Interactive History: Generation of Stories

Last summer a group of Vietnamese American Oral History Project interns set out to interview residents of The Grove Senior Apartments in Garden Grove, California where well over half of the population are Vietnamese Americans.  In order to find narrators, they first had to be visible and credible. The opportunity presented itself for VAOHP to partner with a nonprofit organization called EngAGE. Here’s a short description of this organization:

“EngAGE is a nonprofit that takes a whole-person approach to creative and healthy aging by providing arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs to thousands of seniors living in affordable senior apartment communities in Southern California.”

EngAGE has had a presence in The Grove for some time, organizing events such as Senior Olympics and a talk story program that trained seniors to write about and share their life experiences. When I first heard about EngAGE, I knew that a partnership with them would be mutually beneficial. A senior resident, Mr. Anthony LeDuc, reached out to me and invited me to The Grove in May 2012. I met him and EngAGE representative, Nancy Goodhart.

A few weeks later the opportunity came by way of my students’ decision to apply for UC Irvine’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to conduct oral history interviews over the summer. The Grove already had a built-in population of people we could interview. The research team initially consisted of Howard Diep, Michelle Pham, Tram Vo, Viola Van, and Stephanie Wong. Over the course of the summer, we lost Stephanie to a grad program but we acquired two more interns: Chris Truong and An-Nhien Doan (a Goldenwest College student). We came up with the title for this project in The Grove—Interactive History: Vietnamese American Elders’ Stories. The name suggests that the making of history is an interactive process involving the story-teller and mediated by the listener across different generations. The Interactive History project forges a space in order to capture the stories of some seniors in The Grove, generating stories across generations.

The Opening Social Mixer on August 7, 2012 at The Grove Senior Apartments

Our Opening Social Mixer on August 7, 2012 was a success with the attendance of all the above named students, representatives of EngAGE and about 20 seniors living in The Grove. During this social mixer, we presented our objectives and stories of other Vietnamese Americans who have participated. This initial mixer helped us to recruit volunteer narrators.

Over the course of the summer and early fall, the VAOHP interns headed by Michelle Pham conducted interviews with the seniors. Their efforts culminated in a Closing Social Mixer on November 27, 2012 where the seniors who participated were presented with thank you gifts and EngAGE representatives Nancy Goodhart, Robin Hart, and Dr. Maureen Kellen-Taylor came to celebrate with the students and residents.

From left: 1. gifts for participants 2. narrators, EngAGE representatives Nancy Goodhart and Melly Morse, and VAOHP representatives Thuy Vo Dang, Michelle Pham, and Howard Diep 3. Michelle Pham presents narrators’ stories.

During the bilingual Enlish and Vietnamese presentation, one of the seniors Mr. Le Huu Khoan made a moving speech about his participation in the project. Mr. Le Huu Khoan was interviewed by Michelle Pham and he imparted his appreciation and his thoughtful feedback on how to improve future efforts to interview seniors at The Grove or other apartment communities similar to it. Below is an excerpt of his translated speech:

“Truthfully, during that conversation—yes, indeed a conversation—with Michelle over more than 5 hours, I recollected ‘My Life’ in full detail, including the joy and the sorrows, moments of happiness and those of pain, “lên voi và xuống chó” [an expression that means riding high such as on the back of an elephant and sinking low as to the level of dogs], successes and failures,  peace and danger,  good health and illness, luck and misfortune…and so on. One could say that: I was born in wartime, grew up and matured during wartime, participated in the “game” of war and ended up a prisoner of that war. One could say that what I shared can be a mirror reflecting many of the lives of seniors present here, the Vietnamese Americans in their 70s and 80s and up.”

Mr. Le Huu Khoan and his peers in The Grove have generously shared with the interns and with the world a snippet of their lives and we hope that this will inspire others to do the same.

Seniors mix and mingle at the Closing Social Mixer on November 27, 2012

~Thuy Vo Dang

VAOHP Community Reception: website launch and celebration

Last week VAOHP held a community reception at Van Lang Community Hall to celebrate the formal launch of their official website.  Along with the collective efforts of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF) based in Texas, VAOHP has made UC Irvine the new home of hundreds of Vietnamese life stories. Dr. Thuy Vo Dang along with Dr. Linda Trinh Vo served as the event’s masters of ceremonies. Along with a league of volunteers and research interns, the event was up and running in a matter of hours. Upon arrival guests were greeted at the entrance hall along with a nametag, those that participated as narrators had blue ribbons attached.  Once inside guests indulged in traditional Vietnamese finger foods and the moving art work of Trinh Thuy Mai. With volunteers replenishing the food table there wasn’t an empty belly nor a clean hand in sight. Speakers from UC Irvine and VAHF spoke of the importance of continuing such and endeavor.  As an added bonus the VAHF awarded Dr. Linda Trinh Vo and Dr. Thuy Vo Dang with plaques of accomplishment for all they have done for the Vietnamese community.

From left: VAOHP interns, the audience, Asian American Studies Department chair, Dr. Jim Lee, speaks, Wells Fargo representatives present VAOHP a giant check.

From my humble perspective, the milestones that VAOHP has made in a year were simply mind boggling. When I became a part of the project only a few months ago I was told that the goal of this project was to bridge the gap between academia and community. The overwhelming outpour of support made me feel that my efforts and the efforts of those around me were being recognized by the community. The highlight of the night came from an extremely generous grant from the Wells Fargo foundation.  Our little “grass roots” project has blossomed into this, might I say, movement.  I can already imagine years down the line more narrators, volunteers, and interns will be added on to the growing project and hundreds of stories might become thousands.   The idea of leaving a piece of ourselves and our experiences for our children and future generations is something that resonates within our community.  All too often during my interviews I heard how parents and grandparents want to tell their stories to their children but have trouble doing so for whatever reason, whether it’s a language barrier or the even the wrong time.  The purpose of having this public unveiling was to help the community recognize that we are a possible resource to overcome these obstacles.  With people becoming more reliant on technology for information access, the online repository is perfect way to eloquently illustrate the fruits of our labor.

Features at the community reception, from left: Denise Cao, Giana Nguyen, Trinh Mai

To view the oral histories launched through the UC Irvine Libraries’ Southeast Asian Archive, please visit:


Representatives of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation and the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, from left: Long Nguyen, Dung Vu Hoang, Linda Vo, Nancy Bui, Thuy Vo Dang, Thieu Dang.

~Michelle Le Pham

~photos by Christopher Truong

Come and join the VAOHP at the Little Saigon Community Reception!

Come and join us as we have some exciting news in tow!

We are pleased to announce that we will formally launch the Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP) at UC Irvine’s website whilst celebrating the tremendous efforts of all the narrators, students, community supporters, and volunteers at a Community Reception in Little Saigon!

Along with entertainment and refreshments, the evening will consist of distinguished guest speakers, spotlight on the presentation of the website – which will include multi-media stations for guests to browse the website! Trinh Mai will join us as the feature artist!

Come and join us on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 from 5:30-8:30pm in the Van Lang Community Hall in the city of Westminister on 14861 Moran Street!

The community reception is free and open to whomever would like to learn more about the project and see what the VAOHP is all about!

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our advisor, Dr. Thuy Vo Dang! And don’t forget to check out our Facebook page for other news about the VAOHP!

We would also like to give a huge thanks to our Co-sponsors and Co-organizers!

We hope to see you all there!

Come join us for an “Interactive History Social Mixer!”

This Tuesday, August 7, 2012, the VAOHP will partner up with the non-profit, EngAGE, and host an “Interactive History Social Mixer” at the Grove Senior Apartments in Garden Grove, CA! Come and learn about our project and meet our research interns from UC Irvine whom are running the summer program at the Grove!

Co-sponsored by: 

*The event is free and open to all, so please come and join us! Refreshments will be provided!

An oral history “triangle”

This past week, I was given the opportunity to transcribe two oral histories conducted by the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation. Although I have transcribed before, this particular task was rewarding because I was able to examine role-switching, various styles and methods in oral histories, and an oral history “triangle” so to speak.

At first I watched a video of Roger Le’s interview, conducted by Pham Quang Tuan. Previously I had already watched a video of Tiffany Le’s interview conducted by Roger, so it was a great surprise to see him in the narrator seat.  Since the video focused on Roger with Tuan’s voice in the background asking questions, I was intrigued by his calmness and quick response to questions. He was incredibly detailed, put a lot of thought into sharing stories, and had a lot to say.

Pham Quang Tuan interviews narrator, Roger Le

Pham Quang Tuan interviews narrator, Roger Le

At this point, I felt like a middle man between Roger Le, Pham Quang Tuan, and Tiffany Le. What I mean by this is that I was involved in an oral history “triangle.” I watched Roger Le interview Tiffany, I was watching Roger being interview by Tuan, and I was about to see a video of Pham being interviewed by Roger. Little did I know that it was essential to have skill, patience, and have mastered “role-switching” in order to be successful in oral histories.

Roger Le interviews narrator, Tiffany Le

Roger Le interviews narrator, Tiffany Le

So, how do you prepare to be an interviewer? How do you prepare to be a narrator? When watching Tuan’s interview conducted by Roger, he states that he wishes there was more time to train for the position, but that “it hasn’t been a challenge for me [him] so far” because he’s self-motivated. Similarly, Roger joined the VAHF as a technical director who worked on the website, and ended up being an interviewer as well. Roger and Tuan utilize different techniques in interviewing, which have been successful through many interviews. Yet, there is no “right” way to interview. From my point of view, to master the role of an interviewer, one must be a narrator first, to be in the hot-seat. From there on, practice is what makes perfect.

As a technical consultant, Roger came across interviewing this way:

“ I didn’t expect to interview as much, but it’s been a really eye-opening experience. I’m glad that I got the opportunity to do so, because when else can I travel across the United States interviewing some very prominent Vietnamese people.”

Overall, there is a diverse list of things that can be learned about oral histories. From watching this oral history “triangle” evolve and play both the narrator and interviewer roles, I was able to see how flexibility and determination make one successful in this field. Although Tuan and Roger both had little training in their roles, the influence and success they’ve had is more than extensive. They both have practiced and mastered their roles as interviewers, and have experienced being in the hot-seat themselves.

Roger Le interviews narrator, Pham Quang Tuan

Roger Le interviews narrator, Pham Quang Tuan

Before watching these videos, I experienced interviewing my dad myself, and watching Tiffany Le’s interview conducted by Roger. Yet after these interviews, I felt like I was in a position of role-switching. I felt like I knew both Roger and Tuan; after hearing their stories, being an outsider looking in, and pretending to be the narrator myself, I learned that oral histories is not an easy, but daunting task that can be greatly rewarding. A mixture of motivation, practice, and skill can make one very successful in oral histories, and I believe that anyone can bring eye-opening  style and technique to the table!


By Stephanie Wong

From Vietnam to Refugee Camp and America

When I first signed up for this project, I just wanted to be “behind the scenes.”  However, I had a chance to conduct my first interview with Mr. La Quoc Tam, and I found that I like it a lot.  We conducted this interview in a conference room of the Vien Dong Daily News, in Little Saigon.  I learned a lot, in this interview: the importance of education and the lives of Vietnamese people before, during, and after 1975.  Moreover, I learned more about the hardship that the earlier generations, “the boat people”, had gone through.  Tam is currently a senior scientist working in the laboratory for a vitamin company.  He is the middle child in a large family.  He and his family are known as “boat people”. His family was divided when they left Vietnam.  As a result of having such a large family, his parents had to separate their children into two or three groups to go to the refugee camps.  His father let his older brothers and sisters go first, and Tam and his younger siblings left a couple years later.  He also discussed about the destitution of his family and his mother’s struggle to provide for her children, while his father was in a reform prison.  When asked if he could share some of his childhood memories in Vietnam, he said: “the only thing I remember is being carefree and the happiness, which I shared with my friend at school.”

Tam and his family arrived California, but they did not settle there. He only moved to Southern California during recent years.  He and his older sibling worked hard to become United States citizens and to sponsor the rest of their family to come to America. With great emotion, Tam explained his feelings about sponsoring his family to the U.S.: “The joy to have one’s family whole again is indescribable.”  He also talked about the difficulty in adjusting to the new environment due to the language barrier.  After high school, Tam attended a four year college and pursued an engineering major.  His reason for choosing engineering as his major was because of the job market’s demand for this field at the time.  He thought that people of his generation chose to study a major based on its job availabilities in the market, rather than study anything out of passion.  He said, “I needed to have a job right after I finished school, because I need to help my family.”  He discussed the importance of education to the Vietnamese culture, and the difficulties, which older generations are facing, of preserving and passing down the Vietnamese culture to their children and grandchildren.  He is facing the same obstacle with his two daughters; however, he found that Little Saigon has helped him introduce the Vietnamese culture to them.  He said, “Now, they start to accept the culture more and willing to ask more about it.”  The VAOHP is designed to preserve and pass on Vietnamese-American’s culture.

La Quoc Tam in front of Vien Dong Daily News. Right: a younger La Quoc Tam

La Quoc Tam in front of Vien Dong Daily News. Right: a younger La Quoc Tam

I ask Tam to describe some characteristics of Vietnamese culture and its people, he said: “The best thing about Vietnamese is respect.  We respect our elderly and superior.  We are also diligent workers.”


UCI student, Tram Vo, interviewing La Quoc Tam at Vien Dong Daily News

UCI student, Tram Vo, interviewing La Quoc Tam at Vien Dong Daily News

By Tram Vo


Please check back for updates on the UCI Libraries’ website with full audio interviews, photos, and transcripts!

Understanding our parents’ stories and trauma

This past February, I didn’t think I would have anyone to interview for the Vietnamese American Oral History Project. I had realized that if I asked my aunt to narrate her life story, I’d spend months past the deadline trying to transcribe the interview because she spoke Vietnamese and I didn’t. But while cleaning out my wallet, I stumbled upon a business card for Bao Nguyen, Vice President of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education, and I realized that he was the same Bao Nguyen that spoke in a 2004 documentary about Little Saigon, Saigon, USA, which I watched in my Vietnamese American Experience class a week earlier. I had met him when he visited the Asian Pacific Student Association (APSA) at UC Irvine during one of our general meetings in January, having been the Advocacy Chair of APSA himself in the early 2000s. I wasn’t sure if he’d have enough time to set aside for an interview, but when I contacted him, he turned out to be very excited to work with me.]

I met him at his home in the early noon on Presidents Day. We sat at his dining room table to conduct the interview, and I noticed that behind him on the wall hung an American flag, next to which stood a shelf lined with books ranging from Toni Morrison novels to readings on religion. We went over some paperwork and then finally started what would turn out to be a two-hour interview.

Narrator, Bao Nguyen

Narrator, Bao Nguyen

We related on a lot of different topics. As APSA’s Advocacy Intern, I admired the work he did as APSA’s Advocacy Chair when he went to UCI. He drew from his own experiences as a Vietnamese refugee to fuel the passion for his activism. This was apparent, for example, when he organized with other student to attend a rally in Little Saigon for John McCain, who was running for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2000 elections. They sought to protest his unapologetic use of the racial slur “gook” during his campaign and to educate others on why the word was inappropriate. Bao said in his interview,

As Asian Americans and Vietnamese American young people, we understand the trauma very directly because those people that suffered trauma are very much our parents. So, we weren’t there to say, “John McCain…your experiences being tortured are not legitimate.” We weren’t there to say that…In fact, we experienced that very indirectly through our parents…We were there because as Vietnamese Americans and as young people growing up inAmerica, we’ve been attacked with those racial slurs. We’ve been called gooks. We’ve been called chinks and whatnot.

McCain’s Vietnamese supporters, however, did not receive the protest very well. “No, ‘gook’ means communist!” one of them shouted to Bao and his friends, who were subsequently attacked and pushed off onto the street. It was an emotional experience for Bao, especially considering that those who threatened him and his friends had the “faces of our parents and our grandparents.” The Republican Party, with their strong anti-communist rhetoric, had gained the trust of many Vietnamese refugees shortly after they arrived in the States, so not supporting a Republican candidate, I believe, could be equated with supporting communism. Bao told me that one of the most valuable lessons he learned from the experience was that “we really have to be sensitive towards everyone’s experience, especially if it’s a traumatic experience.”

The story of Bao’s protest at the McCain rally resonated with me deeply. The lesson he learned from the protest 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 can shape the activism work that I do. As the son of refugee parents, I hope to find such an understanding weaved within the stories of the community and the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, and I hope that any future generations can do the same.


- Brian Dinh

UCI student feels an even greater connection to her father after interview process

Before taking last quarter’s class on Vietnamese American Experience, my understanding of Vietnamese American history was limited to the anecdotes shared by my family, visits to Little Saigon, and history taught in school. By conducting an oral history project on my father and engaging in thoughtful conversations with classmates throughout class, I was able to see a common thread amongst Vietnamese Americans – they never forget their homeland, but have built a life in America.

Narrator, Stephanie Wong's father

Narrator, Stephanie Wong's father

The same goes for my father. Although he was the first person that came to mind for my project, he objected at first. He has always been an open book, but I think he just didn’t want to be interviewed. After explaining to him that I wanted to preserve his history and share his story, he agreed. I didn’t really know what to expect from the oral history project, or how the interview was going to play out. If you should listen to the first minutes of the interview audio file, you might be able to tell that I’m hesitant and nervous at points. It gets better after though.

As the interview with my dad continued, I lost track of time. I became engaged in my father’s story; although I had heard bits and pieces before, I never was presented with a formal outline of his life. I was in awe of the struggles he encountered during the Vietnam War, his withstanding strength as he left his homeland, and the fact that he has been able to call America his home today. The interview lasted two hours, and although I bet it could have lasted for hours more, it was about 11:00pm when we ended.

Narrator, Stephanie Wong's father

Narrator, Stephanie Wong's father

The transcription process was probably the longest task aside from the interview, but it was my favorite. Playing back my father’s interview gave me an opportunity to really listen to my father’s reminisces. I was really proud of the interview, because I felt that my dad really opened up. I’ve always been close to my dad, but I felt a greater connection to him because I now knew more about his childhood and about his life in great detail. After all the proper documents were finished and edited, I decided to create a short video presentation to share with the class. Although I could have opted out for a less time-consuming presentation such as PowerPoint or a collage, I wanted to create a video because I wanted my peers to see my father’s interview visually. I planned to give my dad the video, but he didn’t want to see it because he said it was embarrassing. He still hasn’t seen it yet, and it’s been more than 4 weeks since I presented the video, but I plan on asking him to watch it soon!


- Stephanie Wong

“Bò Bía” = My Dad, and his Journey to Freedom

“BUB! Guess what?! You are going to help me get an A in my Vietnamese American Experience class this quarter!” That was exactly what I exclaimed to my dad when he came to pick me up from a long first week of winter quarter. It was only the first meeting of class, but I knew I had found my place. I knew I had found exactly what I had been looking for and what I had been longing. I had found it in Professor Vo Dang’s Soc Sci 178D Vietnamese American Experience class. It was obvious who I wanted my narrator to be for my oral history project – and that was my dad.

Growing up, my dad had always told us never to waste food because he knew exactly what it was like not having anything to eat. He told us to always try our best and to seize every opportunity that came our way. He told us that we could do anything we put our heart and mind to. My siblings and I always heard snippets of his life and what it was like growing up during the Vietnam War. It was not until taking Professor Vo Dang’s class was I able to really sit down with my dad and get the low-down of what happened to him during his escape.

Narrator, Hugo Van

Narrator, Hugo Van

My dad is very much a storyteller and every chance he gets, he will gladly sit down and talk about life, work, anything! However, when it came down to the actual project interview, he seemed a little apprehensive when I prepared the actual voice recorder and all the paperwork. He must have been intimidated by the professionalism of the equipment, along with paperwork I pulled out of my manila folder.

Once I pressed the red button on the recorder, everything started to flow. There were many laughs, many giggles, and also many moments of silence. The topics were heavy and I could tell from my dad’s body language that even though he was excited to really tell me his story, at the same time, it really seemed like he wanted to shield me (and my siblings) from the experiences he had gone through during his journey to freedom. We started of laughing with silly basic questions, and he was sitting up very proudly and speaking right into the voice recorder, but once we started to talk about post April 1975, I noticed that he was slumped in his chair at the dinner table and closing his eyes once in awhile to speak. This was when I had to physically move the voice recorder closer to him because his voice had lowered and quieted down since the hour before when we had started.

When he had felt that he had told me enough, it was perfect timing because our interview was over! I had a sense of proudness come over me because looking right at me was my own dad. He chased his own dream and his own freedom. I feel very proud to be his daughter and knowing that he had gone through so much to escape the perils of his country to provide a better future for his future children, it only motivates me more to work hard to achieve my own dreams. My dad always reminds my siblings and I that “hard work and dedication will get you places – ultimately, these two variables are the keys to success!” I live and breathe by this. The war was only the beginning, the real turmoil and hardship came after the war. However, all the refugees that made it, made it. Each and every one of them will have their own unique story. I am very fortunate enough to have a dad who wants his story to be known through his children and through future generations. Through the VAOHP, I was able to have my dad reveal the nitty gritty and these very experiences are the ones that made my dad who he is today. He is my “bò bía” (in Vietnamese, it essentially means “eggroll” – this is what my siblings and I have called him ever since we can remember), my bub, my dad, and my hero.

Hugo Van (center) with his family

Hugo Van (center) with his family

- Viola Van