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Why Stories from Vietnamese Elders?

Oral stories from Elders are a special gift from the Elders and for the Elders. Seniors can share their wisdom and their experiences through stories. The stories give the listener new appreciation of older persons and to be aware of happenings that were not reported in the news. Without stories, it is easy to forget recent history. We may forget how much the world has changed in a short time. We are less prepared to improve the world situation, and more apt to repeat mistakes. When the storyteller has an attentive listener, the storyteller can realize the value of her experiences and of his/her individual life. Our stories are even more important today - when the media tends to determine what stories are told. By telling our own story, we give shape to our lives and share personal values. I believe that this is what renders us Ahuman". Stories from life experience help up to remember. These personal stories give value to our lives. Telling stories that come from difficult times can enhance the healing process. As a speech and language pathologist and as a storyteller, I hear stories from people of cultures that are different from my own.

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In 1987, I worked with twelve-year-old Yung as a speech and language pathologist. Her ethic background was Mung, and she had come to the U.S. from Vietnam. Yung's teachers were amazed that there were eleven children in her family. Eleven! One day Yung told me the story of her immigration to the United States as she remembered it. She and her mother and her four brothers and sisters were in a refugee camp in Cambodia. Previous to that, Yung had witnessed her father be shot and killed. They went to Viet Nam to another camp. There they waited to go to America, where there was a church that would sponsor them. Yung said, "One day, people came to decide who would go to America. A man was chosen, and he was told that he could bring his family. This man had three children, but his wife had died. The man pointed to Yung's mother and said that she was his wife and that we were his children. He also said that three of the children who had no parents were his children. Nobody asked any questions. We all came to America, and now," Yung smiles, "I have a very big family." Yung told me this story after I had worked with her for well over a year. I saw Yung twice weekly for speech and language therapy for two years. She had a profound hearing loss. This, and her cultural differences, isolated her from her peers. I was impressed with the misinformation between Yung's home and school. A speech and language pathologist is often the person who hears stories that are not regularly shared. The nature of our work, to enhance communication, tends to invite storytelling, and, sadly, many people with communication problems have few people willing to listen.

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Several years ago, I was working in a school as a resident artist. Our project was to listen to stories told by people at the city's Senior Center, and to choose a story from each visit and write the story. The children visited the Senior Center three times, and heard from 2 to 4 stories from three groups: Hispanic Seniors, African-American Seniors, and Vietnamese Seniors. Here, I will comment only on the latter experience, although all three visits were meaningful and educational. Can Hoang stood in front of her Vietnamese friends and twenty-five sixth grade students who were visiting the Senior Center on a brisk day in November, 2006. She was excited to speak with them and to tell a story. She patted her silver hair and began. She smiled at the children, and with the interpreter's help, told them the story that we know as the tortoise and the hare. She had brought two small stuffed animals with her: a little blue rabbit and a small white kitten. She instructed the children to pretend the stuffed kitten was a turtle; and the story began. Can Hoang reminded the children before and after she told the story, "You make the river or the mountain. It is your determination. Maybe you will remember the story and do your best." After telling her story, Can Hoang distributed lollipops to the children. As she did this, she told another story. This one was about her husband's escape from Viet Nam in 1981. It was dangerous and he could only escape with their 6 and 7 year old children. Can Hoang was left behind. She was imprisoned. She tried again and again, unsuccessfully, to escape. She finally did escape and she was eventually reunited with her family.

In this story, Can Hoang revealed three things.
1) She was eager to be part of the larger community. I deduced this from her selected story: one that she thought would please the children, and also held a lesson.
2) Can Hoang liked children: she brought toys to add visual interest, and she purchased candy for them.
3) She needed to tell her own story about difficult times.

Virtually all of the Vietnamese storytellers who volunteered to tell a story to the visiting sixth graders did a similar thing. They told a folk tales or legend.. {A folklorist would have been interested in the similarities between the stories and European folktales. After all, Viet Nam was ruled by France for decades.} Each Vietnamese elder included a shorter story about the war or immigrating to the United States. Even though the Elders prepared a Vietnamese children's story, they were eager to share stories from their lives. Each person spoke about the war experience and/or the hardships of immigrating to the U.S. Because of this experience with the Vietnam Elders,

I wrote and received two small grants which allowed me to work on an oral history project with the Vietnamese Elders. They were the National Storytelling Network Memberships Grant and the Heubner Award. Stories from Vietnamese immigrants are close to my heart because this war (called the Viet Nam War by Americans, and the American War by people from Vietnam) was my generation's war, just as the war in Iraq is the present generation's war. The war in Viet Nam was going on when I was a young suburban housewife and mother. My peers discussed the war, but it did not touch my life until the day that I realized that the U.S. was destroying rice crops.

I learned about the U.S.'s use of the defoliant Agent Orange while seated at my kitchen table reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then the horrible front page story of My Lai came. My perception of the world changed. These two events changed my life. They were the awakening of my awareness and social activism. By collecting oral histories from Vietnamese Elders, I hoped to - in some small way - heal the wounds of war and to help us better understand each other. I recorded fewer histories than I had hoped. There were many reasons for this, including problems with the language, finding reliable and/or available interpreters, limited funds, and also trust issues. Quite a few of the men were interested in talking, but fearful of repercussions to their family in Vietnam should their stories became public.

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The story behind the story of collecting these oral histories is another one! I am pleased to say that when I last visited the Senior Center, two new programs were being established: Vietnamese as a second language (for immigrants' children and grandchildren), and intergenerational visits between the people who immigrated from Vietnam and the young people who were born in the United States. I believe that all of my conversations with the leaders of the Vietnamese group at the Senior Center and the Southeast Asian Center were helpful in eliciting these changes. It is my hope that there will be many opportunities for the youth to hear stories from the Elders and to learn more about their culture. Throughout the years, I have had friends who have immigrated to the U.S. I have always been impressed by the courage and resilience they have shown in the presence of tremendous hardship. I cannot imagine, and hope that neither I nor my family will ever experience the terror of war. I strive to understand the relationship between human behavior and spirituality. I am a storyteller because I believe that stories can, and do, change the world. My stories are created with the hope of bringing people closer to one another and to their environment.

Katie Green