I’m Tori Huynh and I’m a Vietnamese American. I was born and raised in Springfield, Virginia, and I’m currently studying illustration and entertainment design in Richmond, Virginia, making pictures for a living.
My grandparents immigrated to the US after the Vietnam War--my mom was a newborn and her brother was really young as well. My mom and all her siblings grew up in California and moved to Virginia when they were probably around their teens.
My mom was too young to really share anything about Vietnam since she grew up here, but my grandparents don’t really talk about the war that much. I get the feeling that there’s a lot of collective trauma surrounding that time period in their lives.
Definitely not from school--I heard about the Vietnam War as this sort of nebulous event that happened to a lot of Vietnamese people. But frankly I haven’t heard about the actual events of the Vietnam War from Vietnamese people I know. Again, this goes back to the trauma of war, and it’s not something that they really bring up. There seems to be a mutual oath of silence that’s understood in Asian culture regarding cultural trauma and how it bleeds into interpersonal interactions.
It’s important to acknowledge that this experience is not typical or universal, but dependent on your point of origin - who’s around you, the culture, the language, the behaviors of the people around you. I have relatives from Northern California and they’re so different from me, and they talk about how different I sound from them. I often get asked, “Why do you sound like that?”
Stereotypes are difficult to talk about with Asian Americans in general because it depends on geographic location. For example, Californian Vietnamese people - that’s a very specific culture and group of people, and NOVA [Northern Virginia] Vietnamese people is its own specific culture as well.
When I learned that the phrase “the Other” existed, I couldn’t believe that there was an experience to explain how I felt. It was definitely a revelation. Experiencing what The Other meant, finding the meaning of the word “diaspora” - I really didn’t know that this type of language existed in a way that could encapsulate the internal issues within myself, and it wasn’t until I was researching Asian American representation in media early in my college career that I came across these concepts and terms. It was like, “These words are for me.”
Outside of art school, I spent the majority of my school experience studying cinema, getting into social justice within cinema, my experience as an Asian American and doing research on that, and projecting these issues outward with my work. You get to this place where there’s a lot of things that you didn’t know existed and then you find them; it’s like wow, these things are out there and are very real.
I have been drawing since I was a kid, and got serious about it in high school. I loved video games, animation, and film so I went to college for art, but I didn’t actually take myself seriously in terms of real art aspirations outside school until maybe the past six or seven months. I’ve always cared about art and its relationship with social contexts, but really taking myself seriously as a professional artist is a new step in my life.
Currently I’m creating an art book called Hai Ba Trung which includes pre-production, art direction, and process work. I heard about the story of Hai Ba Trung at the beginning of college when I was looking into Vietnamese folklore for a project for an art class. It was just one of those stories that came up a lot for me in my projects. For my senior thesis class, I chose to make it a full narrative production and I was a bit scared to commit to it, since no one in my class would know the story, but then I was like, “Who cares?”
I definitely wanted to recontextualize the story of Hai Ba Trung in a modern setting because there’s a lot to be told with reimagining old stories in new settings--you can really shake things up and make things fresh. Plus, when something is your own intellectual property, there are no rules and you can do whatever you want; it’s yours.
I think emotionally, I feel the closest to the protagonist, Trac. I identify with the little sister the most on a superficial level, because she kind of looks like a blonde version of me and we have similar interests. However, the issues and internal struggles all the characters go through are very close to me. I was dealing with a lot emotionally when I was developing the story in the last six months and it was kind of a cathartic experience to project my own emotional baggage and make it into something else, like transposing. I’m very influenced by emotionality and having it become a very important layer in a narrative piece. I like asking an audience questions about emotional experiences. Like what does a particular story make you feel, why does it make you feel that way, what questions can you ask yourself and your own identity? I think that’s the most important thing you can do as a creator.
When Hai Ba Trung was announced, a lot of other Vietnamese artists who go to my art school reached out to me and told me how excited they were for my project. Even though there are Asian people in my school, within the art field that group is even smaller. I was suddenly getting to know people outside my department and getting all this support, from general encouragement to offers of help. Since I spent most of art school not really interacting with the Southeast Asian community there, this whole experience has been wonderful.
I just had my first film premiere for my animation, The Mirror, and it’s one of those things where like you’re building a house really fast and suddenly it’s over.
The Mirror is about a young girl who finds her crush’s mirror and attempts to give it back to her. It’s about the internal struggles of overcoming your own personal confidence issues and a story about two queer girls. I wanted make something kind of sweet and slice-of-life.
I have never been to Southeast Asia and I really want to go. I particularly want to go to Saigon because I’m doing research for Hai Ba Trung, which takes place there. My cousins have been traveling up and down Vietnam and I am so jealous. I get this weird homesickness even though I have never even been there. When I was younger, even last year, there was this time when whenever anyone asked me if I would visit Vietnam, and I would just get so scared and say, “Maybe” or “I don’t know, I don’t know.” I just felt like because I didn’t speak the language that I would be an outsider, but now I feel like it’s like a rite of passage and I really want to go now.
It’s so bad right now. It’s hard because the only time we talk about Southeast Asia, it’s in relation to Western culture or the U.S., and it becomes unfortunate and even voyeuristic. These are real places with real cultures and histories, and outside of European invasion or colonization or being strongheld, these places exist and have a reason to be spoken about. A lot of people talk about Vietnam in terms of when it was occupied by France, Portugal, or in the context of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. There’s such a narrow focus that you don’t really go beyond it unless you’re talking amongst Asian communities.
I didn’t actually hear about the phrase “Vietnamese Boat People” until I came across Project Yellow Dress. The term makes sense since it’s such a common experience that happened to so many people.
I think a lot of these issues are stigmatized within Southeast Asian communities because there is no language for it, and because of the focus on survival, there’s no time to comprehend what you are going through mentally or even physically. Often times, you’re so focused on providing for your family and dealing with the social pressures of being in a new country, many don’t really have the luxury of sitting down and acknowledging these issues. For older generations, there’s this idea where if certain issues didn’t exist for them, then it doesn’t exist for later generations.
With all these cases of Whitewashing in the media, I’m never mad about it but more like, “It happened again.” I think it’s a weird tactic by Hollywood to get a ton of attention and create a lot of conversation. They set themselves up for a PR disaster, but they do it in a way that gets them even more traction for their film than before.
There’s more conversation now from and about Asian actors in general, but most of these voices come from East Asian people; frankly, I don’t know of many Southeast Asian actors. I know there are upcoming South Asian actors like Aziz Ansari, but I’m not a huge fan of his activism. For a lot of Asian activists, they tend to only think about what is going on in their own social realm and issues, but Asian issues are not a vacuum - there are so many intersecting points. For instance, Ansari deals with a lot of basic social issues like misogyny and diaspora, but he’s been criticized for his anti-blackness, a theme that is found in a lot of Asian actors’ works. As a community, Asian people can be better at addressing their own anti-blackness, whether on a larger scale or on an interpersonal level.
Aside from Mulan, I’m pretty sure the first Asian actor I remember recognizing is Jackie Chan. He’s the world’s gem - he’s so good!