Remembering the Vietnamese Refugee Experience through UCI’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project

Last Monday, April 30, was the 37th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. This event marked the end of the Vietnam War, and what eventually resulted throughout the long years of the war was the displacement of over a million Vietnamese refugees.

In an article printed in the Vien Dong Daily, a Vietnamese News Publication for the Little Saigon Area of the OC, APSA Advocacy Intern Brian Dinh reflects upon what it means for a second generation Vietnamese American, who never experienced the war, to reflect back on the Fall of Saigon. He ties in themes of memory with UCI Asian American Students Professor Thuy Vo Dang’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project, “a three-year project that assembles, preserves, and disseminates the life narratives of Vietnamese Americans in Southern California.” (For more information about the project and how you can participate, click here to visit the website.)

Brian’s article can be read on the Vien Dong Daily website in Vietnamese. The English translation follows:

This past February, I participated in Thuy Vo Dang’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project as a UCI student in her Vietnamese American Experience class. I interviewed Bao Nguyen, Vice President of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education, and one story he told me was about a protest he organized to educate the Vietnamese community about a racial slur. Much to their dismay, he and his friends ended up angering a lot of Vietnamese elders. Through this story, he reminded me that we were the children of refugee parents, and that we “have to be sensitive towards everyone’s experience, especially if it’s a traumatic experience,” a traumatic experience such as the Vietnam War. This lesson made me reflect back on my own parents, their trauma being Vietnamese refugees, my insensitivity toward their experiences when I was a teenage high school rebel, and my sensitivity toward them now, which continues to grow today as I further understand my own history and identity and how they shape the ways I participate in my own Vietnamese community. Like Bao, I never experienced the war myself, and with the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon coming up, I ask myself, what does the Vietnam War mean to me? What does Black April mean to me? What do the experiences of my parents and grandparents mean to me, future generations, and the current Vietnamese Community? These questions further raise another one: why is the Vietnamese American Oral History Project important?

Before learning my parents’ stories, I understood the Vietnam War the way that mainstream America understood the Vietnam War: It was either a terrible mistake, a cautionary tale for the Iraq War, or a story of brave U.S. veterans. Somewhere pushed to the side were those actually affected by the war the most: the Vietnamese refugees. No one wanted to look at them because they were too tragic for hearts to bear, or no one needed to look at them because they were another model minority Asian group doing just fine. The act of remembering the Fall of Saigon, whether it’s my parents and grandparents remembering their experiences or myself remembering their stories, is a way of challenging the mainstream discourse about the Vietnam War. It’s a way to resist erasure of our people, history, and culture in a society that otherwise doesn’t want to remember us.

I’ve asked my parents about their own experiences following the Fall of Saigon, and while my dad rarely talks about his own, my mom can surely speak for him, telling me, “Your dad came from a rich, famous family, which is why the communists took everything from them when they invaded Phan Thiet. Your dad’s mom burned herself in her own house out of despair and protest. Because of this, your dad and his family became even more well known. If you go back to Phan Thiet today and ask around about her or your dad, everyone should be able to tell you at least one thing about them. Your dad’s mom haunts the house that she burned herself in. No one, including communist soldiers, has ever lived in it because they knew this.”

This short anecdote alone is already rich with pain, pride, and culture, and it’s only a small portion of my parents’ stories of survival and perseverance. No history textbook can contain our history and our stories or what they mean to us. Textbooks can’t tell us the values and the lessons that our parents pass on, so this is why we remember instead. The past exists only in memory, not in some pages of a history textbook that we take for granted as the truth. Of course, while textbooks are oversimplified, memory is complicated. It is as fragmented and conflicting as it is rich and valuable. While I may have some answers, understanding the importance of Black April and the stories of our community is a continuous, lifelong process. As the son of refugee parents, I hope to find such answers weaved within the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, and I hope that past and future generations can do the same.

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