"Are there other ways to connect with your culture without the filter of your parents?"
If you heard our Root & Seed Podcast season three finale interview with Grace Phan-Nguyen, you know we left that conversation at the genesis of a whole other story. Grace's life purpose is to document cultural stories - especially those previously underrepresented in media and share a narrative they left untold. One in particular echoes her experience as a descendant of Vietnamese political refugees.
In this episode, we go deeper into her cultural experiences and do our best to answer the question: "Are there other ways to connect with your culture without the filter of your parents?”
Grace is a producer, screenwriter, and researcher. She originally started in theatre specializing in arts management and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives. She recently switched to film and television; specializing in youtube. Her clients include, My Name is Andong and Made With Lau. She's interested in food research, documentaries, feeding friends or family, and long naps.
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Hey there, welcome to the Root & Seed Podcast, my name is Anika Chabra. Co-Founder Jenn Siripong Mandel and I often reflect on just how lucky we are that we get to wake up every day and help inspire people to collect their family stories, reflect on how those events and experiences influence their present-day sense of self, and decide what they want to take forward into the future. We appreciate every single one of you in this community and don’t take your willingness to share the “ups and downs” with us lightly. If you're new here, just jump right in. Each story is unique and complete as is. Think of them as short glimpses into people’s relationships with their heritages and the journey to navigate that relationship revealed.
This is the first episode of our fourth season and we can’t be more excited to bring you a new set of stories from people across the cultural spectrum. So far we’ve covered cultural inspirations, honouring our heritages and celebrating our traditions. We always knew we wanted to create a season on documenting and that’s exactly what this season is all about. Whether it be personal documentation for familial preservation of history and traditions or documenting with the idea of inspiration for others in mind. Documenting can take the form of oral histories, written novels, film, theatre, genealogical facts stored in an Evernote, or our personal favourite, a memory in the Root & Seed conversation tool. Whatever format your documenting takes, we just hope you keep doing it and stay inspired. We have a whole season of amazing documentarians quote unquote. Some are professional, some are amateur and some came upon it by surprise.
If you heard our season three finale interview with Grace Phan-Ngyuen, we know you were entertained. In reality that was only half our conversation with Grace and there was a whole other side to her story. Grace has gone to school for and has made it her life’s work to document cultural stories, especially those previously underrepresented in media. And she is embarking on documenting a narrative that has yet to be told fully and one that is super personal to her own background as a descendant of Vietnamese refugees. We do know that Grace hasn’t quite felt like she attained “Auntie status” yet so this time we let her introduce herself. The way that she does so speaks volumes for her as a respectful, culturally sensitive and inviting human. And as she tells it, documentation and culture are central to who she is. Here’s Grace.
I am originally born and raised in Toronto, which is part of the Treaty Thirteen agreement with the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. So my relations to the land has always been, my parents are originally from Vietnam, but they were displaced by war.
And so the foundations they built upon was on this land here that was originally taking care of these amazing Indigenous communities. And so I tried to bring that type of history into the work that I do specifically just like, how do I bring the spirit of acknowledgment and the credits, from let's say the food that comes to my table. And I originally started in theatre and specialized in arts management and production, stage management, and then I went into film and television during the COVID times because I actually got married to a German person, moved to Berlin, and eventually I was trying to think of what does it mean to really celebrate who I am?
What is Canadian culture? What is Vietnamese culture and now German culture? So I wanted to take that into consideration especially for this episode because there's new cultures that I have to adapt for more personal reasons and the ones that I was born with, which I thought was something I really cherish.
Listening back to that introduction leaves us with knowing that Grace is grounded and introspective. She's really digging into and asking the questions of who she is and trying to make sense of that. But what fuels her drive to find answers to these questions? We just had to know why the act of documenting is so important to her.
That's a really great question. So it actually goes back to my theatre research because more times than not, do I get into a situation where there is no oral or written history about the things that are happening in the moment. Maybe this is also coming from an influence from my husband because he's a huge history nerd specifically with medieval German history, which kind of ties in with the food history that I deal with.
No one really knows the full details. The more in-depth the documentation either orally or written, really makes a difference of how to connect back to the history, but also to move it forward into the future. I think our responsibility now is to commit it to memory and I know that as soon as my children are born, they're going to be either second or third culture children, which means that they are further removed from the cultures that they may visibly present, but have that cultural disconnect. And I want to protect them in a way that allows them to have confidence if they were to go back to Vietnam or live in Germany or live in Toronto. They have the tools and skills and language to allow them to figure out their identity.
I can't figure that identity out for them because I won't have that experience. I'm fully Vietnamese and the way I look, but they're going to look mixed. And once they're mixed, are they German? Are they Canadian? Or are they Vietnamese? And if I can give them that language, the context, whatever is attractive to them I want them to put that into their mural of culture, their image, so to speak. But also I want to be a resource for other folks who are in similar situations. And I think once you do it. I'm not trying to save the world, so to speak. I would just want to do it for myself and if other people resonate with the work and can take from it, that would bring me so much joy.
I've had to come to this point through my development and my own growth and a lot of grace because I made a lot of mistakes. I really admire the Black and Indigenous and Brown communities that I was a part of because they had such a strong or they still do have a really strong sense of their identity, their cultural groundedness that I lacked. And that envy that I had really made me try to strive for something similar, but it was only at face value, so to speak. So I had to be called into a lot of conversations where I had to really reflect on the hurt that I had from my disconnect of my culture and I need to do the work for myself so that I don't hurt other people, so that I don't impose on them in their own journey, but also through my mistakes and my learning that other people can take that away from where I am.
Grace has really taken this reflection to the next level and perhaps what’s most impressive is her desire to future-proof the next generation’s ability to access a connection to their history in her efforts. It’s really no wonder that she is diving into uncovering an untold story from her own background and bringing that to the world in her documentary that she's working on. She starts by answering the question about what people from outside her culture might not understand.
There is this term called Việt Kiều, which means overseas Vietnamese folks and there's this very interesting dynamic about Việt Kiềus because they normally are viewed upon by folks back at home with disdain. And at one point the Vietnamese government asked for Việt Kiềus to come back and invest in Vietnam's development. So a huge wave of Việt Kiềus either in my generation or the generation before have actually moved back to Vietnam to create businesses because they were born and raised in a different country. They bring those cultures back and they actually bring back a lot of international business because they are very attractive as like the point in Vietnam for understanding. Let's say a Western culture, it'd be that cultural translation to those in Vietnam. And so these companies are more willing to go back and invest in Vietnam.
So I think that dynamic is really interesting because what does that mean for Việt Kiều folks who are disconnected culturally and potentially language-wise come back to Vietnam and live there? Does that mean you're reconnecting or is it that go back to your country type of fulfillment where they're rejected by the country that they were born in? I think that dynamic is very unique to folks with immigrant backgrounds, but I think what is unique to the Việt Kiềus is the attitude from home or from the motherland, because how do you translate the disdain? How do you get past that? Because each culture has different things that they're fixated on.
I don't know if that fully answers the question, but that's an assumption that I have and that's also something I'm very curious about. I went back to Vietnam for two months when I was in university and it was a foreign experience yet it felt familiar because my parents talked about Vietnam. They talked about when they were growing up, not necessarily about the trauma they experienced during the war. There's a huge silence culture about it, but when I was there the neighbours and people who knew my family, they asked me why hasn't your parents come back yet? And it's actually because my parents are political refugees. They've actually spoken out against the communist government. So they don't have that luxury to go back home. And for those in Vietnam, they didn't understand that, they didn't understand the fear of the persecution the same way, because my parents' understanding of Vietnam is back in the eighties or during the Vietnam war. That's the last memories they have of Vietnam, but those who got to live through the hard times in Vietnam and now that it's better, they say it's better now. They can come back, it's fine. That dissonance is so heavy I find because when I go back, I also have that fear because I took it from my parents and that's what I knew.
And then I was learning about all of these beautiful things about Vietnam that didn't exist when they were there. So when I went back and I said, hey, did you know that they still do this? Or they started having different phrasings when they go out to drink or hang out with friends and they're like, oh, that's new. Then they would start conversations of like, how was this person or do they still have this building or what happened to this land that our family used to own? And it's like the amount of change that I mentioned to them almost sounds like I'm talking about a different country at this point. I think that sense of loss is also very unique to those who have war torn countries and are rebuilding again because a lot of folks who are displaced by war or famine only have these memories of their home country.
So this documentary is about or I'm hoping that it will be about the Việt Kiềus going back to Vietnam because I was so interested in that dynamic of reconnecting to a culture that hasn’t been filtered through your parents. And going back to essentially something that's completely different from what they remember.
So I am currently looking for Việt Kiềus who have the intention of moving back to Vietnam and documenting their process and their progress to it. And then it's going to be a multi-year project obviously because I want to see if they stay there for a long term or short term. What are the challenges that they face going back to Vietnam? Do they have prejudice against them because they're VQs? Does their Vietnamese sound different that they are instantly recognized as not one of us in the sense of like the Vietnamese community that they insert themselves in? How do you even move to a new country that you have some sort of context of how to speak the language, but not necessarily know how to speak bureaucratic Vietnamese?
That's really important to me because I want to know, is there other ways to connect with your culture without that filter of your parents and what does that mean outside of a tourist experience because I know if I go to Vietnam, I'm not a local, I don't know where to eat. I'm going to go with the typical tourist experience and navigate it as a tourist. So I'm curious about how do you do that long term.
It fascinates us that Grace crystallized this experience as serving the role of connecting with a culture that hasn’t been filtered through her parents and for that reason we are sure it will be inspiring for people inside and outside the Vietnamese culture. Loss, distance and immobility are themes that are relatable across cultures.
This makes us wonder that even if you start documenting for yourself, does your story have the potential to inspire others? What legacy short and long term, near and far could your story have?
Have you ever asked yourself, is there a story you want to capture? A loved one who has experiences that you feel you should hear? Or a friend whose story you have yet to inquire about? Of course, you can start with a prompt from the Root & Seed Conversation tool or as we learn from our next guest, Lucky Budd, there is a wide spectrum of ways you can document. Lucky is a professional historian and 12-time best-selling author who has made it his career to help turn memories into memoirs.
We can’t wait for you to hear his tips for interviewing and crafting your own story. Thanks for listening.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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