Friday, October 28, 2011

No more mystery: Vietnamese American Oral History Project

*This article was originally published by the Viễn Đông on 28 October 2011. It was reported by Vanessa White.

IRVINE, California—Southern California Vietnamese Americans have rich histories surrounding their pasts in Vietnam, journeys to the United States, and integration into their new home country.
Whether experienced first-hand, or handed down through ancestral knowledge, these Vietnamese Americans reflect such rich histories with presence.
But what about the stories that are not told, due to shame, fear, or feelings of unworthiness?
Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the first generation, are reluctant to talk about their pasts for multiple reasons, Dr. Thúy Võ Đặng, head of the soon to launch Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP) told the Viễn Đông.
For instance, surviving the war, displacement, and resettlement were all traumatic experiences that many first generation Vietnamese Americans do not wish to relive, even through memory. Also, there are some who do not feel their stories are worth much.
Though, Dr. Đặng told the Viễn Đông that she believes the VAOHP will make the diverse, complex identities within the Southern California Vietnamese American community available to a broad audience and “give voice to the community in a way mainstream history has not been able to.”
Dr. Đặng is heading the VAOHP under the University of California Irvine (UCI) School of Humanities. The VAOHP will be housed at the UCI Libraries’ internationally known Southeast Asian Archive and made available to the researchers, as well as the public, when it is completed in three years.
Generously funded by an anonymous donor, the VAOHP will be revealed at an ideal time, reflecting an awareness and sensitivity to the degree of pain within the Southern California Vietnamese American community regarding its past just over 35 years ago.
The goal of the VAOHP is to capture, record, and disseminate diverse experiences and perspectives from within the Southern California Vietnamese American community.
Interviews will be recorded in audio format, as well transcribed, and the oral histories will be made available via website.
Although not currently conducting interviews, Dr. Đặng will teach a Vietnamese American Experience course this winter that will train students on conducting oral histories for the VAOHP, providing the groundwork for them to continue their training for years to come.
“It is so important to interview these eyewitnesses to history, especially the elders, who made new lives for themselves and in the process contributed to the economic and cultural development of Orange County, California, and the nation,” UCI School of Humanities Dean and part of the VAOHP advisory committee, Ms. Vicki Ruiz told the Viễn Đông. “This project will contribute to our larger understanding of modern American history.”
Although there is urgency in obtaining histories from the first generation, the VAOHP is not limited to that generation, Dr. Đặng told the Viễn Đông. It will include identities beyond the generally portrayed refugee, expanding to reach voices of mixed race, LGBT, or recent immigrant Vietnamese Americans.
Dr. Đặng and UCI Asian American Studies professor as well as VAOHP advisory committee member Professor Linda Võ have conducted oral histories in the past that will also be added to the student collection.
The VAOHP is looking to collaborate with other organizations working on their own Vietnamese American oral history projects, so people wishing to access various histories will find it easier to do so.
 “This is the first time we have the staff and funding to collect and record these stories from community members themselves,” Research Librarian for UCI Southeast Asian Archive and consultant for the VAOHP Ms. Christine Woo told the Viễn Đông. “We hope this project will lead to greater use of the archive's collections by community members who, in turn, will contribute photos, letters, diaries, and other personal papers to our growing collections.”
The VAOHP’s impact
Dr. Đặng told the Viễn Đông that the VAOHP is a long term project, planned to last for hundreds of years so future generations can learn about the contributions Vietnamese Americans have made to Southern California.
“When they [stories] are put online, our hope is that researchers and teachers will use them for educational purposes and our children will be able to access them to learn about the history of their community,” Professor Võ told the Viễn Đông.
Many Americans have little contact with Vietnamese Americans, maybe interacting with them when getting their nails done at a salon or eating at a Vietnamese restaurant, Ms. Woo told the Viễn Đông. “The VAOHP's oral histories will not only connect Vietnamese Americans with each other but will tell others about them in their own voices.”
Head of Special Collections for UCI Libraries and VAOHP consultant Ms. Michelle Light told the Viễn Đông that the project is meant to bring about new knowledge, healing, and understanding, as well as support community memory and identity.
She hopes it will inspire continued dialogue between older and younger generations.
 “These stories about how and why we came to America and the struggles we faced to build a new life here are an important part of American history,” Professor Võ told the Viễn Đông. “Being able to work with Dr. Thúy Võ Đặng and support such an important project that will benefit my community is truly an honor.”
To access the VAOHP website, visit

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