November 6, 2017
While people may look to South Jersey as a stomping ground for horses with a culture unique to the Pine Barrens, what truly lies in the greenery and apple picking is a diverse community full of rich culture and amazing food. Contrary to what some may think, Philadelphia has a larger Vietnamese population compared to New York, making Camden County a popular area for the Vietnamese community in which to reside. However, when the conversation shifts to Asian American concerns as a whole, the Vietnamese voice is hardly given a platform.
Theresa Nguyen, a 22 year old senior at Rutgers University, moved from Northeast Philadelphia to Camden County in 2002 for financial and educational reasons. Coming from a densely Vietnamese community, moving to Voorhees, New Jersey was a cultural shock for her. “When I grew up in Philadelphia, the Vietnamese population was very large,” she said, “I never felt like I was a minority among other Asian-Americans in my community.” However, this feeling was heavily contrasted when she moved to South Jersey. “It was very difficult for me at first to find other students in my school who identified as Vietnamese-Americans, as well.” However, she strongly believes that in 2017, this is no longer the case as the population in Camden County continues to grow.
So what makes Camden County so appealing compared to other locations?
According to Theresa, it is very possible that the educational opportunities available in Camden County are what draws Vietnamese families to want to raise their children there. “The education system in the Camden County area is much better than in areas [such as] our neighboring counties and cities like Philadelphia,” she explained. In fact, according to US News, Cherry Hill East High School, one of Camden County’s high schools with a high Vietnamese population, ranks #52 in New Jersey high school rankings, with a 96 percent graduation rate.
For Theresa, she sees the move to Camden County as a change that sparked her ability to receive a fine education and pursue her degree in Human Resources at Rutgers University – New Brunswick.
Another reason could be the location of Camden County, due to its accessibility to many other high-end or popular business areas. “Many Vietnamese members of the community are entrepreneurs with family businesses, so being in this area allows their business to thrive and be more successful,” she said. Being so close to Philadelphia also allows them access to cultural products they may feel they would not have access to if they moved out of range of the large Vietnamese community residing in the city.
While she does not see much tension or pushback against the growing Vietnamese community in Camden County, she did notice significant changes to how she was treated and how she saw herself.
She recalls a prominent change in her life, when her Vietnamese church community decided to merge their church with another non-Vietnamese Catholic church in Collingswood. Before the merge, they never felt the need to worry about the judgement or thoughts of other people, since they functioned as their own. However, the merge brought to Theresa’s attention a shift in focus and priority for the community. “Before, we were relaxed and natural with our actions, but after we joined another church that was predominantly Caucasian, we had to work harder to show our worth as hardworking and intelligent people,” she said. “[I noticed ] that many Vietnamese people must work so much harder than the average non-Vietnamese American person to validate their work and dedication to the community,”
While she was able to have realizations within herself, it came with time, as well as an identity crisis lasting years. “When I lived in Philadelphia, I grew up in an environment where I could meet about ten other students in my classroom who were Vietnamese,” she recalls. But that instantly changed for Theresa once her family moved to Camden County. “I was the only Vietnamese student in most of my K-12 education. I started wanting to change myself to either be more white or be part of groups of other Asian cultures, because I couldn’t find anyone that was like me.” Through her own hard work and journey, this changed once she started interacting with the growing Vietnamese population of Camden County as a whole, especially in townships of Cherry Hill and Pennsauken. “I was able to learn more about myself and my identity as a Vietnamese American living in South Jersey.”
Now, she uses her experience and journey to help others identify with their Vietnamese or Asian American culture, as an active member of Rutgers’ Asian-Interest sorority, alpha Kappa Delta Phi, and as an Orientation Leader. Her biggest hope is that members of the Vietnamese community never lose their background or history. “The country of Vietnam and its people have gone through so many hardships,” she said, “I hope that the older generations can continue to pass on stories and lessons to the youth and the youth will retain that knowledge.” Her father, Peter Nguyen, risked his life to escape Vietnam in 1988 in hopes of a brighter future for himself and his future children, which inspires Theresa to work hard. Thanks to her educational background and dedication to success, she now holds a position post-graduation as a Senior Human Resources Assistant at Amazon.
She hopes that members of the Vietnamese population in Camden will be able to break out of the mold of being a “model minority” and recognize that they are more than labels and stereotypes placed by society. “We should not hide in the shadows and identities of other Asian cultures in Camden County, but rather come together and be proud to be a Vietnamese American.”