This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Giang Nguyen-Dien is a second-year PhD student in the American Studies program at the University of Kansas.
“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. …The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother in each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977)
In this way, poetry can “serve as an emancipatory project for women where emotions and feelings are used as a means of understanding the world in which we live” (Mann 2012, 12). For me, going back to graduate school in the Humanities after years being a stay-at-home mom is not a luxury. It is a way to participate in this “emancipatory project,” liberating myself from being “directed” by the narrative of practicality.
As a non-resident alien in the U.S. and a mother, being realistic and practical is a must. I have been told that it is more practical for me to stay at home and take care of the kids, or study something practical like nursing, education, or business administration, for example. Hence, it goes without saying that my decision to go to graduate school and pursue a doctorate degree in the Humanities is seen as indulging in an unnecessary luxury. I was told by my husband’s boss, a white man, that it would be more practical for me to find a job as a shop assistant because it was easier to find and it would help get me out of the house a bit. I guess it was sincere advice, but the sincerity of it made me think about the kind of normative abstract limitations that are placed on Asian women in the name of practicality. The expectation for a woman like me to take the well-trodden and “practical” path masks the expectation for her to rein in her aspirations.
Also, as an international student, I am in the least possible position to attempt an “impractical” choice. In the age where education is seen as an investment, going into the Humanities/Liberal Arts is like heading straight for bankruptcy, particularly for international
students, for the price of “investment” is steep. For international students, the choice of majors and careers is dictated by the market, and they cannot afford to be “impractical” or “unrealistic.”
In other words, international students need to capitalize on the knowledge in school to increase their individual market value. In this way, professional education becomes “a means to a career trajectory that will take [international students] through the upper reaches of global markets”(Szelényi and Rhoads 2006, 26). Therefore, the impracticality of spending five long years in graduate school can only be offset by the assumed practicality of choosing to study finance, engineering, or information technology because the prospects of market openings for those fields will be higher. Being practical is a must for international students.
To defy the constraints of practicality and go back to graduate school in the Humanities is, for me, truly an “emancipatory project.” I have made it to the start of the project, having escaped the limitations placed on my position as a woman, a mother, and a non-resident alien in the United States. However, as I started school as an international student, I realized the futility of this “emancipatory project” from the moment I participated in the International Student Orientation. If I’m defined by how I look in daily life, I’m also defined by the visa stamp in the International Student Orientation. I became an international student twice. The first time was in 2010 when I came to Ohio for my master’s degree in American Studies. The second time was in 2018 when I got admitted to a PhD program in Kansas, after five years staying in the United States with an L2 visa (dependent visa of an L1 intra-company transfer work visa). The first time I was an international student. The second time, I was made into an international student, a foreign person who supposedly comes to the United States for the first time. The school administration saw me not as an individual but as a category. And as a category, I needed to be “oriented” about American culture. The orientation was more about directing international students to the legal rules and the American rules (i.e. the white rules), and less about addressing their possible future difficulties and needs.
When I attended the International Student Orientation in 2018, I would not identify myself as a traditional “international” student anymore, but I was seen as such because I belonged to the category. My existence depends on how a certain category is crafted. Since there was not a category of non-traditional international students, I did not exist. I was stuck in a category that did not correspond to my existence, and I was stuck with whatever normative conceptualization there was of that generalized category.
I was required to come to campus three weeks early to clear my paperwork and to attend a two-week-long orientation that I had to pay for. I emailed to ask if I could come later for the required GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) orientation because I had kids, but nothing could be done because I was also required to be physically present at the presentation on how to stay legal to lift a hold on my record. I also needed to take an immunization shot, which I did not have to take when I was under L2 visa years ago. So, my visa type basically defined what type of immunizations I needed. I came out of those two weeks, totally immunized (i.e., safe to interact with American people), totally aware of how diverse the school was (especially after we all gathered for lunch and were asked to stand up when the name of our country was announced), and absolutely knowledgeable about how to stay legal in the United States!
The moment I changed my visa from L2 to F1 (student visa), my prior knowledge/understanding about the United States was erased. Since I hold a student visa, I must be (made) a newcomer. And since I am a foreigner, I become a potential criminal. Hence the importance of the presentation on staying legal (I had to get a stamp as a proof that I attended that presentation to clear the hold on my record). I am required to carry my I94 at all times; I am allowed to work on campus 20 hours a week when school is in session (off campus work needs to be authorized); I need the signature of an ISS (International Student Services) officer before I travel outside the U.S.; I am required to maintain full-time status (12 credit hours for undergraduate students, 9 credit hours for graduate students, or 6 credit hours for graduate students with GTA or GRA appointment); and I am to leave the U.S. within 60 days of program completion. As a foreigner, I need to be policed.
While I am well aware of the school’s duty to impart immigration laws to students, I am skeptical about the efficiency of an orientation for international students that sets “staying legal” as the main priority. This creates an impression that the ISS (International Support Services) is working for the government (No wonder why the ISS officers had to tell us that they were not working for the U.S. government, and that they would always be working for the benefits of the students). Also, the emphasis on the foreignness of international students and on the issue of “staying legal” obscures the other practical needs of those students, especially graduate students. The orientation I attended was more suited for undergraduate students. There was a whole booklet of schedules, of socialization lunches and dinners, of language evaluation, of the health “check-in,” of small group gatherings where we played games to get to know each other and ask questions, of many presentations on cultural adjustment, cultural awareness, academic learning and, most importantly, of staying legal. Of course, there was one whole day of the GTA conference about how to deal with classroom problems, which strangely offered no session on how to use Blackboard efficiently. I attended the required sessions, one dinner, and skipped the rest because I found trips to Walmart, meeting with the staffs of residence halls, campus scavenger hunts or the late-night games at the Rec Center irrelevant for me. It would have made more sense to separate the orientation into sections for undergraduate and graduate students. It would have been more helpful to have graduate student panels to address the challenges of graduate school (workload, teaching problems and work-life balance, for example) and how to deal with those.
The emphasis on “staying legal” during the orientation heightened my own awareness of my citizenship status and my alien-ness. When I first came to the U.S. for school in 2010, this heightened awareness of my foreignness followed me into the classroom, adding to the nervousness I already had being a new student in a new environment where I was usually among the few international students in class. I started to feel more insecure about voicing my viewpoints, especially when my field was American Studies.
After all, as I was from Vietnam, as I had not lived in the culture, what would the value of my voice be? I was told that I brought a different perspective to the discussions, but I could not resist the feeling that my voice had more value when it came to discussions about the colonized, the Third World, or the Vietnam War. There were many moments when I was seen as a representative of “my people” (i.e. the colonized, the Third World and the Vietnamese perspectives in the Vietnam War) against my wish. I wanted to be seen as an individual with an individual experience and perspective, not a representative of a category or a speak-person of a group. In a way, I was more comfortable in my American Studies classes in Vietnam because I was not under the pressure of representing “my people” or the pressure of demonstrating my knowledge of the field as an outsider. So, in my initial effort of resistance, I avoided picking presentation topics related to Vietnam in general or Asia in particular. My final thesis was about 9/11 and the Muslim community in the place where I was living. Thinking back, that decision also had its own drawbacks, as I stripped myself of my own epistemological standpoints. However, at the end of that two-year journey, I realized I had to learn to navigate my own positionality and the stereotypes attached to my positionality.
When I came back to graduate school in 2018, I was able to deal better with the issue of representation while at the same time embracing my own experience that shapes my worldview. However, the sense of foreignness kept following me into the classrooms when I started my role as an instructor. While I had prepared to deal with this insecurity in class as a student, I was under-prepared to deal with this insecurity in class as an instructor. I did not teach when I went to the U.S. for my master’s, so when the reality of leading discussions about American identities as an Asian woman instructor struck me, I was caught off guard. In the first day of class, I could feel a sense of doubt in the air the moment I finished introducing myself. In the U.S. classroom, my language competency and my knowledge of the field was doubted because of my Asian look and my citizenship status. Also, my position as a teaching assistant, not as a professor, undermines my authority. I was not seen as being qualified to lead discussions, or grade papers, or conduct writing workshops in class to help the students write their papers. During the first semester, I was met with resistance, from students who blatantly showed disrespect in class, and those who opposed my gradings by sending complaints straight to the professor in charge of the class without even trying to talk to me first, to those who showed resistance towards my comments during an in-class writing workshop about the construction of their central arguments for an assigned essay. As I tried to gain the students’ trust, the feedback on the students’ essays turned out to be more like a justification for why I gave a student a certain grade. I tried to explain why an argument did not make sense, not because I did not understand the English language, but because the logics were flawed. I tried to explain why an analysis fell short and did not support the argument, or to what extent the essay did or did not respond to the prompt. And if I was to tell students that I was not an expert in a particular topic or a particular historical period, but I would try my best to answer their questions within my ability, I would just be thrown looks that affirmed their distrust in my ability to lead discussions. So, for a white instructor to say, “I am not an expert, but I understand this issue in such and such way,” is a manifestation of honesty. For me, saying the same thing is a manifestation of a lack of knowledge and incapability.
To echo Simone de Beauvoir’s as well as Mohanty’s words, I was not born a woman of color, but became one the moment I entered the U.S. Hence, I needed to learn new ways of being and navigating in correspondence to this new “becoming.” One of the ways of being that I was advised to adopt was how to be a “bitch.” I was advised by another instructor who was also a woman of color that as a woman of color in a white classroom, I had to be a “bitch” to gain authority. I totally understood that she advised me to be tough and exert authority by making the students scared of me. I was just wondering why I had to be a “bitch” to gain authority, and why a woman of color could only be a “bitch” to gain authority. I had never had to be a “bitch” in a classroom before, when I was teaching in Vietnam. I had no idea of how to be this “bitch.” But I did not want to learn to become a “bitch” and thereby reinforce whatever stereotype there was about women of color. I went against that advise and kept on working towards a different way of being. I prepared carefully before each discussion session, asked challenging questions, and kept on providing the kind of “justification” feedback to students’ essays. I kept on working towards establishing my authority without having to be a “bitch.” I have become more comfortable with my identity in the classroom, and I have come to accept this distrust and doubts as an inevitable challenge of my existence within the U.S. academic culture. But there is only so much I can do.
I guess after embarking upon this emancipatory project, I have stumbled upon what Sara Ahmed describes as the wall, the invisible wall that is also a mirror that reflects a structural construction of how a woman of color is perceived. I admit that being able to go to graduate school is a privilege, and to get that privilege, I have to get along. Sometimes “to get on, you get
along” (Ahmed 2017, 36), and that is the Master’s tools-Master’s house dilemma. So now, I am in the Master’s house, learning the Master’s tools. To get to graduate school, I have broken a few constructs built in the Master’s house. I guess, once I master the Master’s tools, I could use them to break a few more constructs. While breaking a few things in the house does not lead to the demolishment of the house, it does increase the chance for the house to be demolished, some time in the future. I still find the Humanities my refuge, where I got to study with professors who sympathize but do not pity me, who support but do not lower the bar for me, who appreciate my positionality but do not generalize my voice. This kind of support helps me keep my faith in my personal “emancipatory project.” And I am glad at least I have made it to the start of this on-going project.
 I94 is a “Arrival/Departure Record” which shows my full name, passport number, latest date of arrival to the U.S., visa category and length of stay in the U.S. An I94 can be printed out from the website of U.S. Customs and Border by filling out a form with full-name and passport number.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.” 1977. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press, 2007.
Mann, Susan A. Doing Feminist Theory: From Modernity to Postmodernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Szelényi, Katalin, and Robert A. Rhoads. “Citizenship in a Global Context: The Perspectives of International Graduate Students in the United States.” Comparative Education Review 51, no. 1 (2006): 25-47.