Evyn is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies. She also explores questions of history, memory, and refugeehood in her films.
I was introduced to Evyn through her writing on diaCRITICS, and I reached out to ask her for tips on conducting oral histories. We ended up hopping on a call and talked about her family’s journey to America, her research and motivation to become a college professor, and ways to preserve memories. Enjoy!
// Family Journey
My grandmother and my mom left Vietnam in April 1975. They went through Camp Pendleton and ended up resettling in California. So for most of my life, my grandmother lived with my parents, me, and my two younger siblings.
My dad is from the Philippines. He came over when he was seven. His family has a lot of ties to the US Navy. My parents met in undergrad in California, and then they moved back to Oceanside—so I grew up in Southern California.
// From college project to college professor
I went to Pomona College and was a History and Media Studies major. For one of my media studies projects, I made a film about my grandmother. She helped to raise me, but I realized I didn't know anything about her history, or her refugee story, or how she came to the US.
For the project, I asked her for photographs she had from Vietnam. The photos were a way to talk about where she was born, how she moved to the city from the countryside, what her life was like growing up, and to walk me through the decision to come to the US.
In our initial interview she talked about her oldest brother—a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. I didn't really know much about him or his story growing up. In retrospect, I think it was a very painful memory for my grandmother.
After the Vietnam War, he was one of a few soldiers publicly executed for refusing to surrender. That happened after a kangaroo trial in August of 1975, but because my grandmother left the country in April of 1975, she didn't find out about his death until much later.
I was very taken aback by her story, and it wasn't until I was going through the video footage that I realized I overlooked a side comment my grandmother made, “Oh, by the way, my brother is really famous—he's on the internet and on YouTube.” I remember typing his name into a Google search and being overwhelmed.
In these very patriotic South Vietnamese communities, my ông hai was a martyr figure.
I made a film about him to explore those dynamics, and then it became this question for me about the politics of history, and memory, and forgetting. Whose narrative of a war gets told? Whose doesn't? The Vietnam War is usually framed as Americans versus Vietnamese communists—but the South Vietnamese side is, often times, left out.
My desire to become a researcher and a college professor very much started in undergraduate studies around questions within my own family’s refugee history, and then I applied to a Ph.D program to expand on those questions to think about other refugee communities around the world.
My current research project primarily looks at Vietnamese refugees in Israel-Palestine as well as on the US territory of Guam. I'm really interested in thinking about refugee issues in relation to indigenous issues, and thinking about places where there are contested land claims.
How do refugees fit into spaces that are still actively fighting for decolonization or liberation? That's how I ended up here.
// Perspective on history
For me, culture is not divorced from history.
We usually think of history as something that is state organized—you need a nation state that has archives as institutions, they write the history books, and distribute them through schools. But history-writing has never been a neutral project.
Because the state of South Vietnam does not exist after 1975, the question becomes: how do stateless communities continue to organize their history?
I found that the community creatively turns to the internet as a way to preserve their memory—for example, blogs and YouTube. I think the internet provides more openings for people to get their stories out. But on the other hand, if you don’t know where to look, these stories will be re-silenced.
// Conducting oral histories
I teach my students to conduct oral histories with their own families because it was such a life-changing and moving experience for me.
What initially started as a class project—this thing I had to do—actually ended up helping me to facilitate what otherwise seemed like a daunting conversation to have with my grandmother. We grow up with our relatives, but there's not always that opportunity to sit down with them and have this serious conversation about their history or their life story. A class project gives people that structure to ask their parents or grandparents about their experiences.
When conducting an oral history, the goal is to allow people to narrate their story on their own terms. Ask open-ended questions and let them use their own vocabulary. Be respectful, but don't be afraid to ask people about sensitive topics. If the respondent doesn't want to talk about it, then they won't talk about it. But allow them to make that choice.
Regarding the next generation, I think the questions they will ask are going to be different. They will be several generations removed from those that initially came over from Vietnam.
What we can pass down to the next generation is how to talk about collective memories, how to think about our larger collective story, and how to shape our narrative.
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Do you have an experience you would like to contribute? We would be honored to hear it—send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.