What does it mean to be a refugee? And, how does that experience shape your world view? Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam when he was four years old. At the time of the interview below, his own son was about the same age. Today, Nguyen is an award-winning author known for his writing about refugees. That identity is important to him. He explains in this excerpt from an interview with Jon Wiener of The Atlantic:

The immigrant idea in America is very strong. We call ourselves “a nation of immigrants”; it’s a part of our mythology that immigrants come here and achieve the American dream. Even at this moment in history, where the xenophobic attitudes that have always been present are reaching another peak, even people who don’t like immigrants nevertheless believe in that immigrant idea. But refugees are different. Refugees are unwanted where they come from. They’re unwanted where they go to. They’re a different legal category. They’re a different category of feeling in terms of how the refugees experience themselves. If you call yourself an immigrant here, you fit. People will want to hear your heartwarming story about getting to this country. If you say you’re a refugee, that’s the quickest way to kill a conversation, because people can’t relate to that. It’s easy for someone like me to pass himself off as an immigrant, to pretend to be an immigrant, but if I do that, I feel like I’m not speaking the truth. I feel that it’s necessary for people like me, who have benefited from being a refugee, to acknowledge our existence as such and to advocate for the new refugees today.

Speaking to National Public Radio, Nguyen considers what it means to be an outsider and how the experience of being an outsider, and a refugee, shapes identities across generations.

p style=”text-align: center;”>Reflections

You might use the interview above to reflect on the following learning goals:

  • Students will consider the differences between immigrant and refugee identities and the way they are received.
  • Students will develop perspective-taking skills by reflecting on Nguyen’s insights about his own identity as compared to his parents and his son.
  • Students will critically engage with two different texts and mine them for meaning, a quotation, and a spoken interview.

Spend time reflecting on Nguyen’s comments about his identity as a refugee. What does he want readers to understand? One way to approach this discussion is to use the Project Zero “What Makes You Say That?” Thinking Routine to structure the conversation.

You might further consider Nguyen’s identity by creating an identity map using the model from our ecology of identity lesson.

Nguyen believes that people can learn a lot from the experience of being an “other.” He explains:

“I think it’s a very valuable experience,” Nguyen tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro. “I wish, not only my son, but everybody, had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, to be an other. Because that’s partly what gives rise to compassion and to empathy — the sense that you are not always at the center of the universe.”

Do you agree with Nguyen? What makes you say that? Have you ever felt othered? How did it feel? Do you think you learned anything from the experience? If so, what?

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