Vietnamese Americans Save Memories For History
On April 30, Vietnam will celebrate Liberation Day, a holiday marking the 38th anniversary of the reunification of North and South Vietnam following a 19-year conflict.
For Americans and their former South Vietnamese allies, that day in 1975 is remembered for the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, the end of the Vietnam War, and a communist victory.
Before those memories fade, a special effort has been undertaken to capture for posterity the stories of those Vietnamese who took refuge in the United States following the war.
“The generation that can recall what Vietnam was like, what the war was like, and also what the experience of immigration, and then resettlement was like, are starting to pass [die], and so we desperately need to capture their stories now,” said Thuy Vo Dang, director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.
Located on a pleasant, leafy campus about 66 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles, California, the university is renowned for its Asian studies program. That’s appropriate for a campus located in Orange County, which is home the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, more than 180,000, according to the 2010 Census.
Two Orange County communities, Westminster and Garden Grove, are known as “Little Saigon,” and contain numerous Vietnamese restaurants, nail salons and other businesses.
The Oral History Project was launched in 2011, and is funded by an anonymous donor. Researchers, including Vo Dang, interview participants about their memories of the Vietnam War and subsequent events.
“I do many of the interviews, but I also train many of the students to do oral history interviews of Vietnamese Americans, who often are in their own families, or their neighbors or friends,” she said.
Vo Dang was born in a small Vietnamese fishing village in the Mekong Delta, and arrived in the United States in 1984 as a child. Like some of her interviewees, she spent time in a refugee camp, but she doesn’t remember the experience because she was so young.
The participants have diverse stories to tell. “Many people have opened up to me about their private personal losses, the loss of children, what it was like to lose their homes multiple times, from 1954 to 1975, and having to rebuild,” Vo Dang said.
“These are the stories that really touch me, the ways in which people have persevered and tried to craft a legacy to the next generation.”
The final days of South Vietnam are recounted in the project’s archive. “A small number of my respondents left in 1975, and they could describe how the streets were filled with litter and guns, people had abandoned their ammunition on the side streets and the looting happened,” she said.
Some of the narrations concern those who had no way to escape post-war persecution except on the open seas. Known as “boat people,” the refugees had to face deadly storms, disease, starvation and pirates. The United Nations High commission for Refugees estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 died at sea.
“Something that’s not mentioned often is that people who left Vietnam by boat often had to do that many times,” Vo Dang said. “And they failed and they were in prison for that, because at that time in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s people who tried to leave Vietnam were considered traitors, and so they would be put into prison.”
For those who made it to the United States, the new surroundings were often perplexing. “They were baffled by the grocery stores or how fast cars are going in the road,” she said.
The stories of endurance are particularly significant, according to Vo Dang. She describes one woman who worked in a Los Angeles sweatshop for 30 years, and who agreed to be interviewed following her son’s urging.
“I told her, ‘how many people will share that experience in public, and what that was like to raise a family, a full family, where your children are going on to do great things, you have successes to share,’” she said. “Those struggles are great; those struggles need to be shared as well.”
The university’s Southeast Asian Archive is a leading center for stories of people from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Donated photographs and documents supplement the oral histories.
“This is the rightful place for this collection to be safeguarded for future researchers, for people who want to make a film or documentary, or students who maybe want to write a paper about Vietnamese Americans,” she said. “Certainly, I hope to see publications come out of this collection in the future.”
Vo Dang has returned to Vietnam twice since settling in the U.S., once for research, and once for her honeymoon. “My husband and I left when we were really young and we wanted to share that experience of discovering our homeland together,” she said.
UCI initiative preserves history of region’s immigrants.
She sets the microphones on a kitchen table. One for her and one for him.
Thuy Vo Dang then asks the questions. It takes only the first few minutes before Hai Dai Hoang stops to fight back tears.
For the next two hours, she asks about his memories – of his parents, his family, his life in Vietnam, and his many, many attempts to escape his homeland.
“There are so many stories. I don’t know where to start,” said Hoang, 49, a Fountain Valley resident.
His father died when he was young. His mother, a pharmacist, “sacrificed her whole life for her children.” In 1975, after Communists captured Saigon, she sold medicines on the black market to survive. Hoang, 10 or 11 at the time, helped her out. But she insisted he stay in school. And he excelled. His goal was to one day be a doctor. Meanwhile, his mother had to make a choice. She decided her six children would have a better life in another country and, hopefully, one day she would see them again. Five of them were adopted and left Vietnam. Only one wasn’t accepted for adoption because he was too old. It was Hoang. “I saw her cry every night.”
The stories of this refugee community – the struggles, achievements, memories – are part of a major undertaking at UC Irvine: the Vietnamese American Oral History Project. More than 100 interviews have been taped, transcribed and digitally preserved online in UCI Libraries’ Southeast Asian Archive since 2011. Many more are in the works.
“This generation is passing away, and their stories will be lost if we don’t preserve them,” said Linda Trinh Vo, a UCI professor of Asian American studies who worked for years to raise the funds and create the project. “I want to make sure we collect these materials. The next generation of scholars will be able to write the history.”
To make the project work, UCI needed interviewers – and the School of Humanities turned to its own students.
The students, most of them Vietnamese Americans, signed up for a course that trained them to conduct oral history interviews. Most turned to their own families for their first oral history.
Michelle Pham, 22, signed up a year ago. She thought it would be an easy A, and then she would move on. But she got hooked.
“My connection to my culture is very shaky,” Pham said. “I don’t speak Vietnamese well. I can’t read or write in Vietnamese. It would be very hard for me to convey my cultural upbringing to a future generation. My parents are not going to be here forever. And I want future generations to know where they came from.”
Her first interview was with her father. She’s heard his story since she was little. But, microphones before them, it was the first time she listened to the full narrative from beginning to end. Her mom? That’s tougher to get.
“She said she has her secrets,” Pham said. “I told her, ‘If you pass on, I’m never going to know your story.’ ”
Any material collected doesn’t have to be immediately available to the public, Pham told her mother. There’s a clause in each agreement that allows the person interviewed – or narrator, as they’re called in the project – to determine when the material can be released.
Hoang’s mother, Chi Truong, sat next to him as he told his story for the UCI project. She had already told her own tale of survival and how she reached America. Now, she was listening to her eldest son, the only one who was not adopted by American families, recount the many times he tried to flee Vietnam after 1975 – and how his mother tried to help him, with fake documents, with money, with contacts. Nothing worked. At the end of his senior year in high school, he was caught. And he ended up in prison for six months, then re-education camp for a year.
UCI student Howard Diep, 20, interviewed his mother in San Diego for the project. His father died when he was 13. His parents never spent much time talking about their past. The interview has since strengthened their communication, he said.
“We know that our parents emigrated over here. They experienced hardship and had a difficult time to assimilate due to language barriers and discrimination. That’s the gist of what we know,” Diep said. “But as daughters and sons, we need to dig deeper to better foster a sense of understanding and compassion. And not just take things for granted.”
Once released from re-education camp, Hoang returned home. He made a living selling medications. He learned to practice acupuncture.
“After prison, my mom said: ‘If you can’t be a Western doctor, be an Eastern healer.'” He left for Cambodia and set up shop on sidewalks, treating people for headaches or fevers. He tried to escape again and this time went to a Cambodian prison for two weeks. He fell in love with a Cambodian woman, married, moved to Sihanoukville by the sea and opened a small acupuncture clinic … On the very first night, he got a knock on the door. It was a woman asking him to help her husband, terribly ill with diarrhea and vomiting. “I didn’t know how to treat cholera back then.”
But using a cigarette to heat needles, he revived the ailing man with acupuncture. “The next morning, I was famous around the neighborhood.”
“There is so much trauma embedded in the Vietnamese American experience,” said Vo Dang, an immigrant herself and the director of the oral history project. “There isn’t a space in the lives we created to talk about these experiences.”
The project offers that opportunity, she said. And in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese American population in the U.S., the stories abound.
When the couple eventually fled Cambodia during a harrowing escape, Hoang and his wife, Kim, ended up in Thailand, at a refugee camp.
The camp had only one dentist. Hoang, good with needles, volunteered to help out. Each morning, 20, 30, 40 people would be waiting for him. He would line up five patients at a time, injecting their mouths with numbing medication. By the fifth shot, the first one was ready for an extraction. From Thailand, the couple was sent to a U.S. refugee camp in the Philippines, where they learned about American culture.
And then they arrived in the United States. Two of his siblings were there to greet them for a tearful reunion, including a sister who was his sponsor. He had not seen them in 13 years. He worked different jobs, got his high school equivalency certificate, a college degree and went on to become a dentist with a successful practice in Seattle. Since then, his entire family has reunited, but never all together in one place at the same time.
Hoang is now retired. He lives with his wife and three children in a spacious home. His youngest son is named Austin, after the first American city he lived in. What he wants his children to take away from his story: “that there’s possibility in life. Never give up.”
Stories such as Hoang’s and his mother’s or the tales told to Pham and Diep by their parents are housed at UCI, but they’re accessible online to everyone, Vo Dang said. The Web site capturing the voices, photos and documents of the project officially launched last fall: vaohp.lib.uci.edu.
The project’s staff and volunteers hope to capture many more such voices from Southern California in the coming years.
“We’re in this urgent moment,” Vo Dang said, “when we have to recoup these stories before they’re lost.”
Contact the writer: 714-796-7829 or email@example.com