Whether she’s working at the Information Desk, delivering laughs in underground improv performances or running around as president of the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA), Heather Phan Nguyen ’20 always carries a bright, buoyant air about her. Her sentences are often punctuated with laughter. During our interview, Nguyen constantly interrupted herself to shout enthusiastic greetings to acquaintances even if they were across the College Center.
In my conversation with this bubbly ball of energy, she described how being a first-generation low-income Vietnamese student has been a major focal point throughout her life. When I inquired about her work at ASA, Nguyen explained how she was motivated by her childhood experiences: “I want to make it clear that there are no expectations for what it takes to be Asian enough. I feel like that was something that I like kind of grappled with growing up in the white suburbs of Utah. Whenever people looked at me they’d be like, ‘Are you Chinese or Japanese? Or Korean?’ So I make sure that people who come to General Body meetings know that no matter where they’re coming from, their identity is valid and important and that we can talk about it.”
She experienced this warm welcome firsthand when she first joined ASA’s executive board: “I looked up to [Wendy Liu], who was Vice President when I was a first-year on the executive board. She was also Transitions and first-generation and low-income. I feel like having her on the board helped me feel very comfortable in my identity. Having her there and having that representation in that space really helped me a lot.”
When I asked about the significance of distinguishing her particular niche of low-income Asian students, Nguyen answered, “We are less prominent in the public eye just because of the Asian Model Minority Myth. It’s the idea that all Asian-Americans and Asian students are super hard working, all have parents who went to college, come from financially stable households and have black belts in karate and played piano and violin.” She referenced the controversy around Harvard’s affirmative action discriminating against high-performing Asians as a case that creates or reinforces this image.
Nguyen knows that this image does not describe her and feels it is incumbent on her to spread this understanding to others: “I just feel like my experience as a first-generation low-income Asian individual never aligned with that. So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about since coming to Vassar is my identity and how by being involved here, I’m expanding the narrative of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American in higher education because people like me are often overlooked.”
Nguyen’s contributions to the narrative on Asian identity in higher education do not stop with her extracurriculars. She explained how, by no coincidence, her academic interests also revolve around her identity: “I’m a Media Studies major. I love my major, and I love thinking about community formation and identity formation through different forms of media. Media studies really ties in with my Asian American Studies correlate.”
Having first discussed Nguyen’s relationship with identity and media studies with identity, it was only natural that the conversation honed in on the overnight sensation and Facebook group, “subtle asian traits.” The group is a perfect case study for her academic interests, and she wasted no time giving her two cents: “This Facebook page called ‘subtle asian traits’ is so interesting because it came out out of nowhere, and suddenly every single Asian person seems to be a part of this group. There are so many memes! The memes that get popular really fast are the Chinese or Korean memes, and that goes back to who are the most prominent in the Asian community in the U.S. So every time I see a Vietnamese meme I get so excited and go like, ‘Oh my God, I understand this one.’”
Nguyen still believes in the importance of pan-Asian identity and community, and that “subtle asian traits” is ultimately good: “Despite there being many memes specific to certain Asian identities, there are a lot of memes that also appeal to the general Asian-identifying population. I also think that the fact that it’s a meme page bringing people together is really interesting because it’s such a novel form of community. Meme pages could be the future of community-building.”
Considering everything we discussed, I couldn’t help but think that Nguyen is a quintessential Vassar student. She has engaged with her identity to reflect on her place in society at large, represent and welcome Asian identities in Vassar’s social and academic settings and tag her friends in Asian memes.