I lived through a time when aside from the military, universities were some of the first spaces that offered exclusive access to a new fangled technology called the Internet. Many of the first users in academia were software and computer engineers. Possibly due to my passion for and curiosity of new technologies, I embraced the Internet without question. Though from the humanities and social science side of campus, I was nevertheless resourceful enough to successfully talk some of my friends in the engineering department at UC Berkeley to lend me an email account. To give you an indication of how early I was connected to the Internet, I was using PINE to communicate with fellow geeks.
Within a year of playing around with emails, receiving ASCII text roses from flirty engineers, and generally building a community with other users, I knew the Internet was much more than for digital mailing.
I began to find information on the Net. News list such as soc.cult.vietnam, an open and unmoderated space that allowed for uncensored discussions about anything related to Viet Nam and its diaspora, appeared. Often referred to as a “fish market” with regular flame wars and the rare informational gem, soc.cult.vietnam evolved to moderated newslists like Vietnam Forum (VNForum).
Most members of the VNForum group were overseas Vietnamese interested in the development of Viet Nam. This was quite provocative considering this took place in a time when certain Vietnamese Americans with strong anti-communist points of view forbade connections to Viet Nam, and attacked those that did. The virtual community of VNForum masterfully avoided the gaze of anti-communist groups and repercussions from a repressive Vietnamese state. VNForum members managed this while successfully organizing to make positive change in Viet Nam. This included the internationally recognized No Nike labor rights campaign. The impact of VNForum on Viet Nam and diasporic relations is carefully documented in my book, Transnationalizing Viet Nam.
As much as I appreciated what VNForum had to offer, I also noticed the predominance of male voices and opinions. Though the handful of women members had strong opinions, we were much more methodical and frugal with our postings. Vietnamese women clearly needed an alternative space. Simultaneously, in the mid 1990s, I was researching on Vietnamese women. One of the reoccurring issues involved the idea that most Vietnamese women felt they operated in isolation without resources or networks to assist them. Hence, in 1998, I founded Viet Nam Women’s Forum (VWF), with the modest goal of serving as a virtual space for Vietnamese women to share our knowledge and concerns with each other across lines of professions, interests, thoughts, and national borders. We have used VWF to openly discuss issues such as: Vietnamese women history, Viet Kieu activism, interracial relationships, smoking addiction, Viet Nam normalized trade agreement with the United States, Vietnamese adoptees, Vietnamese diaspora communities in the USA, France, Canada, Australia and so on.
VWF also evolved into a support, informational, and organizational network serving hundreds of women globally. We helped dozens of women find employment, housing, grants, and data. We assisted women who would have otherwise worked in isolation come together on collaborative projects. For example, when there was a call to help over two hundred Vietnamese female export laborers stranded in American Samoa, a sizable number of our members stepped forward to help these women find the proper resources to fight for their rights.
We were reassured that if we needed anything anywhere, a member could assist. Such was the case when a mother wrote that her daughter was traveling alone in Argentina, and asked if someone could meet her to show her the city. Almost immediately, a member responded to the call for assistance. We even co-sponsored the International Refugee Immigrant Women’s Network’s annual conference, where we brought together Southeast Asian women and girls to discuss their academic and social projects and concerns with other refugee/immigrant women from all over the world. In 2000 we debuted our website: vnwomensforum.org.
We felt the success of VWF was partly due to its exclusive, women only membership. The supportive, comforting space we created over the years is something we cherished. On the other side of the screen were women very similar to them, and that were willing and able to listen, share, and assist. Even though VWF is no longer operational, it successfully brought together Vietnamese women scattered throughout the globe to connect virtually and discuss their experiences, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
In 2015 I also co-founded The Fight the Tower Movement which largely operates online with the website fighttower.com and Facebook page, s://www.facebook.com/fightthetower/. This movement was created by individuals that believe we, as women of color in academia, are at a crucial crossroad. With massive budgetary cuts at universities nationwide and trends towards corporatization, underrepresented groups find themselves increasingly vulnerable to dismissals. Whether in economic boom or bust, the historical inequalities, marred by legacies of racism and at he was eating an incredible Vietnamese lunch. I answered that I can share the meal with himsexism, continue to shape and define the context of the university today. It appears contradictory that universities, supposedly spaces of intellectual discoveries and critical investigations, in truth harbor the same societal biases that breathe life into discrimination, exclusion, and violence. The movement and the web pages offer invaluable information to help start scholars on the road to fight for their rights.
These experiences solidified my belief that meaningful connections, be it on a personal level or organizational, and community level, is as valuable virtually as in real life. But, what does virtual mean anyway? I thought more deeply about this a while ago while video chatting with a friend. He pronounced th virtually. However, virtual means almost, but, not quite real. The essence of the experience exists but the real time face-to-face does not. For me, though, I do not think virtual is almost as good as real. I think virtual in some ways is better than real. Or is it? So, about my friend’s lunch, I had to say, no, I could not virtually taste anything. I was not even close to sharing the meal in real life. His photos of the meal did not help the matter either; in fact it heightened my desire to rush to a Vietnamese restaurant. So, that part of it was disappointing.
But, the upside of our communications was the fact that this friend and I had been able to collaborate on important projects for some time now. We began video chatting in the summer when it was difficult to coordinate in-person meetings. Had we only met in-person with each other and the rest of the people in our project, we would have had much fewer meetings and less opportunity to share our ideas. Virtual is good and will never play second fiddle to the real. Virtual practices and communities then become an important and integral part of our present global condition.