Here and There: Exploring Vietnamese Immigrant and Refugee Experiences

Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
Why you need to know

'This process can be used by other immigrants and other refugees as a way to collect their own history because we’re getting older and a lot of these stories are getting lost,' says Linh Phan, creator of the Here and There project.

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By Dana Filek-Gibson

Get Linh Phan started on her latest project, Here and There, and the 40-year-old Saigon resident lights up. No matter that we’re at the end of a workday and the sky is getting dark, or that we have just huffed up several flights of stairs to a dimly lit cafe in the aging Ton That Dam building. Forget that the project she’s taking on could last indefinitely or that she’s got a full-time gig as a freelance creative producer. During the hour we spend sipping ginger tea and talking about Here and There, Phan has the rare energy of someone who’s found her calling.

“It sounds really cheesy but it feels like I’m destined to make this project,” she tells Saigoneer.

A decade in the making, Phan’s ambitious digital storytelling project aims to document the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees across the globe, housing everything from video clips to old photographs, audio recordings and written stories on an interactive online platform that allows users to explore the diverse experiences and family histories of the Vietnamese diaspora.

“Since I came back to Vietnam, I was trying to explore my roots and figure out who I am and come to terms with my own identity,” explains Phan, who left Vietnam as a baby and returned in 2007. “Basically, I’ve always been trying to tell my family’s story in some way, but I just never could figure out how.”

Though she stays mum on some of the details — look out for a forthcoming Here and There video — Phan’s journey, like that of so much Vietnamese in the 1970s and 1980s, involves leaving on a boat, a stint in a refugee camp, and her eventual arrival in Canada. In the years after, as she grew up in Toronto and eventually made the move back to Saigon, Phan searched for a way to bring the story of this journey to life, but every time she tried to piece the tale together, it didn’t feel quite right.

That is, until late last year. As the Syrian refugee crisis captured headlines across the world and immigration featured prominently in North American and European political debates, the stories of Vietnamese refugees starting a new life in a foreign country echoed from the past. Combined with the passing of her grandmother, with whom Phan was very close, the idea for Here and There came into view.

At the heart of the project are its core storytelling videos, in which first-generation community participants — those who made the journey from Vietnam to their new home — will create with assistance from second- or third-generation community facilitators — their children or grandchildren. Participants will control all aspects of the video-making process, from scriptwriting to filming, editing, and other post-production work.

“The process is really getting the younger generation — the kids or grandkids — to work with their parents or grandparents to help them make that film, and in that process create a space for them to have cathartic moments and understanding of where we come from,” says Phan.

This will be an especially meaningful project for the Here and There mastermind, as Phan plans to build her own storytelling video around a voice recording her grandmother made in the 1980s shortly after arriving in Canada. The audio cassette recounts her family’s journey to Canada, a narrative which Phan herself will use to collaborate on one final project with her grandmother to preserve her family history.

If nothing else, this process presents an opportunity for generations of the Vietnamese diaspora, young and old, to connect with one another.

“There are so many other friends of mine or people that I know who don’t talk to their parents about these things, who want to know their history,” says Phan.

Though she worries a bit about attracting willing participants — Phan acknowledges that some stories from the past are not so easy to tell — the creative producer encourages community participants to talk about happy memories as well as difficult ones.

“I think the tough [part] will be getting the older generation,” says Phan. “That might be the tricky thing with the recruitment process because I’m not sure if people want to bring up the stories.”

She continues: “You don’t have to tell those war stories. You can talk about anything else; you can talk about happy times in the country that you moved to. Things can get quite political quite fast as well, so I do have to make sure that things are true to people’s stories, but also it’s a huge community with lots of different opinions and lots of different stories.”

Once a storytelling video is complete, each participant will retain full control over how the finished product is used or not used on the Here and There platform. Those which do appear on the website will be supplemented by additional media — photographs, voice recordings, written stories — to build a fuller picture of that individual and his or her family during and after their departure from Vietnam.

As the project grows, Phan also plans to take Here and There on the road as an art exhibit, bringing the project to Vietnamese communities around the world and gathering new stories along the way.

“I don’t think this will ever be complete,” Phan writes via email. “There are too many stories to tell and record.”

Thankfully, she is not alone in her enthusiasm for the project. Ever since Phan started mentioning Here and There to friends and family, people have come out of the woodwork, offering to lend a hand, volunteer their time, or connect Phan with Vietnamese communities around the world.

“I have received so much support on this. It’s unbelievable,” she says. Old coworkers and friends, family members and total strangers have stepped forward, opening a wealth of opportunities for Phan to expand the project. In an effort to supplement this immense support, today also marks the launch of Here and There’s crowdfunding campaign. The month-long fundraising effort will go toward further research, community-building and video creation as the project get off the ground.

In the coming months, as Here and There creates out a space for the diverse and multifaceted stories of the Vietnamese diaspora, Phan is excited to share stories that are both unique to the overseas Vietnamese community and universal in their representation of refugee and immigrant experiences.

“This is not just one Vietnamese immigrant story,” she explains. “This process can be used by other immigrants and other refugees as a way to collect their own history because we’re getting older and a lot of these stories are getting lost.”

Though there’s plenty of work ahead, Phan’s boundless enthusiasm and the supportive community behind her suggest that Here and There will be a space to watch.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Olivia Yang

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