Oral history project: Vietnamese narrators

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The Minnesota Historical Center and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, last month celebrated the completion of an oral history project to record and preserve the history and rich heritage of Minnesota’s Vietnamese community as part of a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders.

The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, success, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans.

Saddling in two worlds or sometimes three worlds, each narrator proudly carries their Vietnamese heritage and identity with them no matter the changes they assume to fit in to a new society, or the changes in their lives from the professions they choose.

The project presented individuals who have persevered to adapt and at the same time acted to preserve a culture that might have been lost in the transition to a new world. They have become proud Americans, yes, by they always remember that their roots and heritage that has made the term Vietnamese Americans mean just that.

Each journey begins with one step. These steps, and these stories may be the roadmap for next generations to follow – especially since these children will not have known Vietnam, and the country they visit today will not present the same culture that their parents knew before the leaving as refugees to another world.

The Oral History Project: Vietnamese narrators included Ms. Lisalan Thai, Mr. Hue Van Lien, Mr. Hung Duc Phung, Mr. Cuong Simon Phan, and Ms. Thuy Duong Nguyen-Tran.

Like other refugees who first came to the United States after the Fall of Saigon, Ms. Lisalan worked hard and found a way to get a better education. After her divorce, she was able to raise two very young children as a single mom.

For her children, Lisalan was a mom and a dad as well. She is a strong woman who leads through the example of honesty, sacrifice, compassion, ambition, perseverance, and diligence.

Lisalan represents a very strong image of a traditional woman who was deeply affected by Confucian ethics as well as a Vietnamese woman in America who knows how to seize opportunities and empower herself in the modern world. She has become an outstanding agent in her real estate career and a well-known philanthropist who has been involved in many fundraising campaigns in the Vietnamese community and beyond.

The youngest son of six siblings in a family from BacLieu, Vietnam, Mr. Hue Van Lien said that his father passed away when he was just 13 years old. He was just in the seventh grade and financial difficulties on the family forced him to quit school and leave his hometown to go to Saigon.

Hue eventually left Vietnam with his wife and fellow “boat people” in 1978. They spent almost a year in Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp in Malaysia, where his first daughter was born.

After the second week of living in Iowa, Hue started working and always thought education would be the key to success. In 1983, he was the top student at Tool and Die Maker from St. Paul Technical Vocational Institute.

Currently Hue is the owner and president of Modern Manufacturing and Engineering in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Besides his tremendous success in business, Hue is a husband and father of four children, and is now a grandfather as well.

Mr. Hung Duc Phung was born in South Vietnam and remained there for six years after the war, before escaping on a small boat to the Philippines. He lived in a refugee camp for 18 months and came to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1982.

Hung continued his education at Central High School and the University of Minnesota. He graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Human Relationship and worked for Wilder Foundation and Lutheran Social Services before joining United Nations High Commission for Refugees working in Hong Kong Detention Centers from 1991 to 1994.

Hung returned to help his family resettle in Minnesota, and has been working with Bloomington Public Schools since 1995 as a cultural liaison. He received a Masters in Education focusing in guidance counseling in 2001, and is now a facilitator for SEED – Seeking Educational Equality & Diversity – for the Bloomington staff.

Mr. Cuong Simon Phan, also known as Brother Simon-Hòa Phan, was born in Vietnam and came to the United States at the age of 10 with his family during the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975.

Brother Phan is currently a filmmaker and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, where he has also been a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey for the past 19 years. With his films, Phan hopes to promote understanding and appreciation of the Vietnamese people, its culture and history, and to inspire young people of Vietnamese heritage to do the same with their talents and abilities.

Born in America as a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Ms. Thuy Duong Nguyen-Tran said she was blessed to be able to navigate in both the Vietnamese and American mainstreams. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is currently in her first year of University of Minnesota-Medical School.

In her spare time, she enjoys co-coaching the traditional Hoang Anh Vietnamese Dance Group with her sister and volunteering with Circle of Giving, which is a nonprofit organization she helped to co-found. She said to be able to live the American Dream while honoring her Vietnamese heritage is a loves she pursues with the mission of bridging the world together to create positive change.