Q&A: Bao

Q:  Tell me about yourself.

Hi, I’m Bao. Welcome to my TedTalk. I never realized how strange it is to talk about yourself when someone says “tell me about yourself” outside of a job interview. 

I’m a 33 year old Vietnamese-American man. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, grew up in Fountain Valley, California, and moved to Brooklyn, New York last year. 

I’ve been in education and worked in underserved communities at charter schools for the past 8 years first in Carson, then in Santa Ana, and now in Brooklyn. 

My parents and growing up on a steady dose of comic books and Saturday Morning cartoons instilled in me a sense of right and wrong and a love for the less fortunate that’s translated to a strong internal drive for justice. 

Working in education has made me even more passionate about ensuring there is an even playing field of opportunity for marginalized communities. Also I love combat sports like MMA and boxing, and I enjoy art and graphic design. 

Q: You previously lived in  Orange County and relocated to Brooklyn.  What spurred that decision? Was it a difficult decision As a Vietnamese American to leave home ? 

It wasn’t as difficult a decision as it seemed in hindsight. It was just the perfect combination of timing and perspective. 

As a first generation Vietnamese-American, and I think many Asian Americans in general can relate to this, the idea of moving away or even just moving out isn’t one that’s conventionally accepted or promoted. 

I grew up in a traditional Vietnamese family in terms of cultural expectations - the trajectory in my life was to go to college, get a well paying, respectable job, and to live and raise children within the vicinity of my parents. And as beautiful as that trajectory is, for those of us growing up in America and being exposed to individualism and the uniquely American manifestation of the “pursuit of happiness”, there’s also a personal tug of war to reconcile these two potentials. 

My family’s dream, and my dream personally, was always to own a home. A few years back I was blessed enough to be able to realize that dream with my family, and having accomplished that I felt a freedom to ask new questions of myself.

And lastly, I had the perfect catalyst in an incredible girlfriend who had always wanted to move to New York, so the prospect of being able to set off on this adventure with her and answer these new questions made the decision clear. 

Q: How has your experience living in Orange County differ from New York? What do you love about New York and miss in Orange County? 

They’re so different on the surface - Orange County is the quintessential suburb while New York City is the epitome of a cosmopolitan metropolis - but there are parallels as well. I’ve come to appreciate so much the diversity that I was able to grow up with living in Orange County. 

New York is the melting pot within the melting pot of America and here I’ve been able to be come exposed to cultures that aren’t as prominent back home: Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Arabic, and many others . 

In Southern California we have such a deep richness of Vietnamese, Korean, and other Asian cultures that I really miss. Of course, New York also has amazing diversity in Asian cultures and cuisines, but nothing compares to the Vietnamese and Korean cultures of Little Saigon in Westminster or Koreatown in Garden Grove. I grew up in a robust Vietnamese community surrounded by my people, my culture, and my food, and Vietnamese food is so central to Vietnamese culture that missing that depth and vibrance has been difficult in New York. 

Bottom line is there just isn’t a big Vietnamese community in New York. Amazing Mexican food also is just such a staple of Southern California, and to be honest Mexican food options are whack in New York. I also grew up around Koreans so having been blessed to share Korean food makes me miss being able to drive 5 minutes to grab Korean BBQ or Korean tofu.

I also really miss driving itself. As Californians we’ve been battered and conditioned by the 405 and rush hour traffic to dread driving, but coming to New York without a car and having to rely on public transportation or walking has made me miss the freedom of tuning out the world by hopping in your car, turning on the AC, and blasting your favorite tunes. As a Californian moving to NYC, I’ve traded car traffic in my own moving fortress of solitude to people traffic jammed packed into subways. 

With all that said, every positive cliche about New York City is true from my experience so far. There’s just no where as diverse or as exciting. On any given walk you can hear 5 different languages being spoken. When walking out of the subway station on the Lower East Side or Midtown or really anywhere in Manhattan, I’m still blown away by the sheer awe of the skyline. There is literally something to do for everyone at any given time so there’s just this pervasive and welcoming sense of invitation - whoever you are and whatever you love, you can find a community, an event, a business that is dying to share in your passion. Brooklyn itself is incredible. It’s got the magic and cool of New York City without the massive crowds and daily grind of Manhattan. Also, living in New York opens up the entire East Coast for accessible travel options that I can’t wait to take advantage of once the pandemic subsides. 

Q: Asian Americans are seen as the model minority and treated differently as Black and Brown minority groups. Have you had conversations with your parents or family about Current events , racism or police brutality? Is there a generational shift that we have to teach our parents? 

I do believe there is a monumental generational shift in awareness and responsibility that is being led by young people that is affecting the way older generations like our parents and even our generation talks about race, inequality, and specifically anti-blackness and racism. 

There’s a really robust discussion going on in our community thats being spearheaded by younger Asian Americans specifically about the model minority myth and how its been historically used to undermine Black and Brown movements. 

All these concurrent dialogues have a compounding and trickle down effect that I feel is allowing for conversations with our parents that were previously considered too removed or too difficult. 

My parents are asking questions from a point of seeking understanding instead of commenting from a point of passing judgment, and it makes me really happy that the conversation is as widespread and far reaching as it is. Just look at your social media for proof of this - when’s the last time this many people have been participating in discussions on the same topic? 

For as hollow as social media can sometimes feel, the counterweight on its scale of importance is that it has made critical information that is completely left out of history textbooks accessible to the average American. The national narrative is fixed on the Black Lives Matter movement because it’s not an insular social justice initiative, it’s a human rights crisis. 

Q: At your former school, I recall you raising money to purchase Christmas gifts for your students . What pushed you to do that and why? 

The short answer is the kids. They’re the best kids in the world and I love them dearly. My former school in Santa Ana is a K-12 school, and I know as an educator you’re not supposed to have “favorites” but my lower Elementary students stole my heart and are unequivocally my favorites. 

The detailed answer is that being blessed to work in my home community of Santa Ana further reinforced for me the mass inequities that contribute to the disproportionate poverty and lack of resources that minority communities deal with. The school served students who were over 85% Hispanic/Latinx, around 40% English Learners, and over 80% eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch. My kids had to make do with less material wealth and economic opportunity and yet were just as eager, just as inquisitive, just as deserving of an education and the American Dream as a well-off private school student in Beverly Hills. 

I just wanted to help put a smile on their face during the holidays and make sure they know they are loved. With the help of incredibly generous friends, family, and coworkers in my circle we’ve been able to get each Elementary school student a stuffed animal or toy for the past three years now. It’s something I plan to do every year for as long as I can. 

Holla at me Dollar Tree and get me a sponsorship for these toys for the best kids on earth. 

Q: Do you have a key racist episode that stays visible in your mind to this day? How did that make you feel? What did you do?

I think the sad reality for most of is is that it’s damn near impossible for any minority to not have experienced racism growing up. I mentioned about how grateful I am to have grown up in as diverse a community as Orange County, but that’s not to say even within this diverse community that I love it wasn’t made repeatedly clear that I and people who looked like me are the “other.” It’s been the fixed reality of being a minority in America. Even that term itself, “minority”, is loaded with implications of “less than” or “inferior”. I think being a person of color in America is to be constantly reminded that you are always going to be the supporting actor in this movie. 

And depending on how marginalized you are, you can start to feel like nothing more than a faceless, uncredited extra or that you never had a role in the first place. I look back on it now and find it incredibly sad that growing up I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, who looked like my brother, who looked like my mother or father on TV, in movies, in any position of power, or in any leadership role. This is why representation to me is so crucial - how can you expect anyone to strive towards greatness or success when none of the examples they’re shown look like them? 

My earliest memories of feeling out of place aren’t the directly malicious and imminently threatening forms of racism that are being publicly exposed these days, but it was certainly an experience that warped my sense of identity for a long time when I was growing up. I remember as early as 1st Grade feeling ashamed of my name. I remember classmates laughing and mocking my name whenever role was called. I remember meeting friends named Bryan and Billy and wondering why my name couldn’t be as “easy to pronounce” or sound as “normal” as theirs. 

And again, these are 1st grade students so to some extent kids always find differences to explore and exploit in each other, but the fact that I was already made acutely aware that my name was “different” or “abnormal” speaks to the pervasiveness of the dominant white culture that is accepted as the norm. By 4th Grade, my brother (whose name is Long) and I decided naively that we wanted to change our names to “American” names - we look back on it now and laugh because the names we chose were influenced by our love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He loved Michaelangelo so he adopted “Michael” as his “American” name, and I loved Donatello but being an immigrant kid I heard his name as “Dannytello” so I I tried to take on “Danny” as my new “American” name. 

As expected none of our friends took this seriously, and it lasted about 2 days before were back to regular ol’ Long and Bao. It’s funny in a sort of campy, off-color sitcom way but as an adult I realized how fucked up it was that even as kids we developed a self-hatred of our cultural identity enough to even want Anglicized names. 

Another fucked up memory I have is feeling a misguided sense of pride whenever someone would tell me that I “look part-white” or that I don’t “look Vietnamese” because I’m tall and have a beard. I’m actually ashamed of feeling this way when I was younger, but I also know that this a sentiment I adopted because of the larger social environment and cultural context that spoon-fed me the subliminal message that being white is the ideal. 

As I’ve grown and matured I’ve been able to shed this self-hatred and am immensely proud to be full Vietnamese. My cultural identity makes me who I am and my very Vietnamese parents taught me the values that I live by. Now when people say these things, I quickly and proudly correct them.

Q:  We have heard on social media and the news ways to solve systemic racism and police brutality. How do you think we can address this complex and multifaceted issue ? 

It’s sad that the term Black Lives Matter isn’t just accepted for what it is: a fact. It’s as a statement that should stand alone and doesn’t need a response or further clarification. Don’t add unnecessary phrases like “but what about” and “all lives matter”. 

To me this just speaks to how deeply rooted racism and anti-blackness is embedded into our social subconscious in America - why does stating something as simple as Black Lives Matter have to elicit a reactionary “well don’t all lives matter” response? 

But just like these issue are deeply rooted, they are just as deeply nuanced. I think we’re all being educated on complex topics like systemic oppression, anti-blackness as a global issue, the history of the police, etc. For example, something like the concept of “defunding the police”, which for me when I first heard it sounded radical and illogical, is actually rooted in pragmatic and fact-based models. It’s something I’m really interested in finding out more about, and the beauty of it is that there’s so much content being created and so much literature being published that I can educate myself. 

There’re also many brilliant thought leaders and activists creating roadmaps for this and there are so many meaningful open discussions being had on social media, the news, and in personal spheres of influence that anyone can learn and become better informed. We live in the age of information so to be ignorant is a choice. I think everyone has to do their part by pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone to make meaningful changes first within themselves: educate ourselves on the history of racism in America; challenge our own deeply held beliefs and question why we believe these things; have difficult conversations with friends and family if they still hold onto racist views and beliefs; and wherever we can however we can take action because action is always more meaningful than intent be it at a protest, at the ballot box, or by creating art and sharing information.

Q: Are you hopeful  for the future? Why or why not? 

I’m incredibly hopeful for the future exactly because of the impact of Black Lives Matter igniting national coverage and public conversations thrusting issues like police brutality and racial inequality into the forefront of everyone’s awareness. In the same way all immigrants owe our liberties to the fight by Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, all People of Color and even White America as a whole will benefit from the Black Lives Matter movement by living in a more just and more equitable America. It fills me with pride to know that this generation - my students’ generation - is going to succeed where our generation and our parents generations failed.

(Editor's Note: Bao is my friend. Images and poem courtesy of Bao.)


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