fb-pixel Skip to main content
Perspective | Magazine

After 40+ years, what will it take for me to be seen as an American?

He was a refugee from Vietnam who bootstrapped his way to numerous accomplishments. And yet at every step he has been treated like he doesn’t belong here.

Illustration of person in center of red and white stripes with some blocks from the stripes being knocked out. Illustration goes with an essay on what it will take for people to see an Asian American as an American.
Adobe Stock images; illustration by Stephanie Zhu

I could be a poster child for the American dream if my skin were a different color. I was 19 when I arrived in the United States in 1975, a refugee fleeing Communism, bearing little more than scars from the Vietnam War. Yet I bootstrapped my way to becoming a productive US citizen. I learned English, worked my way through college with jobs as a cleaner and a factory worker, and was awarded a fellowship to study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

One day in 1981, as the bus I was riding on stopped at a red light on Dorchester Avenue, I looked out the window and saw a man walking by who gave me the middle finger, and shouted a racial slur at me and then: “Go home!” I believed America was about freedom and equality; I wasn’t prepared for such hatred merely for being Vietnamese.

Advertisement



After earning my master’s degree from Harvard, I became the first Vietnamese American chosen as a Presidential Management Fellow — a selective program for aspiring federal government executives. A few years later, back in Massachusetts, I became the first Vietnamese loan officer at the First National Bank of Boston, after completing the bank’s training program. It was intense, but I made it through and, within two years, was promoted to assistant vice president. Then my boss said to me: “You need to be an American to succeed in banking.”

I was stunned. Wasn’t being an American about working hard? I was also scared. He had just made it clear to me that I was not a member of the team and was expendable. I was afraid he’d fire me on the spot, but I had to ask: What did it mean to be an American? He just repeated what he’d already said.

Advertisement



Some colleagues told me my boss thought my English wasn’t good enough (I had an accent) and that the bank’s corporate customers would not respond well to a non-white person. I transferred to a different department, in effect starting over while people I’d started with continued to advance.

Part of the American dream is owning a home, so when my wife and I bought a house in 2006 in Quincy’s Squantum neighborhood, a middle-class community by the bay, it felt like we’d made it. Surely we were American now. But the paint had barely dried on our house when it was egged. I’d like to say things have gotten better, but getting egged remains a regular occurrence. Sometimes young people pound on our door, shouting “USA, USA” and “Go back to China.” Dog feces have been deposited on my front lawn. Ours is the only house on the block targeted this way, and since we’re also the block’s only Asian Americans, it’s hard not to think race is the reason.

I’ve always cherished the American form of government, and so was delighted in 2015 when I was asked to serve as Governor Charlie Baker’s assistant secretary of business development and international trade. To my knowledge, I was the first Asian American appointed as assistant secretary in our state government. This time, I thought, I really had achieved the American dream. In August 2016, when Massachusetts hosted a conference of New England governors and the premiers of eastern Canada, I accompanied Baker to the meetings and walked with him back to the State House afterward. I proudly wore a State House pin, issued by the governor’s office, on my lapel. Yet that afternoon, as I departed the State House alone, I was stopped, twice, by state employees asking why I was there. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I showed both my state ID and my business card before they apologized and let me go.

Advertisement



These incidents are a small sampling of what I’ve faced, despite my education level and accomplishments. I want people in the Asian community to know that they’re not alone and that we have as legitimate a claim to this blessed land as any other group. In the American journey of pursuing freedom, opportunity, and happiness, all of us are in the same boat — but Asian Americans might have also built that boat. Numerous DNA studies have shown that the ancestors of Native Americans came from East Asia.

Asian Americans should be acknowledged as part of this country’s fabric — 90 percent of the workers on the transcontinental railroad were Chinese — yet we’re constantly left out, denied by white, Black, and brown people who deem us not “American.”

Here in Boston, look at Fields Corner. When I came to the city 40 years ago, some considered it an undesirable place. Recently, it was designated the Little Saigon cultural district. A few years ago, the American Planning Association called it one of America’s 10 Great Neighborhoods. What changed? One factor is thousands of Vietnamese immigrants who moved here and helped transform it into a vibrant community.

Advertisement



America is our home. We cannot give in to bad behavior and racism or accept bigotry as the norm. We must work together in our communities to speak out and break down ignorant stereotypes. I’m optimistic that as we shed light on what many of us have suffered and will likely continue to endure, it will lead to improvement in the treatment of Asian Americans. After we were harassed the last time, some neighbors gave us a yellow rose bush. I planted it in front of the house and still enjoy its blooms.

The dark shadow of Asian invisibility has received more light. I still believe in the American dream, though apparently, I have more work to do before I achieve it.


Nam Pham is a director at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.