Quinn Dang: Being American

Karim Raslan

Posted at Nov 06 2016 12:12 AM | Updated as of Nov 06 2016 04:05 PM

Quinn Dang, 25, is a journalism student at San Jose State University who also works 40 hours a week as a security guard.

For Quinn Dang, a 25-year-old journalism major at San Jose State University, life is about authenticity. 

The phrase: "We become who we are," is tattooed on his forearm.

Sitting outside the university's slick-looking library, he talks to me about a major problem most US college student face: debt. 

"I have borrowed USD17,000. I'll have to start repaying my loan six months after I graduate - that's an extra USD200 per month. At that rate, it would take me ten years to settle my debts.”

"Thankfully, my uncle nagged me and I've built up over USD7,000 in savings. I work more than forty hours a week (as a security guard) on top of all my classes and field work."

"I plan to pay off my university loans in five years. Some people are still paying off their student loans in their forties!”

"I come from a low-income family. My family worked damn hard to support the four of us. Can you imagine: my mother was married at eighteen and had four kids by the time she was twenty-two?”

Quinn is passionate about riding. For him, the dream is to travel around the world on his motorcycle and get his writings published.

Slim and fresh-faced, Quinn's youthful exterior belies a seriousness of purpose: "I took every opportunity to stay ahead of the curve. I've been working (in retail and food services) ever since I left home at eighteen.” 

Minority voters like Quinn Dang are fascinating because they represent a confluence of increasingly visible constituencies in American public life. 

Quinn is not only part of the millennial generation of which so much has been written about.

He is also, as a Vietnamese-American, a member of a sub-set of the Asian-American community.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that there are some 1.8 million Vietnamese immigrants and their children in the United States. 

California’s Orange County, in fact, is home to the largest Vietnamese enclave outside of Vietnam. The US hence hosts one of the largest groups of Viet Kieus (or overseas Vietnamese) in the world. 

Many commentators are wondering what impact Asian-Americans could have on the 2016 elections? 

Will they be able to sway American policy, especially towards Southeast Asia as it jockeys for influence with China there? 

Let’s not forget that in 2012, Vietnamese-Americans transferred USD5.7 billion “home” in remittances, more than half of the total of such payment (remittances make up 7.1% of Vietnam’s GDP). 

The perception is that Vietnamese-Americans tended to lean Republican due to their supposed conservative, anti-Communist ethos. 

However, recent National Asian American Survey found that while 36% of Vietnamese-Americans backed the Republican Party in 2012, this fell to 29% in 2016, compared to 32% to 45% for the Democrats in the same period. 

Still it is never wise to generalize, as Quinn’s views on the 2016 elections highlights:

"I respect Bernie Sanders because he's an 'honest dude.' He's criticized the idea of education and healthcare being purely for profit. If it wasn't for him, Hillary (Clinton) would never have accepted these issues. She's not a trailblazer. She lacks commitment. It all feels fake. But still I'll probably vote for her." 

Indeed, he thinks Trump is a bigot and concedes that Clinton is qualified.

What accounts for such divergences?

Perhaps family circumstances may account for this.

Quinn’s grandparents came to America in 1976—as refugees of the Vietnam War—when his mother was just five years old. He tells me this may have allowed him a more relaxed, “American” upbringing compared to say, his peers whose parents were teenage immigrants.

But does he feel any connection to his ancestral homeland? 

Quinn Dang is emphatic: "I am American.” He has never been to Vietnam and while he understands the language, he cannot speak it fluently. Unlike his mother, he never attended after-school or weekend Vietnamese classes.

Tattooed on his inner forearm, "We become who we are" is a phrase that Quinn Dang lives by.

Are the Viet Kieus living the American Dream?

The MPI found that median Vietnamese-American household incomes over 2009-2013 were USD52,000 compared to USD50,000 for the total US population. Also, 22% of Vietnamese-Americans above 25 had a bachelor’s degree. 

Conversely, only 24% of Vietnamese-Americans aged 16 and older were in professional occupations compared to 31% of their American counterparts whilst less than the national average had finished high school. 

These figures belie the lazy stereotype that all Asian-Americans are destined to be “model minorities” who find immediate success.

Non 1% Vietnamese-Americans like Quinn therefore have to be practical. As a young person from a minority working-class family, one is forever anxious about surviving. He cannot take chances, knowing that he is at the bottom of the food chain, if not completely excluded from it.

Trump’s bigotry may prevent Vietnamese-Americans from casting his vote along with the white, disaffected working-class, but will this last in the face for a more disciplined candidate?

So while the Vietnamese- and Asian-American vote is trending Democratic, it would be unwise to assume that it will always be so.