"They called us 'The Gooks of Hazard,'" a laughing Dang recalls. "At the time, I didn't know what it meant."
An acclaimed scholar with a milestone-loaded, seven-page résumé even though she left UC San Diego with a Ph.D. just five years ago, Dang is at the forefront of collecting and preserving stories about the Vietnamese American experience.
Dang, who was born in a poor Mekong Delta village called Tra Vinh, is the lead researcher/project coordinator for the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine, and she knows her mission is combating a lingering problem. Far too often, Vietnamese immigrants are stereotyped in the media as anti-communist fanatics, or—perhaps worse—in inane Hollywood action flicks as mumbling bumpkins. "Our community is diverse," the Garden Grove resident and Scripps College grad says. "I really want to show that."
Dang and her students have been busy finding immigrants willing to share their life experiences. The criteria are simple: be a Vietnamese American who is at least 30 years old and lives in Southern California. Audio-recorded interviews began in January 2012, and the group has already collected "life stories"—some sad, some hilarious—from 107 individuals. The public and future historians can access the audio files online (at sites.uci.edu/vaohp) or visit the university's Southeast Asian Archives to see transcripts in English and Vietnamese.
The project, which is funded in part by Southern California Edison and Wells Fargo Bank, faces two major hurdles. Older-generation immigrants are often reluctant to talk about painful memories such as those caused by the war. But even more problematic is that Dang is in a race against the clock: Each day, older refugees pass away. That further motivates the scholar and her students to find them.
"There are so many awe-inspiring stories," says Dang. "We don't want to permanently lose them."