Sunday, February 27, 2011

Northern Refugee

Interviewed MR. DANG NGUYEN on February 6, 2011 at his home in Louisville South End. Interviewed by Thao Tran, Ngoc Uyen Nguyen, and Tuan Anh Vu.

Our oral history journey took us three interviewers to a Sunday afternoon in South Louisville with Mr. Dang Nguyen, an eager storyteller. He seemed to be at the stage in his life where he has made peace with a lot of his past. His experience is unique to our collection in that his family migrated from North Vietnam to the western region of the country during the Vietnam War, under South Vietnamese government’s protection.

His family was granted land and supplies to farm and raise live stocks while provided his services to the military. He was accommodating in answering our questions, supplementing answers with dates and historical facts that not only were of anthropological and political significance, but also of interest to us young Vietnamese Americans—a generation so far removed from this time period. Mr. Dang shared both professional and personal stories. He shared details of his military training days and battlefield experience. He shared happy moments such as that of visitation days, when high school and college girls visited the soldiers on the base, as well as more somber ones.

He spoke of danger as a guaranteed part of war, “We were sitting around talking one day when a bomb fell and killed a comrade right in front of our eyes.” When asked how he coped with moments like those and managed to stay in action without letting the trauma damaged his morale, he replied “We all did what we had to, especially if you were a leader. I was in command of others and I had to show my men the importance of keeping my spirit strong.” Like many others, Mr. Dang also suffered the hardships of the Communist Vietnamese’s “reeducation camp,” though he gave few details of the experience.

He commented that the experience was difficult, but showed little emotions, not even a trace of bitterness. Instead, he seemed to have embraced the practicality of living in the present. In parting, he left us with the advice: hard work is the vehicle to one’s success in life. He elaborated on how his family, in following this work ethics—all the adults started working within a few months of immigrating to the U.S., has managed to do secure a stable, successful life for themselves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lan Young

Interviewed LAN YOUNG on November 29, 2010 at her home with the presence of her husband, JAMES YOUNG. Interviewed by Tuan Anh Vu and Kevin Tran.

*Interviewee requested that no photo be taken.

Most Vietnamese in America came after 1975, they were either part of that initial mass exodus out of Vietnam crossing oceans and mined-borders or they are of the second wave that came under the sponsorship of charity organizations or relatives already living in the States. Lan Young, a resident of Kentuckiana since the age of 23, is a rare exception in that she left Vietnam, by herself, in 1973, two years before the end of the war.

So when the VOH project team became aware of her, we jumped at the opportunity to get her story. Initially very reluctant, she was eventually convinced to participate in the project, partly due the gentle encouragement of her husband, James Young.

Outside of her work hours as a hairstylist, Mrs. Young spends much of her times sharing grandparent duties with her husband in their house in Jeffersonville, where gigantic traditional Vietnamese lacquered paintings and small Buddha statues compliment the oak dining table and the flushed cream colored sofas.

Judging from the house d├ęcor and her lingering Vietnamese accent that is coupled with an American southern twain, it is easy to see that despite having lived in America for more than half her life, she still retains her Vietnamese identity.

Before starting the interview, Mrs. Young made it known to us that she will not be divulging too much of her personal life, yet soon after we hit the record button, she was already telling us stories of family turbulence, how she had met her husband “through a steamed-bun”. Or how difficult life was when she had to drop out of school at the age of 16 to work to help feed her younger siblings after her father had passed away, how even at 13, she was already working at brick factory when not in school. Despite the physical hardship, she never stopped to pity herself as she felt that it was her life purpose to work for her family, especially for the education and future of her younger siblings. There was no time for herself or romance.

Yet, James and Lan managed to find each other and later settled in Kentucky. Her life before, during and after the war is filled with stories that are both humorous and sad about her family, her connection to Vietnam, and her amazing ability to cope with the most adverse of circumstances.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Louisville's Restauranteur

Interviewed HUONG TRAN on Oct. 14, 2010 at her home, which she calls a "free hotel." Interviewed by Khoa Le, Van Tran, Ngoc Uyen Nguyen, Tuan Anh Vu. Photographed by Frank Bui.

Mrs. Tran, affectionately known to many youths in the Vietnamese community as "co Huong" or auntie Huong, is a successful entrepreneur in Louisville noted for her famous vegetarian restaurant Zen Garden located on Frankfort Avenue. Crediting her positive stubbornness, trust in people, and self-imposed pressure to be a good Vietnamese immigrant ambassador as the ingredients to her success, she now enjoys a comfortable life of meditations in the morning, travels on impulse, and good company to her zen-like "free hotel" on the weekends.

Of course, like many immigrants featured in this project, she had to put in her time toiling towards financial success. She recounted with squint eye giggles the early days of coming home from an ice cream packaging factory job in tears from shock of the manual labor that she was not accustomed to as a daughter of a privileged family in Vietnam. Eventually prevailing over the emotional and cultural obstacles with diligence towards her work, she was soon rewarded an opportunity to pursue her "Vietnamese McDonald's" restaurant dream: The Eggroll Machine Restaurant. An inspiration from a simple hamburger lunch she had with her American sponsor at a downtown McDonald's. She shared with us her moment of eureka, "Hm, why serve them when they can serve themselves? It's so easy! (big laugh)". It was only the beginning of her many successful ventures.

Not only did she let in us into her stories of success as a business woman, she also shared with us her private sentiments towards Vietnam. Nostalgic for the good old days of community and human relationships, she confessed to having been disappointed on her return to Vietnam to find that economic progress of Vietnam has somehow regressed the human and communal integrity of the people. Which is why she remains in Louisville. She is someone who values human connectivity and community -- virtues that she senses Louisville still possesses. And like others immigrants who have succeed by the grace of kind Louisvillians, she wants to give back something to a city and people that have given her much of what she has today.

Co Houng is an optimist and with many wonderful stories of her early times in America. Like when her $200 car's entire engine caught on fire but she refused to junk the car for she thought it would be a waste of an entire car for just a broken engine. Or how she cried from her feeling of shame for having taken out a mortage because only the poor in Vietnam borrows. Fortunately, she was consoled by her neighbors that only good people with good credit can borrow in America. For some of us at the interview, these stories and many, many others were truly a cultural clash of comedy. At the end of the interview, we all walked away with a full stomach of delicious vegetarian food and a reinforced appreciation for the power of optimism, trust and hard work.