Vietnamese and Blacks: How We Come Together
November 22, 2007
Vietnamese and Blacks: How We Come Together
Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky Phong Tran, Posted: Nov 21, 2007
What are the ties between Vietnamese and African America?
In a sampling of today’s popular media, you’d think our two communities never come into contact with one another. And demographically it doesn’t help that the California cities of San Jose, Westminster, and Garden Grove — the epicenters of Vietnamese America — all have small percentages of African Americans. (San Jose 3.5 percent, Westminster 0.99 percent, and Garden Grove 1.3 percent.)
But in more urban, ethnically mixed communities like Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco, we mix often and successfully.
I’m proof of that.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I’d like to acknowledge three men — a coach, a journalist, and a teacher — who mentored me during my youth. By taking the time to guide me, they have changed me for the better. Body, mind and soul.
The fact that I am Vietnamese and they are African American only adds to the complexity and richness of our bonds.
In my ninth-grade year, Coach Larry Davis took a skinny, left-handed Vietnamese kid and made him into a basketball player. I remember trying out for the team at Long Beach Jordan High School, the only non-African American in the gym. I was intimidated. Scared. Short.
Not only did I make the team, I eventually became a starter and played all over Southern California. Can you imagine me, a Vietnamese kid breaking the press all over Long Beach, Compton and Watts? I’ve had a swagger ever since, on the court and off. How could you not?
My time on the squad also gave me a chance to become close friends with a number of my teammates and thus gain an intimate view of African American life that (I’m guessing here) few Vietnamese have ever had. I still cherish the times I slept over at their houses, had dinner with their families and laughed hysterically on our game trips.
But more than anything else, what I still keep from Coach Davis was his demeanor. He was not a demonstrative man who yelled at referees and players. At halftime, he would just remind us, ‘Play defense and make your free throws.’ If you missed a steal or lay-up, he wouldn’t berate you, he’d simply say, ‘Next time. Next time.’
Why did that little phrase stick with me?
Not only was it short and simple, it made perfect sense. It didn’t make you feel bad for a mistake, but encouraged you, made you believe that the next time you had the same opportunity, you’d make the play. It was brilliant because it looked to the future.
In the summer of 1990, Art Thompson III, a sports writer for the Orange County Register, was looking for a male African American journalism student to mentor. Unfortunately, there weren’t any at my school.
He could have gone back to his busy job covering the Los Angeles Raiders at the time, but when my journalism teacher suggested that he mentor an overenthusiastic, Vietnamese sports writer with a penchant for hyperbole, he did.
That same summer, Art took me to the Raiders summer training camp, an opportunity most sports fans would die for.
I interviewed then-head coach Art Shell. I met running back Marcus Allen, a legend in those days and now a member of the football Hall of Fame. I must have stood out because I remember Marcus razzing Art about the Asian
kid following him around. I didn’t care. Marcus Allen was acknowledging my existence.
What I remember about Art was his professionalism. I was not allowed to ask for autographs, for one. But I also vividly recall how prepared he was for his interviews. He had his questions and notes ready before interviews, a bunch of sharpened pencils, his note pad and a tape recorder.
It’s a testament to his journalistic integrity and respectful attitude that the players and coaches opened up to him and joked with him, even when part of his job was to critique them publicly.
As a writer now, I still apply the lessons I learned from him.
It’s hard for me to write about Tony Rogers, who passed away in 2002. He was so many things to me: high school history teacher, camp director, moral compass, confidante.
Other than my dad, he is the most influential male in my life. Many of his students consider him a father figure, and I’ve often and endearingly called him ‘my black dad.’
Mr. Rogers is probably most known in the Long Beach community for his work in building relationships while boosting diversity. He ran a human-relations camp at Long Beach Poly High called Poly North that brought together high school sophomores to learn about issues of race and interracial and interethnic friendships.
I still remember the night hikes and the dance, and I even have stayed in touch with some of my fellow campers, 17 years later. After camp, I enrolled in Mr. Rogers’ Black History class, again the only Asian in the room, which opened up my eyes to alternative histories. In college, he was good for advice at all hours and last minute letters of recommendation. With a wife and family of his own, he always found time for others.
When Mr. Rogers passed away, I woke up the next day and felt a physical void in the world. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt that way after someone’s death.
It’s taken me years of thinking to articulate what he meant to me, but it comes down to this: Mr. Rogers was a gateway to my core values of radical/progressive politics and my belief in social justice.
But what I respect so much is that he never forced his philosophy upon me or bored me with lectures. He showed them to me, he lived them. (For a while, when I found out that he had started the Black Student Union at Stanford University and protested for ethnic studies during the late 1960s, I looked at him like a superhero).
It’s funny to think that one man, a weekend camp, and a Black History class can have so much influence. But here I am today, 32 years old, a passionate advocate for social justice, a journalist and writer, and also an ethnic studies teacher.
One of the last times I saw Mr. Rogers was at a staff training for the human-relations camp where I had returned to volunteer. We had just completed a difficult team-building event. I stretched and stretched to complete a course 30 feet above the ground because I didn’t want to let my friends down.
When he returned to our cabin to debrief, Mr. Rogers told me, ‘You are one bad dude.’ It’s my favorite memory of him, but in truth, he was the baddest dude of them all.
Within Vietnamese America and popular media, there can often be negative stereotypes about African Americans, especially African American men. I’ve always had a hard time rectifying what I’ve been told and what I have lived.
In the past, Vietnamese and African America were most intricately connected through the lens of war. (Suggested reading: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem ‘T? Do Street’ and the collection Dien Cai Dau).
But for me, it’s been through friendship and mentorship. That is how we come together.