Vo on Visibility

She is the former chair of the department of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine, has published a book on Asian community organization and is the director of a project that aims to preserve the histories of Vietnamese Americans in Southern California.

Courtesy of John Hiroshi Kamei

Courtesy of John Hiroshi Kamei

Yet when Dr. Linda Trinh Vo –– a current associate professor of Asian American Studies –– was an undergraduate at UC San Diego, she entered as an undeclared major with no idea what she wanted to do in college. And there was no such thing as Asian American studies.

One of the rare Asian Americans who wasn’t a pre-med major at UCSD, Vo found herself enjoying her sociology classes and eventually declared sociology as her major.

“Sociology helped me to think about society in a much more complicated way and to understand the communities I lived in,” Vo said.

Vo’s background is unique in terms of community. She was born in Vietnam but moved multiple times during her childhood, as her stepfather worked with the American Embassy. She lived in Japan, India, Indonesia and Belgium before flying back to the states to attend high school in Southern California. And with a European-American stepfather and a Vietnamese mother, Vo also came from a diverse household.

Despite her unique circumstances, Vo found herself in a similar position as many college students.

“I wasn’t a really good student in college,” Vo laughed. “I was unprepared, too shy to ever speak up in class and I wasn’t involved in many organizations on campus.”

But what she did know was that she loved reading, writing and research. During her last year at UCSD, several faculty members suggested she take the professor route and make a living out of her hobbies. Vo took her professors’ advice and went back to UCSD for both a master’s degree  and Ph.D. in sociology.

It was during graduate school while she was studying revolutions and political transformations that Vo was assigned to TA for a class offered through the new ethnic studies department. The ethnic class was centered on Asian Americans.

“I realized that I knew nothing about Asian Americans, that there was a whole area of history I didn’t know about in all my years of schooling,” Vo said. “I went to the library and checked out every book on Asian Americans as I could. At the time there was only two shelves.”

Vo was amazed at how limited the resources and research on Asian Americans was, and she became hooked. She decided to switch her topic of research to Asian American studies.

The more she researched, the more Vo found herself becoming more interested in community formation. In 2004 she published her first book, “Mobilizing an Asian American Community,” a community study of the San Diego Asian American population that hones in on organization among different ethnic groups that Vo drew from her own dissertation. Vo spent years on her research through attending community events and meetings, joining organizations and conducting 30 oral histories with various members of the community.

It was through these oral histories that Vo began to understand the importance in documenting and preserving memory. Inspired, she created the Vietnamese American Oral History Project in 2011.

Partnering with the School of Humanities and the UCI Libraries and funded through donations, VAOHP is a project that shares the stories of first generation Vietnamese American refugees and immigrants living in Southern California.

“History of the Vietnam War is primarily told from the American perspective,” Vo said of the project’s specific focus. “History is not often told from the perspective of the people the war affected the most: the Vietnamese people.”

The project prides itself on running off a digital platform. The VAOHP website makes its work public for anyone to access, with 115 personal stories published and over 100 more being processed.

And while other ethnic oral histories interview community leaders, politicians and entertainers, VAOHP exclusively interviews everyday individuals –– “ordinary people have the most extraordinary stories,” Vo explained.

While the project requires all subjects to be first generation Vietnamese Americans over the age of 30, all similarities between the subjects stop there. Some oral histories come from “boat people,” the Vietnamese people who escaped by boat during the Vietnam War. Other stories are told by Amerasians –– the first generation of multiracial Vietnamese Americans.

The process of capturing these one to three hour oral histories is a lengthy one. While the project enlists the efforts of many student and community member volunteers, Vo primarily trains students to conduct interviews in two classes she offers called “The Vietnamese American Experience” and “Asian American Research Methods.” Students learn the difficulties of being historians through interviewing, transcribing and writing. Many students are assigned subjects to interview, but some have interviewed their own family members.

Now in its third year, VAOHP has established itself as a key digital resource for historians; graduate students have already been using the oral histories for research and professors across the country have incorporated elements into their curriculum. Vo hopes VAHOP will be taught in kindergarten through 12th grade classes one day.

Vo is currently leading VAHOP while teaching her own courses at UCI, and is also on the advisory board of the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association, VAALA, where she will be helping to run the Viet Film Fest this April.

“I want to be able to at least make a small dent, an impact, whether it’s changing the ways Asian Americans are represented in the media, or changing the ways Americans perceive or don’t perceive history,” Vo said.

Her lack of knowledge in Asian American history while growing up  motivated Vo to push for the inclusion of Asian American studies courses in school curriculum. She may not have known about Asian American history as a student, but she hopes future generations of students won’t have to say the same.