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Phuong Tang, Asian American Studies & Social Welfare

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Mark Watkins
  • Published Aug 1, 2004 8:00 AM

When Phuong Tang was assigned to the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health’s Long Beach Asian Pacific program, she felt some anxiety. First, she had just acquired a driver’s license and Long Beach was 45 minutes on the freeway from UCLA. Second, although she was born in Vietnam, she spent most of her life in New York City. “There was no way I thought that anyone could take my first-grade level of Vietnamese seriously,” she says.

Most fundamentally, she was worried about being able to help the teenagers and young adults who would come to her for counseling. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten my feet wet with counseling,” she says. However, after several weeks of work with three clients, her confidence grew. “While I still need to learn a whole lot more,” she says, “I’ve learned a great deal, not only about the needs of my clients, but also about myself.”

Tang’s counseling internship is part of a combined program that will earn her master’s degrees in both social work and Asian American studies. More important, it’s a first taste of what she hopes will be her life’s work: providing mental health services to Asian Americans.

Arriving at this goal took a few timely course corrections. When Tang began her studies at New York University, she was planning to be a medical doctor. Early on, however, she decided that “biology was barely tolerable, and I hated chemistry.” Drawn to psychology, she still “didn’t see myself reflected in the content.” A course on Asian American women was “the first class that had me written all over it,” she says. Before she knew it, she had enough credits for a minor in Asian American studies to go with her psychology major.

Planning to do a Ph.D. in psychology eventually, Tang headed off to her first job, at a social policy research firm in New York City. “The more I worked there, the more I realized I really didn’t like research,” Tang says. “I felt removed from the people whom our research was supposed to help. They just became numbers.”

At the same time, she was tutoring immigrant Asian women and children at a domestic violence shelter and volunteering with a grassroots organization that was working to increase safety at a Chinatown subway station where an Asian American woman had been raped. “I found that work more enjoyable and rewarding than making charts that policymakers would read,” she says.

Deciding that social work was the right career for her, Tang looked for a university with “a faculty of color who were doing research on the Asian American community.” In UCLA, she found just that — and the nation’s only joint master’s degree program in Asian American studies and social welfare. “I felt that I had to come,” she says.

Last year — her first at UCLA — Tang devoted herself to Asian American studies. For a class in ethnocommunications, Tang worked with two other students to make an 11-minute video, Art and Activism on the Ones and Twos, about DJ Kuttin Kandi and DJ Rekha, two Asian American women who are using their DJ-ing and turntabling skills to promote community goals. Besides showing evidence that she’s “a really good scholar,” Professor Robert Nakamura says, Tang convinced him that “she has a lot of potential as a media maker. The primary requirement is creativity, which she has, and she’s also very organized and energetic, which is probably just as important.”

This year, Tang is serving as teaching assistant for the same class. “I feel like I’m learning more as I try to teach it,” she says. Otherwise, she’s concentrating on coursework in social welfare, including her Long Beach internship.

In her third year at UCLA, Tang will complete work in both subjects and write a thesis, probably on silence among Asian American women. “I would like to examine how silence can be advantageous or protective to women,” Tang says, “and how silence can speak or be articulate.” She has written proposals for fellowships to do a small-scale ethnography with women, especially those who have suffered generational trauma: perhaps contrasting the Japanese-American women who were interned in the United States during World War II with the Vietnamese women who endured successive relocations as a result of war in their homeland.

Tang’s own family left Saigon when she was a few months old, eventually settling in a mixed Puerto Rican, Italian and Eastern European working-class neighborhood in Queens. It “took a lot of coaxing” to persuade her parents that her changes in career choice made sense, she says. In particular, “they’ve never heard of social work,” and what they heard had been derogatory. “I’ve had to do a lot of reeducating,” Tang says, explaining to them “what I’d really like to do and why it’s meaningful to me.”

Through her work in Asian American studies, she’s come to a better understanding of her parents and their decision to leave Vietnam. “This field gave my life a context,” she says. “It gave me a vocabulary to name my experiences.”

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