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The On Being Project

Race and Identity Are More Than Spoken Words (video)

There is a poetry in one’s heritage that is powerful. With each generation, a new identity is created by joining the experiences of those who came before with the challenges of a changing world. So how do modern day, Asian-American poets create their own identities while still remaining true to their ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Bao Phi was born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in the Midwest. The son of Chinese and Vietnamese parents, slam poetry became a way for him to express his feelings on race and identity in America. He joined the speech team at his high school and carried this passion into a full scholarship at Macalester College. The art form helped him make sense of the world as a teen, becoming a career and a passion in his adulthood.

The subjects of his poems are both fictional and real. They are drawn from the stories of his childhood and tend to be semi-autobiographical. His poem “The Nguyens” illustrates the commonality that a name and a heritage can carry while also demonstrating the vast personal differences of Asian Americans.

Last name Nguyen, all of them. They’re not related, but they’re more related than any of them will ever know.
They sell cars in Orange County. They sell shoes in Queens. They hustle from White Bear Lake to Frogtown, Minnesota.
They drawl their way through your heart in Virginia and Texas. They lost everything to Katrina in New Orleans.
They fight for their lives every day in Boston. They bake mango cheesecakes in Oakland and San Francisco.

This 2010 reading of “The Nguyens” was featured on MN Original.

Mr. Phi currently works as the director and curator of Equilibrium, a spoken word series at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis that focuses on bringing poets of color together on a local and national level.

If you’re interested in hearing another story about the power of poetry and identity, check out Krista Tippett’s interview with Sarah Kay. She’s a young, spoken word poet who has become a role model and teacher to teenagers around the world. Millions have viewed her TED talk, where she shared the main stage with figures like Bill Gates and Jamie Oliver. She puts words around what she knows about poetry, stories, and being human and connected in this age.

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