Nhi discusses communication, the impact of her internship at DoSomething.org, and striving for more in life.
Can you tell me about the process to moving here?
Yeah! In 2012, my dad moved here because his job relocated him to New York and so our whole family moved here as well. I enrolled in a public high school to finish my education. I was supposed to go to the 12th grade, but then I had to repeat the eleventh grade because they said that I didn’t have enough credits to graduate. I should be graduating from college now, but I’m actually still a student because of that reason.
What was that like? Knowing all of the material, but still having to repeat.
At the time, I was like, “Wow, they are asking me to repeat. I don’t want to because it means that’s another year that I have to live off my parents and I don’t want that.” Later, I realized that if I go to senior year right away, I wouldn’t have a chance to understand American culture. I also would've had a lot of stress dealing with applying for college. In the end, repeating that year was a really good decision.
In what ways is the culture here different? What is it like in Vietnam?
I mean it has been such a long time. I’m so used to my life here that sometimes I just don’t realize anymore. Sometimes I even feel little is changed from Vietnamese culture, but at that time I remember that life here is less intimate and it seems like it takes a lot more work to get close to someone. There is less of a community in the United States. I think it was because of many reasons. For example, in high school in Vietnam, everyone goes to the same class. We would have a group of students who would go through three years together. Here, we don’t have that. We have to go to different classes, and we have to really initiate relationships with people. There are many different cultures living in one neighborhood. Sometimes it is just automatically difficult to talk to someone and to understand why they act the way they do. I think it was different in that sense.
What was it like making friends?
I remember that I had to make a lot of effort to make friends. I still do now. It’s just that, if you speak a different language, it’s just so much more difficult to feel close to another person. Like, I can get close to someone who speaks Vietnamese way faster because it’s just how language is to me. At that time, I remember that it was forcing myself to step out of my comfort zone and really constantly talk to people. Because I came to school in eleventh grade, that meant that people had already known each other for two years. After junior year, I was so much more confident, and I talked a lot more. It was so worth it because I learned to step out of my own comfort space that year.
Okay, cool. Can you tell me what you’re studying?
So right now I’m doing my undergraduate degree in communication arts, but I’m also a part of a five-year program. My graduate major is international communication, so after five years I’m going to have a communication art major degree for undergraduate and international communication, for graduate school.
How has that experience affected you today and where you are now?
I think if I didn’t go through that experience, I would never have chosen communication arts as my major because I experienced so much of a barrier between me and people. I realized how communication is so important. That was one of the reasons why I chose communication arts as my major in college. It’s like my whole career trajectory. The second thing is, I feel much more confident to do what I’m doing right now. I have to constantly talk to people, constantly reach out to people, constantly move from this internship to that workplace. It’s so much easier now. I would never be who I am today without that uncomfortable feeling of reaching out to talk to people of different cultures when I first came here.
Are your parents big about encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone?
We never talk much about things like that. Things that are certain to me, I don’t talk to my parents about. In Vietnamese culture, people are a little bit more reserved about how they feel. Like, they wouldn’t talk about that. They wouldn’t say, “I love you.” I mean, they do, but they never say it.
Why do you think that?
It’s just the culture. Like, in Vietnamese culture, it’s so cheesy to tell someone that I like them or love them. But it’s different in English. I think my family culture is very shy about it, too.
I feel like in Western culture we say that we “love” everything and that we don’t necessarily mean everything that we say. How important is the weight of words in Vietnamese culture?
In my culture, you mean it when you say it and it just feels so different. But for me, it’s an interesting process because after I came here and learned how to express my feelings, I realized that I feel so much better than when I speak in Vietnamese. I say things that I would never say in Vietnamese, and it makes me feel very free. I would say that I like people or love people or that I don’t like this or that. A lot of people would ask why I say that, but I really mean it when I say it in Vietnamese. It makes me feel real in myself because of my experience here, and then I convert it back into Vietnamese.
How often do you go back and do you have a desire to go back there to live?
In the past five years, I’ve been two times. I have to go back. It’s very difficult to stay here if you don’t get sponsored. My parents moved back already, and I’m here by myself. We talk once a week, and I’m normally so busy that there’s not really that strong feeling of missing them except sometimes during the summer when I’m bored and wish they were here because it would be more fun. It's not really a strong feeling though because I really do enjoy living here.
What are you currently doing this summer?
I’m working at two part-time internships. At UNICEF, I’m working with the global cost partnership department. UNICEF partners with a lot of non-profits and non-governmental organizations to fundraise for certain causes. I’m doing research on malaria, and I’m actually going to present it this Wednesday to my boss. The other organization is BRAC which is a very large development organization that is based in Bangladesh, and they have an office here with ten to twenty people. What they do is design poverty alleviation programs in eleven countries.
That is AMAZING. Do you consider this to be your dream job?
I want to ultimately work for a really great organization that does good work for children, so UNICEF is one of them, but I think to be someone who is helpful, I need to have a lot of experience in the international development field, and I really don’t care which organization I work for. I care about whether they are effective and whether they help a lot of people. Right now I’m just looking to get a lot of experience, and I want to become a communication specialist eventually working within different communities and facilitating discussion so that they can tell us what they need from us and how we can do a better job at helping people. Right now, I feel like a lot of times when people write programs to help those in poorer countries they don’t know about the situation so they could potentially write programs that don’t actually benefit people. I want to be someone who can facilitate a discussion to go between the two sides, and I also want to be someone who can help educate people on the best ways to protect and grow healthy children. I’m on my way of discovering how I’m going to do that.
Have you always been passionate about social good?
Yea, pretty much all of the time. I think it was my first year of college that I read this book called Half the Sky which is a really good book about women empowerment. The idea is that women hold up half of the sky. So I read that book and then got involved with UNICEF in school. I also got involved with another organization before eventually interning at DoSomething.
What’s been your favorite opportunity so far?
DoSomething because I have no idea how I got in [laughs]. It’s so competitive. I have no idea how, but I feel like my time at DoSomething taught me so much about technology for good. I got to meet with people who are so driven, and I realized that I deserve better. Before, I just thought that I needed a job that pays me well. In Vietnam, I used to think that I had to live within the environment that was provided, but it wasn’t until working at DoSomething that I realized I could work at a place that really treasures me all while doing something that I really like.
What have been some other things that you’ve learned?
Before I came to DoSomething, I was very conservative about technology. I used to think that technology was changing our lives and disrupting how we think about the world. When I came to DoSomething, I thought, “Oh my God! If you want to use a tool for good, you can do it. You can do a lot of things with it.” I also learned how to be proactive and passionate and how that can get you so far. I love it, and I think that really has built me into the person that I am right now.
Living with my family, I was never pressured into stepping out. For example, when I went to school, and there were a lot of clubs, I wouldn’t get involved just because that was comfortable. I didn’t see the need to step out, but I left home early when I was 17, so I’ll never know whether not going to college would have made me different. For sure though, I would never become the person that I am today without coming to America. Here, I meet so many types of people, and so I don’t have a circle of friends. I’m always talking to different strangers, and that liberates me so much. In Vietnam, I always cared about what my circle of friends thought about me. I would have never discovered my passion for social good and international development without being here because only by being here did I realize just how much people here have compared to people in Vietnam. I want to change that. I want to change how the society is working, how wealth is being distributed, and how people are not having access to opportunities.
Would you say that your life of comfort in Vietnam was tied to contentment?
I actually think that it wasn’t comfortable. Being at home was good because I had a circle of friends and also my parents and grandparents which was great. At the same time, I always felt frustrated because I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t feel like I was doing things that were really driving me. I didn’t feel curious about the world or free. I always felt like the world was so small and I was so curious about the world outside of my country. I remember feeling like that. I was like, “I don’t know what I want to do. I feel like everything is so set for me.” I didn’t want to just do a major there that would make me a lot of money. So that’s a reason why I’m so lucky to be here because I’m learning what I like. I have a feeling that this passion for international development work is going to keep me going, passionate, young, and curious about the world because certain values are built into me after living here for five years. I feel much more aware of the world.
What do you expect life to be like when you move back to Vietnam?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’m really scared, and I feel like I’m going to be running into a new culture. I think it will take a lot of me to readjust to the culture. When I go back, I will have a new identity as a student who used to study in America. In Vietnam, people think that America is a really rich country with lots of opportunities, but only a part of that is true. America is complex, and my life is very different from what people see on Hollywood. So I will have a new identity, and I don’t know how to deal with that. I feel so lucky, and I don’t know how to deal with that sort of guilt. Sometimes I think about how I’m in America right now and how I get to learn so much more than many of my relatives. I’m thinking of writing down how I’m going to frame myself to talk to people in a way that makes me feel genuine and comfortable with people, but that also makes people feel like I’m their friend and that I haven't changed so much after being here for a while.