Sparks Magazine Online
Q&A: Fong Tran

Q&A: Fong Tran

Fong Tran first captured the Asian Pacific American Coalition’s attention with his viral poem, “White Hipsters.” His piece called out and made light of cultural appropriation among the younger generation. At the University of Central Florida’s APAC Assembly on Aug. 27, Tran performed several pieces, including “I Hate Being Vietnamese,” “Vietnamese Mothers” and “White Hipsters,” the poem he was invited to UCF for.

Tran is a graduate of UC Berkeley and a Program Advisor/Coordinator for the UC Davis Cross Cultural Center. He serves on the board of the Sacramento APIA CAPITAL Coalition and the South Sacramento Building Healthy Communities’ Boys and Men of Color Initiative.

Tran agreed to sit down with Sparks and answer some questions about his integration into the APIA community and how his experiences have shaped who he is today.


When did you first decide you wanted to contribute back to your community? Everything about you, from your degrees to your writing, seems centered on that.

I think as early as high school, or even middle school, giving back was quite natural for me. It was a very instinctive thing to do. One of the best ways I can articulate the intuitiveness [of] when I give back to community was just being raised by women. I have an older sister, a baby sister, and a single mother. My brothers and my dad weren’t really around, and so it was really their presence, women taking care of me, and me instinctively wanting to pass that along.

So I could just trace that back to middle school and wanting to tutor elementary kids. And I went to high school and I joined Key Club—Key Club is this big community service organization—and I think for me, it was the first demonstration of social justice at that level. And then when I got to college, it just blew up. I got involved with all types of social justice organizations, from API recruitment retention to multicultural organizations that talked about diversity and international issues.


You talk about social justice blowing up in college, and you did a poem (“Don’t Be An Activist”) about it. Why do you think college is a prime time to become an activist?

I think historically, it’s always been that way. A lot of major social movements have taken place on campuses. I think it’s just an incubator, a hub, for critical thought, for radical ideas to morph and manifest. Parts of the Civil Rights Movement were amplified by student movement, young people being a part of it. The Free Speech movement at Berkeley; Black Panthers happened at Merritt College.

These very radical social movements are incubated by students getting together and thinking critically about how they want to reshape the world, and that’s essentially what activism is. How do you currently see the world, and how do you hope to change it? For me personally, it was being involved with the API organizations, student organizing, sociology, ethnic studies [and] political science. All these different forces came together to really help refine how I wanted to contribute to the world, and I’m still in that refinement period.


Coming from UC Berkeley, did you ever participate in social movements?

Yeah, the things I can think about right now were the API Count Me In campaign, in effort to disaggregate the racial categories into more ethnic-specific groups, so we added another 10 on top of the six that were originally set in the UC application. And then added another 10 for Pacific Islanders too. A big issue in the API community is not having enough data about these specific marginalized groups within the big racial category.

A lot of it was campus-based, like more funding for the multicultural orgs. More space for some of the social justice organizations. At Berkeley, it’s just this activist hub, so there’s all types of things going on. I remember protesting Panda Express at one point. They’re trying to come up on campus and it would have theoretically knocked out this banh-mi, Vietnamese business owner. So a lot of people took action on that, like they didn’t want corporate businesses to be on campus. Historically, Berkeley was always like a big hub for local businesses and pushing more for the mom-and-pop model than big chains.

For me, being out on the street is not necessarily my strongest skill set, but I think it is a necessary part of social change, and I think some people are better at mobilizing folks. I think my kind of wheelhouse is education, art, poetry, and is to amplify those folks who get out on the street. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get out there. Right now, I live in Oakland, so there’s tons of movements around Black Lives Matter, all types of actions, with all that white supremacy stuff right now, it’s crazy. It’s a crazy but an opportune time to be a part of that conversation.


According to your website bio, you are a Sacramento community organizer and youth advocate by day, and a spoken word artist and a social butterfly by night. Do you ever take any time off?

Yes, I’m a big traveler. I enjoy this aspect of going to other cities, and being able to perform is a big privilege. Travel, I recently went to Iceland and London. Spending time with my family is a big form of self-care for me. Spending time with my nieces and nephews. Yeah, and just hanging out with friends.

Definitely, self-care is in that whole picture. I feel lucky enough to have a career life, where it’s based on a very mission-driven kind of career. So I’m very happy to go to work. It’s hard to sometimes say no to work and stopping it; it bleeds a little into the personal life, but you know, you try to make sure you take care of yourself so you stay balanced.


After spending eight years as a youth advocate, do you ever get to see any visible progress made in the community?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s tons at this point. I mean, eight years, 10 years. There’s a lot of young people I don’t keep in touch with, but there’s a good handful I do. I’m lucky to witness their growth and their progress. That change is so difficult to even track, [whether] what work I did with them actually made any tangible impact. But just being there, I think is impact itself. Just being a resource at hand whenever they need it is necessary. Just having a mentor, I know for me, is a game-changer. A conversation with a mentor can sometimes just shift your brain completely. So having that support is always important.

Recently, one of my students that I’ve been working with for like eight years, he graduated from Davis. He struggled through community college for a bit, but eventually, made it through UC Davis. I didn’t even put it into perspective, but he was like, “You’re the reason why I got into Davis, because I was just going to apply to CSU [a state college].”

And it wasn’t a thing where I was trying to really, really be a mentor. I was just kind of like, “Dude, don’t shoot yourself short.” For me, my thinking was, you should just have more options. So when May comes around, you make a much better decision, versus the decision now in November and cutting your options short. He was going to not apply, maybe out of potential fear of not getting in, or maybe he was just scared of the personal statement, facing that obstacle, but he applied and got in.


How do you mine your personal experiences until you’ve settled on a story you feel will resonate with audiences?

I think for me, my biggest motivation, for what becomes a piece I share out in the universe is something significant that I feel is contributing to the world. And obviously, that’s a difficult task. But I think for me, it’s like “what would I have wanted to hear when I was younger?” Even if it’s like, “What would I have wanted to hear right now, or a year ago, or when I was a 12-year-old kid in Sacramento? What poem would have really opened my eyes?”

It’s a hard question to ask or answer, but it’s helped me guide what’s a significant poem and what’s just a so-so artsy poem. Not to say there’s no value in an artsy poem with flair, but what’s a really significant poem that actually changes people’s paradigm of thought. That’s what I try to accomplish from a piece is like really trying to get people to think in a different way, or at least consider it.

Everything I write is not just preachy, and I’m like “Oh, this is how the world should be,” but like “This is the experience I’ve gone through and this is how it informs my social justice lens, or my lens on progressive activism.”

Photo courtesy of Justin Chu