Tung T. Nguyen ’15 delivered remarks at the Scholarship Appreciation Luncheon May 8, 2014, in Thorne Hall.
On behalf of the Bowdoin College Scholarship Program, it is my pleasure to extend a warm welcome, to this year’s Scholarship Appreciation Luncheon, to President Mills; to the Trustees, to the distinguished members of our faculty; to the dining services, to our committed donors, and to my fellow student recipients. Thank you all for being here today.
Let’s think of Bowdoin very vaguely as a living entity. The faculty is the brain, dining services is the stomach maybe, house-keeping and grounds-keeping are our motor muscles, and us students, well we are the heart of the college. We are what pumps the passion through the halls of all our buildings, we are what drives the motivation into our professors. Without the heart, Bowdoin would be left with only grey matter without the motivation to teach, a body without the vibrant colors throughout the halls and an excess of amazing food. As the years pass, this body has become much more colorful. This body is absorbing and sharing all different kinds cultures and experiences and is growing because of it. My personal narrative is a part of this body and I would like to share it with you today.
I would like to begin by explaining why my parents are not present for this occasion. In fact, this reason is the same reason for why they were not present at my middle school graduation, nor present at my high school graduation. No, the reason for their absence is not because they are too busy working, or not having the means to be present nor just not feeling like coming, because I am sure that they would have loved to have seen their little boy delivering his eighth grade valedictory and seen him walking across a stage to receive his High school diploma. No, the reason I believe that they are not here and were not there on those milestone events is because I told them not to be. You may be thinking that’s strange to tell your parents not to come to events such as these or not tell them about the events at all, but there’s a reason why I did or didn’t and the reason begins with a little boy walking home alone from the eighth grade only accompanied by a 25 cent fruit barrel drink in one hand and three 25 cent Doritos bags that he had bought from the local bodega in the other.
I can vividly remember looking up at the sky-blue, three floor apartment building surrounded by a black gated fence. The invasive Lonicera japonica also known as the Japanese honey-suckle flower grew wildly along the fences of the apartment complex. I would release the hatch of the screechy black gate and enter the apartment’s concrete courtyard. I quickly took out my keys from my book bag, opened the bottom door and step-step step step-step step step-step raced my way up the five flights to stairs to the third floor in only a matter of seven seconds! Before I move on, I would like to thank these stair cases because without them my calves would not be as nice as they are now. Okay moving on.
I opened the door to the apartment and looked down to see what I could see—of course these beautiful calves— no, a dead cockroach? Check. Mice droppings? Check. Everything seemed normal, nothing out of the ordinary. I put my snacks and book bag down onto the couch and I walked into the kitchen to look in the refrigerator to see what my mother had put aside for me to cook for the family that night. A whole chicken and Chinese melon. Easy, shrimp base Chinese melon soup and chicken seasoned with herbs and spices and of course you cannot forget the soy sauce. A total of fifty minutes to an hour of cooking tops. Easy, I’ll do that later. I settled down on the couch and turned on the TV with my snacks and homework in hand. The phone rings. I ignore it until it is answered by the answering machine. Usually, it’s a debt collector or telemarketers, nothing out of the ordinary. And what do you know, I hear a lady with a very high pitched voice asking my mother to call them back as soon as possible. Ten minutes later another phone call. But this time it was my father speaking through the answering machine. I picked up the phone and my father told me to take the next bus to Lowell. So being an obedient Asian son I dropped everything that I was doing and took the rest of the snack money my father had given me that weekend and rode the #41 bus from Lawrence to Lowell. There were a few transfer buses here and there, but nothing too hard figure out. I finally arrived at the building an hour and a half later and already knew what my father had expected me to do.
Standing in extreme temperatures ranging from 80 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 27 to 43 degrees Celsius for all you normal people in the crowd), the steam roars from each of the pressing iron machines. The fumes of different chemicals resonate in the air as my father tries to scrape off pasta sauce, wine, and jelly donut stains from various articles of clothing. Well, my contribution to the family dry cleaner was to iron the dress shirts. It wasn’t a difficult feat. With these industrial machines it takes a total of two minutes and thirty seconds for each shirt if you are efficient. Usually there are three loads, whites, colored, and darks. Each load having a minimum of 40 shirts. So, time for some math. 2.5 minutes per shirt times 120 shirts equals 300 minutes or five hours of work. Five hours my father needs to spend on ironing shirts if I were not there to help him. Not to mention all the slacks, jackets, dresses, skirts, sari’s he had to also clean and iron. Now most of the snack money that my parents had given me was invested into transporting myself down to Lowell after school everyday.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the family woke up together at 6 am and we would all travel down to Lowell; my vacation days from school to Lowell. Summertime, Lowell. Any day that I was free from school, I found myself in Lowell. Was there room to complain about the missed childhood opportunities I could have had with my friends? Yes, I could have, but I did not complain to my parents because I knew the hours they would have had to work without me being there to help them. And what was my only job? Scribbling words and numbers on pieces of paper? That was nothing compared to the physical strain my parents had to go through every day to pay for the apartment and to have food in the refrigerator. What was tickling my mind at school compared to the mental strain of knowing that my parent’s health was diminishing every day from the chemical fumes, extreme hot temperatures, and intensive hours of labor? Nothing. But also nothing the mind of an eighth grade boy couldn’t handle.
Now what if I told you that eighth grade wasn’t the year that I started cooking for the family and traveling to Lowell alone. What if I told you that I was in seventh grade? Would you look at the situation differently? How about if I had said sixth grade or the fifth grade? Well, I was actually in the fourth grade when these responsibilities were held present in my life. I was a ten year old boy when I took my first lonely bus ride to Lowell.
Now why did a ten year old boy take an hour and a half bus ride every day after school? I convinced myself that this it is because I am part of a family. And how I define family is a collective working together to provide comfort for each and every member of that collective. And so it should not only be the parent’s duty to support the family, but the children’s as well. And whatever I could do to see my parents for an extra hour during the day was the only gift I felt that I could give them when I was an adolescent. And my realization of the position my family was in started much younger than when I was ten. As an adolescent, as much as I helped out, I did not have much influence on my family’s success. As I grew older, I realized that education was the key to getting my family out of our financial situation.
Although they do not work in the dry cleaning business anymore, my mentality of them working just as hard for the family still resonates and I feel it would be selfish of me to ask them to come to events such as my graduation or events such as these, because each of us are doing what we can to improve our family’s standard of living and what we accomplish to get there does not need forms of praising or celebration because it is our duty to do so. Or so I thought.
In preparing for this speech, I have come to the realization that I was wrong. I was wrong in asking them not to be there for my middle school graduation. I was wrong in asking them not to be there for my high school ceremony and I was wrong in not telling them about this event.
I thought that I was strong and I thought that I could do everything independently. That my accomplishments are a product of my own actions and my actions alone. I am wrong. I am not here because I did everything on my own. I am here because of my parents, my counselors, my professors, my peers. I am here because of the beautiful campus we have, of the greatest dining hall in the nation, and especially I am here because of the donors who made this opportunity to pursuit of higher education possible.
In closing, I can now proudly say that I want my parents to be here next May to celebrate my graduation with me because although I said that the body was grey matter without the heart, what is the heart without the body.