written by Phuong Mai
To recognize the students’ hard work is to recognize that of their parents
The thirteenth time
For those who have triskaidekaphobia, thirteen is not exactly a lucky number. However, the 13th Vietnamese American Youth Excellence luncheon 2009 (the luncheon) was quite a success (except a little hiccup regarding the sound system). Beyond the organizers’ expectations, 21 Vietnamese American students Valedictorians and Salutatorians have been ‘discovered’ around Houston and the vicinities this year. The Vietnamese Culture and Science Association (VCSA) honored them on Sunday August 2nd, 2009, in the presence of nearly 600 distinguished guests at the annual luncheon, held at Kim Son Bellaire restaurant, Houston Texas. US Congressman Al Green emphasized several times in his short speech that this is the thirteenth luncheon. He emphasized with the audience about how the VCSA has grown to more than 500 people over the years across the US and Canada and how impressed he was with the volunteer work that the VCSA did.
The luncheon, as we call it in Vietnamese “Ngày Truyền Thống” (NTT), reflects the tradition of academic excellence and commitment to education of the Vietnamese community. It also reflects, since 2001, a new tradition in the VCSA by which the past honorees come back to organize the event to honor the current honorees. The luncheon was in fact an event of the students, for the students and by the students.
The luncheon recognized 21 Vietnamese American students, Class of 2009 of whom twelve were Valedictorians and nine were Salutatorians from their respective high schools. Four students were born in Vietnam and the rest were born in America, of whom 15 were bona fide Texans, born and raised in the Lone Star State. It was noticeable that in all of those thirteen years female students outnumbered male students. This record may remain unchallenged for the many years to come!
The Valedictorians were Cacciatore Guy Christopher, Clear Lake high school, Clear Lake ISD; Lục Thi Thu Thảo Lily, Hastings high school, Alief ISD; Mai Linda, George Washington Carver high school, Alief ISD; Nguyễn Tina, Sharptown high school, Houston ISD; Nguyễn Việt Sony, Kerr high school, Alief ISD; Nguyễn Mỹ Hằng Jennifer, Mayde Creek high school, Katy ISD; Nguyễn Trân Sandy, Cypress-Ridge high school, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD; Nguyễn David Đặng Huy, Tomball high school, Tomball ISD; Tolat Nicholas, Westfield high school, Spring ISD; Trà Nhất Vân, Debakey high school, Houston ISD; Trần Brenda, J. Frank Dobie high school, Pasadena ISD; Vũ Khánh Kelly, Clear Brook high school, Clear Creek ISD.
The Salutatorians were Âu Trân-Ngọc Cindy, Clear Brook high school, Clear Creek ISD; Lê Ngọc-Linh Cindy, South Houston high school, Pasadena ISD; Lý Sylvanus, Channelview high school, Channelview ISD; Nguyễn Tang Joseph, St. Pius X high school; Nguyễn Thảo Jennifer, Alief Hasting high school, Alief ISD; Nguyễn Dawn Sydney, Pasadena Memorial high school, Pasadena ISD; Phạm Thị Phụng Linda, Cesar E. Chavez high school, Houston ISD; Trịnh Khôi, Kerr high school, Alief ISD; Lữ Ái Tami, Clear Brook high school, Clear Creek ISD.
Honorees of the Class of 2009
It was quite incredible to see the Vietnamese community churns out a few dozens of ‘exuberant’ Valedictorians and Salutatorians year after year, Ms. Vera Ching, Vice President of Ngày Nay magazine said, given that Vietnamese account for only 2% Houston population.
Despite the recession, the luncheon 2009 has secured a new underwriter sponsor (Houston Community Colleges) and other new sponsors under other categories such as Billiken Consulting Inc., Therapeutic Comfort, the Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA (CQEMBA) Program, Class of 2010 CQEMBA, Team Houston etc…
Nguyễn Phúc Anh Lan, Chairman of the Board of Directors, VCSA and volunteers from Shell.
A great entertainment program
This year the luncheon’s entertainment became much more colorful as other organizations in Houston were invited to perform. Nguyễn Reagan, Valedictorian-former honoree of the class of 2006 and leader of a team of 50 student volunteers for the luncheon 2009, shared that they wanted to show the audience the diverse actities of Vietnamese youths in Houston. Teams of teen dragon dance and Vovinam (i.e. Vietnamese martial arts) and traditional dance by the University of Houston Vietnamese Student Association adorned the stage of the luncheon with colorful traditional costumes.
The Vovinam team in blue uniforms put up some good fights and a good show of sword fighting. Interestingly enough, in the martial art area, ‘these little skinny gilrs also outdid the boys.’ When watching the two little girls do a demo of sword fighting, Mr. Justin Ferrell from Exxon Mobil, a member of the Class of 2010 Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA and a first-time guest, expressed his surprise about how physically active and strong they were at such young age. He was later explained that the girls were working on their swords just like the two female kings of Vietnam in the old time. Two thousands years ago, Hai Bà Trưng, our first female kings, held up the tiny nation of Vietnam against the Chinese invaders for quite a long while. Put it in the perspective of the 21st century America when we still don’t have a female vice president or president, it speaks volume for the characters of Vietnamese women throughout our history. I may be totally biased and thus partial in this personal opinion here, since I am also a Viet woman!
All the special awards this year went to the young female honorees: special scholarships and Vietnamese language contest awards!
Vũ Kelly, Salutatorian, Clear Brook high school, Clear Creek ISD, won the $1,000 scholarship from Greatland Investment; Cathy Phan, Cy-Fair ISD, won the $1,000 Nicholas Lê Phạm scholarship for community activities.
It is worth noticing that Âu Trân- Ngọc Cindy was also a ‘phenomenon’ of the luncheon 2009. She graduated Salutatorian of her class, got admitted to Stanford University after winning a second prize in a high school international science contest for her part accelerator machine. She shared her ‘special thought’ in the luncheon’s program book in Vietnamese: ‘Thank you my parents, who have walked on stormy seas to enable me to live my life in peace.’
These awards did not have an expensive price tag but they conveyed a message from the first generation Vietnamese to the second generation of Vietnamese born and raised in the USA. It’s the Vietnamese language, the key to the soul of Viet people, that will connect these youths with their country of heritage, the homeland of their parents. The language contest was a quick 15-20 minute test. However, it reflected the effort of the students and their parents who have spent several years in Sunday school to learn Vietnamese language. Among the 16 students who participated in the Vietnamese language contests, four students scored near perfect on the test; among those four winners, two were born and raised in Houston, Texas.
The keynote speaker
The keynote speaker of the luncheon 2009 was Mr. Willie Nguyễn Ngọc Tuấn, the youngest brother of Mr. Nguyễn Ngọc Bảo, a NASA engineer and the founder of the VCSA 19 years ago. Mr. Tuấn grew up in Houston, attended Sharptown high school, Houston ISD, before leaving Houston to San Antonio to study psychology at Trinity University and laws at the UCLA. He currently lives in California and teaches laws at Hasting College of Laws, the oldest law school in the state. Prior to teaching at Hasting College of Laws, Mr. Tuấn used to be a civil right attorney, representing minorities with human rights issues and other issues.
Professor Willie Nguyễn Ngọc Tuấn, keynote speaker
Mr. Tuấn’s keynote speech summed up the philosophy and core values of the VCSA. First and foremost, it’s the ability to have empathy with the people who share the same background. Second, it’s the willingness to reach out to help others who are less fortunate, not necessarily only the people in the same community but anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or skin color. Mr. Tuấn shared with the audience that his assistance to people in other communities reflects his ‘paying it forward’ belief. It reflects his deep gratitude towards the two benevolent American families2 who have opened their arms to his family in 1975, when his parents and all of his siblings left for America to escape communism, a few days before the communists tanks rolled in Saigon.
Mr. Tuấn cited both Jay Z (pen name of Shawn Carter) “I can’t help the poor if I am one of them. So I made money and came back to help” and Mahadma Gandhi “The best way to find yourself is to loose yourself in the service of others”, which he personally preferred. He advised the students-honorees to choose for themselves the most appropriate way to serve their families, themselves and others.
He also shared with the audience about a personal experience that has shaped his conviction in what he did. His mother started to work again in Houston when over 50 years old, with limited English, after several years taking care of the children. The company where she worked requested her and her immigrant co-workers to pass an English test to continue employment in an assembly line. This was mandatory at the time although she was a star employee earning several praises from her supervisors and English fluency was not really a necessity for her assembly type of work. She was stressed out but never gave up working hard on her English, passed the test and eventually worked there until retirement. Years later, when he had the chance to represent 23 female immigrants who have been discriminately and unjustly treated at work, he felt like he has won justice for his own mother.
According to friends who know him, Mr. Tuấn, upon his graduation, has turned down a major law firm’s lucrative offer to work for a non-profit organization, with only one thirth of the salary. He had conviction in his choice and his parents, although worried for him, supported his decision. Mr. Tuấn did share with the audience that it was his mother’s tireless dedication to her Buddhist temple and her countless hours spent for less fortunate people that have inspired him to help others.
The VCSA is a non-profit organization. What Mr. Tuấn does and believes in constitute precisely what VCSA wants to communicate to the students. In this prosperous nation we now call home, where individualism and consumerism are emphasized, it’s not easy at all to promote such an example of altruism.
About the VCSA
Several guests who attended the luncheon for the first time this year wanted to understand more about why the VCSA maintained such a dedication to ‘foster the young generation’ of Vietnamese Americans, how to attract youths, keep them interested and ‘keep the fire in the belly sustained.’
The VCSA was founded 19 years ago in Houston by a group of Vietnamese young professionals who desire to maintain the Vietnamese cultural heritage for themselves and for their young children. From the initial group of 14 founding members, VCSA has grown into more than 550 members across the USA and Canada. VCSA typical activities consisted of the Annual National Youth Leadership camp; the annual Youth Excellence luncheon; different tutoring services for high school students in the evening; SAT prep classes; various Vietnamese language, poetry and history classes; diverse programs to serve youth such as “Say No to Tobacco,” “Mid-Autumn lantern making contest,” “Christmas party for kids,” etc… In the period of five years 2002-2006, the total sponsorship for all programs totaled nearly $800,000.
Mr. Lê Mộng Hùng, current president of the VCSA
I want to share about my own connection with the VCSA a few years ago. When we still got stuck in Vietnam and were kept in the dark, my father listened to the-then-forbidden BBC and VOA (Voice of America) to know about things that happened in…Vietnam and the Viet communities around the world. I did not know exactly when he heard about the VCSA. However, in 2000 when I moved to Houston for work and told him about my joining the VCSA, he told me “That’s a good organization; they did a lot for the Vietnamese community. I heard about them since we were still back in Vietnam. Good.” Just a few words of approval from my father have given me the ‘assurance’ necessary to join the VCSA and learn so much from this organization and its energetic people.
The VCSA is the place I like the most because it seems almost everybody here works for a purpose higher than his or her self and nobody needs to be recognized for what he or she does. The young generation also proves to be very capable and is ‘replacing’ the older generation for important tasks. Ego sometimes indisputably gets in the way and can cause some headache but the organization as a whole continues to grow, after 19 years.
Team of volunteer organizers of the luncheon 2009 – former honorees
This paragraph is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Trương Trọng Trác, chief editor of Ngày Nay magazine, a long-time friend and ardent supporter of the VCSA. I had the honor to know Mr. Trác via the VCSA and I have learned so much from him when writing for Ngày Nay. This year, when writing this article for the luncheon 2009, I can’t help feeling the loss of such a great man. He is no longer with us, but an article and the picture of our radiant honorees will still be on Ngày Nay like before. Mr. Trác’s volunteer spirit, his patriotism (for his homeland and his adopted country), his love for the Vietnamese language and for freedom, especially freedom of speech, have set good example for many of us. These are also the core values that the VCSA cherish.
‘It wasn’t for me’
Phan Xuyên, an honoree five years ago who has come back each of the last five years to organize the luncheon, shared her thoughts below. Perharps this is the best explanation of why the youths join the VCSA: because they understand the beauty and the meaning of what VCSA does.
“I remember 5 years ago, I was at UT doing the preview program. I get a call from my parents telling me I had to send a picture and biography to some organization. "Really Dad? I just started College. I don't have time." He made me, and I was even more upset that my parents had to come pick me up from Austin, and then drive me back to Austin once the event was over.
The event happened and by the end of it, my face was drenched in tears like a blabbering baby because I saw my mom's face as I handed her the rose as Mariah Carey's Hero played in the backdrop. I also think that was the first time I saw approval in my dad's eyes as he hugged me and refused to let me go. I then understood what this whole day was about. I had been recognized so many times before and was sick of it. It wasn't for me, not even at the slightest bit. It was for my parents and all they had done for me the past 18 years.”
Nguyễn Joseph Tang and his mother at the luncheon 2009
To honor our parents
French philosopher Blaise Pascal said “the me is detestable” (le moi est haïssable), therefore I hesitate to include myself in this article about our youths. However, I want to share why Phan Xuyên’s words have resonated with me in a very personal way.
When this article reaches the news stands, I would be in New York for the last residential session of the Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA program. I have overcome several obstacles to pursue this degree while working full-time with a demanding job that requires extremely long hours several months of the year. Being the only Vietnamese woman in a class of over a hundred persons from all USA and Canada, I have to compete hard in a male dominated environment (90%) in which many of my classmates hold much higher positions, have much more advanced degrees in various fields and years of experience. Despite all of that, I am reaching the finishing line. My parents won’t be around the day I graduate so that I can hug them or give them a rose like the youths of the luncheon 2009 today. But I know they will smile with me from above.
Phan Xuyên is absolutely right. Each and everything we do is not only for ourselves but also for honoring our parents: ‘to honor what our parents have done.’ It seems that every Vietnamese, from all walks of life, understands this eternal truth.
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