Opening up dialogue at Rice: VAOHP and the 500 Oral Histories Project represent!

In a panel called “Vietnamese Americans in the Global Diaspora 35 Years after the War” on February 17 , 2012 at Rice University, I had the opportunity to be on the same panel with writer Andrew Lam and my colleagues Nancy Bui, Stephen Klineberg, Long Le, and Linda Ho Peche. This was such a dynamic and exciting panel that drew a diverse audience, consisting of academics across disciplinary boundaries and community representatives from across Texas. I was delighted by the turnout on a late rainy Friday afternoon. Most of us who have organized these talks, panels, or workshops know that the combination of inclement weather and late Friday scheduling would usually mean a poor turnout. But this was not the case for our panel, fortunately. Beyond the packed room, the audience eagerly engaged in dialogue during the Q&A and then remained in animated conversations well after the panel ended into the dinner hours.

Photos courtesy of Mr. Tim Dang of Houston, TX
Photos courtesy of Mr. Tim Dang of Houston, TX

The panel was sponsored by the Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the Chao Center for Asian Studies, and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Organized by Dr. Kimberly Hoang, a fellow affiliated with all three centers, the panel was intended to raise awareness among the Rice University community about the presence and significance of Vietnamese American studies and community. It also highlighted ongoing efforts, at the institutional and grassroots level, to gather and preserve stories of Vietnamese Americans. What was perhaps most illuminating and productive, however, was the ensuing dialogue on the need to overcome community-university barriers in the effort to transform existing knowledge and the very process of knowledge-production about Vietnamese Americans.

Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams (2005) and East Eats West (2010) with Thuy Vo Dang
Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams (2005) and East Eats West (2010) with Thuy Vo Dang

Oral history has provided an opportunity and a challenge to this imperative to transform knowledge. For Vietnamese Americans, the stakes are quite high in preserving memories that have had no viable and sanctioned archive in the United States or Vietnam. The opportunity to build an archive for ourselves, to narrate our own stories, to  challenge the erasure of this history by dominant regimes of knowledge production (such as universities and the mainstream media) comes with the challenge of how to build an archive of stories that will not reiterate dominant, imposed tropes of victimization, model minority, or monolithic refugee politics. This is a larger question than any one individual or organization can tackle, thus when we have the opportunity to open up dialogue such as the case at Rice, we all benefit from the experience.

Working together to build an archive

This panel discussion has given us all the impetus to work harder and work more collaboratively.  This was a great opportunity for the VAOHP to meet with the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation’s president, Nancy Bui, and volunteer, Linda Ho Peche. The VAHF’s 500 Oral Histories Project has far exceeded their goal of gathering 500 oral histories and we at VAOHP are supporting their commendable effort by processing their Southern California interviews conducted in 2010. VAHF’s 500 Oral Histories is an incredible nation-wide effort that continues to gain momentum. In the fall, after the VAOHP officially launched, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with VAHF to work collaboratively in the interest of preserving stories of Vietnamese America.

Thuy Vo Dang (VAOHP), Nancy Bui (VAHF), and Linda Ho Peche (VAHF)
Thuy Vo Dang (VAOHP), Nancy Bui (VAHF), and Linda Ho Peche (VAHF)

We want to thank Kimberly Kay Hoang, who turned the idea for this panel into a reality!

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