“My mother came from a family that was labeled bourgeois or middle class. They owned a jewelry business in their home which was taken after the collapse of the South Vietnamese government,” Ngo said. “They were thrown into the labor camp. My mother was only 16 at that time.”
His father was a police officer in a small coastal town — a good job during the war, but one that could easily get you shot afterward.
So in 1978, the family escaped by boat and ended up in Oregon, a new home mostly inhabited by white people.
“In my youth, my Asian-American or Vietnamese identity was really at the forefront of how I viewed myself,” Ngo said. “I always felt, in a way, out of place growing up in the Pacific Northwest. At that time, I thought it was because of race.”
Ngo was usually the only Asian kid in his classes. Yet, he said he’s experienced overt racism only twice.
The first time, he was at a high school leadership conference in Klamath Falls. Another participant asked where his family was from.
“And I said, ‘Vietnam,’ and he said, ‘We have a Vietcong restaurant down the street,’” Ngo recalled.
The second time was during his undergraduate days at UCLA. He was working in an Americorps program that put college students to work in poor Los Angeles schools. The campus where Ngo worked was predominately Latino.
“Many of the children were not used to seeing somebody of an east Asian background, and they pointed at me and called me ‘Chino,’ and laughed,” he said. “They did that almost every time I was there. It was hurtful because they were so young.”
Today, though, he said he’d brush that sort of thing off. His attitudes toward race, already evolving, underwent a sharp change a few years ago when he traveled to Vietnam for the first time.
“When I arrived, I was thinking, ‘This will feel like home. I’ll finally be among my people,’” he said.
But those thoughts quickly faded away.
“People looked at me, and they could tell right away that I was not native,” he said. “My skin is really fair because I was raised in the U.S. And so everywhere I went, people really stared at me. They made it very obvious. At first, I didn’t quite know what was going on, so I asked my family there, and they were just like, ‘They’re not used to seeing somebody as white as you, as pale as you.’”
That sense of being different grew even more acute when he traveled to rural parts of Vietnam to meet his cousins. He told them he was gay. They had questions.
“‘Why are you denying your parents the legacy of having children?’” he said.
“The paradigm they were raised in was more about, ‘You need to think about others, you cannot just be thinking about yourself.’ You have to think about your family, and by extension — in a way — your tribe, even if they wouldn’t use that term.”
It was a big moment for him and his attitude toward race and politics.
“That was the first time I really felt like an American,” he said.
Today, Ngo is a graduate student in Portland and a part-time journalist whose Tweets have been picked up by Breitbart and whose work has appeared in the National Review. He drew national attention last year when he accused the Portland State University newspaper of firing him over his conservative political beliefs.
Since then, his work has been critical of Islam and the protestors who’ve marched for police reform and against President Donald Trump.
“Even though I am a sexual minority and I’m a person of color, I come from a family who were refugees so I feel so lucky to be able to have been born and raised in this country,” Ngo said.
“So yeah, when I see the American flag, I feel a sense of pride and honor of being part of that. And I regret that a lot of people see it as a symbol of violence that should be burnt.”
He said we talk too much about race and racism as a society.
“I think by focusing just on racial diversity, you miss out on the diversity of thoughts. What you develop is an ideological monoculture,” Ngo said.
“The paint is a rainbow, and you see many different colors represented, but when you dig a little deeper you see that it’s all the same color.”