Jade Hidle: Living History at VAOHP’s Vietnamese Focus Exhibit

diaCRITIC Jade Hidle visits the Vietnamese Focus: Generation of Stories exhibition, created by UC Irvine’s Vietnamese Oral History Project. This immersive exhibit features photographs, videos, documents, artifacts, mixed media artworks, and more to tell the ever-evolving stories of Vietnamese refugees past and present.

When I was a kid my dad often took me to museums on my weekends with him. One of the most memorable was a travelling exhibit about the Titanic. As Louis C.K. states in his bit about the white privilege of time travel, my dad could safely and leisurely tour histories of the past. My Vietnamese refugee mom, on the other hand, has always been running from and with the past that bleeds into the present, often miring her—us—in its ebb and flow of painful memories. Being raised in this folding timeline instills in me a great reverence for the power of ghosts, and I walked through that Titanic exhibit fearing that an unrested spirit of a poor Irish child would resurrect from a waterlogged shoe and follow me home. Ultimately, museum trips with my dad were about what was and life as my mother’s daughter is about living history.

Capturing living history is no easy feat. But there is a current exhibition that does it beautifully. Emerging from a partnership between OC Parks and UC Irvine’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP), the free Vietnamese Focus: Generations of Stories exhibit is featured at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana now through February 2016. The exhibit will then move to UCI for the month of March. If you would like to donate to the VAOHP, the exhibit will be able to travel across the country. Let me give you a glimpse of the wonderful work you would be supporting.

Vietnamese Focus

Walking into the stately old civic building you get to pass the happy courthouse matters—marriages and passports, the line for which is made up of people smiling with possibility. Up the stairs, the entrance to the exhibit is winged by glass cases displaying artist Trinh Mai’s mixed media installations. “Mixed media,” though, does no adequately describe the various ways in which Mai roots the intangible currents of loss and trauma in tactile pieces of art. In addition to her personal pieces about family, the centerpiece to the exhibit is a cluster of white fabric strips, larger versions of those worn in mourning, upon which Mai inked photos of departed Vietnamese refugees and typed, inkless, their letters, rendering their words ghostly impressions more felt than seen. The effect is haunting and moving.

Trinh Mai's moving installation
Trinh Mai’s moving installation

Orbiting Mai’s suspended centerpiece are wall displays breaking down the diverse histories and cultures of Vietnamese Americans, cases of personal items, and banners showcasing select contributors to the VAOHP and the Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center (OC&SEAA). As an educator, I commend the interactive components for younger attendees to actively learn about the history. Most notably, the exhibit features a plethora of photographs from the OCSEAA, The Orange County Register, and individual contributions; many of the pictures provide candid glimpses into everyday life, spotlighting the importance of the everyday experiences, not just public personas on which many museums tend to focus. The wealth and breadth of these images and stories were curated by Linda Trinh Vo and Tram Le from the Department of Asian American Studies at UCI. I had the distinct pleasure to speak to Vo, Le, and Mai, whose collective curatorial work promised you an enlightening and stirring museum experience.

Vietnamese Focus Exhibit Space

In my conversation with these three inspiring women, they explained to me that the purpose of the translating parts of the VAOHP into exhibit form is to stress the importance of stories. To the community, Le stressed, “Your story is important. You are a part of history.” Indeed, the VAOHP offers anyone and everyone the opportunity to contribute their own stories to the archive. Learn more here. Vo emphasized that celebrating the importance of remembered stories and remaining artifacts outweighs the regret and loss of all that was destroyed during the war and flight to the U.S. While what is not on display tells a significant story in its absence, what remains are stories of survival.

The focus on the ordinary person individual is one of the most admirable aspects to the exhibit because it shows they are extraordinary. The exhibit does well to represent the diversity within the community called Vietnamese Americans that, as Vo points out, is often misperceived as a “monolithic” mass, as if we were all boat people who arrived in ’75. Indeed, the narratives reflect a range in generation, socioeconomic status, gender, religions, and ethnic makeup. As a mixed-race Vietnamese American, I was comforted to see that multiracial faces and voices were included in the exhibit and not relegated to the margins or a separate space, as has often been done in the construction of history. Vietnamese Focus is inclusive in its storytelling and community-building. In doing so, the exhibit underscores that “Vietnamese American” means so many different things to different people.

In dissolving stereotypes, the exhibit is both educational and healing. In a world where “refugee” has recently been deployed as a dirty, dangerous word, Vietnamese Focus reminds us that “sharing stories is part of the healing process” (Mai) because for many “war is ongoing” (Le). Curator Linda Vo stressed the “sense of urgency” in opening the exhibit now, not only to commemorate the legacies of war for the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, but because the first generation of Vietnamese refugees is beginning to pass away and their stories need to be shared with younger generations within and beyond the Vietnamese American community. As Mai stated, the exhibit is an opportunity to “celebrate what we’ve built together.”

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Indeed, when I first attended the exhibit for the Open House in August, the space was full and lively—kids played with the interactive components of the exhibit, the featured oral historians proudly posing next to their photographs, and everyone nodding in understanding and smiling in togetherness. This was truly a celebratory, communal experience.

Yet, my altogether different second visit was an equally resonant experience. On a Thursday morning the week before Christmas, I got to experience the images and stories on my own. This quiet solitude provided a much-needed opportunity for personal reflection. Since my bà ngoại (maternal grandmother) passed away this summer, I have often felt adrift from the culture and history of our family that she embodied. Save for her occasional visits to me in dreams with her smile and dance, my bà ngoại is surely livin’ it up in her new life and I am here. I am here struggling to carve out of the American life that she fought so hard to give us the space and time for the food, language, stories, prayer, and fuck-you-up survivor’s attitude that she imparted to me. It is that constellation of culture that is my individual, subjective understanding of what it means to be Vietnamese. Standing in that exhibit witnessing others’ lives through stories and photographs, I was struck by how we are all different yet connected. I thought “I have that!” or “My family too.” And “That’s totally like my uncle.” I was gratefully able to submit my late bà ngoại’s collection of hundreds of videos to the VAOHP archive, and she is now a part of this growing body of history and memory.

Though my grandmother is gone I have these other survivors, strangers-but-not-strangers to comfort me in moments of perceived drift. And there are the three remarkable women who curated this living history to look up to.

Photo credit KPCC
Photo credit KPCC

And I am a living history. I am my bà ngoại and we are all a part of each other.

My bà ngoại and me
My bà ngoại and me

If you are interested in learning more about this living history and/or contributing your own story, please visit the free Vietnamese Focus exhibit and donate to the VAOHP.


Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and a PhD in literature from UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review, Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.

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