This entry is the first installation of the “Presidential Perspective” series, written by current UNAVSA President, Thoa Kim Nguyen. This will be a series of a few short stories from Thoa’s experiences as the face of UNAVSA and about her life as a Vietnamese American female.
[Disclaimer]: This post contains distressing material that pertains to violence of a sexual nature. Please read with caution for those affected by this topic.
My term as UNAVSA President has been one of the most challenging roles I’ve taken on in my almost 10-year non-profit career. In conjunction with the ever-changing social and political climate, it has been a roller coaster of emotions as I lost sleep over issues that continuously challenged the organization and Vietnamese Community. Often times I found myself in a constant state of worry, because these issues hit close to home; affecting my personal friends, families, and even acquaintances. When reflecting back on 2017, it was a year where many of my peers and I were tested through turbulent times containing personal triumphs and setbacks. Personally, I mark it as one of the most challenging years for me, not just because of Presidential obligations; or the demands of my personal life being a sister, daughter, partner; or the hectic schedule of my career. It was all of the above and my sexual assault.
The night that it happened I was on one of the many work trips to NYC. Being a busy month, I was joined by co-workers from other teams. Managers of each team organized an outing in the late evening to unwind from client meetings and relax after the long day. I normally don’t partake in social work events. I’m usually mentally drained, but this time around I figured it’s a different city and drinks on the company, who am I to say no? Before the planned outing I had UNAVSA duties. Scheduled was a “Women in Leadership” webinar where myself and past female Presidents of UNAVSA spoke about our experiences, and answered questions from the moderator and audience. By 10:00 PM EDT we had a small debrief once the webinar went offline and said our goodbyes. I signed off, grabbed my coat, and eagerly made my way 4 blocks from my hotel to the venue. I was happy that it was a successful webinar and in good spirits from the conversation.
Making my way through the entrance and waiting area, I spotted an empty seat at the bar, and I quickly took it while happily ordering a bourbon on the rocks. Soon after a co-worker turns to me and sparks up a conversation about grievances with clients and looking forward to the weekend. Our conversation morphed into a heated debate on who was the better superhero out of Batman vs. Superman. Other co-workers chimed in with their opinions and everyone ended in laughter and went for another round of drinks. After the second round, I excused myself to the ladies room and took some quiet time to answer emails and messages. The front of the venue had a waiting area where guest sat before being escorted in by the host. Dinner service was no longer available and the front was left vacant. I stood in this section replying to emails.
Before I was able to finish typing out my thoughts, I was grabbed from behind and pushed face first into the wall. Trying to get out of the grip, I was forced around and again shoved hard against the wall. Face to face with the man I had sat next to at the bar and just had a debate about superheroes. I immediately yelled for help, but there was no one around to respond. Music blasting from the bar area drowned my desperate pleas. Visibly annoyed, he shook me and slammed me against the wall. His hand then cupped my mouth as he pressed all his weight onto me. I told him “no”, and “I don’t want this” repeatedly till my tears choked my ability to speak clearly. I tried punching and pushing back, which gave me a few seconds of breathing time before again, slamming his body into mine. He kept repeating, “shut up fucking slut, you wanted me at the bar”, “you want this, I know it”. His other hand forcefully untucked my blouse and made contact with my skin from breast and downward between my legs. He then removed his hand from my mouth and forcefully kissed me as his other hand was trying to undo my pants. At this moment, I was able to wrestle myself from his grip, grab my dropped phone, and quickly rush to the bar area.
Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I hastily wiped my tears and asked the bartender if there was a side entrance. Confused he asked if I was ok. “I just need to leave”, barely recognizing my own shaken voice. He sensed that it was urgent. “The employee entrance is that way”, he pointed. “You’re welcome to use it, are you ok?” he asked again. “No, but thank you for asking” and I left in a flash. On the streets of NYC, I hurried to my hotel only stopping once to purge whatever I had in my stomach. In my room, I remember sitting on the bed, still in my work clothes, and winter jacket, frozen. I sat there for the entire night staring out of the window. It wasn’t till the bill from the front desk slid underneath my door, I was able to snap out of the daze. I grabbed my suitcase, and made my way to Grand Central Station. After getting situated on the train, I texted my boyfriend that I was on the way back home and will be ready to pick up him and his family at the airport. Then fell asleep after being awake for 24 hours.
The following week I did not feel part of the world. Working from home, I tried to be present during work hours, and during the evening with UNAVSA responsibilities. However, I found my concentration quickly fading when I had any silent moment to myself. I recited “I’m ok, I’m alive, I’m ok”, over and over again till I found my next distraction. It wasn’t till a week later, I walked into my office building did I feel a sharp panic. Waiting in the elevator by myself, I started to wonder if I would see my assailant and flashes of that terrible night started to replay in my mind. We’ve only crossed paths a handful of times in my three years at the company since we belong to different departments and floors. I felt the likelihood of running into him was higher. Becoming very short of breath and feeling a deep pressure on my chest, I b-lined to my office, I closed my door, and slumped down to the ground. Surrounded by darkness, I crawled to my couch trying to control my breathing. I sat there for the next hour til my phone dinged a notification for my next meeting. During the entire meeting, I sat with a weird haze over my mind, unable to absorb any information. The next few days followed the same formula of panic and a disconnection.
At the end of my first week back in the office, I walked into the HR office and requested to see a female rep. There I tearfully filed a complaint with the details of what happened in NYC, and showing her the only evidence I had, a series of bruises on my back and hands when he continuously slammed my body into the wall during the assault. She expressed words of sympathy, told me to go home, and she would be going through the next steps. The very next day, I was called into meeting room with my direct manager, the HR rep, two higher execs of the company, and a lawyer. Prepared for an interrogation, I prepped my mind with the details of my incident down to what I was wearing, how much I had drank, where I sat, what the bar name was, how my conversation went prior to the attack, etc. Instead I was met with care and concern. After repeating the story, they spoke of the next steps, and granted me another day of early leave and to continue work from home as long as I needed.
I felt a short period of peace working from home again, but the minute I saw a office meeting scheduled, a wave of immense dread came over me. Again the panic attacks continued when I walked through the office building doors. Unable to take on the mental toll, I submitted my two weeks and expressed my gratitude to HR and my direct manager for being compassionate in my situation, but the environment was unbearable. Walking out of the office, I felt no relief and more uneasiness. As I shared the news of leaving my job with friends and family, I couldn’t speak of the details concerning the real reason why I left, because I was still trying to process all that’s happen. They were all familiar with my qualms of aggressive deadlines, and long work hours. All the people I spoke to were happy to hear that I had left and wished me well on my next endeavours. Before the incident, I was already seeking a new job, and found one with the caveat that I would have to take a certification course which would start mid April. I told loved ones that it was time to advance my career and give myself a small break before studying started. Recited words that seem so empty.
For the next month I spent my days sleeping, and nights awake and anxious. I did not want to face anyone or anything, and avoided flashbacks with polarizing behavior. Either I was manic with never-ending tasks, staying awake for days, or I was in a catatonic state, immobile and numb. My thoughts would often wandered, and I’d start thinking of ways of how I could’ve changed that horrid fateful night. Against rational thinking, I slowly started blame myself. Maybe if I didn’t go to the bar, maybe if I stayed in, why didn’t recognize the signs, why couldn’t I kick or push back harder, why me? It was only when one of the former execs of the company called to check in, and tell me the results of the case, did I begin therapy. My assailant was fired. A piece of news I had a hard time digesting. “Are you ok?”, the executive asked after a period of silence. I’m not sure what came over me to be so candid with someone I didn’t know well, but I answered “No, not really. I’m having a hard time healing”. Voice trembling, and shaken with grief for myself, I started cry to for the first time in a month, releasing all my anger and frustration through tears streaming down my face. He sat on the line, patiently waiting and letting me have a moment. “I can never imagine the things that you are dealing with or feeling, and spent some time to think of how I can help and hope that I can. Let me have my assistant set you up with a therapist, and please go for as long as you need, no questions asked.”
I wish I could say that it got better from the moment I accepted help, but it did not. Going to therapy is a defining factor to my recovery, but it was not instant, nor was it not easy. At the age of 18, I was officially diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety. Conditions that I’ve accepted were a part of my daily life, and received professional help to build coping and management skills. Conditions for the most part, under control. After the incident, it was like 10 years of therapy and positive reinforcement didn’t exist. I was broken and lost. For 7 months I grappled with my existence and my identity. Even more sensitive to my environment, I was easily provoked into rage and noticeably irritable. My anxiety also showed physically through teeth grinding, constant canker sores, blistering eczema rashes, insomnia, weight gain, and severe hair loss – often covered up from the public eye. Many times I felt like an imposter when I had to carry out presidential duties or in social settings. Any praise given, I rejected, and any criticisms given, I obsessed about how wrong and incapable I was. Depression became a familiar cloak that kept me company wherever I went, and often overshadowed activities.
It was an understatement to say my situation was difficult and hard to move past. However it was not impossible. As mentioned earlier, therapy played a key role in my recovery. Through those 7 months of hell, being able to speak to someone help me start to build coping skills and find ground during episodes of extreme rage or isolation. Which occurred quite often. I was violated, and every fiber of my being felt empty because my freedom was taken away. In combination of therapy, my closest friends and family supported me through this journey of re-self discovery. Even if they didn’t know of the details, they knew something was off, often checking in, which made me feel more human each time. By October, I started to feel at peace with myself and started to tell loved ones of my difficult journey. In the same month, the New York Times published a story written by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey about a powerful Hollywood executive and his serial sexual predator ways, I was floored by the movement that followed. The New Yorker quickly followed up with a exposé, written by Ronan Farrow, with more personal accounts of women harassed and assaulted by the same man. A flood gate opened with more stories of sexual crimes filling headlines. Politicians, actors, news anchors, journalist, professors, company executives, many individuals with power in various industries and levels were being exposed.
Then came the viral #MeToo campaign, started by Tarana Burke. The campaign made popular by high profiled individuals in many industries, spread internationally, and forged its way into front pages of my social media. Even making international waves in France, #Balancetonporc; Italy, #QuellaVoltaChe; and Spain, #YoTambien. Many individuals sharing their personal experiences, proving stories of sexual misconduct were not just sensationalized works of art by media or reserved for celebrities. These cases occur on a regular basis and sexual harassment, assault, and rape does not discriminate. The Times followed up with their “Person of the Year: The Silence Breakers“ packed with personal stories from people of all backgrounds and a comprehensive chronological report of the events that unfolded in 2017 making a positive shift.
Each story published, each personal account told, and each case bringing these perpetrators to light validated my own experience, but it did not however, bring me joy or comfort. There is no happiness in someone else’s grievances. These are heartbreaking stories of how careers, and livelihoods were destroyed by selfish individuals viewing women, minorities, or marginalized groups as inferior. In November members started to show me a blog post posted by Hmong Innovating Politics. In the post, a prominent figure who operated as a mentor and spoken word artist in the Southeast Community used his position to take advantage of women. Young women who trusted him and was in awe of his outward charm and talent. He operated closely in the VSA community and UNAVSA as well. That hit far too close to home as UNAVSA and its partners are organizations and communities that I dedicate time and effort to protect and progress.
Which made me sit and think further on this issue of violence against women, and begs the question of: What do we do now? There is clearly a power imbalance that is ingrained in everyday interactions. As more and more stories make media headlines, and digital campaigns raising awareness, it needs to go beyond the quick clicks of a mouse, and typing of a few words on social media. It’s incredibly unfair to have the burden to start the conversation placed on victims since it puts perpetrators always on a passive front. Women and even men are getting safe spaces to speak out, but it’s only scratching the surface of social change in a deeply rooted issue of inequality. Sexual crimes is only one branch of that poisonous tree. There has been a rise of groups claiming this is a witch hunt gone way too far, which couldn’t be far from the truth. I do not hate men, and many women share the same sentiment. What most of us hate, and any marginalized group can agree, is the lack of recognition in privileges and the lack of help to not only be equal, but have equity in society. The dissociation of men, from “the bad guys” does not fix the issue, and is a dismissive move to take responsibility in social change. Because one does not identify with another group, does not make it non-existent. They say perspective is reality, which I agree with, however, perspective is your reality – not the full reality.
This particular story is not my first experience with unwanted sexual based interactions, and I don’t believe it will be my last. I also believe this sentiment applies to many more silenced groups beyond females. Statistics show that every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted. People from the ages of 18-34 are the highest risk grouping, and men and boys are also at risk. 1 out of every 10 rape victims are men. Numbers that are under reported because of the social stigmas behind masculinity and even more shame of coming forward as a male. Those men of color are even lower in reporting because of the instant dismissal due to culture and race. Terry Crews is a prime example of how actions from these movements are still very slow when it comes to holding people accountable. He is a celebrity with an extensive resume, and someone who you would believe to have access to resources to combat these issues. He still is not getting enough coverage or backing from his own peers.
This also draws attention to the criminal justice system, a constitutional framework that was built to handle and settle disputes, and yet another large contributor to the why this broken system stays functioning. A vast majority will not go to Jail, 99% actually walk free from these crimes. Many reports have been published citing police being indifferent or throwing out cases both here in the states and even in countries like Canada, praised for equality practices. Canadian recorded figures are half that of the U.S., however many predict these numbers are also under reported. I was told by a male friend that he did not believe in the “Rape Culture”, because he and his friends were not participants, and that would mean people condone in these behaviors. Which goes back to the dissociation I spoke of earlier, and a look into how the general population views sexual crimes.
UNAVSA is made up of college students operating in Vietnamese Student Associations. U.S. colleges and universities in 2015, reported 89% zero incidents of rape. 2014 yielded 91% of schools reporting zero incidents. As a snapshot, it shows that schools are generally safe, but diving deeper into these numbers, it accounts for incidents that were reported and seen through its entirety as a case. Reported being the key word. It is in the interest of schools to underreport and discourage victims to follow through with complaints, because their funding and federal grants are dependent on those numbers through the Clery Act. The documentary “The Hunting Ground” (Netflix), and numerous reports by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (rainn.org), and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (nsvrc.org), suggest those numbers published by schools are skewed. Schools that report zero incidents need to be scrutinized harder on their rules and regulations because most of these practices are elementary, biased , and non-existent support resources. A study by the National Institute of Justice claims victims will most likely be assaulted in dorms and by someone they know. The percentage is higher in the first two weeks of school starting.
Many systems have failed in protecting individuals from these unwanted sexual crimes. Its convoluted to see that I, and many females, were taught to never put your cup down at parties, don’t go to bars, don’t walk alone, cover your body, text your location, don’t talk to strangers, check underneath your car, check behind you, don’t have sex – some practical and sound tips, but mostly out of touch with reality. These statements place all responsibility on women to avoid situations, and therefore telling others to avoid the actual problem at hand. Nowhere does it place responsibility on others to not commit these crimes. I don’t recall my parents telling my brother to ask for consent, another person’s body is not your property, women are not beneath you, take out your aggression on healthy activities, being drunk is not an excuse, be direct with your intentions, do not joke about women’s abilities, and value women. All skills I wholeheartedly know he demonstrates, but many in the world do not. I’m glad more people are speaking up and becoming more aware, but it’s also time to hold policy makers accountable. In return, the law holds companies, schools, and perpetrators accountable for their actions. It’s not just the violent crimes people should be observing, but also the behaviors that contribute to misogyny and sexism present in many aspects of life committed by both men and women.
There is much that needs to change, and the conversation is just starting. However, I hope many find solace in a community of support through stories like mine and others on various platforms. It is very easy to feel alone through an incident so traumatic. I had lots of fear when I started to write this post. I didn’t want people to doubt my ability as a leader, and my ability to execute my responsibilities. That already happens on a daily basis being a woman in my industry, culture (Vietnamese and western), and even in the UNAVSA sphere. I didn’t want people to only think of me as victim and treat me like porcelain. The stigma behind victims and mental health veer on the negative and can involve heavy backlash, but if I didn’t tell my truth, it would be years of mute helplessness ruled by fear. Silence is the main problem that makes this broken system alive and functioning the way it has been. Silence holds no one accountable, nor does it bring to light what needs to change at any place of social interaction – public or private.
2017 was a year where I experienced the worst of humanity, but also the best of humanity. I want to thank the compassionate HR rep who took on my case, my former company’s higher exec for calling and offering therapy, my therapist who helped me work through my rage and inner demons, my closest friends and family for caring through check-ins, care packages, and kind words. All those elements combined with my refusal to be a negative product of my environment helped me survive and continue my recovery. I recognize I’m one of the lucky ones, and had many circumstances work with me, rather than against me. I still go to therapy, but with less frequency. I still have nightmares of my assailant and from time to time outburst of rage, but like my therapy, with less frequency. I can go to most places by myself and have moderate to little anxiety. My palms sweat when unrecognizable male figures walk close to me, but I am hyper aware of my surroundings and environment. I’m much more critical of the those in leadership positions – that aspect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I am certainly not over this, but I am working through it, and honoring what it is that I feel and honoring myself.
Lastly, to all the women, girls, and anyone everywhere going through something similar – I am with you. I fought everyday for you, and will continue to fight for you. People will discredit, dismiss, doubt, intimidate, judge, and threaten you. I will not. Whenever you feel defeated or alone, I am with you. It may not feel like it now, but you are alive, brave, beautiful, important, and always enough for this world.
Thoa Kim Nguyen originally hails from Denver, Colorado and currently resides & works in the D.C., Northern Virginia area as a project manager for a Forensic Accounting firm. Before becoming a project manager, she operated as a marketing consultant and business strategist specializing in branding. Curious and intrigued by the business world, Thoa pursued a business program with the dreams of owning her own company. She graduated from Johnson & Wales University Business School with Magna Cum Laude honors in both degrees – bachelors in Marketing and an MBA in Business Management.
Seeing the importance of serving her Vietnamese community, she continually dedicates time to various projects and organizations. She currently serves as President of the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations. Her past positions: UNAVSA-6 Entertainment Staff, Southwest Regional Representative, UNAVSA-7 Marketing Director, UNAVSA-8 Co-Executive Director, Co-CPP Campaign Director, and Secretary of the Executive board,. Thoa also served as President of the Southwest Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (SWUVSA) in 2012, an organization she co-founded alongside her brother Phong Kim Nguyen.
In her spare time, she enjoys expanding her world by growing her side business as a professional hair and makeup artist, eating extremely spicy food, writing, watching documentaries, singing and chasing after cats.