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Artist learns to embrace two cultures

Pleasanton makes dreams come true for searching teen

When Minnie Phan began to draw as a young child, she kept her sketches to herself. "It was something I did secretly, as an escape," she recalled.

Phan, 22, remembers copying a cartoon by laying paper on the TV and tracing the image then improving it, confident she could do better. Art became her first love and a way of coping with the world, as she felt like she belonged in neither America nor Vietnam, from which her parents had escaped in 1989.

Then, when Phan was a sophomore at Amador Valley High, her art classes opened the world to her.

"I was a trouble maker in high school," she said. "I had a chip on my shoulder and thought I didn't need to learn anything."

When she signed up for Michael Doyle's beginning art class, she finally shared her portfolio of cartoon characters and he surprised her by saying she should stay in the art basics class and start slowly. She came to see that he was right.

"Thankfully I embraced art around my sophomore and junior year," Phan said, "and that changed my life, having a creative outlet and having a community of artist friends. Joy came from that."

She grew to appreciate all her teachers.

"I valued that they valued the students and cared about seeing them change and grow," she said. "Almost all of them would put in extra time, unpaid hours, to help students grow and learn."

As Phan planned to attend California College of the Arts, which has campuses in Oakland and San Francisco, she came to embrace the people in Pleasanton as they helped her realize her dream.

"Toward the end of high school suddenly the community jumped out at me, and I thought, 'This is amazing!'" she said. "I was applying for college, but I needed a way to support myself. Then at the Donnies (Amador's senior awards night) I won a $10,000 scholarship."

Her scholarships included Amador Valley Scholarships, the Ernest and Nancy Dohner Memorial Scholarship, the Don Foreman Memorial Scholarship, and the George Jacobson/Brent Wilcox Memorial Scholarship.

"I realized that the Pleasanton community is really diverse," she said. "I think it's about caring about others and supporting diverse interests and subjects."

In her junior year of college, her work and that of her classmates was reviewed by the faculty and she was chosen to receive $3,000 to spend however she wanted. She considered whether to buy something or to use the money to pay her tuition.

"But I'd wanted since I was a freshman to do a project on my family," Phan said. "I had so many conflicting feelings about my family. I told my parents, 'I want to go to Vietnam.'"

She had been there as a young child but this would be a journey alone to explore her background. When her family arrived in the United States, they lived in Stockton, where Minnie was born. She has two brothers and two sisters.

"We moved from Stockton to Hayward to Union City, then Pleasanton. My mom really values education and she always wanted to go to a place that had better schools," Phan said. "It was really hard -- before I turned 11, I went to six different elementary schools."

Now she wanted to return to her roots in Vietnam.

"Going back alone was a completely different experience," Phan said. "It was amazing. I was so lucky I had family. My dad's side is from the countryside and my mom's side, they live in the city of Hue."

For the first time, she heard the term "Viet Kieu," a word coined by the victorious North Vietnamese for those who left to settle in other countries. The term is no longer derogatory, Phan said, although the Vietnamese regarded her as an outsider. But her family embraced her, and her cousins taught her to read and write Vietnamese.

"I was only there for three weeks but a whole lot happened," she said. "My cousin took me to the University of Hue art department, and I laughed so much because art students are the same all around the world, wacky, and I really felt at home."

One of her cousins died while she was there, which allowed her to experience those traditions firsthand.

"It was such a crazy incredible, heartbreaking experience," Phan said. "At that moment it really hit me: Life is huge. You've got to really value family -- I could lose a sibling like my cousins lost a sibling. And how does that change a family?"

She came back to the United States a different person, she said, having lost her anger when she gained perspective on her family and the world.

For her senior thesis, Phan wrote and illustrated a 28-page booklet, "They Call Us Viet Kieu," about her trip to Vietnam and her self-discovery. The book is for sale and free to community groups; email minnie@minniephan.com.

With her new degree in illustration, Phan is looking for work in her field although she realizes she may need to work at anything to support herself while pursuing her art on her own.

Her parents' story inspires her, she noted, explaining, "When I'm feeling disheartened about my life and my career path, I think about them leaving everything they'd known."

"If I am passionate and persistent and patient, I know my hard work will pay off," she added. "I love making comic books and want to be published."

And now she wants to share her creations with the world.

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