I have always wanted to document my family’s story. My mom is a vivid storyteller and because my dad and my brothers never really talked about their memories of Vietnam, everything I learned was from my mom. Sometimes I would have these moments where I wasn’t sure if all her stories were true, or if she was just really good at telling stories. What I did know was that our family’s story was not only dramatic, but also complex, from how we went from being wealthy to losing everything in an instant, the multiple escape attempts and consequent family separation.
But it wasn’t until I had my own children that I seriously began thinking about what would ultimately become VBP. My kids are mixed, my husband is half-Chinese and half-Irish, and my nanny is Filipino — no one in my household aside from me speaks Vietnamese. We live in New Jersey where there aren’t a lot of other Vietnamese people, and now that my parents are older, we only see them about 2-3 times a year. And when they are together, my parents bend over backwards to speak English to my kids, and it made me sad because I thought about how I should be teaching my kids Vietnamese so that my parents can be comfortable and have fun instead of struggling to speak English. Also my parents are getting older. Dad just turned 81 and mom has less energy, so they were traveling a lot less, and it felt like if I really wanted to record my family’s story, it was now or never. At the same time, I was turning 40 and had hit this point in my career where I felt this need to do something I loved, to wake up every day and feel passionate and inspired.
I wasn’t sure what the end product would be, but I bought a mic and went from there. I went to visit my parents and my siblings and asked for a few hours of their time to just sit down and share their stories, building this collection of audio files. I was also reading a lot of memoirs by other Vietnamese Boat People, such as The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. I had never read graphic novels before but I fell in love with this one. I related to her so much, especially how having children was also an inflection point in her own creative and personal journey. But I didn’t feel like this long journey of becoming a writer and writing a book and the whole publishing process was not for me. I thought back to my mom and how she just wants to talk about her story, and how there are hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese people who went through this moment in history. That’s why VBP isn’t just focused on my family’s story; I wanted to tell other families’ stories as well.
The idea for the podcast came first. I knew it would be a good way to make these stories accessible and digestible. Incorporating into a nonprofit came later because I wanted to stay true to creating something that was about the community and mission-driven. But all of this came after I had already recorded and done a bit of informal research. However, when I started doing research on oral histories, I realized that they were just hard to find — you often need access to university libraries, you have to pay, you have to know how to navigate these interfaces, and most files were unedited. Unless you were truly interested or doing research, you probably wouldn’t just sit through and listen to hours-long interviews. So as someone who loves podcasts and was always told she had a radio voice, I started thinking about how to take my own interviews and distill them into shorter, digestible content that still allows listeners to feel like they understand a little bit more about this part of history or a specific individual. I’m also not the world’s best writer but I am a good conversationalist, so podcasting felt like something that would be a good fit for me. That being said, I did not know anything about podcasting when I first started, so I took classes and went on Google and YouTube to learn the basics, enough to push out my family’s story first and establish the format and style I wanted: highly-curated with threaded stories that could still stand on their own individually.
Our podcast is our number 1 priority — we spend about 80% of our time on podcast content and awareness. We are working on piloting a few different youth initiatives to empower and encourage younger generations to get involved in capturing their families’ stories. But we know that it takes a lot of extra encouragement and motivation for people to record themselves or to interview others. Our hope is that even if people do not want to share their stories on our podcast, they are at least using this tool to hear other stories and have a record of their own story.
The reason I incorporated into a 501(c)(3) is that as I was building my blog and beginning to think about publicity, I needed a bit of motivation, something to hold me accountable in really making this podcast and platform a reality. And by publicly telling people I was doing this, there was this pressure as more and more people told me they were anxiously waiting for the podcast, but that pressure kept me going. Incorporating into a nonprofit felt right because I wanted the podcast to be community driven, and our nonprofit status also made it easier for me to approach people for interviews or just to earn their trust because by telling them I was a nonprofit, they knew I wasn’t doing this for selfish purposes, and that there wasn’t any hidden intentions. Incorporating also gave us more grant opportunities, which will be helpful as our platform continues to grow. Another one of our goals is to get Vietnamese Americans involved in refugee advocacy. We don’t have the capacity yet to really mobilize actions, but we do try to bring awareness to local organizations who are already doing great refugee advocacy work.
Like many people, the stories about the Vietnam War that I had learned about in school or during my research, only lightly brushed upon the Vietnamese people. There are also no movies about Vietnamese refugees besides Journey From The Fall, which was a limited release in mostly Vietnamese communities. Seeing this lack of representation only made it more important that I start this podcast, and to make it free and accessible so we can educate the general public.
When I told my family I was going to do this podcast, no one in my family had ever listened to a podcast. I didn’t even tell my parents that I had switched jobs and gone part-time to make this podcast. All I said was that I had bought a microphone and wanted to record their stories because I felt that everything was so fragmented in my head, and not only did I want to make sense of it all, but I also wanted all our kids to know our family history before it was too late. Everyone said yes and was unbelievably supportive. My parents live in Orlando for most of the year and they passed out the VBP postcards at the local Tet Festival, and my brothers took 400 postcards and stuck them in cars during the Tet Festival in Virginia. My parents haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but my siblings have, texting me after each episode to give me supportive and motivating feedback.
After interviewing everyone, I had all these recordings and sat on them for a long time. When Ashlee and Bella joined the team, they really pushed me to take the leap. I decided to record the prelude and officially release it as episode 1. Earlier, I had met this young man and helped him with his own interview with his dad, and one of the big pivotal points of their story was the evacuation of Da Nang, which also happened to be a big chunk of my dad’s story. This was the spark for me because I finally realized the evacuation could be the anchor of episode 2, and suddenly everything else just fell into place.
When I first interviewed my dad, we sat and talked for almost 6 hours. I asked him why he had never shared any of these things, and he responded, “You never asked.” Maybe it’s true, but the deeper issue for our entire generation is that we probably don’t know how to ask these questions. Another common feature of our culture is that we have these close relationships, but not close enough to ask about these intimate things, this divide between us and our elders and what is considered respectful questioning. Growing up, I always felt that it was inappropriate to pry into certain things, but now I’m 41 and he’s 81 and all of the boundaries don’t even matter anymore. We were able to openly talk about everything, even things like my parent’s marriage.
Building off my parents’ interviews, I began weaving in my siblings’ interviews. In episode 4, Steve, my oldest brother said that he couldn't remember anything that happened after he got on the boat in Nha Trang to leave Vietnam, after which he and my dad were out at sea for over 21 days. All he could remember was that he felt so sick. Then I remembered how my dad talked about how everyone had been so useless on the boat because they were all so seasick. So in real-time, I began piecing together all these individual narratives and filling in the gaps. We all had different parts of the story but had never put it all together. It’s also interesting because everyone has slightly different memories and there are points when the stories don’t line up, and I had to piece together a lot of it on my own. I always say to people that our podcast is not about statistics or being 100% factual, but rather about people’s personal experiences and memories. Memories are what shape you and carry you forward, whether they are completely accurate or not.
I wanted to show people that the podcast isn’t just about one family, but rather about the larger Vietnamese Boat People experience, and use these narratives to further validate what so many of our families went through. By including the stories of non-Vietnamese people who were part of this experience, I wanted to highlight the significance of our mission of paying it forward, and inspire Vietnamese-Americans to do what they can to support today’s refugees. Many of these people who worked at the refugee camps or who sponsored Vietnamese families were volunteers, which was so inspiring to hear, considering a majority of Americans were against accepting Vietnamese refugees into this country. Most of the stories we hear about this moment of time are from the perspective of American soldiers, not refugees or humanitarian workers or sponsors. There were so many people who stepped up and did what they felt was right, and I wanted to honor their stories as well.
In terms of the second generation, I originally was going to focus on the stories that explain how we got here, but after awhile I realized that including the experiences of the 2nd generation would actually make the material more relatable to the younger generations. These interviews will also hopefully demonstrate how nuanced our community is: not all Vietnamese refugees came here as Boat People, and no one has the exact same memories or relationship with Vietnam.
VBP has opened me up to all these other projects that I don’t think I would have found otherwise, and I feel inspired knowing there are so many other people doing this type of work. But I also feel intimidated at times because I don’t have an Asian American Studies or Journalism or Philosophy background academically or professionally. But I think it’s also something that makes VBP unique, that we aren’t trying to make this an academic exercise or create these sophisticated literary pieces. We’re just about advocating that the stories of our community are a significant part of world history and deserve to be told and heard by the people who lived through these experiences and the generations after, in whatever style and conversation that they are most comfortable with.
Everyone on our team is a volunteer, and I am so grateful every day for each of them and how passionate they are about our mission. When I started my blog and started writing about wanting to start VBP, my nieces Ashlee (Communities & Partnerships) and Bella (Social & Insights) emailed me about how moved they were and that they wanted to get involved. Ashlee, who is only 10 years younger than me, talked to me about how she had always felt a little bit disconnected from her Vietnamese side because she grew up more with her mom’s American side of the family, while Bella immediately offered her social media skills to help us build our online presence.
Later on, I put out an ad for a podcast editor, and after reading through over 100 applications, I interviewed the ones who wrote “love letters”: long cover letters that really demonstrated how much a project like VBP meant to them personally. I remember Tricia (Stories & Concepts) said she thought our ad was specifically targeted just to her; her senior year thesis was actually a 4-part podcast where she interviewed second generation Vietnamese Americans. Matt (Video & Audio) also talked about how his grandfather had actually been one of the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and how he wanted to be a part of VBP because it would allow him to learn beyond just East Asian communities. Anna (Communities & Outreach) admitted that she didn’t know anything about podcasts, but being half-Vietnamese, she wanted to learn more about that part of her heritage.
The best way to support VBP is to listen and subscribe to our podcast, which can be found on most major platforms, follow us on social media, and check out our website. We have a blog where we post once a month, and if you want to do a short write-up, this is a place where you can contribute. And finally, please donate to help us produce and promote these stories globally!