But appearances are deceiving when it comes to this tall, sinewy Vietnamese-American who grew up in Garden Grove. If most college students—hell, most Americans—are hopelessly apathetic, Nguyen, the sixth of seven children born to parents who fled Saigon in 1980, is anything but. He's active in the Asian Pacific Students Association, has volunteered to help flood victims in Vietnam, and represents UCI on the Irvine City Council. In fact, he's at the forefront of a courageous new generation of Vietnamese-American youth whose progressive politics have pushed them into a collision with their elders.
"I didn't want to upset those people; I'm part of them. That's my community. I respect their experiences," said Nguyen. "But when things like this happen, it's discouraging." He was scared, he admitted, "But that's a risk you have to take. I won't give up."
Nguyen won't give up because, he says, there is more at stake than mere principle in the use of words like "gook."
"We weren't there to be confrontational with the crowd," he said. "We were there to educate the American public that all slurs—gook, chink, nip—affect our Asian community."
While McCain and his collaborators in Little Saigon tacitly agreed to rationalize his use of the slur, it doesn't take much work to find such slurs linked to attacks on Asian-Americans. In 1998, UCI student Richard Machado was convicted of sending life-threatening e-mails to 59 Asian students. In 1996, Gunner Lindberg ambushed and stabbed to death 24-year-old Thien Minh Ly on a tennis court at Tustin High School. The Vietnamese-American Ly had been a standout student at UCLA and Georgetown University; Lindberg later bragged that he had killed a "Jap." In 1993, a group of white teenagers in Laguna Beach were looking for "faggots" to assault when they settled on Vietnamese immigrant Loc Minh Troung, who suffered permanent, severe brain damage during the attack.
"We have to unite," said Nguyen. "We should all understand that terms like 'gook' are wrong. Remember Thien Minh Ly—people have died. I am not giving up on this. I will not give up on this at all."