500 Voices & Asian Voice Radio

Last summer, I was again in Austin, Texas, attempting to make things happen with my music career. I had done a short tour in July, driving up to Chicago, stopping off at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma, down to the hot-pocket that is Houston in the middle of a Texas summer – far too many miles to play a few shows in scattered destinations in uncomfortably warm places. In light of my own endeavors at “voice” and “voicing”, I encountered others also determined to make – not just their own – but the voices of others heard. In this post, I’ll focus on those others’ efforts of Voice.

Back in Austin, I stayed at different friends’ houses. It was a between-places summer, hauling my son and our cat into various temporary homes to take refuge in friends’ air-conditioning. One of the places we stayed was with a woman who is one of my mother’s best friends from her Saigon days, and something of an aunt to me, who lives in a big house near Lake Travis that her husband built, even importing slabs of marble from Vietnam. The type of house that has columns at its front entrance, lion statues, a fountain. Theirs is a hard-earned opulence, a hard-won American immigrant success story.

My mother’s friend is Nancy Bui, president of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to record and archive the stories of Vietnamese-Americans and our many varied passages to the States. (At one time, in her garage, she had stacks of boxes all containing paperwork – all the red tape and bureaucracy – involved in the sponsoring over of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese emigres to the States; amongst these somewhere, she pointed out to me, were my own biological father’s papers – which had been arranged, wrangled, and pushed through by an organization that helped to find asylum for former political prisoners.) And though this perspective on the process may strike me as an oddly dry, mechanistic rendition of what “heroism” entails – the battles fought bureaucratically, logistically, in the invisible mazes of “the system” (both American and Vietnamese) – I recognize that it is important work. Letters written, forms filed, phone calls made, contacts and associations claimed and confirmed, in each of our cases (for those of us born in another country) there is likely somewhere a file of paperwork that documented and approved our passages to the West.

VAHF’s mission is to preserve – to make an official record – of the heritage that is evidenced by such a passage, the American immigrant’s passage. The heritage – and thus the identity – being forged here is that of the Vietnamese-American: of “Americans of Vietnamese descent,” as the VAHF website pointedly establishes. An identity that was in fact birthed on April 30, 1975, with the Fall of Saigon and the beginning of the South Vietnamese exodus out of Vietnam. It is the identity of those cast out of the physical geography of Vietnam, left to contend with the dialectics of identity — an amorphous identity, then, a diasporic one, with boundaries that would continue to shift and shape-shift over the following decades.

The issue of identity is an ongoing dialogue, but I won’t go into it further here. I will focus instead just on the endeavors of “voicing” that a couple other people I know are shepherding; and let those “voices” speak on the topic. The first is the following:

VAHF is undergoing a project to document “500 Oral Histories” of courageous, remarkable accounts of the Vietnamese-American passage. These “voices” will be documented on film and in writing, and will when completed stand as an official and readily accessible archive for future generations curious about the post-war Vietnamese-American origin story.

A brief preview of the VAHF project can be viewed here in a film trailer made by Vietnamese-American filmmakers Eric and Kristine Pham: The 500 Oral History Project.

I think it is worth viewing and contemplating how we present the narrative of our becoming Vietnamese-American. How out of scenes of desperation and vulnerability, we can glean the positive aspects of our story: survival, the poignancy of fragility, the generosity of others, reception, new possibilities.

The second endeavor of “voicing” I want to speak of has its seed here:

Also last summer while I stayed at Nancy Bui’s house, I ran into a woman from Houston, An Vu Duong, who was also staying at Nancy’s house as she had come to Austin to take her bar exams to become a lawyer. I remember one evening in particular, when I came into the kitchen and An was there, and we began to talk. I told her about my work, and she told me about her work. I was struck by her energy, radiating a very certain grace and strength, and by her intelligence and convictions. We talked about our children, and about education, and the ways in which we have wanted education to be more conducive to the nurturing of their creative and unique persons, and we talked of the importance of art and the paradoxical difficulty of making a career out of art in a profit-driven society and era. Her suggestion was that it should be possible to influence consumers in such a way that they might feel just as inclined to go out and spend money on the experience of art/culture as they might to spend it on material products. Our conversation was a probing and inspiring one in which I felt myself encountering a very conscientious intellect and consciousness. I remember that the sun was going down, the light fading from the windows, and still we continued to stand there, talking about art and education and society and the futures of our children and the hope of positive changes, in the slowly darkening kitchen of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation founder’s home.

(& it strikes me that we end up in the places we find ourselves seemingly by random, yet there is purpose to our every gesture and encounter, our conversations, the slivers of message and reminder we might inadvertently or eagerly pass between us. That we are derived out of a common but unique set of originating circumstances; and everywhere we go we inescapably carry with us the subtle mission wrought in the destiny of our identities’ origins.)

Just recently, I heard from An again about her new venture. She has just launched Asian Voice Radio, based in Houston, all English-language programming from an Asian-American perspective, focusing on all things Asian-Americana. Asian Voice Radio pilots live on KREH 900AM at 7pm (Central Time) 7 days a week. There is a “Listen Live” online streaming feature easily accessible from their website.

Both of these ventures of “voice” are new, and promote the furthering and further discussion of what the Vietnamese-American identity is and can be. I think they are worth giving a listen to.

The 500 Oral History Project (by the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation)

Asian Voice Radio

Dao Strom

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