Profile: A political punk’s path to a PhD and tenure

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Photo Courtesy of Dr. Nguyen

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen poses for a professional photo.

By Chantal Vaca, Longform Reporter

Fueled by the righteous rage of punk, then 16-year-old Mimi Thi Nguyen organized her first protest against the first Gulf War in 1991 outside of her high school’s administration building in the northeastern San Diego suburb Rancho Peñasquitos with seven or eight students during a lunch period while withstanding the yelling crowd of students that surrounded them.

 

Never afraid to speak up and challenge institutions for the sake of justice, equality and humanity, the questions Dr. Nguyen, professor in LAS at the University, asked as a punk kid inform the way she asks questions as an academic. She is an associate professor of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and the Department of Asian American Studies at the University. She most often teaches the course GWS 350: Feminist & Gender Theory. Dr. Nguyen also teaches GWS 275: The Politics of Fashion and GWS 550: Feminist Theories and Methods.

 

In the first room on the right of the stairs on the second floor of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies building, I sat across from Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen at a small rectangular wooden table in the middle of her office.

 

Taped to the deep brown wood door of her office are four letter-sized flyers. One says, “TRANS PEOPLE WON’T BE ERASED” and another says, “My name is Mimi Thi Nguyen I stand with ALL PEOPLES TARGETED BY STATE SANCTIONED VIOLENCE as a professor you can talk to me.” On the bookshelf behind her are five rows of books with titles like, “Pretty in Punk,” “Envisioning Diaspora” and “Queering Contemporary Asian American Art.”

 

After receiving tenure from the University in 2012, Dr. Nguyen immediately accepted the associate chair position of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department because she wanted to make the teaching labor more transparent and fairer.

 

Throughout her five years as the associate chair, Dr. Nguyen permitted untenured professors to have the first pick during scheduling of classes to protect their time, so they could focus on their writing in preparation for obtaining tenure. After untenured professors secured the first pick for scheduling classes, tenured professors got to schedule their core classes. Following the first pick of untenured professors were the professors who taught core classes to ensure students were offered the classes they needed to graduate.

 

Eight years into her tenure at the University, Dr. Nguyen continues to ask and contemplate how to make the workplace as livable and humane as possible for the people inside and outside of the department. To support students outside of the classroom, Dr. Nguyen organized several faculty to buy wholesale copies of a book to gift to students. They purchased copies of Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emerging Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds” to help students avoid burnout and keep doing the work they need to do to sustain themselves.

 

Dr. Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1974 in the midst of the Vietnam War. A few days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, her family left and took refuge in the U.S. Nguyen’s uncle worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, so her family was put on a list of people who could be evacuated immediately.

 

When Dr. Nguyen was less than a year old, her and her family were part of the first wave of refugees out of Southern Vietnam, and were processed in a refugee camp in Guam, an island and unincorporated territory of the U.S. Then they transferred to a refugee camp at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Soon after, Dr. Nguyen and her family were sponsored out to Minnesota by a Catholic church.

 

At three years old, Nguyen moved into an unfinished house her parents bought in Plymouth, Minnesota, a western suburb of Minneapolis. Living in a predominantly white community, some residents were upset about Vietnamese refugees settling there. Dr. Nguyen remembers people putting cherry bombs in her family’s mailbox.

 

Although some members of her community disliked the Vietnamese refugees, others didn’t mind, like the metal kids that lived across the street. They were older and stopped other kids from picking on Dr. Nguyen and her little brother. When the metal kids weren’t playing guitar in their garage, they’d sometimes play soccer with Nguyen in her yard.

 

“All my friends were the weirdo kids,” Dr. Nguyen said. 

 

Weirdo kids were the kids who didn’t fit into the norm at school, including the metal kids from across the street and a girl from California who wore acid wash jean overalls that Dr. Nguyen found cool, but in a conservative small town in Minnesota were considered weird. Dr. Nguyen’s clothes were second-hand or hand-made by her mom, and she purposely decided to mismatch her clothes and embrace her limited options. 

 

“Even in elementary school, kids were talking about brands that were cool, and that was very acutely a thing I thought a lot about,” said Dr. Nguyen. “As a child, my clothes as well as how I looked marked me as different, and I decided to be weird on purpose.”

 

Dr. Nguyen was a smart, independent and caring kid. She enjoyed school and was in the gifted and talented program. While her parents worked full-time to get them out of Minnesota and the rest of her family out of Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen and her brother let themselves into the house after school, entertained themselves, made snacks for themselves and completed their homework by themselves. Before her parents came home from work, Dr. Nguyen shoveled the driveway because the snowplow always pushed the snow from the street onto their driveway.

 

In the summer before seventh grade, Dr. Nguyen’s father secured a job as a pharmacist in San Diego. Dr. Nguyen and her family moved into a house they rented in Mira Mesa, a neighborhood of San Diego with a large population of Filipinos. Accustomed to seeing Asians only in her home, seeing many Asians walking around the street shocked Dr. Nguyen. 

 

“It was just like this whole other life that I couldn’t even imagine, that I’d only seen on TV,” said Dr. Nguyen. “It was completely fascinating to me to be there and also what was completely surprising to me because it was not depicted on TV was that it was full of people of color.”

 

Unlike her elementary school in Minnesota with about 60 students per grade, the middle school Dr. Nguyen attended in seventh grade had around 1000 students. Her middle school had plenty of weirdo kids, plenty enough that there were different types of weirdo kids who all hung out differently. In Minnesota, all the weirdo kids, no matter what kind of weirdo they were, sat together because there were only four of them. Surrounded by all different kinds of kids, Dr. Nguyen didn’t know what kind of person she wanted to be yet. 

 

“I was just a weirdo in Minnesota, and that way just by nature by being a poor Asian kid, but suddenly I was at this school with a ton of different kinds of poor Asian kids,” said Dr. Nguyen.

 

About half a year later, Dr. Nguyen’s parents bought a house in Rancho Peñasquitos, a nearby suburb of San Diego. Her parents lived there up until a few years ago. The new middle school she attended was just as large as the last one, and by then, she began to see where she clicked the most. She was friends with the skater kids and the Filipina girls with big bangs that talked tough.

 

Dr. Nguyen became a late ‘80s alternateen, which was a catchall category for the weirdo kids who were alternative. In the ‘80s, alternateens listened to alternative post-punk bands that broke into the mainstream consciousness, such as The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen and The B-52’s. To this day, Dr. Nguyen sometimes still listens to The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

 

As an alternateen, Dr. Nguyen wore all black including black boots, black jeans and a red and black sweater. Since she was a small child, Dr. Nguyen’s mom insisted on curling her hair, and in eighth grade she still had an involuntary perm.

 

As she grew a little older, Dr. Nguyen’s mother took her to Melrose Avenue, which was where all the vintage and punk stores were. Although she couldn’t buy anything, Dr. Nguyen was excited to go visit punk shops and look at the merchandise.

 

As a freshman in high school, Dr. Nguyen had goth friends, and for a couple of months, she considered herself goth as she attended an all-ages goth club with her friends. 

 

“They were very sweet and also wore black all the time and smoked clove cigarettes, and we would go to cemeteries to hang out and be morbid,” said Dr. Nguyen. Dr. Nguyen felt that she could be goth because she was dressed in all black anyway, so it would be fine.

 

One day, Dr. Nguyen’s dad took her to The Black Cat, an alternative boutique in San Diego because she wanted striped tights. Black velvet lined the clothing racks. Having trouble selling issues of the magazine “Maximum Rocknroll,” a punk magazine created by Tim Yohannan, The Black Cat was giving them away, and Dr. Nguyen grabbed a bunch of issues. Reading the issues in her bedroom surrounded by white furniture with her Rainbow Brite dolls from elementary school on display, she realized punks still existed. As an alternateen, she thought punk was in the past, but as she read “Maximum Rocknroll,” she realized punks were active, putting together this magazine and communicating through the magazine’s letter section. Punks were mad about the world and on every possible level that they could be mad about the world, and that resonated with Dr. Nguyen.

 

Before her exposure to punk, Dr. Nguyen knew about the Vietnam War only from her parents. Without it being taught in school, she had no way of understanding the broader historical or political context of the Vietnam War. Through punk, she learned about empires, and all of a sudden, she understood. She felt like she found the door to punk, and through the door, she would finally figure out what brought her to that moment in her bedroom in suburban San Diego two hours away from the refugee camp where she stayed with her family. At 14 or 15 years old, Dr. Nguyen had read all the liberal feminist literature circulating at the time, but within reading those few issues of “Maximum Rocknroll,” she discovered radical feminist ideas and a whole other way of understanding the world that made sense to her.

 

In high school, Dr. Nguyen’s newfound punk identity manifested itself through her school’s newspaper in her editorials and editorial cartoons about all the terrible acts occurring in the world. Fearlessly, she organized a protest against the First Gulf War. Despite her outspoken nature, Dr. Nguyen was a high achieving and well-liked student by the office staff.

 

Dr. Nguyen’s high achievements granted her admission to the college of her choice, University of California, Berkeley, where there was a flourishing punk scene in the Bay Area and where “Maximum Rocknroll” magazine was based. UC Berkeley also appealed to her in part because of its radical reputation as the center of antiwar protests in the 1960s.

 

As a high achieving student in high school, Dr. Nguyen had friends from her AP classes in addition to her punk friends. Freshman year at UC Berkeley, she shared a dorm with one of her AP class friends, who was kind and accepted Dr. Nguyen’s punk identity. Dr. Nguyen put up a huge sign in their window that said, “Football Is Fascism.” On their dorm door, she put up pro-choice flyers, and unlike the flyers on her office door at the University of Illinois, the pro-choice flyers were constantly ripped down.

 

Her roommate was the first person to give her a haircut with the sides of her head shaved. Her roommate didn’t have clippers, so she used scissors and cut close to Dr. Nguyen’s scalp. Since then, Dr. Nguyen has changed her hair a lot. As we speak in her brightly illuminated office on a Friday morning in late February, she has the same haircut as her freshman year self, parted to the right, exposing one side of her shaved head. As she recalled her undergraduate years, she occasionally gathered her hair as if she were putting it up, exposing both shaved sides, only to let it fall back into place.

 

For three years of her undergrad, Dr. Nguyen worked at a record store downtown called Epicenter Zone, a volunteer-run, non-profit record store and community space founded by Tim Yohannan of “Maximum Rocknroll” magazine. Opened in 1991, their slogan was, “Open for holidays, closed for riots.” At the time, punk kids were often ostracized, and many couldn’t go home, so a lot of punks were estranged from their families. On holidays, the store was open for all the punk kids that had nowhere to go but closed for riots to serve as a shelter for people running from the cops.

 

In addition to working at the Epicenter Zone, Dr. Nguyen volunteered as a clinic defense organizer every Saturday. As a clinic defense organizer, Dr. Nguyen walked the perimeter of a clinic to keep anti-abortion activists from harassing clients entering the clinic, which required her to physically block or argue with anti-abortion activists to distract them from the clients as they were escorted by other volunteers.

 

For a year and a half in high school, Dr. Nguyen’s relationship with her parents was strained by her punk identity and their moral panic about punks. 

 

“My parents were swept up in the anxiety about punks being bad kids that ended up in the gutter dead from a drug overdose,” said Dr. Nguyen. Although she was never into drinking or doing drugs, they still panicked. In college, her parents finally came to terms with Dr. Nguyen’s punk identity. Knowing she was a clinic defender, Dr. Nguyen’s mother asked her to wear good shoes so that she could run away from cops or anybody else as she volunteered.

 

Throughout undergrad, Dr. Nguyen had many majors, including anthropology and history, before settling on gender and women’s studies. Taking a feminist theory class focused on post-colonial feminist theory and women of color feminism solidified her interests in gender and women’s studies and offered Dr. Nguyen what punk couldn’t.

 

One day while reading “Maximum Rocknroll, Dr. Nguyen found a column that expressed the columnist’s desire to have sex with an Asian woman because he heard that Asian women’s vulva were slanted like their eyes. Outraged by the racist and sexist column, Dr. Nguyen wrote a letter to the magazine. Dr. Nguyen questioned why the magazine said it was against racism, sexism and homophobia in the masthead, if it permitted printing such a racist and sexist article. The columnist responded to Dr. Nguyen’s letter and said he wouldn’t want to have sex with her anyway because since she was a feminist, she was probably ugly. Tim Yohannan, who was in charge of the magazine, permitted the columnist’s response to be published on the account that it was satire.

 

After the columnist’s response was published, people acted weird toward Dr. Nguyen. A lot of the punk kids around her at the time were white kids, and they were nervous about it. “They were like, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you,’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t be sorry; be pissed that this is in the scene with us,”’ said Dr. Nguyen.

 

In 1995, Dr. Nguyen put her rage to work and found other punks of color to start a conversation with them. Using letters she received by punks of color, Dr. Nguyen created and released a compilation zine called “Evolution of a Race Riot”in 1997 while she was in graduate school at UC Berkeley pursuing her doctorate in ethnic studies. By making “Evolution of a Race Riot,” Dr. Nguyen created the first zine to talk about race in punk. Dr. Nguyen received tons of letters and submissions for the zine. Amongst them she received a five-page letter from a black goth girl who wrote she loved goth, but it was hard for her because the beauty aesthetic is pale and utilizes pancake white makeup, and she can’t do that.

 

Before attending UC Berkeley for her doctorate degree in ethnic studies, Dr. Nguyen was admitted into New York University’s American Studies doctoral program. The program was relatively new, within its second or third year, and Dr. Nguyen hated it. After a year and a half of studying and working at the flagship Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue, Dr. Nguyen graduated with a master’s in American studies and returned to UC Berkeley.

 

In 2004, Dr. Nguyen completed her dissertation, which eight years later evolved into her first book, “The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passage.” She graduated with a Ph.D. in ethnic studies. After graduation, she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Dr. Nguyen taught one class per semester and revised her dissertation.

 

Before Dr. Nguyen came to the University, she was offered a job at San Francisco State. At San Francisco State, Dr. Nguyen would have had to teach four classes per semester, leaving her with less time to write her book while living in a more expensive area. To help her with her decision, Dr. Nguyen called one of her advisers from graduate school who once was the associate chair at the department of gender women’s studies at San Francisco State. While Dr. Nguyen’s previous adviser drove on the freeway taking her kids to soccer, she told Dr. Nguyen, “Don’t you fucking dare go to San Francisco State!” Knowing how hard it was to get writing done there and the different kinds of service burdens that were going on, her previous adviser cussed her out and told her to go to Illinois. Listening to her previous adviser, Dr. Nguyen accepted the University’s job offer.

 

In 2006, Dr. Nguyen came to the University and began her probationary period, a six-year-long process before getting tenured. Within the first five years, there’s a lot of pressure to write a book and get it published, write articles and do a good job at teaching. After completing her writing by the fifth year, it got compiled into a portfolio and sent to external reviewers.

 

In 2012, Dr. Nguyen got tenured and immediately became the associate chair in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Eight years into her tenure, Dr. Nguyen has emotionally blocked off the anxiety she used to have and is content with continuing to stay at the University. Recently, she was the co-author of a proposal that got approved for the first recurring trans studies post-doctoral fellowship in the U.S.