History often feels impersonal and distant. A list of dates and events that supposedly shaped our reality, but history is more than just dusty points in time to memorize. History is the memories of our species, and, like memories, history can be forgotten, or in this particular case, suppressed.
On Jan. 6, the MultiCultural Center (MCC) lounge began hosting “Reconstructing Slippages in Time,” a photo collection by Ann Le. Le, a Vietnamese American photographer based in Los Angeles, has struggled with defining what being Vietnamese American means in our contemporary age through her art. The collection contains images and pieces from Le’s past collections and documents her own personal struggle with her past, blurred by the events of the Vietnam War.
In an interview with The Bottom Line, Le stated that growing up, ”my dad owned a pho restaurant and my mom did nails … to me, that was what being Viet American was: nails, pho, and the war.” According to her, her parents rarely talked about the war.
Witnessing Ann’s MCC exhibition for the first time, I was captivated by the pictures of people with their faces wiped out, overlayed on a background of particular Southeast Asian fruits. So haunting and real were they, I felt both nostalgia and sorrow.
When asked why she made the images as she did, Le said, “I wanted to allow people to see themselves in them … to ask what if it was your family.” Those pieces, and the collection they were originally from were designed to highlight an often purposefully hidden, but deeply entrenched aspect of Vietnamese American identity: the war.
The Vietnam War upended many lives and wrought much destruction, forcing many Vietnamese to flee their home as it was crumbling around them. Often these memories are so marred in loss and familiarity that they manifest as an apprehension with sharing Vietnamese culture, of trying to protect their children from the burden of knowing and the stigma of being different.
Being Vietnamese American means grappling with what this identity entails. To be Vietnamese and to come to a nation that was once both ally and enemy can be confusing and scary. The oldest collection on Ann’s website details her doing this very thing.
Looking at Le documenting her mother recounting their journey from Vietnam to the sunny shores of San Diego felt cathartic for me. Le’s mom always seemed to be holding back tears in those photographs and it reminded me of my own dad. Whenever he talked about life back in Vietnam, it always felt like he was dreaming of a time long gone, of memories since blurred by age and sorrow. The nostalgia of what was before the war and the pain that came after fused into a journey of rediscovery for Le and her mother in much the same way it was for me and my dad.
In an interview with The Bottom Line, Rose Hoang, the MCC programming assistant most involved with the exhibition, discussed why she decided to showcase Le’s work this quarter. She shared how Vietnam at times feels out of place in both the East and Southeast Asian spheres. She wanted to uplift a people she had so rarely seen mentioned, much less in the spotlight: people of her own upbringing.
Culturally East Asia, but genetically and linguistically Southeast Asia, Vietnam comes off as an outcast to both the southeast and east Asian spheres. As a Vietnamese American, I don’t often see my people’s history represented so when finding out that the MCC lounge did a whole exhibition on it instilled a moment of pride in me as well as happiness for the entire Vietnamese American community here at UC Santa Barbara.