Sieu Nguyen first grabbed the media’s attention back in 2013 after a controversial Facebook post. In the five years since then, Sieu Nguyen has continued to capture the public’s attention by inciting lively discussions on contemporary issues in Vietnam via his posts and pieces in local newspapers. And in May 2018, Sieu Nguyen published a book called “Co Don De Truong Thanh” (I Credit The Lonely) about his experiences in the States cut off from his support network.
Sieu Nguyen, a graduate of Vassar College who landed work experience at Blumhouse, Disney/ABC Television Group, and MTV, is also currently junior associate producer-editor at Paramount Network and TV Land, part of the New York-based media giant, Viacom.
So we caught up with Sieu Nguyen to get his views on engaging the public, working in the media industry, and overcoming obstacles while living away from home.
Your recently published book is titled “I Credit The Lonely” (Co Don De Truong Thanh). Where did you get the name from?
The book is a reflection on my last five years in the United States. I remember the moment when I waved goodbye to my family at Noi Bai Airport. It was the first time in my life that I was completely alone—I left my support system behind. Starting a new chapter in the US, I had to learn to adapt to the culture. That included things like changing my writing style and understanding the American sense of humor. But if someone were to hand me a list of dos and don’ts in the US, it wouldn’t be fun anymore.
I believe the journey is more important than the endpoint so learning things through firsthand experience is the best way to do it. The title “I Credit The Lonely” (Co Don De Truong Thanh) is about those moments that made me who I am today.
What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to the start of your journey to the States?
I wouldn’t want to change anything to be honest. So I’d just tell myself to enjoy the ride.
Your Facebook posts engage a mass audience in controversial debates. What do you hope to achieve with your writing and how do you maintain the right balance of engagement without alienating anyone?
I write to express my personal take on social and cultural issues even if my opinions don’t align with everyone else’s. A binary way of thinking would urge the public to believe that something is either right or wrong, but in my Facebook posts, I try to explore the subtleties of the debate often by introducing a new perspective.
For example, a few years ago when President Obama visited Vietnam, the majority saw him as a showbiz celebrity and discussed trivial details concerning his meals and even his wedding ring. I believed that we should have focused more on the political purposes of his trip—the arms embargo and human rights.
How did you fall in love with TV and the movies? What spurred you to move into production?
I remember feeling mesmerized by the show “Charmed” on VTV1 back when I was in elementary school. I saw images of the United States such as the Golden Gate Bridge and realized that there was this whole other world different from mine. That was the first time I fell in love with television.
In freshman year of college, I took a film class. It helped me see how movies and entertainment could be studied academically—that was really when I decided to commit to this industry. But I feel today, most movies prioritize telling a good story over reflecting society truthfully. The stories and experiences of underrepresented people such as the queer community and people of color are not widely told. I really want to be an agent of change.
Did studying film change the way you view movies and TV?
I’m definitely more analytical now. I look at the social implications of a piece of entertainment. The movie “Call Me by Your Name”, for example, received lots of praise. However, I thought it didn’t really represent the real struggles of gay people, and in particular gay people of color, as the main characters in the movie are white and privileged.
Now that you have worked behind the scenes of movies and TV and know how things work is the magic still there?
I honestly never get tired of being on set. To me, the magic in movies happens behind the scenes where I get to witness how movie makers create the extraordinary from the ordinary.
What is your perception of the media industry in Vietnam at the moment?
I’m excited to see it blooming particularly for a young audience. However, I do think that a majority of the content is still sensational and tabloid-style. Trivial news about celebrities tends to overshadow more serious matters such as global issues. Since the media empowers beauty queens, models and “hot teens,” a whole generation’s way of thinking is being influenced encouraging them to focus more on outer beauty rather than on inner beauty.
I love my job a lot. Everyone at Paramount Network / TV Land has been so supportive and helped me grow in the past two years. That’s especially lucky for a first job and I feel grateful every day. My priority project at the moment is “Younger,” a dramedy series about women empowerment, romance and very much everything New York. As junior associate producer-editor in the creative team for the show, I get to create videos that promote the show on air and social platforms. The content varies from teaser clips to videos celebrating characters on the show. What I love about this project is that I’ve always been given opportunities to try new things: new content angles, new editing styles, new music tracks. As an editor, I love experimenting new stuff and not sticking to formulas. I think that’s the beauty of a creative profession. That being said, my producers don’t just let me do whatever I want – that would be outrageous. I’ve received a lot of honest feedback on my work and I’m thankful for it. That’s my other favorite part of the job: learn and grow through critiques. I love being challenged and pushed to be better. Additionally, the series itself is a very good show. “Younger” is so current, so relatable, so fun to watch. It’s the kind of show I would be obsessed with even if I don’t work on it. The fandom is amazing. I wore my Younger t-shirt to a party in New York last Saturday and someone pulled my shirt back while I was moving through the crowd. I didn’t know what was going on until he told me “Younger” is his favorite show of all time, and then proceeded to express his love for the whole cast. Moments like that make me a smile a lot, because I know I’m working on something I love and a lot of people love, and what I do means something to someone out there.
I’m also finishing up my short horror film about “bun thang,” the Vietnamese noodle dish. And hopefully, “I Credit The Lonely” (Co Don De Truong Thanh) sells well so they will let me publish another one!
Having worked at Disney, Blumhouse, and Paramount, what advice would you give someone who is interested in working for media companies in the US?
If you want to work for media companies in the US, the surprisingly simple secret is to have a can-do attitude. Work hard, be open to learn new things, and be kind to people—and really mean it. And don’t forget to create because products speak volumes. Besides its career benefits, there’s something about creating that gives me an adrenaline rush. When I am at work, I forget about time. That’s what it feels like when you do something you love.
You shared on social media that you came out to your parents recently. What motivated you to make such a big decision?
I came out to my parents right before the New Years. For all my life, I’ve imagined of a perfect time to do this, maybe in a few more years when I feel more stable and financially independent, you know, but that night something just clicked and it felt right. I wanted to call my mom and talk to her about my whirlwind of a life in New York, which I could never do because it’s heavily shaped by my sexual identity. Being gay is an essential part of who I am that has defined the way I live and manage all my relationships, so that being a secret to my mother means that she doesn’t really know me. I didn’t think long before calling her. I hadn’t had such an urge to do something so bold yet important, and I decided to go with my guts.
It was a tearful conversation. As I was telling my mom about how I kept this secret for years, all my memories came back. I have never been the most masculine boy, so throughout my childhood I’ve been called things like “pede,” “lady” or “woman” in this most disgusted tone. Classmates commented on my gestures, my walk, my way of talking, my tendency to hang out with girls, and even my inclination towards making art as opposed to playing sports, which all screamed to me, “You’re different from us.” In a culture that values conformity so much like Vietnam, being different is not something to celebrate. Everyone is pressured to be “normal” and live in the same way; any outliers would be pretty much ostracized. When I was younger, I kept asking myself why I was born so “wrong,” why I couldn’t be “normal,” why the way I preferred to live offends other people although it felt natural to me. I never found an answer to those questions, but the worst part is I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it. I was scared. My dad suspected something in eighth grade and planned to take me to the hospital for hormone injection, which terrified me. I remember locking the doors to my room and pretending I had so much homework I couldn’t go. The truth is, I was shaking. I didn’t want my body and my lifestyle altered. Although society condemns being gay, I have always been sure with myself that it’s the way I choose to live. If anything, I choose happiness.
I was very lucky that my mom accepted me when I came out. She said she wanted to be best friends with me and that conversation really bridged the distance between us. It was harder for my dad to take the news, but he texted me a few days later that he would stand by me no matter what. When I shared this story on Facebook, a flood of supportive messages from friends and strangers really warmed my heart, because it means that society has become more open-minded and that I’m surrounded by people who care about me and accept me for who I am.
How does it feel living in New York as an openly gay man?
When I came to America in 2013, I felt liberated for the first time because being gay is more accepted here, or at least where I went to college. The idea of being different is celebrated and I didn’t have to feel ashamed of my sexual orientation. It was such a fresh thing to me at the time and it helped me feel more comfortable with my sexuality. As time went by, I started to look beyond this comfort and really explore the American gay culture. I’ve never stopped being grateful for the chance to live my life the way I want, but this “gay culture” still has a lot of setbacks I couldn’t help noticing. Racism is prevalent in the gay community. As a person of color, I feel looked down on a lot of the times. Because I’m gay and Asian, some people would expect me to just be completely obedient, submissive or dumb in a relationship based on some racial stereotypes. This is upsetting because I take great pride in my independence and intelligence. Without them, I would never have made it here from the life I had. I once wondered, “Hmm maybe it would be easier to date if I dumb myself down a little bit,” but was never entertained by the idea because my brain is something I will never compromise on.
New York City also has such a huge hook-up scene. It’s nothing bad, but being raised in a traditional culture like Vietnam where most people gravitate towards serious dating or marriage, the hook-up culture shocked me at first. Before I went to college, I hadn’t even heard of the concept. I started to understand what it was after finding myself in such a situation, unwillingly. Throughout the past few years, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with this oh-so-American hook-up culture. It’s obviously fun on the one hand, and believe me New York City is where you can meet a lot of beautiful and amazing people. On the other hand, I do feel objectified sometimes by the act of casual sex. Some people treat you like a commodity; some never commit to plans; some can’t even say nice things. Since making meaningful connections with kind and interesting people has much more appeal to me than just physical pleasure, I’m not the biggest fan of one night stands. And there are pains and heartbreaks, too, scattered around the concrete jungle. I grew up dreaming of being in New York, glamorous and romantic, but living here actually takes me back to reality and makes me realize it’s not all glamour. Nevertheless, both the lows and the highs of living in this city make it the best place in the world, and my adventurous soul isn’t tired of this ride yet.
What is your biggest obsession?
Perfectionism! I’m obsessed with making everything perfect, which is both a good and bad thing. It has certainly helped me in college and in my job, since they both require keen attention to detail, but life is not perfect and overexpectation is not always healthy (especially, you know, when I live in New York). Lately I’ve begin to appreciate the imperfections in life: a blurry selfie, a messy bedroom, a broken egg yolk, awkward conversations, acnes on my face, etc. I see beauty in them and realize, sometimes it’s better to be real than perfect.
Do you have any book recommendations for ambitious people?
“Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah. It’s my current morning read on the subway to work. It was a gift from my company a few months back, as Trevor is the host of our Daily Show. The book describes his personal journey from being a child in South Africa to becoming a successful talk show host in the US.
Under Apartheid in South Africa, white people and people of color were prohibited from having sex. Trevor was the child of a mixed couple, so he was technically “born a crime.” Page after page, it’s amazing to learn how Trevor overcame his tough childhood with perseverance and humor. I believe that readers will laugh…but that they will also be inspired as I’ve been.