PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
VN: Well, I was born in Middlesex, Conn., which always seems like such an appropriate birthplace for a trans person! It’s my inside joke. My brother was born in Rhode Island just 11 months before me — so he and I are Irish twins — and, 13 months after me, my sister was born in Philly. So I’m pretty much Philly-raised.
PGN: Your parents moved around a lot?
VN: Oh God, yes! There were four of us all together, born within a two-year span, all in different cities.
PGN: What did your parents do?
VN: My dad does contractor work and my mom’s worked a variety of odds and ends. Now she’s working at a nail salon.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
VN: [Laughs.] I was that dumpy little Asian kid who was a big nerd! I was a bit of a goofball. I remember one of my goofy moments was at school playing volleyball. If we scored a point I would spin clockwise; if the other team scored I’d twirl counter-clockwise. I was a strange kid!
PGN: A memorable time in school?
VN: Third grade was when I started to turn things around scholastically. [Laughs.] I had a huge crush on my teacher, so it was the first time I really buckled down and concentrated on schoolwork.
PGN: And what was your teacher’s name?
VN: I can’t say that! She’s still teaching. But I will say a favorite moment was that for her birthday we gave her a seed. It was some little bean but she planted it and, as it grew, I’d look at it and go, “Yes! That’s my gift to her. Right there on the windowsill!”
PGN: Awww. Tell me about your siblings.
VN: As I said, we were close in age and we kind of split into two groups. My older brother Vy (pronounced Vee) and my youngest sister Thuy (pronounced Twee) are very, I guess I’d say, socially conforming and they made one group, and my other sister, Uyen (pronounced Ee-an) and I were the weirdos and the nonconformers. She’s now an artist. My sisters and I look alike and my brother really looks like he doesn’t fit in. [Laughs.] For the longest time, my sisters just thought he was some guy who came to the house a lot!
PGN: My brothers and I looked like we were from three different races growing up.
VN: Yeah, my mother was looking at me the other day and she said, “You know, you look like you might be Italian.” I was like, “Wait ... what? Don’t you know? You gave birth to me, didn’t you?” She responded, “I’m not sure anymore.”
PGN: What was a sign you felt different about your gender identity?
VN: Well, the funny thing was I never had a concept for it. I remember when I was in about third or fourth grade, I was walking home — it wasn’t a nice neighborhood — and someone yelled out, “What the fuck are you? A boy or a girl?” and I didn’t know. I went home and thought about it and couldn’t come up with an answer.
PGN: Did you identify with your sisters?
VN: Truthfully, I don’t really identify with either side: I’m just kind of me. When I had the guy shout the question at me, I eventually decided that I was a boy because it was the only option presented at that time and it was the path of least resistance and what I was socialized to be. I didn’t know any better. There weren’t any LGBT people anywhere that I knew about and they certainly didn’t discuss it at Catholic school. I didn’t know transsexual people even existed. When I got to college, I did a lot of backtracking — like OK, this makes sense now.
PGN: Was that an a-ha! moment?
VN: I used to overcompensate. I went from being short and dumpy to tall and skinny, so I played football and basketball and used to work out all the time. I never liked sports, but since all the guys were doing it, I felt I had to.
PGN: Were you on organized teams?
VN: I was a failure on my middle-school basketball team, which is sad because I coach basketball now!
PGN: Where did you go to college?
VN: Haverford. I majored in East Asian studies with a focus in Japanese and Buddhism and my minor was in education with a focus on ESL for kids. My thesis was about contemporary Japanese society and their educational model.
PGN: And what did you learn?
VN: Among other things, that it’s a very conformist society. There’s a phrase, “The bamboo pole which sticks out will get hammered.” Meaning if anyone is unusual in some way, they need to change themselves in order not to stick out. If this is the message you get as a child, how does it affect you as an adult?
PGN: And you lived there for a while?
VN: Yes, I studied overseas for a semester. It was fall, junior year, and I was part-time out as trans but thought, OK, I can suppress this and be a “guy” for a semester. But about a month in, I was miserable! I ended up breaking down and getting a little wooly skirt and sweater. One of the good things about being Asian is that being flat-chested didn’t matter! I fit right in.
PGN: So do you find that there’s a lot of homophobia, especially since so many Asian cultures have adopted Christianity?
VN: I’m ethnically Vietnamese and, yes, they are very, very closely tied with the Catholic church in the area where I grew up. For me, I’m not actively Catholic: It helped shape who I am, but it’s not something I think about. There weren’t any actively negative sermons or anything, but there was a huge dearth of information. Anything that I learned about gay people I learned on the street from friends or on TV. And since this was the ’90s, there wasn’t a lot on TV yet.
PGN: Your first job after college?
VN: Well, it’s only been two years. I guess the first job was at a summer camp, so again I thought, OK, I have a few months where I have to push things back. And then I got a job at Cosi in Bryn Mawr as well as working in the after-school program at the Quaker school where I teach now. It’s funny: I never thought of teaching kids. I chose Haverford because I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t realize how much reading that entailed! I backed right off that and took an education course instead just for the hell of it. I taught tae kwon-do in high school, so I knew I could lead a class. I fell in love with it.
PGN: A good day as a teacher?
VN: Well, one of my children always comes in with a bright smile. One day, as we were lining up, she just looked at me and said, “Teacher Van, you’re beautiful. I love you!” I laughed it off because I didn’t think that I was wearing anything particularly pretty that day, but I’ll always remember it. It’s the little things that touch you. [Tears up a little.] Even when you’re down, knowing you can come to school and have 20 beautiful kids smile at you is something I could never give up.
PGN: And are you out at school?
VN: Yes and no. There are many things to be out about. Some people know I have a girlfriend, some know I am trans, the head of the school and teachers I work with, for example. But mostly they know me as a teacher and friend.
PGN: What about with the family?
VN: Yes, my siblings were fine from the start. It took my mother three tries! The first time I came out to her, she was worried that I wouldn’t be able to live a good life. [Laughs.] The second time I came out, she was afraid that I couldn’t pass for female, so it would be hard to get a job! The third time around, I had my job and everything was going well in my life, so she fully accepted it.
PGN: So, switching gears: any hobbies?
VN: I do origami. Though I had some toys growing up, we struggled as a family. We may have not had a lot but there was always, always paper. It was my way to make free toys.
PGN: How did you learn?
VN: I taught myself at a young age through sheer will and an obsession with perfection. My crowning achievement was at college in the origami club. We built a giant pterodactyl out of a 12-foot-by-12-foot piece of paper.
PGN: We all have different sides to our personalities: Tell me some of yours.
VN: Well, I’ve worn many hats. My dad’s a contractor, so I have a lot of around-thehouse skills. I’m good at handyman work and can fix pretty much anything. I took up cycling in college, so I became an amateur bike mechanic. Unfortunately, my commute is too far now, so my tools are somewhere in the basement. I’m an artist, I do tae kwon do, I’ve even done some acting, and was in a short film that screened last week in the Tri-Co Film Festival hosted by the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. And cooking is a huge, huge part of my life. I’ve even started doing some catering.
PGN: What’s your signature dish?
VN: It’s something simple that I often make for myself: hoisan chicken stir-fry with farfalle. It’s my college food dish, but everyone likes it.
PGN: Are you seeing someone now?
VN: Yes, we met at the Creating Change conference held by the Gay & Lesbian Task Force in Baltimore. Her name is Sam and she’s amazing. The weekend of the conference she showed me her true colors. At the conference there was ... I don’t know how to say it ... a traumatic event that happened, and she stayed with me at the hospital all night. We’d only known each other for two days.
PGN: Do you feel comfortable expounding on what happened?
VN: I was sexually assaulted. Sam was great that weekend and in the time that followed, and I have to say the conference organizers were also amazing working with me and the other person associated with the incident. They made sure we both got what was needed. At the time I didn’t know what the immigration status of the person was, so I decided not to press charges. As deeply as it affected me, that’s the kind of person I’m fighting for in my activist work.
PGN: That must be traumatic, in what you would have assumed to be a safe space.
VN: Yes, it happened so quickly. I was about to tuck in for the night and then I was in the hospital. I knew I wanted to be with Sam and, after that, it brought us even closer together. I’d just up and left the next morning after it happened, but Sam took care of business. She found the other party and called hotel security. She notified the conference leaders, and filed a police report on my behalf. I was very happy to be able to go back to school and have the kids there to pick me up. They always make things better.
PGN: Tell me a little about your activism.
VN: I’m on the steering committee of Hotpot! It’s an organization of Asian and Pacific Islander queer, lesbian, bisexual, gay women and trans, gender-variant, genderqueer, gender non-conforming identified people. We focus on and celebrate the multiplicities of our identities through social gatherings, political action and sharing good food. In fact, on May 17, we’re having an LGBTQ Immigration Listening Forum. I was also a keynote speaker at the second annual LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference and spoke about the topic of identity and community, and have been very involved in the trans community. I was the Children’s Camp day manager at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference in 2010 and 2011. I think a main theme I work with is, you are who you are. I mean it just so happens that I am a male-bodied trans person who leans to the feminine side of the spectrum but, in the end, I’m just me — chugging on through life. Like back to when I was little and I was asked if I was a boy or girl, I still want to know, what’s the point? Do I have to choose? I just am who I am. That’s all that matters.
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