I didn’t anticipate how cold Haverford would get. The wind had never seemed so chilly in my first few years living in Pennsylvania; I had only ever lived within the carefully maintained ecosystem of an air-conditioned Texas home. Sometimes representing loneliness or anxiety-inducing responsibility, the cold always seemed symbolic of the shared struggles faced by students of a liberal arts college. But I’d learned to let the cold slip my mind as the warmth of people I surrounded myself with became like a winter coat. After returning from abroad, I found myself bundling up more than usual, anxious to protect the warmth in my fingers. Being away for a semester must have been enough time for the cold to creep in—enough time for me to forget the confidence that once armed me against daunting expectations of encroaching adulthood.
However, on the Friday evening I attended the Black Atlas opening reception, I hadn’t realized that I’d be coming out of the cold into the familiar warmth of my mother tongue. Before entering the gallery, I mustered the courage to greet Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, the artist of the exhibition. I first said hello in English, then in Vietnamese. For me, starting conversations in Vietnamese always feels like a gamble. I’ve found this to be the case even more now that I’m in college. It’s disappointing whenever other Việt people reply saying they don’t understand me or that they don’t speak the language. But on the rare occasion they do, I find myself overjoyed by simple greetings, echoes of the familiar context I once hoped to cast off.
Dressed in sweats, my hair still damp from rehearsing for my hip-hop ensemble, I excitedly discussed things like academic goals, career hopes, and dance obsessions alongside memories of childhood, my parents, and Vietnamese-American identity. I was also carrying a wooden plank. Before arriving at the gallery, I ran into a friend of mine who was tasked by her conceptual art professor to carry a plank around for a week—because… conceptual art. Though that Friday marked the end of “plank-week” for her, she wasn’t going to be home for a while. I offered to shoulder the burden for her, forgetting my plans to attend the gallery opening.
There I stood, in sweats, sweating, a little paper plate overloaded with hors d’oeuvres in one hand and a wooden plank in the other. Thankfully, the conversation Jacqueline and I had didn’t begin with conceptual art. I was struck by how quickly I connected with someone who seemed to be in quite a separate world than I was. Jacqueline is an accomplished artist who has worked all over the globe. She was in Vietnam less than a day before I met her at the exhibition reception and in Singapore not long before that. Like me, however, she was born in the Americas to parents who left the Vietnam in the 70s. We shared anecdotes about how our parents raised us and about living within the perilously white academic world as Asian Americans. She told me about her daughter learning to use chopsticks as a three-year-old and going to daycare in Vietnam. In a way, talking with Jacqueline was kind of like talking with a future version of myself: a confident Vietnamese-American artist, fulfilling life goals while taking care of family.
After our conversation, I finally entered the gallery to see Jacqueline’s exhibit for myself. There were images and photographs all pointing to the invisible labor that goes into the “curation” of objects for the intellectual purposes of the museum with a capital “M.” Oftentimes, curators subject the indigenous or marginalized peoples who are the focus of their exhibits to carrying whole worlds of “culture” on their backs. Very different types of labor exist the museum of memories inside my mind. Having visited Vietnam only once in my life, I had only a small glimpse of the experiences characterizing my parents way of life. We stayed at my father’s family farm in the countryside where I felt the blistering heat, the daily labors, and the intensely tangible ways of living totally alien to me. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be underpaid to shoulder a crate filled with appropriated objects so that an academic might get a sense of accomplishment or claim some great intellectual discovery. I could hardly stand carrying around a wooden plank for a few hours.
Jacqueline described her work to me as an important step in spreading awareness about the exploitative, neocolonial practices museums engage in. There’s a lot that remains invisible both in the exhibition of an art museum; what goes missing in the minds of the viewer characterizes the less palatable side of things. The indigenous laborers—the “black” Atlas—who bear the weight of objects deemed “art” have slipped through the cracks of acknowledgement.
Even though I’d forgotten the cold Haverford air, symbolic of uneasy growth, I am now slowly but surely warming up to it again. And the uncertainty associated with a dual Vietnamese-American identity, the struggles I faced growing up, and the struggles of my parents I never faced, are still something I’m learning to live with. Reawakening the voice of a heritage also meant awakening myself to be ever-vigilant of what has gone unseen in my life.
Andrew Nguyen ’19, English Major