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What We Gain from Sharing Stories

As children of refugees, most of us grew up with bedtime stories that often included vague depictions about our parents escaping by boat to another country from Vietnam, avoiding pirates, surviving on little, and always talking about how they came to the United States for a better life. Never a deep reflection but more of a story to enrapture kids with enough excitement to tire them out before bed. It’s not until we reach maturity that we start to think about the hidden meanings behind these stories, the trauma, the sacrifice, and the secret lives our families left behind. I share with you two brief stories of documenting oral history in my family. 

I feel like I didn’t think deeply about these stories until I joined the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU). It was here where I learned about the colonization of Vietnam by the French and the US, the disparities faced by VietAms (Vietnamese Americans), and the lasting impacts of intergenerational trauma. Learning about the nuances of the VietAm experience, I wanted to interview my dad and his brothers to learn about their experience coming to the US. Little did I know that this would be the first time the three brothers would be discussing their stories to one another so intimately. What started out as just another story, gradually turned into an emotional catharsis, leaving not only myself but everyone at the dinner table in tears.

 I remember asking my dad and my uncles one question, “If you had the choice to escape to the US again would you make the same decision?”

My dad replied, “I don’t think the sacrifice we had to make was worth coming to America.”

A sentiment shared by both my uncles. What I soon learned was that my dad and his brothers never had the chance to bring my ông nội (paternal grandfather) to America. He passed away from heart complications only a few years after my dad and his brothers escaped to the US.

How interesting is it that one decision can have such profound effects on the lives of others.

During the 2020 election, I served as a Fellow with the Progressive Vietnamese Organization (PIVOT) working alongside inspiring Vietnamese Americans organizing in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Working in Pennsylvania, I had countless opportunities to have political conversations with Vietnamese community members and learned how difficult it was for folks to make decisions or feel empowered to vote because they either did not know where to go or had never had anyone reach out to them about politics before. But one of the most pivotal moments (no pun intended) of that election year was telling my ông ngoại (maternal grandfather) about my foray into politics and learning that he actually served as the Deputy Governor of a province called Lâm Đồng, in Vietnam before escaping the country. Not only that, but he also just happens to be one of the Grandmasters of Vovinam or Việt Võ Đạo, a Vietnamese form of martial arts. What are the odds? Politics just happens to run in my blood and maybe I should have picked up Vovinam when I was a kid. 

Cuong Van Nguyen (my Ông ngoại) (from left to right) in 1984 speaking to Vietnamese community members in Oklahoma City, OK about Hội Việt Mỹ, him in 1964 training with Master Tran Ban Que in Vietnam, and in 2016 at the 8th World Congress for Vovinam in California.

Through my years of organizing and meeting other VietAms, I’ve learned that there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and stories to be shared. These stories are by no means easy to listen to, and often can be traumatic for some. However, I truly believe that maintaining continued dialogue with older generations and promoting the importance of oral histories is a necessary practice. As a Fellow again, this time with the Vietnamese Boat People organization, I’m excited by the prospects of reconnecting with my Vietnamese identity and learning about the narratives and shared experiences of other VietAms. I encourage you as a reader to think about how family stories have been important to you and your family. Maybe your uncle or aunt escaped with my dad and his brothers. Or maybe your second cousin on your mom’s side is a student in Vovinam. We’ll never know if we don’t start having these conversations. 


Vinh Dang is a Fellow with Vietnamese Boat People, an activist, startup cofounder, and researcher currently based in Philadelphia, PA. Connect with Vinh on Instagram or LinkedIn.


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