A Black Asian student from the University of Southern California found herself in hot water after many Chinese students expressed outrage over her Lunar New Year post on the university’s Instagram story earlier this month.
Kiara Nguyen, a senior USC student double majoring in psychology and NGOs and social change, was tapped by USC Communications to celebrate the beginning of Black History Month and Lunar New Year on Feb. 1 by creating social media posts, Daily Trojan reported, The posts would mark the first time in 19 years that the two occasions started on the same day.
Nguyen is the co-director of events at MixedSC, a registered school organization dedicated to the “multicultural and multiethnic community” at the university.
“I thought it was a cool opportunity to speak about my experiences, especially in light of recent events — the pandemic, [the Black Lives Matter movement],” Nguyen said of the celebration.
Three of Nguyen’s “Instagram Takeover” posts, however, caused a stir among viewers. In one of the posts, Nguyen reportedly claimed the term “Chinese New Year” was incorrect, prompting other students to interpret it as “an attempt to erase the holiday’s Chinese origins.”
In another post, Nguyen can be seen speaking at a meeting on Jan. 31 with a slide project behind her showing the word “Chinese” crossed out with a red line and replacing it with “Lunar.”
“I misspoke. What I was trying to explain was that Lunar New Year was an inclusive term. You wouldn’t say ‘Happy Chinese New Year’ to your non-Chinese Asian friends,” Nguyen said about the Lunar New Year issue. “I want to be clear that if you are speaking to someone who is Chinese, calling it Chinese New Year would be correct.”
Students also took issue with Nguyen’s claim that “lì xì,” the informal Cantonese name for the red envelopes given during Lunar New Year, was a Vietnamese term.
Nguyen explained, “In Vietnamese, it’s called “lì xì.” That’s what I call it in Vietnamese and what Vietnamese people call it.”
Gabby Jia, a USC alumna, told the Daily Trojan many in her community were offended by Nguyen’s assertion and had asked USC to “review the things [Nguyen] is about to say, especially the exact words that… she is about to share.”
A Change.org petition was also launched to call out the university and the MixedSC co-director of events for the post. In the petition, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (USC CSSA) organizers claimed the red line used to cross out “Chinese” in Nguyen’s presentation was a “symbol reserved for crossing out the name of the deceased and considered extremely disrespectful in Chinese culture.”
Although Nguyen had already apologized for the posts, many people reportedly left hurtful messages in her inbox. Some of those messages contained the n-word, its Chinese equivalent and other racist and derogatory names.
In one email, confirmed by the Daily Trojan, an angry person threatened Nguyen telling her that she is now a “hot target to our whole Chinese group from the whole world.” Another message also discredited Nguyen’s Asian heritage, accusing her of “talking about Asian culture without an Asian face.”
Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at USC Kyle Henley issued a statement on social media apologizing for what happened on Feb. 12 and addressing the hate Nguyen received in the aftermath.
“We also are troubled that the student associated with the post, who has issued an apology, has been the target of harassment,” the statement read. “While it appears that much of this came from outside of our USC community, harassment is never appropriate and runs counter to USC’s core values.”
The university also condemned the hate speech, personal attacks and threats targeting Nguyen in the university’s first Instagram post announcing the Takeover.
A USC junior, who reportedly requested anonymity, defended Nguyen’s message to the Daily Trojan, saying, “What she meant to say was that ‘Lunar New Year’ is overall a more inclusive term.”
“[It’s] not just people of Chinese heritage [that] celebrate the new year. It’s also Vietnamese people, Korean people,” the student, also a member of MixedSC, added.
In response to the backlash, Nguyen suggested she was targeted because she is also half Black.
“It’s always ‘Black people are playing the victim’ when they talk about injustices,” Nguyen told the Daily Trojan. “It’s been… frustrating to see people denying the fact that I’m being called slurs and also denying my identity as an Asian woman. As a mixed race person, I’ve had to deal with the invalidation so often — I’m tired at this point.”