Last month’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage brought a story from my childhood to the surface. Though it is very important to celebrate my Asian heritage, I am grateful to have had great friends who smoothed my transition and assisted in my growth from Vietnam to Rochester.
I am a son of a South Vietnam Airforce man. Our family is among the many boat people who migrated after the Vietnam War. In 1992, we were relocated to Rochester, and we began making our home here in this great community. The Catholic Family Center provided initial support as well, helping us get on our feet. As my parents began to find jobs and we restarted our lives here, I attended Jefferson Middle School, Wilson Magnet High School and later Rochester Institute of Technology.
My high school years weren’t as dramatic as Hollywood portrays them—I had wonderful teachers and friends. However, kids were going to be kids and there were a few instances where I was singled out because of my ethnicity. I do think that high school kids were brutal to all; other kids from other backgrounds were picked on as well.
At the time, it wasn’t a good feeling. I remember one instance at Jefferson Middle School, during a fire drill, when a bunch of kids started to target Asian American students, and I remember being chased by some of them. We were lucky that the teachers were able to control the situation, and no one was hurt.
But that incident made me more cautious about going outside of my circle, and I mostly kept to myself and my small group of Asian American friends. We were typically isolated. The negative impact was apparent. We often conversed in our native language and even though I did very well academically, my social and verbal English skills were lacking, and I remember thinking that I needed to change and become social to be successful in college and professional settings. So, I decided to take the leap and stepped outside my small circle.
Thinking and doing are two different things. Luckily for me, I was part of RIT’s pre-freshman engineering program. This program provided young students with opportunities to learn about engineering programs at RIT. It played a crucial role in my decision to attend RIT. As great as that program was for me as a college student, it was an even a better fit for me because I got to know Malik Evans.
Back then, my friends and I loved Chinese pop music, even though I do not speak or understand Chinese. I often listened to such music on my Sony Walkman during our bus ride to RIT. I was an easy target for my taste in music. Once, a couple of kids grabbed my headphones. Malik, who was quite tall for his age, stood up for me, and asked them to stop. We’ve been friends ever since. I am not sure if he remembers this incident as I am certain he has stood up for many others—that is just who he was and is.
Life is often challenging, and it was a challenging time for me, being a newcomer to this community with Vietnamese roots. However, becoming friends with Malik and some others outside of my usual group allowed me to make considerable progress in my English-speaking skills.
I wish more people in our community can become bridges for others as well.
Thuan Pham is owner of Phamiliar Technologies.