Interview with Authors of Vietnamese in Orange County

The authors with their new book!
The authors with their new book!
Thuy Vo Dang

It's no big news that the flag of South Vietnam flies next to the American flag all across Little Saigon. In fact, Little Saigon is no real big news anymore, multipart Orange County Register series notwithstanding. But while the general public knows of the enclave, there's always more to the story.

In a new book called Vietnamese in Orange County, authors Thuy Vo Dang, Linda Trinh Vo, and Tram Le provide historical accounts and artifacts showing how the Vietnamese community has evolved in the county. The Vietnamese-American experience, they say, is far from binary.

How did this project start? What compelled you to write this book?

Linda Trinh Vo: Throughout the Vietnamese Oral History Project and the Southeast Asian Archive, we were collecting so many amazing photos and documents and we wanted to share them with the public in an accessible format. Although Arcadia Publishing has published many collections on Asian Americans, there were none on Vietnamese Americans. Given that Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, it was natural for us to focus on the county. We know that there are stereotypes and misperceptions that exist about Vietnamese Americans and we want to educate the public the diversity of our experiences, when and why we came to the U.S., how we contribute to this nation, and also the continuing hardships we face.

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Can you give me a brief background of how and why Vietnamese-Americans began migrating to Orange County?

Tram Le: After April 30, 1975, roughly 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed through Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. In addition to the temperate weather and affordable housing, it was natural that some of those who went through Camp Pendleton made their way to Orange County. Additionally, others who were sent to be resettled in other states heard about family members living in Orange County and moved to the area to reunite with them.

In the early 1980s, the huge influx of boat people refugees intersected with the boom of manufacturing of personal computers. Many of these companies worked out of industrial parks in OC and provided plenty of assembly jobs that did not require high levels of skills, including knowledge of English. This drew in more Vietnamese to the area looking for a job and a place to settle. With their steady income, they were able to rent or buy homes, raise their families, and apply for sponsorship for the rest of their family members who were still in Vietnam to come to the US and join them.

In your research, what did you learn were some of the major ways Vietnamese Americans have transformed the social, cultural, economic, and political life of Orange County in both the past and present?

Thuy Vo Dang: For starters, Vietnamese Americans have left a very visible imprint on the landscape of cities such as Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley. From individual home gardens to the big strip malls labeled boldly in Vietnamese, from the (somewhat permanent) freeway signs welcoming everyone to Little Saigon to the ephemeral campaign posters that line the avenues during any given election season--this is some of the easy evidence we can point to of Vietnamese American impact. But more than just leaving a mark on Orange County's landscape, Vietnamese Americans have become a political force in this region--we have cultivated more Vietnamese elected officials than anywhere else in the United States. In Orange County we are starting to see movement towards dual-language immersion programs in the K-12 level and expanded training in Vietnamese language, history, and culture in higher education. And nowhere is art more vibrant than here for overseas Vietnamese with the example of Viet Film Fest, an annual film festival highlighting Vietnamese stories from around the world. There's still much more work to be done in terms of advocating for resources for our community.

What are some common migration paths for Vietnamese Americans, and why were so many drawn to Orange County?

Linda Trinh Vo: Before 1975, there were a small number of Vietnamese warbrides/military brides, international brides, international students, and military personnel in the U.S. Over 120,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated in 1975, while boatpeople refugees came in larger waves starting in the late 1970s (many were ethnic Chinese Vietnamese), others came as adoptees (some multiracial) and South Vietnamese veterans and their families through the Humanitarian Operation.  

Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen: Coolest mayor in OC
Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen: Coolest mayor in OC

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Vietnamese American culture while writing this book?

Tram Le: We learned so much about the diversity of our community and that the history of people's migration varied greatly. We may also have heard about a particular religion or art form, but we did not know much about its history and practices. For example the practice of Hoahaoism as a religious tradition was introduced to us when a journalist sent us a photo of one of their ceremonies. Only one of the three co-authors even heard of it and none of us knew that the largest number of Hoahaoists living outside of Vietnam is in Santa Ana until we researched more information on this religion.

Even though the 3 co-authors have over 40 years of combined experience working in the community and teaching Vietnamese American history, we still had to do deeper research for each chapter in order to more fully represent the community. For example, we may have heard about a particular religion or art form, but we did not know much about its history and practices, especially when we have to write a caption for it.

We also surprised by how challenging it is to write such a book. With the publisher's parameters of a maximum of 220 photos and 18,000 words, it was more often than not very difficult to distill different subjects we wished to cover into a few photos, and in some cases, even one photo. Furthermore, we had to condense decades of history into few sentences to provide a context for the readers. Finally, with these limitations, it took a lot of discussion to decide what is most important to represent our community's history.

Can you tell me what the process of writing this book was like? How long did it take and what were some things you learned along the way?

Thuy Vo Dang: The book took us almost a year from the time we submitted a proposal until we sent in our final draft. This is relatively quick in book publishing and it was intense! The process was very collaborative in that Linda and Tram are with the Vietnamese American Oral History Project and Thuy is with the Southeast Asian Archive, both entities being extremely crucial for the images we gathered and the stories we wanted to tell about our community over the last 40 years. We pooled our resources, knowledge, research skills, and community contacts to generate content for this book. Sometimes we would work for twelve hours at a time in the library because we would get so engrossed in our discussions and the writing and editorial process! The book project pushed us to think of new, creative ways to discover images that the archive did not have with the dual-purpose of making selections for the book and growing the archive's records on our community. For example, we put on an all-day event called "Collecting Memories, Preserving History" in August 2014 to inform our community on best ways to preserve their own records and photos while also collecting new photos and documents for the book and archive. We learned that a visual history book that presents fewer than 220 photographs and fewer than 18,000 words is a great deal more challenging than people might think. We had to make every image and every word count! But the payoff is that we could produce a book that's accessible to a variety of people from K-12 students to academics and even non-English-speaking populations.

How has writing this book influenced your perception of your own culture?

Tram Le: Writing the book has given all three of us a deeper understanding of the complexity of our community. Although the representations in mainstream media tend to be almost binary (i.e. valedictorian vs. gangster, anti-communists vs. sympathizers, etc.), the Vietnamese are not a monolith and individuals can have mixed feelings about war, homeland issues, etc. nor are they victims who need rescuing. For 40 years our community has been cast with these limiting stereotypes, and this book will show how much more complex our community is.

What do you hope readers get out of this book?

Linda Trinh Vo: I hope that the first generation of refugees and immigrants recognize their stories in our book and recognizes that we want to honor the sacrifices they made to rebuild their lives, oftentimes under very difficult circumstances. It would be wonderful if the second and future generations also learn about Vietnamese American history, so they are proud to be Vietnamese American. For non-Vietnamese, it would be important for them to learn the war may have ended for Americans in 1975; however, for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, it did not bring them peace, but it was the beginning of new challenges and struggles. Ultimately, the Vietnamese came to America because America was in Vietnam first.

Email: khoang@ocweekly.com.

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