This is an interview of Kiet Tran conducted by the leader of Southeast Asian Alliance (Jordan Mayne Epps).
Jordan: Do you wanna give yourself a little introduction?
Tran: Yup! My name is Kiet Tran, [and] I believe next year is going to be my 25th year teaching at College Prep.
Jordan: How do you personally identify within the AAPI community?
Tran: I like to honor both my dad and my mom. My dad is of Chinese heritage, and my mom is of Vietnamese heritage, so I usually like to tell people that I’m Chinese and Vietnamese.
Jordan: How has that heritage shaped the person you are today? Did your mom or dad, on the Chinese and Vietnamese side, have traditions that were/are especially important to you?
Tran: I think what’s shaped me is more of my own experiences [and] my relationships with people—that has made me feel who I am, just because I didn’t live in China and I spent a short amount of time in Vietnam. I left Vietnam when I was four, so I don’t remember a lot, and I didn’t spend any time in China, so I feel more of an affinity toward Vietnam. My dad and I decided to take a trip back to Vietnam together, and we did Vietnam instead of China because he actually grew up in Vietnam as well, so even though we’re of Chinese heritage, I think both he and I feel more of an affinity towards Vietnam.
I would say the one thing that bound all of us was food. Once again, when it came to food, it was probably more Vietnamese food. I guess as I’m talking to you, I’m processing all this [and] I’m realizing that I’m probably more Chinese by heritage or by ancestry, but I feel like I’m more of a Vietnamese person.
Jordan: Mainstream media has often been criticized for its lack of or trivialized portrayal of Asian Americans. What do you think of that? Who are your favorite Asian or Asian American actors?
Tran: Let’s see here. That’s a difficult question. I’m trying to think of…I can’t say that I have any particular Asian actors…maybe something will come to me, but sorry, right now, I don’t really have anyone in mind.
Jordan: Yeah, I feel like that’d even be a hard one for me to answer because I could name a handful of celebrities and shows [from] like the Filipino channel and stuff like that, but in terms of, let me know if you agree with this, but in terms of mainstream exposure, there are not that many very big Asian artists like that.
Tran: See, exactly. I guess now that I’m talking to you, I’m realizing that maybe we’re struggling with this because when I think about Asian representation, they’re always the side cast members. They’re always the best friend but never the main, central character. Actually, I do have one person who just came up. Michelle Yeoh, who just got her first, after probably 40 years of being in the industry, finally got her major first primary role in this movie that she’s getting critically acclaimed for. I hope she gets some type of nomination, some kind of Oscar, for it. But I remember watching her in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I remember watching that movie and thinking, Wow, how cool it was to bring what is [often] central to Hong Kong cinema, martial arts, to the US. And now that I’m actually thinking, the other, [the] second movie that really got me was The Joy Luck Club. So, The Joy Luck Club was based on Amy Tan’s book about four generation[s] of women [and] that was also a breakthrough movie. I think maybe that’s why I struggled because there just aren’t a lot of them.
Jordan: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s also definitely [true] for the South East Asian community. I feel like both you and I are probably some of the only darker, Asian dudes on campus, or a handful, which is something that doesn’t come up in discussions like this, but it’s a reality that Southeast Asians [face]. We’re more tan and stuff like that, and I feel like I personally faced [colorism]in my life, especially from other Asians. Do you feel that has been a part of your experience?
Tran: Yeah, I remember I grew up as a swimmer, and so I was always extremely tan. I remember my dad telling me, “I don’t want you to get too dark because other Chinese people will think that you’re a peasant. Only peasant people are dark because they have to work out in the field.” Also, having traveled to countries like Thailand and Vietnam, I think other Asian cultures almost look down on [South East Asians]. [In their eyes,] we’re the peasants, the workers—our job is to do all the field labor work and do all the factory jobs and stuff like that. And I remember my dad just telling me, “Don’t get too dark because other Asians are going to think that’s who you are.” And I remember having a[n] I don’t care; I think I look better tan anyways. So if that’s what they think, that’s what they think [sort of attitude].
Jordan: This past year, there has been an exponential increase in hate-filled actions towards members of the AAPI community. What does showing up to support the AAPI community both internally and externally look like to you?
Tran: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve been following Olivia Munn. She’s half-Vietnamese and half-white, and she has been an amazing voice for the AAPI community. She was in that Marvel Eternals movie as one of the primary characters, and watching her has been inspiring. She has really really stepped up for the AAPI community, and she has a platform to do that. [For] me, I think it’s more of just like personal relationships. I remember when all of this violence started happening towards Asians, I remember calling my dad and saying, “Dad, you know it’s unfortunate that I even have to say this, but I just want you to be more mindful. Don’t walk around with your head in your cell phone. Just be aware of who’s close to you, [and] who’s in proximity to you. Just because you’re an older Asian man, and I’ve seen them being robbed, punched, [and] taken of their money.” And so I told him when he’s going to the ATM machine, just check his surroundings before he takes the money, and if he’s getting cash, make sure to get it quickly. It’s sad that we even have to bring this up, but that’s what’s happening in the Oakland [and] San Francisco communit[ies]. I just want[ed] to make sure that my dad was protected and the people who were closest to me. I’m not sure what type of platform I have, like I’m not a movie star or anything like that, so basically, it’s about talking to the people within my community, making sure that they know what’s happening and that they’re protecting themselves.
Jordan: Do you feel like there’s such a thing as the typical Asian American experience? Are there any stereotypes you’ve heard of or had to face being Asian American, Southeast Asian American, or Vietnamese-Chinese American?
Tran: I would say the majority of stereotypes are pretty positive about Asians. I think [of] hard-working, studious…I mean, I’ve never fought those because I know they’re stereotypes and my energy is better utilized elsewhere, so I've never thought too much about it. I think that I have thicker skin, too, because I spent four years of my childhood living in Lynchburg, Virginia—just the town name “Lynchburg” should tell you what kind of town it was. I learned from an early age—I was there from when I was four to nine—[and] I think from that age I just learned that if you let all these people and the things they say [get] to you, you’re just going to be crushed. So for me, I developed a thick skin. I remember just walking down the street with my family, and cars rolled their windows down and said, “Hey, you chink!” And at first, it was shocking, but by the tenth time you hear “chink,” you know that’s what [they’re] calling [you]. It just doesn’t bother you anymore. It’s on them. So for me, my family, and my siblings, we learned to just develop a thick skin, and we learned to think, Hey, it’s those people, it’s their ignorance [and] you don’t have to take it on yourself.
Jordan: What moments in your life have you felt proud to be Southeast Asian American?
Tran: I think I became really proud when my family moved to the Bay Area. It was really amazing [because] in Lynchburg, you just didn’t see a lot of Asians in general, [but] then to move to the Bay Area and to know that there’s a whole thriving Vietnamese community—it’s just amazing to see how these Asian communities supported each other by creating these little mini countries within the United States, where you can go and find food that you would find in that country. To walk around where white is the minority within that group, my siblings and I didn’t even know that that existed when we lived in Lynchburg. For us to come to the Bay Area, it was just like, Wow, this is so cool. Just look at how many different communities are thriving here. You know, I dare that person who rolled down their window and called me a chink to roll through this neighborhood and say that. They’d have to say it a thousand times.
Jordan: The next question is how do you feel like AAPI individuals contribute to the US?
Tran: I mean, going back to food, the influences. If you go to Houston, there’s a whole, thriving Vietnamese influence. It's amazing how it's not just Vietnamese food, and it’s not just Southern food. It’s this blend of Vietnamese and Southern food because of these Vietnamese people who live in the South. I think, just within the food, I have so many examples of how different Asian cultures have influenced stuff here. But then, as far as just culture, there’s I mean, you see, as a kid, I always went to the Obon Festival down in San Jose, and Obon Festival is a Japanese festival. Every year come springtime, you’re going to go to the Obon Festival. And so I feel like California, in particular, does a really good job, or just the Bay Area maybe, does a really good job of letting all the different cultures celebrate who they are.
Jordan: What does AAPI month mean to you?
Tran: I just think it’s a time for us to be highlighted, for us not to be the side character, [to be] put front and center a little more. And for me, it’s just more awareness. I don’t think I was given this awareness when I was a kid. I think living in Lynchburg, Virginia, for us to survive, we had to assimilate more than be proud of who we are. You were safer making yourself invisible than making yourself prominent, [especially] because we stood out so much already. But when I moved to California, I didn’t feel like I had to be invisible anymore. I felt like I could be who I was, and the way I looked wasn’t threatening to people. So, for me, this month is really just about being proud of who [I am]. I think that’s what this month represents, that in this generation, it’s not about trying to be like “them,” but it’s [about] being who you are and giving that as a gift to them.