by Andrew Song ’18
Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen ‘88 came to Bellarmine on October 18th as the first speaker of this year’s justice summit on Race in the 21st Century.
Dr. Nguyen, who currently teaches at the University of Southern California and serves as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and American/Ethnic Studies, spoke in the Main Gym on his experiences as a Vietnamese refugee and his early childhood encounters with racism in Downtown San Jose. For much of his speech, Dr. Nguyen commented on how his observation of a store sign in the 1980’s that said, “Another business driven out by the Vietnamese,” profoundly influenced his understanding of discrimination.
Before his family’s settlement in San Jose, the American government placed Nguyen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival, the 4-year-old refugee was immediately given a pair of chopsticks by his Caucasian sponsor family and was asked to teach them. In his words, Dr. Nguyen believed that such a moment characterized the hurdles facing Asian-Americans in the 21st century.
At the conclusion of his speech Dr. Nguyen posed the question: “Can we speak out against the injustices that we see?”
The recently awarded MacArthur Fellow silenced the student body with that question. In the minutes after Dr. Nguyen’s speech, students left the assembly with new heightened perspectives.
For senior Edmund Fanslau, the speech was powerful and equally meaningful.
“I felt like it was very true, and I believed him,” Fanslau said. “I was talking with Mr. Tam, my homeroom teacher, and he’s Asian and he went to Bellarmine in the 90s. By the time he was there at Bellarmine, it was like 50% white and it’s crazy to see the difference between 1998 and 1988.”
Upperclassmen, who have experienced more than two Justice Summit themes, stored Dr. Nguyen’s speech in their memories alongside past speakers. For many sophomores and freshmen, however, the Bellarmine alumnus’s statement was their first real, mature introduction to the discussion on racism.
Ryan Mee, a sophomore, stated, “I thought he made some really good points. His story was very moving with how he was separated from his parents.”
In the basement of O’Donnell, one senior hailed the speech as an appropriate establishment of this year’s theme. Pearse Lipscomb particularly enjoyed how Dr. Nguyen spoke about negative life experiences and Hollywood’s unfair treatment of the Vietnam Conflict, but he also proposed some solutions to racism.
“One of the things I really liked was one of his solutions to race: to not push the issue aside. It was just really about embracing race and accepting that it’s a real thing and a reality,” Lipscomb said.