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.
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.
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.
~Thuy Vo Dang