I heard that saying many times growing up as an Asian American in Michigan. Born and raised in East Lansing, my immigrant parents gave me everything I needed to succeed. They always made sure I had breakfast before school, and that I had a Lunchable for lunch, ensuring I was well-fed and able to focus on school. They clothed me with the warmest, cheap wool sweaters from Walmart to protect me from the Michigan winters. Although they could barely speak English, they struggled to read the classroom syllabuses, and brought me the crayons, notebooks and binders that were required. They provided all of this at their own expense.
My parents first immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam War. The boat that carried them across the vast ocean was a fisher boat – meant only for shallow waters. When my mother tells me this story of desperation, her eyes water, and she uses a crumpled tissue to dab the inner corners of her eyes. With a raspy voice, she recalls sitting in her own feces. She recalls others on the boat, sick from the waves, fading in and out of consciousness. My dad, who has one of the heartiest appetites I know of today, recalls starving for weeks as the boat rocked back and forth through the waves to Cambodia. Before they arrived on land, my oldest sister, only 12 at the time, was kidnapped by another foreign boat at sea, yet miraculously returned.
In the United States, my mom and dad never slept. Mom was a cook in a run-down restaurant for those who wanted ‘cheap Chinese.’ My dad bussed tables, scrubbed pans and toilets from one restaurant to another. At night, they wouldn’t lay to rest on their cots. Instead, they would crawl on their knees outside in the local yards, picking worms to sell to fishermen during the day for a few extra dollars. They wanted to save up for their children’s education in America.
“Con phai ghan hoc de than bac si.”
You have to study hard to become a doctor.
To my parents, being a doctor was the most prestigious job I could have, and the most profitable. For much of childhood, I agreed the job was for me. In college, I discovered other passions. I realized the power of communication and persuasion, and the strength of words and stories. My gift was to tell others’ stories in ways that could change lives without exploiting them. I switched from my medical track to major in communication with a specialization in public relations.
In PR, I’m reminded every day of my identity as a Vietnamese American. During networking events, when I’m in a room predominantly filled with white males, or when I’m the only woman of color in a client meeting. I’m reminded that my parents were immigrants when I try to connect with a group of professionals, and they’re all talking about football and golf – sports my parents didn’t know existed, and sports I never got to experience growing up with immigrant parents.
Being a minority in communication and public relations can sometimes be difficult and discouraging because there aren’t many peers who look like you, but I believe it is ultimately people like me who make the field stronger, truly influential and just better in every way. Here are some tips that I have found to be helpful at my own intersection of identity and work.
- Remember where you came from: I am hardworking because I didn’t really have a childhood. Before I was 10, I was translating mail and bank statements. I developed this characteristic at a young age, and it made me who I am today. That’s okay.
- Find a mentor: Although it would be ideal for me to have an Asian American female who’s in a leadership position, sometimes that can be difficult given the field. Thankfully, I have many other mentors of varying ages whom I trust and respect. Some of them who aren’t even diverse at all – but that doesn’t matter, and frankly, they’re the best mentors I could ask for. Don’t be afraid to open up about your experiences with them and don’t be afraid to seek higher guidance.
- Follow your dreams: My parents accomplished the American dream, so why can’t I accomplish mine? It’s okay if you don’t want to be a doctor, or an engineer. Follow your dreams and trust in what you’re good at because it is what will serve you best.
- Ask questions and learn: English is my primary language, but I grew up speaking Vietnamese first, and actually had an ESL teacher. Whether it is a question on how to properly pronounce an English word (ask my coworkers ), or a strategic question about a media angle, asking questions opens your opportunity for growth.
“Ghan hoc di.”
Keep on learning.
Brenda Duong is an associate at Lambert