Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Dung Nguyen spent two months watching cartoons on TV with his brother and cousin before enrolling in kindergarten.
“That’s mostly how we learned English,” he says of arriving in America at age 5.
It worked out all right, but there has been some confusion.
Because of “Dora the Explorer,” it took Nguyen until this year to realize that “hola” is not an English word.
The 18-year-old, who graduates next month from the health academy at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, received a rough welcome to American life. He was bullied in elementary school and had to navigate his way through Dallas ISD. But he found his path with the help of teachers and through lessons from serving his community.
Nguyen’s grandfather served in the South Vietnam military and was a refugee after the Vietnam War. He later sponsored Nguyen and other family members for residency in the United States.
Nguyen’s dad works two jobs, one in cable assembly and one at a wine shop. His mom is a nail technician. When they first arrived, 11 family members lived in a three-bedroom, two-bath house in West Dallas. Now they all live in two similar houses across the street from one another.
Their neighborhood school, George Washington Carver Elementary, had lots of immigrants, Nguyen says. But he, his brother and his cousin — all very close in age — were the only Asian students.
“Americans can be mean,” is about as much as Nguyen will say about it. “All the usual Asian stereotypes. And we didn’t even know what those stereotypes were.”
He tells that one day, after school, the three of them ambushed their bullies, and one lost his tooth when Nguyen’s cousin kicked him in the mouth. Things were better after that, he says.
An elementary counselor encouraged him to apply for a magnet middle school.
“I didn’t even know what a magnet school was,” he says.
All three attended Dallas Environmental Science Academy.
“That’s when I started meeting kids who were on my level,” he says. “That’s when I first started learning about college. I knew there was middle school and high school, and that’s all I knew. I didn’t know anything about college.”
DESA is where Nguyen had his first Asian teacher, Mr. Le, who could speak to his parents in Vietnamese.
An art teacher encouraged him to apply to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, so he applied there and to the TAG academy at Townview.
In hindsight, he thinks he was a bit cocky about it. Both schools denied him, so he was going to attend his neighborhood high school, Pinkston. At the last minute, he enrolled in the health academy, and it’s exactly the right place, he says.
“I thought I wanted to go into graphic design or some kind of professional art,” he says. “But when I took biology in freshman year, we talked about viruses and stuff, and I thought it was interesting.”
He found descriptions for biomedical engineering and nano-engineering in a big book of jobs that one of his teachers had and decided it fit his interests.
As a volunteer at Dallas Methodist Medical Center, he enjoys spending time with patients, like the time he played the card game “Speed” with a cancer patient. But he decided practicing medicine isn’t for him.
Too personal. Too stressful. He wants to be the one trying to solve problems in a lab.
He enjoys conversation and debate, “playing devil’s advocate” and reading books about philosophy.
He and his cousin, Quong Tran, graduate from Townview in June. His brother, Tri Nguyen, is expected to graduate in 2020. All are going to college.
Nguyen recalls his childhood, sleeping on a pallet, having a monkey as a pet on his parents’ pig farm, walking to a one-room schoolhouse. He says he doesn’t feel American.
Would he move back to Vietnam permanently?
“Over there,” he says. “There’s no AC, and it’s hot.”