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Researcher. Teacher. Fiction Fanatic

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Greetings! I'm Phung (pronounced "fung"). I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara. 

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I am interested in understanding how individuals make choices within drastic moments of cultural, political, and economic constraints. In other words, how individuals strategize within conditions that are not of their own choosing. My previous work on Vietnamese women during the Vietnam Revolution attests to this desire to understand the meanings and narratives crafted by the oft-forgotten women of war. Similarly, my current project explores Vietnamese outmigration from the countryside to uncover the interplay between economic and cultural transformation and individual’s mobility strategies, lived experiences, and subjectivities.

The same interests that motivate me to delve into the stories of the people I study also accompany me in my role as an educator. Knowing first-hand that the path to entering and succeeding in higher education is not guaranteed, I approach teaching and mentorship with a goal to magnify rather than excise the rough corners of our lived experiences. In doing so, I orient my pedagogy towards the celebration, and not the flattening out, of differences and diversity.

For additional information, please see the C.V.




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Having the ability to travel to various countries has cemented my fascination with life narratives and individuals’ location against a backdrop of changing times and trends. In my travels, I witnessed first-hand the symbolic currency that is attached to one’s ability to speak fluent English in Singapore. I danced to popular South Korean songs in Seoul, songs that for more than three decades have enabled South Korea to export its popular culture overseas. I also squatted alongside Vietnamese village folks in the Mekong River Delta region, peeling durian and sharing in conversation about the role of food as both a cultural marker and a passport to new communities of people and histories. 

Traversing different cultural lines at home and across many national borders means that I have constantly been afforded the opportunity to form friendships that are not limited by geography, learn to value different and sometimes conflicting worldviews, and trade tales of loss that speaks to a shared human experience. All of this I have come to hold dearly as a unique ability to stand at the convergence of various cultures and communities that transcend territorial boundaries.

As an ethnographic researcher and retainer of stories, I offer you, through my research projects, various vantages into the lives of the people whose stories illuminate the ceaseless interaction between conditional existences and individual strategies for survival. 

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Berkeley Sociology Commencement Speech (2022): For My Immigrant Parents

When Martin asked me to be the commencement speaker with him, my primary concern was, “Will I be able to see over the podium?” You see, Martin is 6’3" and commands attention. I still get asked by the TSA: “Traveling alone or with a parent?” So while I do, in fact, travel by myself, in terms of the roads I’ve taken in life, I’ve often been accompanied by family. 


But family isn’t the easiest. Family can make you regress back to the 8-year-old you. Family lands you in therapy. And immigrant families, they're something else. You see, in my immigrant family, we don’t say “I love you.” We show it in passive-aggressive ways. For example, “Eat more food, you’re too skinny!” is code for “I care about you,” followed by a plate of fruit that you did not ask for.  


As a first generation, immigrant child from a working-class family, getting a PhD isn’t easy. 

Often, you feel like a walking assemblage of scars. You’re stitched together by tenacity and belligerence. When you enter an institution that wasn’t created with you in mind, it is a process where you peel away the layers of yourself, until all that is left is a flattening out of your differences.


When I near a point where, I think, maybe to succeed in academia, I should soften the rough edges of my being, I see my parents. I see their struggles and their sacrifices. I see how they navigate a world where they don’t know the language. A world that labels them “foreigner” because to be American is to be White; where, as garment workers, they put in 16-hour workdays to make sure that their kids’ basic needs are met. I see how the only marker of the passing of time is in their lush, black hair steadily turning white as they labor in the same job day in and day out. And importantly, I see how their experiences are not my own. Their sacrifices have made that a reality. 


And I’m reminded of “Broken English” a poem by Rupi Kaur, of a specific verse about immigrant parents that goes like this:

They turned a suitcase full of clothes
into a life and regular paychecks
to make sure that children of immigrants
wouldn't hate them for being the children of immigrants 

Insights from my family’s experiences have carried me throughout the PhD. They’re also the same ones I keep as travel companions into academia, where I will encounter others with similar life stories, stories that remind us of why we should celebrate rather than flatten out our differences.  

And now, to make sure that my words can reach the ones that I wrote this speech for: 

Thảo muốn lấy cơ hội này để cảm ơn Ba Tài Mẹ. Tại vì sự hy sinh của Ba Tài và Mẹ, Thảo có thể đứng ở đây hôm nay và lấy được bằng tiến sĩ này. Cảm ơn Ba Tài, cảm ơn Mẹ. 

Happy graduation to all the immigrant families out there. Thank you.

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