcoming. They not only taught us English, but also helped us to adjust to our new lives in America. They were more than our teachers. They were our guardians.
I went on to Reynolds Middle School in seventh grade and faced different challenges. Reynolds had a diverse student body including Black, Hispanic, White, and Asian. English remained an issue for me and I still attended ESL classes, but only forty-five minutes a day instead of half of a day. Asians, Vietnamese immigrants in particular, were the minority. It was the first time in America that I experienced bullying, and race played a part of it. I was called “Ching Chong,” “Slanted Eyes,” or “Chink” on a daily basis even though I am not even Chinese. I did not know much English, but I recognized the racial slurs. I got into fights to defend myself. My grades dropped tremendously after a suspension for getting punched in class. I was miserable and didn’t feel like getting up in the morning to go to school. I realized that the students were divided into their own ethnicities and the majorities had more power over the minorities. I kept my head low and focused on my academics.
In eighth grade, I joined the Upward Bound program. I still can’t recall how I signed up or how I heard about it, but the pre-college program changed my educational life. My experience at the Upward Bound summer program was completely different from my regular school year. The program was also made up of a diverse group of students from different backgrounds, cultures, schools, and cities, but I did not experience any bullying or racism. In the summers, I was able to hang out with our little Vietnamese group as well as expanded into the larger groups. I did not know how Ms. Doris Cross, Dr. Joy Garcia Tiên, and the entire Upward Bound staff made it possible, but I was grateful for the individual-yet-inclusive experience. Black kids blasted hip-hop in their rooms; Hispanic kids blasted their salsa in their rooms; White kids blasted their heavy metal in their rooms; we blasted Vietnamese ballads in our rooms. No one complained until curfew time. Before wrapping up each summer program, we put on cultural shows and performances to celebrate our differences.
In retrospect, what united students in the Upward Bound program were our goals and our circumstances. Although our skins, cultures, and ethnicities were different, we were from low-income, underprivileged families. While other kids enjoyed their long summer vacations, we chose to attend summer classes and to challenge ourselves with pre-college courses taught by college professors. We were committed to make a better future for ourselves. We spent the summer living, studying, eating, and hanging out together; therefore, we embraced and respected our differences. Once we found our common ground and goal, we lifted each other up instead of tearing each other apart. As a result, I had found a special bond with my Upward Bound colleagues from my middle and throughout high school years.
I would love to hear from other Upward Bound alums on their perspectives and experiences. I also would love to hear from other Vietnamese Americans, particularly how they dealt with racism or bullying in middle school. Even today, I still wonder about that period of my life. Were kids at that age understand racism? Was I targeted because of my lack of English? Was I picked on because I did not fit in? Now as a father, I do not wish to see my kids go through what I had been through, but these experiences had shaped me and made me more resilience. I did not succumb to negativity. I found support elsewhere and appreciated those who were there for me, believed in me, and gave me the opportunities.