True life stories
Archived article from Nov 18, 2002
By Rochelle Runas
A smartly dressed Vietnamese woman stood before a class of students one October afternoon poised to begin her talk as the invited guest speaker. But as her first few words trickled forth, so did her tears, and it was immediately clear that the next 80 minutes were going to be difficult for Hoang Huynh (pronounced Hwang Hoon).
Huynh was one of five speakers slated to tell their life stories to the 20 students taking an innovative class, "Asian American Immigration: Living History." Taught by To-Thi Bosacchi, director of Rutgers' Asian American Cultural Center, the course combines historical research with oral history as told by local Asian-American immigrants. First offered last year, it is supported by a Rutgers Dialogues Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Undergraduate Education and is implemented by the center and the department of Asian languages and culture.
Crushing countless tissues in her hand, Huynh revealed the emotional wounds she acquired living in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and later as a refugee. She was just a teen-ager, she said, when her family was caught in the middle of the Tet Offensive, a series of crucial attacks launched by Vietnamese Communists throughout South Vietnam during the lunar New Year of 1968. "Many neighbors and good friends were wounded or died. Life and death was something we had to learn about early in life," she recalled.
Huynh spoke of her harsh life under communist rule and her narrow escape from Saigon in 1978. She recalled her journey that began on a small fishing boat crossing a stormy sea to Malaysia and ended with her new life in America.
Although the college audience consisted of students born long after the Vietnam War and in different parts of the globe, including Brazil, Jamaica, China and Korea, they seemed strongly moved by Huynh's story.
"The course deals with the experience of Asian Americans that has been missing in history," Bosacchi said. "The speakers serve as living witnesses to this experience and help the students see the connection between U.S. policy and the immigrantí»s life and acculturation process." Bosacchi said she was glad that the course drew such a diverse group of students because "this course is meant to enrich the knowledge of all students, not just Asian-American students, about our society."
Other guest speakers this semester included a second generation American-born politician of South Asian descent; a man whose family was uprooted to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II; and a Filipina-American businesswoman.
"This course is teaching me more about different cultures and perspectives," said David Rhei, a senior of Korean heritage majoring in psychology and minoring in Asian studies. Like many students in the class, his parents immigrated to the United States decades ago. "I think a lot of students in my generation, no matter what ethnic background, also feel that they are losing their culture, and a class like this can help them understand their roots and their place in American society."