As part of the Khmer Support Giving Circle (KSGC) family, I am truly happy to announce that our group is being recognized for the “John VIetnam Nguyen Youth Leadership Award” from the State of Illinois this year. From all of us at KSGC, this recognition comes with great honor, love, and humility. KSGC has been an important space for many young Cambodian-Americans in the Chicago area. While there are a few of us that are not youths or young adults, we recognize and value how impactful it is to have the opportunity to connect with our youths, and bridge the transition closer between generations. For many of us that are 1.5 / 2nd generation (US-born / mostly lived in the US), the diaspora that our families face from fleeing their homeland deeply impacts how we were raised, and the challenges we deal with when we are building our identities. We are sometimes viewed as foreigners in our own adopted country, and then we are viewed as foreigners in our family homeland. John “Vietnam” Nguyen represented that for many of us, especially in the Vietnamese and with other Asian communities he was a part of in Chicago. He lent a voice to our generation that needed an outlet to express those struggles through his poetry, storytelling, activism, and as a hip-hop performer.
Four years ago, I was several months removed from my return back to the Chicagoland area after living overseas for 3 years. Previously, I had been largely estranged from the Vietnamese and Cambodian community for years, and remembered being bitter towards my generation in both of those communities for (what I felt) was a lack of leadership, visibility, and cultural pride among them. I got accepted to work for KRCC (Korean American Resource & Cultural Center) in the Chicago North Side despite not having many ties to a lot of the Asian communities in the city. Needless to say, my work was cut out for me; I had to quickly learn the ropes from my colleagues who had spent years organizing and fighting for the rights and visibility that I never knew even happened in my community. I met with our youth group to learn about the work they were doing, and I remembered hearing about a hip-hop artist named John Vietnam come up amongst each other. I became curious about a man who would be brazen enough to carry the name of his family land as an artist and activist, and the fact that he carried such intrigue and awe among his peers. I’m thinking to myself, “I gotta know more about this dude.” He was about to enter his 20s as I was about to exit mine. I was looking to connect with him, and he became one of my priorities for the first month I started working for KRCC. I started to think that maybe….just maybe….we can finally have a voice that can bring light to our struggles, that can help us celebrate who we are, and to lead us fearlessly through those barriers.
I was working the KRCC booth at K-Fest in the middle of August during the whole silly “Gangnam Style” nonsense, and I caught a glimpse of an MC performance. There, I would see John step up to the mic, and gave a performance that drew the sheer excitement and passion amongst the crowd. Confidence, the good looks, charisma, wit, and boundless energy was what I saw of him that first time. I stood there, sunglasses on, smiling and nodding my head in approval. I walked back to the booth and resumed what I was doing.
About a week later, he would die tragically when he drowned trying to save his friend’s life by Lake Mendota, Wisconsin. I was stunned. The community was in mourning. I would never have the opportunity to introduce myself to him. Our community and the world would never have the opportunity to experience how much greater potential he could have achieved had his life not been so prematurely taken from him. I was so sure that he could have been that person for “us”, but four years later, he still is. John may not have lived to see the impact of his creation come to full fruition, but he gave birth to the ideas and fearlessness that were passed on to those he touched.
As a KSGC member, I am proud to call Savi, Ann, John Ty Yoeun, Alina Nuth, Punisa Pov, Teksong, and our Khmer Chicago youths my family. I could not have found such a loving space, and an opportunity to promote development, leadership, and community-building through KSGC.
With many profound, special thanks to his father, Saigon Joe and his mother Rose, his family, Tommy Choi, and to those that were a part in selecting us for this award and for continuing to carry the legacy of John Vietnam Nguyen’s vision and aspirations for the Asian community. We are eternally grateful for this, and look forward to continuing our work for the community as a whole.