1975: Saigon fell, a genocide resulting in an estimated 1.5-3 million deaths was ravaging Cambodia, and Laos remained a moonscape due to a secret American-led bombing campaign executed by the CIA.
In the 1980s, Southeast Asians (many of whom had been political prisoners and/or put in labor camps as a result of the Second Indochina War–or as Americans like to call it, the Vietnam War) escaped their respective countries. Of course, many landed in Orange County, which was the focus of a panel discussion last Friday at Cal State Fullerton.
"A group of 15 South Vietnamese students first arrived on campus in 1967. By the early 1980s, nearly a thousand Vietnamese students began arriving on campus," said Sheryl Fontaine, Dean of Cal State Fullerton's College of Humanities & Social Sciences at SEA Legacies: Commemorating 40 Years of Southeast Asian Diasporas, an event organized by CSUF Asian American Studies professors Dr. Eliza Noh and Dr. Tu-Uyen Nguyen and CSUF community members. "Throughout the decades, Cal State Fullerton remains an engaged part in the Vietnamese community."
40 years after the Vietnam War, Orange County's Southeast Asian community congregated at CSUF on March 6th to not only commemorate the survival of the war and its aftermath, but to encourage Southeast Asian-Americans across generations to reclaim their understanding of the war, tell and write their own stories of it, and attempt to understand what it means to be Southeast Asian in America. The event included panels featuring the directors of Southeast Asian oral history projects, local community organizations, Vietnamese American writers, and OC college students involved in Southeast Asian cultural clubs. A digital photo exhibit and performances were also part of the event.
"Each nation has chosen to tell a certain story about this war," said Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen of USC's English and American Studies & Ethnicity Departments, who was the event's keynote speaker. "But if we started to understand that Southeast Asian people here have insight into their history, we can understand it better."
Leakhena Nou, director of Cambodian Diaspora Victims' Participation Project, said that, for activists, tapping into the strength of community members who may not realize they have a voice is essential. "I always make it clear to them [the victims] that if you don't talk, someone will talk for you," she stated.
One problem, though, is that the trauma many first-generation Southeast Asian-Americans face is often too much to bear, making it difficult for them to speak about their experiences — even to their children.
"My parents were not comfortable talking about their time in the labor camps, or when my father was a political prisoner, until five years ago," says Chanida Phaengdara Potter, founder of a Lao diaspora project called Little Laos on the Prairie. Tram Le, associate director of UCI's Vietnamese American Oral History Project, had a similar experience: "My family is loud because we're from the southern part of Vietnam, but there are also a lot of silences," she said. "It wasn't until I was in graduate school when I finally asked my mom — as part of a school project, of course — how she came over here."
In Little Saigon, however, where anti-communist, first-generation Vietnamese-Americans are often found protesting in the streets, it's clear that they're not completely silent. "In the Vietnamese American community in Orange County, they protest — and it's not just because they're crazy," Tram Le explained. "It's because they didn't get to tell their stories. This is their platform to say that they fought for something – that they're not just victims."
On the student panel featuring students in organizations like Vietnamese Student Association and Cambodian Student Association, the conversation focused more on what it meant to grow up with a Southeast Asian-American background, which many argued is underexposed in mainstream media and even K-12 school curricula.
"Am I Vietnamese or American enough?" CSUF student Vincent Tran asked out loud during the panel. "There was a time where I didn't want to be Vietnamese because it made my life harder. But the moment I found people in the same situation as me, that inspired me to take ownership of my identity."