The Vietnamese American Experience class at UCI, taught in conjunction with the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, has read Dr. Nhi T. Lieu’s new book, The American Dream in Vietnamese (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Dr. Lieu is Assistant Professor of American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Although currently a Texan, she originally hails from Southern California and is well-versed in the history, politics, and culture of the Vietnamese American community here.
This important new scholarship on the production and negotiations of Vietnamese American identity through popular culture is relevant to the training of future oral historians who work with and within the Vietnamese American community. The course contextualizes Vietnamese American experiences through war, migration, resettlement, community politics, and the ongoing struggle over representation. Students are learning to appreciate the myriad ways that historically marginalized groups vie for spaces to articulate their identities and create a sense of belonging.
Popular cultural forms have been one of those under-examined sites where groups can articulate desires (often contradictory and conflicting) and imagine a collective future. Professor Lieu’s talk on Monday, February 6, 2012 at UCI further expanded on the significance of looking to popular culture as a space to understand the formation of Vietnamese American identity and community over the past three decades. Her work helps us see the deep entanglement of politics and the economy with culture. Yes, culture matters, she argues. We should be attentive to the ways in which our desires are conditioned by our consumption of “seemingly trivial” entertainment, how our memories are molded through nostalgic longing for a home we can never return to, how our futures can be shaped by the narratives we repeat over and over in our music, dance, fashion. She examines Paris by Night–the ubiquitous Vietnamese American (diasporic) videos that now number well over 100 in the series. She examines áo dài beauty pageants. Her book is a must-read for those seeking a nuanced analysis of the role of culture in shaping identity and community for Vietnamese Americans.
As Professor Lieu pushes us to think deeply about the “work” of popular culture, the VAOHP is also pushing for a deeper appreciation of oral history as a site that is also viable for exploring the diversity of Vietnamese American experiences. The goal is the same really–to creatively challenge existing regimes of knowledge about Vietnamese Americans, to explore Vietnamese America in all its complexities and contradictions to that we can collectively imagine a future full of possibilities.