Interview with C.N. Le of Asian-Nation

Cuong Nguyen Le is the man behind the resource that is Asian-Nation. His site has been featured by USA Today, PBS, and the History Channel.

Some have said that Asian-Nation “has the most comprehensive, concise, and unbiased information on Asian-American culture of any site” that they have been to and has opened their “eyes to a broader perspective.” As Asian-Nation approaches its fifth year online, Tieng Magazine asks C.N. Le what drives him.

TM: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us C.N. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your background?

I’m a 1.5 generation Vietnamese American. I came to the U.S. with my family after the takeover in 1975, was resettled and grew up in Orange County, CA. I lived there for almost 20 years, got my B.A. in Political Science (after changing my major from pre-med) from U.C. Irvine in 1993, and my intention was to become a lawyer. But after working part-time as an office clerk for a couple of law firms and seeing what lawyers actually do on an everyday basis, I started to have some second thoughts. Around that time, I decided to start a minor in Sociology, and the first class that I took was “Race and Ethnicity,” taught by a young Puerto Rican-Brazilian professor who eventually became my mentor.

He really opened by eyes and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand who I was and the social environment around me. Up to that point, having grown up in almost all-White neighborhoods, I never really identified myself as Vietnamese American or Asian American. I just wanted to be like everybody else — like the rest of my friends. In other words, like many other young Asian Americans growing up, I tried to be as White as I could, and many times, was embarassed to be identified as Vietnamese or Asian. But studying Sociology (and after taking a couple of Asian American Studies classes) finally made me realize that being a Vietnamese American, an Asian American, and a person of color were not sources of shame or embarassment, but strength and inspiration.

After graduating, I eventually decided that I wanted to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and get my Ph.D. in Sociology so that I can do the same thing he did — bring this knowledge and wisdom to other young people who may be in similar situations. At that time, California’s politics were getting very conservative, and I was getting tired at the traffic, congestion, pollution, etc. in the SoCal area, and I decided it was time for a change in scenery and I wanted to experience some other parts of the country. So I eventually went off to graduate school at the University at Albany, State University of NY, to get my Ph.D. in Sociology.

My four years as a full-time grad student were some of the best years of my life. I learned an incredible amount of information and new knowledge, and my understanding of myself and my world around me really matured. I also made some great friends. It was also at the end of my fourth year that I met the woman who would eventually become my wife — she was also a Sociology grad student, but at NYU. To make a long story short, we had a courtship and in a very short amount of time, we moved in together in NYC, she got pregnant, we got married, had a baby, eventually decided that living in NYC was getting too stressful, and ultimately moved back up to Albany, NY.

I then had to take three years off to work full-time to support my family and allow my wife to finish her Ph.D. first. Eventually, after a one-year stint at Grinnell College in Iowa, we settled into our current positions here at UMass Amherst. This past summer, after ten years of hard work, I was finally able to finish my doctorate and officially became Dr. C.N. Le, Ph.D. I now work as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology, and I also am Chair of the Asian American Studies program at UMass Amherst.

TM: What are some of the challenges that you face as the chair of the Asian American Studies program?

The main challenge is the lack of institutional support from the UMass Amherst administration. UMass Amherst is one of those schools that likes to promote and advertise itself as being racially/ethnically diverse and multicultural, but below the surface, doesn’t really back it up with real, concrete support. It’s kind of like those college brochures where you see a diverse group of students hanging out, smiling, playing in the autumn leaves, but in reality, they were specifically recruited to appear in the photoshoot in order to present a “diverse” campus.

Greater institutional support would consist of a larger budget, the hiring of a tenure-track faculty member to be the full-time Chair of the program (my position is only a temporary three year term and I can only devote about half my time to the program), and some kind of “administrative home.” In other words, the current Asian American Studies program is only a collection of classes offered by other departments around campus — we’re not our own department. Very few public research universities have their own AAS departments, so we have to be realistic about that, but it would be nice if we could consolidate the activities, finances, and administrative details of the program under one department, rather than it being spread around several different ones.

TM: On Asian-Nation there is a section called Vietnam: Now and Then – could you tell our readers what this section is about?

I included that section because (1) I’m Vietnamese and (2) I wanted to share with people my experiences as a refugee and educate them about my homeland. Vietnamese (along with other southeast Asians like Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians) are the newest Asian American ethnic groups and in many ways, are still frequently misunderstood. The legacy of the Viet Nam War still pervades many Americans’ understanding of the our community so I wanted to kind of “set the record straight” as much as possible.

TM: A few years ago a couple of the big Vietnamese sites stopped being updated (namely VietGate/Saigon.com) – why do you continue with your site? How do you view the Vietnamese community online? What do you think of its future?

Actually, I am not able to update my site as often as I’d like to, but I try as much as possible to do so because I feel that if I’m going to do something, I want to do it right. That means that if I create a site with information about Asian Americans, I need to keep it updated since life itself is constantly being updated and what it means to be an Asian American keeps evolving. I would actually find it rather embarassing if I consciously let my site become outdated.

From what I’ve seen, there are quite a few sites or discussion forums devoted to Vietnamese Americans, which I think is great. My impression is that the older and larger sites that have become outdated were maintained by older Vietnamese, whereas most of these newer and more regularly updated sites include predominantly young Vietnamese Americans participants. Therefore, since the Vietnamese American population has a large proportion who are young, I think that bodes well for our online presence in the future.

TM: What areas do you feel the Vietnamese American community in general can work on?

The Vietnamese American community will have to eventually come to terms with two inevitable developments. The first is, as the second generation increases in size, many more Vietnamese will be more assimilated into “mainstream” American society and as a result, will be less likely to be fluent in the Vietnamese language. This has been a historical inevitability for virtually all immigrant communities in U.S. history and there’s no reason to doubt that it will be any different for the Vietnamese. What this means is, older Vietnamese will be forced to accept these non-fluent Vietnamese into the community.

As a 1.5 generation VietAm who grew up in an all-White environment, never had any Vietnamese friends growing up, and as a result lost the ability to speak Vietnamese, it was very painful for me to be shunned and ridiculed when I tried to reconnect with the Vietnamese community, just because I wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese any longer. I hope that as the number of non-fluent Vietnamese continues to increase, the Vietnamese community will learn that there are plenty of ways to express your pride and identity as Vietnamese besides just being able to speak the language.

The second development that relates to the rise of second generation Vietnamese is that they will inevitably have less of a direct connection with the events surrounding the Viet Nam War and instead, will be much more familiar with growing up within the context of American racial/ethnic dynamics. As a result, I think it is again inevitable that more and more Vietnamese will cease to be so anti-communist and politically conservative. Therefore, my hope once again is that older Vietnamese will recognize this fundamental shift and be more accommodating to these different viewpoints and perspectives. To reiterate my earlier point, we can still be proud to be Vietnamese and work toward democracy in Viet Nam without being so fanatically anti-communist and radically conservative.

TM: Could you describe the Vietnamese American community in your area?

In terms of the Vietnamese community in my area, unfortunately it is not nearly as big as it is in O.C, San Jose, Houston, or Arlington, VA. The nearest Vietnamese community of note is in Springfield, MA and I am only beginning to explore it and interact with them down there. The same goes for other Vietnamese communities in Worcester and Boston. While I noted that there seems to be a decent online Vietnamese community, its impact in terms of leading to more face-to-face interactions depends on whether there are enough people in a given geographic location. That’s obviously not a problem in places like O.C. and the other cities I mentioned, but it’s not likely to make a big impact around here. Instead, I think we can work at making contacts and expanding our networks through local groups such as college student groups, etc. The young people are the future and it’s important that we try to integrate them into the community as much as possible.

TM: Recent events like VAX being taken off the air and the elections seem to hint that the older generation of Vietnamese are having a hard time accepting any different views. What would you suggest as a practical means to improve relations between the older and younger generations of Vietnamese?

As with most issues in our world, there are different degrees, even a whole continuum, of agreement/disagreement. In other words, even among the older and more politically conservative Vietnamese, there are generally those who are a little moderate and practial — willing to listen to different perspectives and explore different possibilities. Then there are the extremists who are quite militant and absolutely will not listen to or tolerate anything that is different from their worldview. I actually think that this latter group is diminishing in size but again with most other issues, this militant minority is also the most vocal and willing to take direct actions to silence the everybody else. To be honest, I do not have much hope for communicating with this group.

It’s the ones who are more moderate and at least willing to discuss other perspectives that I think young Vietnamese should focus their energies on. The Vietnamese American community seems to pay attention to numbers and success. Therefore, one possibility is to form a group of younger, successful professional Vietnamese Americans who tend to share a more liberal and progressive outlook who would then try to engage older Vietnamese Americans as an organized collective, rather than individual isolated voices. This group can use their socioeconomic success and professional backgrounds as an advantage, since these things carry status and respect among Vietnamese.

TM: There is also a sentiment amongst the younger generation that supports abandoning the views of the older generation – similar to indie underground movement – what do you think of this?

I would like to think that we’re gradually moving in that direction. However, I think that this younger, more progressive movement should frame and present itself as part of the mainstream Vietnamese American community, rather than pursue an “underground” or pseudo-guerilla approach. Like I described, I don’t think older Vietnamese would respond seriously to a “fringe” movement, but are likely to show more respect to young Vietnamese who have established themselves in American society and who have the status that would convey respect and acceptance.

TM: Well thank you for your time C.N. and giving us the opportunity to interview you.