'Amazing stories of survival': UCI oral history project preserves Vietnamese refugees' hopes, fears and challenges

When Linda Trinh Vo was growing up, she never heard about the experiences of other Vietnamese Americans in the classroom or read about their history in her textbooks.

It was as if her entire community didn't exist.

"Even today, there's very little history on Vietnamese Americans from their perspective and their voices," said Vo, professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine.

"In Vietnam, they have basically written us out of the history books — those who left the country — and in America, they write about the war from the American side, particularly the veteran side, but very little about Vietnamese Americans."

So Vo decided to do something about it.

She started collecting the life stories of first-generation Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California as a way to preserve this much-neglected history. This year, her "Viet Stories: Vietnamese American Oral History Project" at UC Irvine is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

"It's important to tell the stories that have been erased from the history books," Vo said.

Vo developed the idea for "Viet Stories" from the Vietnamese American community itself. After she began working for UCI in 2000, she would go to events in Orange County's Little Saigon where people would suggest that she start an oral history project.

"You should be collecting our history," Vo recalled them saying. "So many in the community are passing away, and once they pass away we will lose their stories."

It took her more than a decade to collect the necessary funding and institutional support, and in 2012, "Viet Stories" was launched to collect, translate, transcribe and digitize the oral histories of everyday Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California.

One of Vo's biggest concerns starting off was whether people would participate.

"The war was very difficult, being a refugee and the post-war period were very difficult, and many families didn't talk about it," she said. "And they didn't tell their family members, so we weren't sure that they would be willing to tell their stories.

"But what we realized is that the time is right. There are so many in that first generation who want to tell their stories to their children and grandchildren, about what happened to them, what they did to survive, who they were — and they wanted to leave some sort of legacy."

The project currently has 450 stories, more than 180 of which are fully digitized and available to the public online.

The Vietnamese migrants tell of not finding a very welcoming United States, with Americans having mixed feelings about the war itself, and their dispersal across the 50 states left many families feeling isolated. Leaving so much of their lives behind, enduring sometimes arduous ocean journeys, and having to start over again in a new country where they did not speak the language or understand the culture left many stunned.

On the other hand, even amid great challenges, many maintained hope.

"One of my memories was when our boat was damaged [during their escape], and we were on an island where we were fixing the boat," said Jack Toan, who was 9 when his family fled Vietnam in 1979. "I was laying out in the open with my dad, and I remember him telling me, 'When we go to America you'll have the opportunity to go to college and be a doctor, dentist, lawyer — whatever you want.'

"The expectations of these [Vietnamese] parents was to find a better life. And that's what they held on to as they left the country."

Toan's family initially settled in South Carolina, where, as the only Vietnamese family in town, they faced threats of violence from their neighbors.

"The pastor of the church that was responsible for bringing my parents to the United States shared with me that when we first arrived, the congregation took turns patrolling our home because there were elements in the community that didn't want us there, and he was concerned for our safety," said Toan, whose family later moved to California.

"When this project came up, it was an opportunity for me to tell the story of where my family came from, and to leave a trail for my children to know where they came from and to understand what their identity was," said Toan, a community affairs director for Wells Fargo, which recently started a $50,000 matching grant to help support Viet Stories.

What stands out to Vo is the diversity of the Vietnamese American experience.

"Oftentimes we're framed as just boat people, refugees," she said. "But what we realized is the incredible diversity of the population."

As she explained, many came to the U.S. as students, diplomats, military members and war brides before the 1975 fall of Saigon. After the war, hundreds of thousands more came as refugees. She also discovered ethnic diversity in the community, including individuals who are ethnically Chinese, multiracial and adopted.

But all of their stories, Vo said, testify to the strength of the community.

"How people managed to survive during the war, how they found their way here, and what people were able to do to rebuild their lives from scratch. They're amazing stories of survival," she said. "To me, it's about the resilience of a community."

Toan agreed.

"Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, and when you look at the culture of Orange County, you can see the influence of the Vietnamese community, not only politically and culturally, but also economically," he said. "It's a case study on how an immigrant community can really contribute to society in America."

In addition to oral histories, Vo has also collected documents and artifacts, including high school diplomas from Vietnam; a chest X-ray proving that someone didn't have tuberculosis upon entering the United States; the single suitcase a family carried across the Pacific Ocean; the blanket someone received at the refugee camp at Camp Pendleton; and decades-old photographs of Little Saigon.

A spin-off of the original oral history project containing documents and artifacts is slated to be on display at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana this summer, and next year, at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda.

While "Viet Stories" focuses on the experiences of the older generation, Vo also sees part of her mission as reaching out to younger Vietnamese Americans.

"Many times the older generation will pass away and their children will throw their stuff away, like an old suitcase — throw it away — or a document they can't read," she said.

"So we're also trying to educate the community on what archives are about and why it's important to preserve them. We want to have the younger generations invested in this project for the future, because it's documenting their history as well."

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.

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