Ramapo invites keynote speaker to close month of AAPI celebrations

Photo courtesy of Jason Leung, Unsplash

To close out a month’s worth of events celebrating the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, the Office of Equity Diversity Inclusion and Compliance and the United Asian Association (UAA) had Caroline Nguyễn-Ticarro come as a keynote speaker.

Nguyễn-Ticarro began talking about her own origins as a Vietnamese refugee growing up in the United States; how she was the only person of color in her school and how this never played out in her favor.

Experiencing all forms of racism from a young age, she talked about how it affected her sense of identity. These kids would call her things like “chink,” “gook,” and perhaps most shocking: “dirty-nese” because of the fact that she wasn’t East Asian.

She explained how her parents would always tell her, “head down, do what you’re told,” as a means to help assimilate, at least until they earned their citizenship. They even told her to tell people she was of different ethnicities to avoid the truth.

It wasn’t just being a refugee that was the issue but being a Vietnamese refugee at a time when the war was still so fresh in everybody’s minds.

“For me, Vietnam was the war,” Nguyễn-Ticarro said, as she continued to talk about the disconnect between her Vietnamese origins and her American identity. “In my head, Vietnam was only a war.”

It’s only natural to question your identity when all your life people project different ones onto you based on nothing but their own prejudice.

However, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and ultimately these experiences played a strong role in her motivation to pursue her passions, reconnect with her Vietnamese culture and start up the Catalyst Foundation.

As stated on their official page, the Catalyst Foundation is a “humanitarian organization that helps build communities in Vietnam to fight human trafficking,” and also acts as a catalyst for hope.

Everyone knows human trafficking is bad, but often we do not understand the truth that it is happening in our backyards. The average person contributing to and partaking in this system is not someone hiding in a dark basement or someone who looks like your typical sinister bad guy.

Nguyễn-Ticarro talked about how often her organization goes in to save a child, to find that the person selling them into brothels are their own parents. And again, it’s not because they are terrible people, but because these traffickers take advantage of poor children, telling them “This is how you can help your mom and dad, how to help your family.”

She continued to question how different would her life have been if society had told her, “You are enough. You deserve rights, regardless of the color of your skin.”

If there was one thing to be taken away from this discussion, it was the importance of speaking up for those who otherwise cannot speak up for themselves, in advocating for and amplifying their voices when no one else is listening.

It’s not an easy topic. It’s never a good time to bring up such a heavy subject, but it needs to be done.

When asked for advice on how to go about facilitating these conversations, especially when trying to explain hard topics to young children of minorities, Nguyễn-Ticarro mentioned the importance of asking people how they feel about it and encouraging a safe space for vulnerability.

That is, the vulnerability to express that these instances are not fun to talk about, that it is awful that they are happening — especially in 2021, a time when you would think these actions would be eradicated.

Not just the human trafficking, but the hate crimes and violence against the AAPI community as well. As many of us within the AAPI community know, Asian culture has traditionally encouraged silence in the face of pain and adversity, and bad habits die hard.

But the event itself ended on a high note, one of hope, actually. Nguyễn-Ticarro made sure to mention that the best way to make change is to talk about these matters every day and get the word out for at least five minutes. Because small ripples eventually turn into waves, and in a world dependent on connections and networks, it is not hard to make a difference.

As someone who is part of the E-Board of UAA myself, I cannot express enough how grateful I am to have been part of this event and to have joined this very important discussion. I could not imagine a more well suited person to have had close out our AAPI month celebrations and tie together the most important subjects regarding the AAPI diaspora.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone left feeling inspired to go out and do their part in the humanitarian fight and save the world, regardless of however big or small they felt their impact would be.