Narrating Trauma and Loss: Vietnamese American Women Assessing Emotional Wellness

Published on
November 17, 2011

In today's world, communities are multi-sited. As a result, health issues have become increasingly globalized with transnational contexts. This is particularly true amongst immigrant communities or populations with people of color. I believe that given this reality, health care in the U.S. should be provided with a global awareness and scope, in accordance with the White House Initiatives on culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate services.

With this perspective in mind, I look at how trauma and loss affects the mental health and emotional wellness of Vietnamese American women. Trauma and loss, even experienced via narratives, are powerful and can return with new effects in the most unexpected moments. They have direct impact on the lives and mental health of the people who lived them. Employing oral history and community participation, I aim to bring awareness about mental health issues connected to traumatic experiences of Vietnamese Americans. Mental health is a less-discussed topic in the Vietnamese American community, and this project will facilitate self-assessment via life history narratives of first-generation, Vietnamese-speaking immigrants.

I have come to my project as a California Health Journalism Fellow with a heightened sense of compassion, sensitivity, and prudence. Through the oral history narratives, I have encountered not only the traumatic and loss as experienced and recalled by the women, but also their open wounds. In the face of a regime change in post-1975 Vietnam and the battle for survival in the U.S., many people were not allowed to mourn the abrupt deaths of loved ones, or to seek ways to process their pain. With their pains not processed, their wounds continue to spread. It has been fifty-seven years after the North-South division following the Geneva Accord, and thirty-six years since the Vietnam War ended. What do these moments of trauma and loss mean to these Vietnamese American women today?

I gave a short introduction of my project earlier, but would like to expand on what I plan to report. The stories I will write for this project focus on the discourses and perspectives of women. This focus is owed to the fact that women voices are still understudied and neglected in this topic. As a female scholar and diasporic writer, I trust that I am in a unique position to help draw out the deep-running currents from memories of trauma for the women involved. This first step of recalling/recounting will set the pace for healing and emotional wellness. Though the focus of this project is on the Vietnamese immigrant women living in the U.S., this series benefits from my tripartite research in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Since much of the trauma and loss took place in Vietnam during the war, my understanding of the topic has been enriched by stories of Vietnamese living in all three continents. I am formulating a new way to assess the effects of traumatic experiences with a transnational mindfulness, in hope of getting at a way to help us heal from a difficult past via a comparative and relational understanding.

Here, I speak of a 'glocal' context that encompasses Vietnamese experiences in their home country and in the diasporas. The word ‘glocal' brings together the local and global, conveying effectively the duality that is present both in Vietnam and in its diasporas. The local is no longer just Vietnam, because it has been transposed to other parts of the world, starting with the 1975-present exoduses. Vice versa, the global can very much be felt in Vietnam owing to its interactions with the world and the return of its expatriates. It is important for me to show the linkage between the Vietnamese diasporas and Vietnam, not only during the pre-immigration process, but also at present. This linkage speaks of how the past trauma remains, albeit transformed in one way or another, in the lives of those who experienced it.

The narratives will be drawn primarily from the Vietnamese American Project, which I founded and directed in 1998 at Center for Oral and Public History, initially financed with my student loans and subsequently supported by the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at CSU Fullerton and other grants - thanks to my advisor Dr. Art Hansen and the Dean Dr. Thomas Klammer. For an understanding of the Vietnamese diasporic experiences, I draw from my decades-long research projects, including the Vietnamese Stockholm Project (under the auspice of a Fulbright full grant) and the Vietnamese Berlin Project. These interconnected projects bear witness to the experiences of ethnic Vietnamese people through wartime in their homeland, immigration processes, and resettlement. It is my hope that the fellowship stories I am working on will be useful to the Vietnamese American communities, as well as anyone who has experienced war, loss, persecution, separation, dis/re-location, and acculturation.