Born in Vietnam to fisherman father Nho and his wife Dang, Nguyen and her family fled Vietnam by boat when she was only four; they were initially resettled in a refugee camp in the Philippines until a Lutheran family in Scottsdale, Arizona, sponsored them to migrate there in the 1980s. Her father worked as a janitor, receiving a wage of only $10/hour to support his wife and nine children. Eventually, he moved his family to Modesto, California, in search of higher wages picking fruit in the Central Valley; Madison worked in the fields alongside her father as a teenager. She is one of eight siblings.
Nguyen has said she was more outspoken than most girls in her culture, and that her Asian American peers often derisively referred to her as a "banana", yellow on the outside but white on the inside. She naturalized as a U.S. citizen around age 18, choosing the name "Madison". In various sources, she has stated that she chose it either due to former president James Madison or Daryl Hannah's character in the movie Splash; she felt it reflected her desire to be perceived as sophisticated. She went on to receive her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her Masters Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago. She returned to California in 2000 to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at U.C. Santa Cruz.
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