Born in Toronto, Paul Nguyen is a award-winning filmmaker and community activist who is passionate about helping others. His website, Jane-Finch.com, has received national attention for empowering local voices to change the narrative of the Jane and Finch area. His videos promoting diversity and multiculturalism have earned millions of views online. He joined the Vietnamese Association, Toronto (VAT), as Vice President of External Affairs, and sits on the boards of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, York University Alumni Board, and York University Senate.
Last year, you were the only Vietnamese-Canadian who was recognized by Canada’s Volunteer Awards. What does this mean to you?
It filled me with pride to be able to represent the Vietnamese-Canadian community as a recipient. It’s important to show that we continue to play a strong role in contributing to Canada’s multicultural society. A bonus was receiving a $5,000 cheque to give to a non-profit of my choice. I was able to give the grant to the Vietnamese Boat People Memorial Association. They are constructing a monument to commemorate the story of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Canada in the late 1970s.
What do you think the future holds for Vietnamese youth in Canada?
I think Vietnamese youth are capable of achieving anything they can imagine. Many of them are already breaking down barriers, entering politics, music and entertainment, and inventing new products. I believe we should continue to encourage more diverse career paths and goals for them.
As a second-generation person, have you ever been confused by your identity?
Many times I felt like an outsider, whether at school, work or at social gatherings. There have been debates about being a “hyphenated Canadian.” I was born in Canada, but have experienced racism and discriminatory attitudes. Because of my strong Vietnamese heritage and background, I choose to identify as a proud Vietnamese-Canadian.
Are there any cultural differences between you and your parents?
There are many cultural differences when you are raised in a traditional home. I’ve had conflicting views with my parents but by embracing values of respect, open communication, and flexible learning, we reached a place of peace and understanding. Those are the values I got from both my Vietnamese background and in growing up in Canada. I think it’s an awesome combination to be a Vietnamese-Canadian.
Vietnamese parents tend to want their children to go into medicine or law to attain a respectable, comfortable, lifestyle. What did your parents think about your career choice?
Absolutely, I experienced the same challenges growing up in a Vietnamese household. I think my parents are beginning to accept the vision that I have set out for myself. Being involved in a creative field can be daunting, but also very fulfilling. I found my passion to create change through art and storytelling. We need doctors, but we also music and art in our lives to bring joy and happiness.
As editor-in-chief of jane-finch.com, how do you respond to negative media coverage of your community?
I like to challenge the mainstream narrative by offering alternative perspectives through my website. Another key part is to educate audiences to seek out additional sources of information. It’s irresponsible to make up your mind by glancing at a headline. The Internet allows us far greater power to share and receive information. If you want to find out about the validity of a claim or headline, go directly to the source or person and ask. Get first hand information whenever possible.
What programs and resources does Canada offer to Vietnamese-Canadians for personal growth and development?
There are tremendous opportunities for self-growth and learning, and actually many of them are free. The gap is in the lack of awareness of the opportunities and resources available, but social media is allowing people to learn about them more easily. It is the responsibility of the individual to seek out these opportunities. I always encourage youth to volunteer at a local community centre or association, join a board, and find a mentor. The possibilities are endless.
How can young Vietnamese-Canadians be encouraged to be more involved in social advocacy and civic engagement?
I think we are bombarded by advertising and entertainment. It’s important to enjoy these things, but not let your life be consumed by it. I never push my beliefs on others. I believe in showing people the options that are available and to allow the individual to decide the path that’s right for them. All I can do is offer my testimonial about the fun and fulfillment I have experienced by being active in the community.
How should violence in schools be dealt with, especially in the Jane and Finch community?
Stakeholders of all stripes, from educators to administrators to parents, are trying to stop violence in schools. I believe everyone is acting with the best of intentions to find a solution. Some advocate for police officers in school, while others are against it saying coming school shouldn’t feel like going to jail. If we continue to work together, a positive outcome can be found. Personally, I believe giving young people the tools to realize their dreams is a powerful way to prevent youth violence.
Social media has helped people to get more involved in news reporting. Do you think citizen journalism equates to good public policy?
I am a strong proponent of free speech. Everyone has the ability to express their thoughts and opinions to a global audience. Citizen journalism has been a powerful and necessary tool for people to tell their own stories or re-write false or incorrect narratives. With this powerful tool, there is also the potential for abuse. Education is always key, so we must promote media literacy to help audiences recognize credible sources of information versus “fake news.”
What advice would you give to inspire young leaders, especially Vietnamese-Canadians?
I found my voice and identity after gaining a better understanding of my cultural heritage and background. I would encourage others to seek out elders in their community. Get to know them and learn about your history with firsthand knowledge that can’t be found in books. When you know your past, you can truly know where you want to go next. When you look in the mirror, be proud. Be proud to be Vietnamese. Let your culture be a source of your strength and it will allow you to accomplish all your goals and dreams.
What are your future plans?
I hope to continue along the same path, helping others along the way to find their own voices. It’s satisfying knowing that you had a hand in helping someone find their passion, or access a talent they didn’t know they had. I want to make the Vietnamese-Canadian community stronger by promoting our unique history and culture to everyone out there.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt