How Being The Daughter Of Immigrants Taught Sahra Vang How To Hustle
Ask ten feminists what feminism means to them, and you’ll get ten different answers.
But that’s because they have ten different perspectives and stories. Hopefully at this point, we all know that we should all be feminists (dictionary definition: equal rights for men and women, hellooo?).
It’s important to remind ourselves not only what we’ve accomplished, but what we’ve had to go through to achieve it.
Sahra Vang Nguyen is a great example of a girl who’s been through a lot, and still has an impressive list of accomplishments. She’s been director, producer, and film maker for nine short film documentaries, and she’s written for NBC News, The Huffington Post, and Complex, as well as being an on-camera host for a new Vice documentary. Her talents stretch all the way to the kitchen, where she passionately shares her Vietnamese-American culture in her hot new restaurant “Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen.”
Overwhelmed yet? We are, but we also wanted to soak some of this hustle up, so we had to pick her brain. She’s a big believer in making your own thing happen. We chatted with her about her history, her work, and her advice to young women to do their own thing.
Can you talk a little bit about your family history and your parents’ journey to America?
Both of my parents are refugees from the Vietnam War. Historically, they’re described as “boat people,” because they literally escaped the country by boat. From what they told me, it was a really scary and dangerous journey — they risked getting caught by the Communist government, had no food and water for days, and survived turbulent sea storms. A lot of boats didn’t make it back then.
My parents didn’t know each other in Vietnam because my dad was from the capital city, Hanoi, which was in North Vietnam; and my mom was from a small fishing village in Central Vietnam, close to Nha Trang. But they had similar journeys. Each of their boats eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where they stayed for a few years before getting sponsored to come to America.
Starting their life in Boston, my parents barely knew any English. They worked manual labor jobs like painting houses, fixing shoes, and cleaning clothes. My mom has worked in a laundromat her whole life, where I spent most of my childhood when I wasn’t in school. My dad eventually started his own floor sanding company, which he still runs today.
I’d say that my parents have done incredibly well for themselves — as refugees who came to America during the early 80s with no money, no knowledge of the English language, no college degrees, no understanding of the U.S. bureaucracy, and still started two businesses and put three daughters through college.
They look at me and think that I’m some kind of impressive individual because I have a college degree and a creative career. But I look at them and think about everything they’ve accomplished in the face of everything they had to overcome — and I know they are the true definition of amazing.
What are some of the ways that you carry your family’s history forward in your writing, thinking, and creating? How has this history then influenced the path of your life?
Growing up, I was really ashamed of my family’s history. I was embarrassed by my culture. Because I felt that it made me different, and when you’re young, you just want to fit in, you know? My neighborhood was predominantly black and Latino people — we were the only Asian family for blocks. At school, I was usually one of two Asian kids in the class. I remember during elementary school, my mom would pack me Vietnamese food for lunch, and sometimes I would be too embarrassed to open the Tupperware, I just wouldn’t eat lunch.
My snacks were always the cheap brands, because we couldn’t afford brands like Nabisco. When my parents came to my school for events, it became clear to me that they were “F.O.B.’s (Fresh Off the Boat),” because they talked with an accent and looked different from the other American parents.
My feelings of embarrassment and shame changed in high school, when I joined a youth organization centered around social justice and community empowerment. I attended workshops and received mentorship from older Asian-American leaders who helped me understand my identity in the context of American society. Ever since that spark of consciousness, I’ve taken immense pride in my family history and cultural identity, not only because it’s what makes me who I am, but because my parent’s journey through time, war, land, and culture is fucking incredible!
My family’s history is one of resilience, of self-determination, and of revolutionary acts. After everything my parents have gone through, they’ve truly taught me the limitless power of human potential. I carry these values in everything I do — to take risks, follow my heart, and help others around me no matter how hard or scary things seem. On a socio-political tip, my family and I experienced a lot of racism and discrimination growing up in Boston during the 80s and 90s. Everything from being racially profiled by the police, to being called “chinks,” to being insulted in the streets with, “go back to where you came from!”
When I was younger and lacked critical thinking, those types of experiences made me grow resentment towards my parents, because I blamed it on them. But now, those experiences remind me to continue working towards a more tolerant, kind, and just world. My work — whether it’s through writing, filming, or producing — is centered around ideas of being true to who you are, speaking up because your voice is necessary, and contributing to the world in a way that values the life of every single person on earth.
What are you currently working on?
I just sold my second documentary series to NBC News, which I’ll be producing, directing, and filming under my own production company. The documentary will cover the current crisis of Cambodian deportation and the incarceration and detention of Asian Americans. I’ll be following the global fight for increased rights for deportees through the lens of social justice organization, 1Love Movement.
There have been a few really great documentaries that tell the story and struggle of people who have been deported, including Cambodian Son and Sentenced Home. I wanted my film to build upon this conversation and show the work that is being done domestically and internationally to address this problem. Much of social justice organizing is not sexy or glamorous work, and most of the work is undertaken by women. But in mainstream conversations around immigration or the migrant rights movement, women working on the grassroots level are practically invisible in the media.
What do you think are some of the biggest struggles Asian-Americans face in America today?
Personally, I feel one of the biggest struggles Asian Americans face in America today is lack of visibility — in Hollywood, in government, in academic institutions, in discussions around health care, in mainstream discourse on immigration reform, in aggregated data.
Asian America is a diverse community of many different generations, languages, ethnicities, cultures, and social classes; but America clumps us all into one homogenous group. This process renders a majority of Asian Americans invisible when discussing needs and resources to support families who struggle with mental health, poverty, employment, access to educational resources, scholarships for higher education, citizenship, opportunities in Hollywood, and a sense of belonging.
Due to the lack of Asian-American representation in mainstream media, most people don’t even understand that Asian Americans struggle with any of these things. Race is too often a black and white discussion — which is a start, but it’s not the whole conversation. Most people aren’t even considering Asian Americans as part of the conversation.
Basically, when a community is not being acknowledged or heard, it restricts people from receiving the support they need in order to live their greatest potential.
How do the stereotypes that face many young Asian American women in the U.S. impede success, or how do they have effect in general?
Stereotypes about any group of people will impede their success, because ultimately stereotypes put people in a box and limits the idea of who a person can become.
Asian-American women are commonly faced with stereotypes of being passive, submissive, exotic (foreign), quiet, and weak. In different spaces across the board, from corporate meetings to Hollywood, I think Asian-American women are really undervalued for their ideas, opinions, and leadership.
People are surprised, and too often defensive and condescending, when they come across a really outspoken and opinionated Asian-American women — because it goes against the stereotypes they’ve used to form their ideas about Asian-American women.
So with the battle of invisibility and lack of representation, Asian-American women already have to fight for a seat at the table; and when they get there, they have to fight all these stereotypes people have ingrained in their minds about the value of Asian-American women just to have their voices taken seriously.
Why do you think there is a “stereotypical idea of success” and how can specifically women break beyond these boundaries?
We’re products of our environments, and the media is part of the world that teaches us, shapes us, and conditions us with ideas – including stereotypes. From a young age, we’re taught that there’s a very formulaic and linear path to success, which includes doing well in school, picking a major you identify with, getting a college degree, then getting a job related to your degree, solidifying adulthood with a partner and family, and continuing to build upwards on this path.
There’s nothing wrong with this path if it’s meant for you, I think it sounds like a great life. But there’s just no way that everyone in the world is going to find themselves or find the best versions of themselves through this one path alone. Life isn’t linear. We’re allowed to take detours, go off the path, leave our comfort zones, explore new ideas, switch careers and start from the beginning again.
I think it’s also how we define success. Generally, success has been defined for us as attaining a level of financial and professional security – and that’s part of it. We also have to consider emotional security, mental security, and personal security as it relates to our confidence, self-esteem, and happiness.
As long as we’re living in a capitalist society, money is always going to be an important factor to consider because it allows us to pay rent, buy coffee, and go out with friends. But happiness and confidence doesn’t come from money or job titles. Happiness and confidence comes from within. You have to ask yourself, if someone took away my job, or my fat paycheck, could I still be happy with who I am?
To break beyond these boundaries, I think women – and people in general – have to begin with learning themselves. You have to really know yourself in order to have the confidence to reject years of conditioning and say, “no, that’s not for me.” When you stray from a conventional path, it’s easy to feel discomfort, because when we don’t see very many examples of non-conventional paths to success, it’s hard to believe that it’s possible.
There’s a saying, “you gotta see it to believe it.” Sometimes, you gotta believe it before you can see it. And the more people who manifest their own realities rooted in their own unique vision, and the more visible these examples become, then the easier it will be for future generations to break free from stereotypical ideas of success.
Can you give our Galore Girls that are seeking a non-traditional or multifaceted career path that breaks the walls of these stereotypical “successful jobs” some advice?
Do the work. Put in time. Show and prove. Repeat.
Sadly, women aren’t always taken as seriously as they should be – even when they have a track record of excellence. So if you want to be taken seriously, be respected for your work, and challenge people on their misperceptions about women, you better bring your A game. Nowadays, with Instagram and a culture of self-proclaimed influencer status, people are relying too much on social media metrics to validate themselves within and around. But that’s never going to give you security.
If you’re seeking a non-traditional and multifaceted career path, first, you have to know yourself. Take the time to figure out who you are, what you believe, what you value, what gives you joy, what triggers fear, what makes you feel free. When you know your truth, tackling everything else in life becomes easier.
Too often I hear people say, “I’m not passionate about my job anymore but I’m scared to start over… I don’t want to do law anymore but I don’t want to waste all that money and time on law school … I’m too old to go back to school or switch careers … I love too many things but don’t know which one to choose, etc.” These are all excuses and a huge waste of time. There’s no such thing as starting over.
You’re building upon your human potential in a new dimension. Law school isn’t a waste, it helped you along in your path. But continuing to contemplate wasting time and money is actually wasting more time and money – and some people drag this process on for years and years because they can’t make a decision to let go and evolve. You’re never too old. Period.
That’s another conventional idea that life is linear and time dictates when and where you should be in life.
You dictate when and where you should be in life – but you can only do this if you know yourself. If you love a lot of things, remember that you can do it all. Life is long. Maybe you can’t do it all at once. But you can most definitely pursue all the things you love throughout your lifetime. Look at Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams, they started out in music and now they’re running a denim company and basketball teams.
What does feminism mean to you, and do you think that intersectional feminism is adequately discussed within the feminism community?
To me, feminism means knowing myself, understanding the societal context in which I live, and making decisions from a true, authentic place. People will always critique women for the decisions they make. So, above all I believe that the most powerful thing a woman can do is exercise her agency to live truly and freely – however that looks like to them.
I feel like intersectional feminism is mostly discussed among women of color who are trying to push for the conversation of intersectionality within the feminism community. So, it’s probably not discussed enough.
Where do you see feminism in America going in the future?
I anticipate feminism in America getting more complicated, more diverse, and more controversial in the future –which is a good thing because it would mean that there are more voices in the conversation. Also, since we’re living in a male dominated and patriarchal world, the growth of feminism and female leadership will naturally make a lot of people feel uncomfortable and threatened – which is why things are going to get intense on the path to getting better.
How can we, as young women, help get it to where it needs to be?
Be vocal. Be courageous. Be kind. Be true.
The best way to change the narrative and challenge stereotypes, is to speak our truth. When we speak our truth and act in our truth, we will eventually change the minds of those around us, which will create a ripple effect to change the world in our vision.
Celebrate and honor who you are, as well as others around you. It’s so important that women support each other and challenge each other, so that we can all shine together. I’m not saying we all have to get along, because that’s not realistic. But we should enter it with the intention of uplifting each other, not tearing each other down through a misguided sense of competition. When we’re conditioned to see women underrepresented in media, in the boardroom, and in leadership positions, we grow the false idea that there are only few opportunities for women to succeed in the spaces we want to be. But the reality is that there’s plenty of room for everybody to succeed in exactly the way they envision. The world is big. If we continue to invest in and share opportunities with each other, it gets better for everyone.