I am a bilingual, bicultural scholar and activist with a record of engaging scholarship. Part of my research focuses around what creates bridges between theory and lived experiences, local with the international, and the interaction between our world and the Spirit Realm. “Đi một ngày đàng học một sàng khôn.” Loosely translated, this Vietnamese proverb means, “one day’s travel will bring you a wealth of wisdom.” My life and personal belief also mirrors the idea of this proverb, and that international exposure brings deeper understanding of local realities. Through my research, teaching, and service, I have underlined how the formation of global networks and rapid technological changes in recent decades have made it increasingly important for scholars to think beyond national borders- while making crucial social, cultural and political interventions at the local grassroots level.
Born in Viet Nam to Eurasian parents, I had a multiracial and multicultural upbringing with an enormous amount of international and domestic travel. I have lived in countries such as: the Philippines, Australia, and Viet Nam. I have also made homes in numerous US cities including: Oakland, California; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in economically diverse communities ranging from East San Jose, California to the expatriate enclave in Sana’a, Yemen. But no matter where I travel, Oakland is always my home. This city can boast about having the most ethnically integrated population in the nation. This is where my racially diverse family sleep, play, and cultivate positive change.
Due to my multiethnic and international experiences, I understood early on that people of all backgrounds contribute to our global community. Hence, I successfully internalized ideals of tolerance in the midst of racial tensions in the United States. Enduring such tensions have helped me understand my mixed race identity, and brought me closer to the Vietnamese American community. As I was discovering my own identity and acculturation issues, as a youth, I remained astutely aware of the difficulties my peers and I faced in adjusting to our new home in the United States.
This struggle to find ”home” led me initially to the mixed race community in East Bay. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, I quickly became entrenched in the Mixed Race Movement of the late 1980s. Within the early 1990s, I rose as a leader of the new wave of mixed race activists. While those in the movement were lobbying for representation in the census, and educating the public about mixed race issues, I focused on securing resources for the then incoming Vietnamese Amerasian population from Viet Nam. This led to my theorizing about the mixed race experience that resulted in my first article, published when I was still an undergraduate, “From Dust to Gold: The Vietnamese Amerasian Experience.”
Directing and organizing projects has been an important link to my Vietnamese ethnic community as well. Since my early twenties I have been involved with youth programs in the impoverished neighborhoods of San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, and Dorchester (Massachusetts). These programs include the Gần Đèn Thì Sáng – Hướng Việt program for at-risk Vietnamese American youth and EMpower, a Vietnamese American Girls’ leadership project, both in Oakland. These endeavors have led me to work with groups like the Association for Viet Arts, whose mission was to foster Vietnamese and Vietnamese American performance, visuals, and literary arts. In association with Viet Arts and the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, I curated the exhibit, Áo Dài: A Modern Design Coming of Age. Having personally procured over 100 áo dài from Viet Nam, this historical exhibit received national and international recognition. Currently, I continue to promote artistic endeavors such as consulting for the Áo Dài Festival, held biennially in San Jose.
As with the arts, in order to better understand Vietnamese culture, I have invested many years in learning the Vietnamese language. As Vietnamese was my first language, I lost proficiency in the language, when our family resettled in the United States. I attempted to relearn Vietnamese as an adult, but, with the dearth of Vietnamese language programs in the U.S., I struggled for years to find Vietnamese courses as an undergraduate. To remedy this situation, I started a student and community movement that successfully brought Vietnamese language classes to UC Berkeley. Since 1992, it has been a permanent course offering up to the advanced levels and even literature. Now I support the student initiated Vietnamese Language Movement at UC Davis to do the same. The desire to learn one’s heritage language and culture remains strong in the third and fourth generation Vietnamese in diaspora.
Stemming from my personal experiences, I have made many efforts to combat the same difficulties I had. I’ve done so through preserving the Vietnamese culture from overseas, and aligning it with my academic pursuits. This began in the late 1980s, when I worked as an undergraduate student at the Indochina Archive at UC Berkeley. Before the world became an active matrix of interconnections with information transmitted to and from every corner of the globe within seconds; I had the unique opportunity of gathering and absorbing news from relatively isolated regions, such as the reunified Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. My main duty was to read the news and laboriously archive it by hand. At the Indochina Archive I had occasions to interact with a wide range of visitors, including dignitaries from Viet Nam, independent scholars from France, and filmmakers from Hollywood. While members of my ethnic community presented a strong public stance against a communist Viet Nam and were thus perceived as traitors by the Vietnamese government- I knew this scenario to be only part of the big picture. Academia and media continued to invoke the refugee narrative claiming that Vietnamese Americans did not have the resources to maintain transnational connections with Viet Nam and that the overseas Vietnamese population could not possibly make a significant impact on the country’s development. Through my work at the archive, however, I gained a nuanced understanding of the persistent and even blossoming transnational connections among individuals, families, and governments.
These early realizations led to research that spanned two decades, on three continents, and punctuated by the voices of over 250 interviewees. My work looks at the dynamic and long standing connections between Viet Nam and its diaspora in the United States. These links are especially astounding considering the many decidedly anti-diasporic elements in not only the home and host countries but also the ethnic community itself. This rich transnational history, which has gone largely undetected, or at least unrecognized, is revealed in my first book, Transnationalizing Viet Nam: Community, Politics, and Culture in the Diaspora.
Higher education has given me many opportunities to address issues of marginalized groups, challenging dominant narratives while creating opportunities for their voices to emerge. But, higher education has also been a leader of some of the most discriminatory practices. Our perception of higher education as the pillar of intellectual thought and meritocracy masks the reality that academia has been used to cultivate and disseminate ideas of difference to suppress dissent while advancing oppressive forms of capitalism and imperialism through “social engineering” projects. This engineering of superior and inferior groups that serve to divide and conquer objectors are particularly apparent with Asian American women scholars, who have long occupied the socially constructed role of the privilege oppressed – perceived as advantaged, but actually positioned to be disposable. The growing accounts of the injustices and resistance to these injustices presented in this anthology, exemplify how we as Asian American women are increasingly woke to the realities of academia and are ready to work together with others for positive change. These collective actions and the promise of more to come, give much hope for a truly inclusive and dynamic academy. These ideas are addressed head on in my co-edited anthology with Prof. Wei Ming Dariotis (San Francisco State University), forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.
Even though I chose an academic career with its propensity towards theory and not application, the strong memories of my youth and allowed me to maintain my ethnic roots. In essence, my communities and service work has brought me to a deeper understanding of Vietnamese American and other communities going through social change and fighting for civil rights. My work continually connects academic scholarship with diverse communities including ethnic organizations, international governmental institutions, and industry while connecting it back to the classrooms. In all, these groups have made for a coherent, generative research agenda for my current and future transnational projects.
This integration of ideas and communities is most apparent in my current role as the director of the New Viet Nam Studies Initiative. The New Viet Nam Studies Initiative at UC Davis promotes research in the sciences and social sciences on contemporary Viet Nam – domestically and internationally – with a focus on economic and political development in addition to arts and culture. It brings together scholars from around the world for collaborative research, symposia, conferences, forums, performances, curricula, and publications. Academic programing and activities that look at the reformation of Viet Nam’s cultural political identity as it moves towards having a greater role economically in the world, will draw tremendous interest and situate UC Davis as one of the international authorities on New Viet Nam Studies.
If one day’s travel brings you a wealth of wisdom, then a lifetime of travel brings you closer to understanding oneself. It is my international experiences that shape my local actions and together they inform my scholarship. This exemplifies the symbiotic relationship I share with those from across oceans to across the desk with my students. Bridging ideas, philosophies, differences, and people, represent who I am as a person, parent, partner, activist, and scholar.