OC REGISTER | DEC. 22, 2015 | BY TOM BERG / STAFF WRITER
One display case features an old wool blanket. Another has a chest X-ray.
In some ways, the exhibits that Linda Trinh Vo and her team assembled on the third floor of the Old Orange County Courthouse seem rather ordinary. But together, they become extraordinary.
Vo stops at a glass case holding a pair of 40-year-old Levi’s.
“Those jeans represent a really difficult journey,” says Vo, a UCI professor of Asian American Studies.
And that is the point of this exhibit, called “Vietnamese Focus: Generations of Stories,” which weaves oral histories, photographs and artifacts into a powerful story about coming to America and building a new life.
“We wanted an exhibit that shows the hardships that Vietnamese refugees faced and their contributions to America,” Vo says.
About Linda Trinh Vo
Biggest challenge: “Being an Asian American woman professor at a university, and trying to encourage the university to connect with ethnically and racially diverse communities in Orange County.”
Work philosophy: “I found great mentors along the way. I give back by mentoring others, and through that process I’ve learned a lot.”
Can’t do without: Sunshine and the ocean.
What’s next: “I’m close to publishing a book on Asian Americans and race relations in California.”
Forty years after the fall of Saigon, Vo has done that with a powerful exhibit that shows the world – and the Vietnamese American community itself – just how much these immigrants have accomplished.
“People walk through with tears in their eyes,” she says, “saying how proud they are and how touched they are.”
Ask Vo how the project came together, and she’ll tell you that a year ago, she didn’t have the photos, artifacts, artwork, funds or even a place to house it all.
All she had was a dream.
“Dream big,” Vo likes to say.
It’s the story of her life.
As a young girl, she lived in a thatched hut in the Mekong Delta, with no plumbing, no electricity and dirt floors.
“I think back on that,” she says. “Now I’m a professor at a major research institution. And I realize I’m very privileged that I had that opportunity and luck to end up where I am.”
That’s what drives her.
Her family came to California in 1979, and her mom ran a small Asian market in a rundown strip mall in the Inland Empire.
“I never felt like I fit in,” Vo says.
It wasn’t until graduate school at UC San Diego in the 1990s that she discovered Asian American studies. At the time, the field focused on Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Philippine and Asian Indian cultures. It was as if Vietnamese Americans had no history and no value.
That oversight led to a lifelong study of her own culture.
In 2000, Vo came to UCI and immediately began collecting personal stories – stories that couldn’t be found in any history book.
She dreamed of creating an oral history project, but it wasn’t until 2011 that she found the backing. Her original goal was 100 interviews. The Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UCI now has more than 300 interviews, with more than 150 available online.
“The first generation is getting older, and once they pass away, their stories and our history will disappear,” Vo says. “If we can collect these stories now, we really can tell our history from our perspective.”
As the oral history project grew, so did its catalog of photographs and other documents. These led Vo to an even bigger dream: an exhibit to bring this story to the public.
But how could she pull that off?
In 2015, Vo teamed up with UCI colleagues Tram Le and Thuy Vo Dang to publish the book “Vietnamese in Orange County.”
“We wanted to do an exhibit, but we had no space,” Vo says. “I thought: ‘In a couple years.’”
Then, out of the blue, a space opened up. Orange County Parks wanted an exhibit that reflected the county’s diversity. Could Vo and her colleagues open in six months?
Vo and co-curator Tram Le spent four months working around the clock to create an exhibit with posters, panels, historic photographs from the Register and elsewhere, videos, art displays, memorials, diaries, clothes and other memorabilia from migrants and refugees.
“Tram stayed at my house for weeks at a time because we’d work till 3 or 4 in the morning, then get up at 9 a.m. to go to meetings,” Vo says.
They assembled a team that included artist Trinh Mai and designer James Dinh.
Display cases hold items that refugees carried on their journeys to America: small suitcases that held all their worldly belongings; military blankets they received at Camp Pendleton; tuberculosis X-rays required to enter the country.
Which brings us back to those Levi’s.
Lam Thanh Nguyen bought the jeans in Vietnam after being imprisoned in a “re-education” camp. In 1987, he wore them on his trek through Cambodia to escape by boat. Once here, he never wore the jeans again.
One art installation reproduces a hand-drawn map that sailor Dung Van Tran used to pilot 84 refugees to Malaysia aboard a 45-foot boat. They were attacked by pirates four times, but all 84 refugees survived.
“It’s so emblematic of the collective experience,” Little Saigon physician Mai-Phuong Nguyen says of the exhibit. “People got on boats and threw caution to the wind, just having faith they’d land somewhere – and that anywhere was better than communist Vietnam.”
BEYOND ORANGE COUNTY
After the exhibit ends in February, Vo plans to take it on the road, to galleries, universities and museums around the nation.
“We’re in conversation about that now,” she says.
She has even bigger plans, too. Why?
“As a Vietnamese American, you always feel you’re an outsider because you have no history in this country,” she says. “That was my experience, and I see it in so many of my students. Many are in denial of their history because all you see are war images where the Vietnamese are seen as the enemy.”
The exhibit is intended to bring perspective to non-Vietnamese, as well.
“So many of the problems we face in society come from a lack of knowledge about other people,” she says. “That leads to reactions we see today – prejudice and acts of racial discrimination.”
In that regard, the exhibit sheds light on a modern-day crisis: Syrian war refugees. Vo sees a strong parallel between them and the Vietnamese refugees of 40 years ago.
“In 1975, the Vietnamese refugees were not wanted either,” she says. “The U.S. had also fought a war there. Who knew who was the enemy? They were suspect and unwanted.”
Exhibit co-curator Tram Le puts it this way:
“Because we were saved, we have to reach out and do the same for these people who are also facing civil war and have to leave. It’s almost our duty as former refugees.”
Vo has two more dreams for the exhibit: One is to produce a documentary. The other is to find a permanent home, ideally in Little Saigon.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” she says. “That’s dreaming big.”
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