Phuong Tran had just achieved his American dream when American reality hit.
On Tuesday – the day after she became a US citizen – Republicans on a House of Delegates committee blocked a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would automatically restore the franchise to formerly incarcerated Virginians convicted of a crime. It’s something Tran was eager to support at the polls.
“I am a new citizen,” she said Wednesday. “I want to exercise my right, I want to be able to vote and vote for what I believe in.”
“It’s something that we the people should be able to decide.”
And now for a few necessary disclaimers: Tran is the digital communications officer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, but the opinions expressed in this column are her own. She is also a friend whose new nationality delights me.
When a newly appointed Virginia Deputy Attorney General is revealed to have been a leader in the January 6, 2001, uprising at the United States Capitol, you know democracy is on the line. She stepped down, but the point remains: We need committed citizens who are committed to our Constitution and to America’s highest ideals.
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Tran was born in Ho Chi Minh City, which she says is still widely known back home as Saigon. Her mother is a retired pediatrician; his father, a retired math teacher.
One of his teachers spent 10 years in a re-education camp. “You have to be very careful about what you read, what you do online,” lest you get flagged by the government, Tran said. She does not take freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of speech for granted.
In Virginia today, a governor is encouraging citizens to speak out against teachers who dare to explore systemic racism and other topics that could cause white students (or their parents) angst or guilt. In Vietnam, where teachers were straitjackets of government talking points, Tran enjoyed the honest, informal, off-book lessons she received from her instructors, some of whom had family members who had fled the country after the war.
These oral histories and books fueled his innate curiosity. She learned to think critically. But these days in Virginia, where more vocal citizens are intent on censoring teachers and banning books, Tran’s life story would be seen as a “divisive concept.”
“Growing up, I was taught that the winner writes history,” she said. Censorship, she adds, is about power; to protect the status quo, not the feelings of the children. And to please parents who are afraid of having difficult conversations with their children about the good, the bad and the ugly in United States history.
“I can see the same thing happening in Vietnam when I only learn one side of the story in school because they don’t want us to challenge authority, the reality that we live in,” she said.
Moving to Lynchburg to attend Randolph College, she experienced racism that was both casual – her classmates would make rude comments about the smell of the food she was cooking – and mad, such as when a stranger in a grocery store called her a racial slur and demanded she go back where she came from.
For years, Tran was calm and determined to assimilate, even after she started working at the ACLU. But in 2020, when attacks on Asian Americans increased as then-President Donald Trump blamed China for the pandemic, “it really dawned on me that I had spoken and defended the rights of everyone but myself”.
“There are a lot of people in this country who don’t believe I belong here, and are really going to have an insurgency to send the message to anyone who looks like me, or anyone who isn’t white, that you don’t ‘don’t belong here,’ she said.
But it’s also his America – officially.
When asked why this nation was worth fighting for, she cites the “We the People” passage that begins the Declaration of Independence. Tran, who retains dual Vietnamese citizenship, is fighting to make her adopted country a more perfect place.
America, she said, is beautiful, tragic and, yes, inspiring. “And it just makes me feel less alone that I’m fighting for equality…to know that there are other people who are on the same path who are doing it too.”
She’s not the only one trying to make the dream come true.
“I’m already trying to make a living here. I try to define myself; I try to define this nation. And all of that makes me an American. I live what this country is supposed to be.