Reto Stuber interviews people, who made their way to the US. Today: Nathalie Pham, startup founder and artist.
How did you handle the conflict to emigrate to a country, which has been on war against your country?
In regard of Germany, I am in a very peculiar situation, because Americans ask me about Hitler and WWII. And I admit it, that if they attack Germans and say “that it is in their gene” etc. I feel horrible offended (also, I do not share the German gene pool, but I grew up in Germany and definitely know many people who never agree with history). I learned the German history extremely well in history class (in Germany) and started to feel guilty for a crime my family has no association with. I have also a major issue with the American arrogance because of the Chinese treatment in the US (railroad workers and the laws against the Chinese) and the Japanese camps in 1940’s. The entire slavery issue is not really “kosher” either. Therefore, it is very difficult for me to discuss this.
In regard of the Vietnam War, my parents do not really talk about it. I think it is partially the Buddhist upbringing and trying to forget the sorrow. If you go to Vietnam, most of them do not talk about it either. My family lost a lot, their property, house, wealth etc.
For me it is really bizarre: because of how I relate to the entire situation being a German citizen and of Vietnamese ancestry. I am being questioned about Germans and Hitler and how “horrible they were”. But at the same time, I do not hear from any American “what crimes” they committed against the Vietnamese. Now, I just think it is a bit hypocritical. Yet, it never affected my life directly. I was in Germany “save” when everything happened in Vietnam. I may think of it differently if I would have been born in Vietnam. But I am a by-stander to all of these events without knowing what people really felt or how much they suffered in Vietnam or Germany.
You combine many different cultures in yourself – where do you feel home?
This is a mind-trip: I never tried any drugs but this is a very weird mind-altering experience. The only place there I feel as if I belong is New York because of the diversity. San Francisco maybe as well… but I have not lived there yet. I wonder also if I would feel in Germany at home or if I would feel there also like a “Fisch aus dem Wasser.”
The real issue is that I lived in so many places and cultures by now that I can understand the sentiment, even if I do not agree with it. Missouri is such a different place than Arizona-Boston is a different pace than New York. For example: I do not agree with the Missouri politics or who they voted for in the past elections. However, I can understand why they vote and why they support a specific political party. Their concerns differ drastically from the New York or Boston concern. Their thought is limited by their experience – and the same applies to New Yorkers, who never ventured to the mid-west. My difficulty (or advantage) is that I can understand these different sides to the same issue and I do not need to judge or agree with any of them. However, I cannot blend in anymore, because I always need to see the other side and need people to be tolerant of it. New York has this experience where people have to negate, negotiate and live with such different perspective that nothing can shock or surprise them. That is why my odd thinking does not bother them. I do not stick out anymore, and I really love that.
However, if I meet Germans, there is always a nice “blending in”. There is the body language and the language itself where I need to explain less than in other languages. And this is very nice. I think most people do not recognize (because it is for them a daily experience) that it is nice to be able to relate to their mind structure without having to contemplate it.
How did you establish yourself in the US, who helped you in particular?
I was very lucky given my age and my circumstances. After one year in Arizona, I was accepted to college early, and left to attend Stephens College in Missouri. It is a private college and the faculty and students sort of adopted and guided me. In particular my faculty (in art): Roselind Kimball-Moulton, my roommate from Mexico “Loreta Aguirre” and my German friends (mainly graduate and undergraduate students) who I met over the German Stammtisch (yes, there was a German Stammtisch in Missouri). My German friends listened and talked to me to get over the cultural hump and cope with the difference, Loreta had all the patients in the world to teach me English, Roz helped me to move beyond my loss leaving Germany. My friend Thuy Phan helped me to cope reconcilate my Vietnamese heritage I did not know much about – as mentioned, my sister and me were the only Asians at my school.
Was it the right decision to move to the US?
Who knows?! In Germany, I always thought I would work as a physician in a hospital (some physicians have a bit of a different role than in the US) or become a theater actress or a movie director. My current life is now very different: I am working on a start-up and as an artist.
Moving to the US changed how I see the world, business, and life. It taught me to survive in an unknown environment at a very young age. Many people (including myself if I would have stayed in Germany) are worried about survival and never dare to try risky business or never live their dream because of the fear of failure. I learned with 16 that even if I fail and loose everything I will survive and will rebuild an entire life. In Germany, I never would have done or taken such risks. But that does not mean I might not have been happy there. Who knows maybe I would have been an actress and living in Pforzheim .
Life just happened, and this is where it is at. I will never know what would have been the right thing.
What are your plans for 2010?
My boyfriend and me are launching the beta version for Bizwall/WAW. We are working on the bi (multi)-lingual platform, so it can be easily published in two, three, four languages. We are establishing the business (Bizwall/WAW) in the tri-state area in 2010/11, and then slowly expanding on a global level. Let’s hope we gonna make it ! But yes, we will remain in New York-preferably in Brooklyn.
Nathalie, thanks so much for the interview!
Interview about the art project:
Video on NY 1: