UC Irvine is creating an archive of personal oral histories by members of the local Vietnamese-American community. This “Vietnamese American Oral History Project” is headed by Dr. Thuy Vo-Dang, a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s Department of Asian American Studies.
The Bolsavik interviewed Dr. Vo Dang for Nguoi Viet Daily News, published here. Following is the same interview, in its original English.
Q. How is the collecting work going so far?
Dr. Vo Dang: The collection of oral histories is going quite well! I have done 3 interviews that are fully transcribed, but we are looking for ways to have them translated (they are in Vietnamese). My students have gathered a total of 36 interviews that are fully processed. These are new interviews; there are existing ones as well.
Q. What do you mean by “fully processed”? What does it take for interview to be fully processed?
Dr. Vo Dang: It means they have been transcribed and ready to transfer over to the Southeast Asian Archive. All these interviews are audio-recorded and come with photos. Some have original documents that Narrators (what we call our interview subjects) have donated to be kept with their stories.
Q: What kind of stories do you have so far?
Dr. Vo Dang: The stories are already quite diverse and interesting. Many reeducation camp stories, ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese experiences, a handful of folks who worked for Boeing, 2 French-Vietnamese-Americans, community leaders, educators, artists, business owners.
Q: Any surprises? Any anecdotes you can share with us?
Dr. Vo Dang: One of the most interesting things that has come up: many of my students have interviewed a parent and unearthed stories they’ve never heard before.
One of those stories involves the sexual abuse of a group of teenage Viet refugees in Georgia in the 1980s by a sponsor. I think this story is very telling of the manipulation of the refugee-sponsorship system by nonprofits, churches, and other MAAs at that time.
Another student interviewed her Vietnamese language teacher from high school and he told her that when he was young (during the war) he ditched school and was therefore put on a priority list for the draft and then ended up in the military in South Vietnam. After the war ended he was imprisoned by the new regime. So, he would use this as a cautionary tale to his students to not slack off, miss school, or be lazy or they could end up in prison!
One of my Narrators told me about his reeducation prison days and he mentioned that his job in prison involved painting the background for stage performances. His friend drew three flowers as part of the backdrop and got called in my the inspectors and asked why he drew three flowers. They wanted to know if he meant it as a critique of the new regime (three flowers in Vietnamese is ba hoa which also means liar) and then they made him draw in another flower to make four.
These are some stories that are emerging in the interviews, but there are so many more “ordinary” tales of perseverance, struggle, and triumph. I am so excited about this collection of stories!
Q: You mentioned something about existing interviews. Can you elaborate?
Dr. Vo Dang: On top of these original new interviews, I am working on processing interviews that the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation conducted in 2010, through their “500 Oral Histories Project“. I am also processing old interviews from 2003-2005 conducted by Professor Linda Vo‘s students at UCI. So, you see, the work is not only about doing interviews but bringing together existing interviews and making sure they are ready for online presentation and historical preservation.
I expected to have 100 by the end of the year and we are on track for this to happen. Since I now have the first batch from my students on hand, I will be transferring them to the libraries by the end of this month.
Q: What kind of outreach have you used to get to narrators?
Dr. Vo Dang: So far, I’ve used UCI communications’ press release and news features, academic newsletters, our project website, Facebook, and outreach at community events such as Common Ground (to recruit volunteers).
Word of mouth has been the best form of outreach–my students’ and the organizations and community leaders I work with–this helps to recruit Narrators through a credible link.
Q: How about Vietnamese media?
Dr. Vo Dang: I am hoping to launch a Vietnamese media campaign soon. Vien Dong has a story on us. I hope to get Nguoi Viet and Viet Bao to also do a feature on the project or run free ads for Narrators to contact me.
Q: Does your project involve remote states?
Dr. Vo Dang: The project is only focused on Southern California, so the Narrators have come from all over OC, LA, San Diego and a few from the Inland Empire. I’ve gotten inquiries over FB and email from people all over the country, but we are only interviewing So Cal Vietnamese. There’s a professor at Grinnell College in Iowa that contacted me about donating her students’ interviews of Viet-Americans there, so we are in communication about how that would work.
Q: How do people get hold of you to tell their stories? Do you pick and choose or take all comers?
Dr. Vo Dang: People can email the project at firstname.lastname@example.org or email me directly. They can contact us on FB.
So far, we’ve taken all who are interested in telling their stories but these Narrators have to be willing to sign the release that allows for us to make their interviews public.
Thuy Vo Dang is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine. She earned her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego. She conducted oral history interviews with first generation Vietnamese Americans in San Diego for her doctoral dissertation on cultural politics and memory. Thuy has also collaborated on a Pacific Rim Foundation-funded project, interviewing over 70 Vietnamese Americans in Southern California. Her writings have been published in Amerasia Journal, the anthology Le Viet Nam Au Féminin, and Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Thuy serves on the board of directors for the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) and the St. Anselm’s Cross-cultural Community Center. She’s also a contributing blogger on www.diaCRITICS.org.