It is not easy to find a redeeming feature about driving to work in metro Los Angeles. But there is one thing that I like about my commute: reaching the end of Interstate 10 and turning into the Pacific Coast Highway, known locally as PCH. Not only there is less traffic in the morning, but the sight and sound of the ocean emerge pleasantly – and, sometimes, the smell. Even when dark or cold or foggy, the remaining fifteen miles of the commute have helped to lower heartbeats, lessen blood pressure, relax the mind, and, on occasions, conjure up visions and possibilities before attending to the specific and quotidian that make up the bulk of the work day.
Some of those dreams and visions are realistic enough; others, too lofty and grandiose. I’m not sure which category this one falls into. But twice last semester this thought popped in my head shortly after I turned into PCH: Goodness, maybe I am the only person in this world that can pull it off! “It,” in one case, has to do with a research project. In the other case, it concerns the topic in the title of this post.
All right, there are probably other people in this world that can do what I set out to do – and do them better. But until there is evidence to the contrary, I hold on to the illusion that I am uniquely qualified and, therefore, must do them. In this case, I’ll write a series of blog posts about the history of American immigration in my mother tongue and intended for the general Vietnamese reader.
The main reason for blogging this series has to do with the paucity in quantity and quality of Vietnamese-language writings about U.S. history, especially the history of immigration and ethnicity. Sure, there are a few books in Vietnamese about American history. But they are passable at best and, at worst, they are too dull that their readers may be justified in losing interest about American history and, instead, reverting to common tropes and truisms.
There are also some websites that carry Vietnamese translations of secondary sources originally written in English. The most popular source may be the Vietnam Embassy website, which carries a translation of the U.S. Department of State’s publication Outline of U.S. History , most recently revised by Prof. Alonzo Hamby. What is good for the goose, however, may not be good for the gander. To most Vietnamese readers, I think this outline offers information without a lot of understanding.
Then there is the Wikipedia entry on American history. Judging from the sources, it looks to be a translation geared towards English readers as well. There are also seven designated eras for further entries but, the last I looked, only four have been translated. Put it another way, even the quantity isn’t yet enough, leave alone the quality.
It’s not for a lack of effort, and in fact it is touching to see non-specialists making an attempt to write or translate a popular history of the U.S. into Vietnamese. Years ago in South Vietnam, for example, Prof. Nguyễn Thế Anh wrote a short history of the U.S. from independence to the Civil War. Based on secondary sources, especially in French, it was published in 1969 but, as far as I know, never caught on with the Vietnamese public. Indeed, it doesn’t even appear in a list of his most important works. (It is listed in the lower list at #4.)
Then the 1970s saw a thick translation of Franck Schoell’s classic Histoire des Etat-Unis (original publication in France in 1965), which was intended for, obviously, a French audience. I looked through it once several years ago and thought that probably only a few parts would make sense to an average Vietnamese reader, be it the 1970s or today.
In the diaspora, the magazine Viet Tide recently brought out a collection of previously published articles about U.S. government and history by Ta Tri, the current mayor of Westminster, Calif. I haven’t got hold of a copy but from what I’ve read about it, the collection sounds like a move in the right direction.
As any capable history teacher know, there is no universal way of teaching the subject effectively because effective teaching begins with students, whose knowledge and frame of reference vary from one group to another. Likewise, history writing, especially at a popular level, should be geared towards a particular audience than an assumed universal audience.
Here’s an example. Early in the first chapter of the translation of Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction, the Vietnamese translation shows a quotation from W. E. B. DuBois. The text is kept exactly as the original, leaving Vietnamese readers in the dark on whom DuBois might be and why he said what he did.
For these and other reasons, I decide to add monthly blogging about American immigration history to my writing agenda for 2016. I had this idea for some time, and decided that this is the year to do it after Mr. Trần Dạ Từ at Việt Báo in Little Saigon invited me to contribute an article to Việt Báo’s annual Tet special issue. The article is about “the Century of Immigration” and includes two short examples about Irish and German immigrants. There is, of course, plenty more about the nineteenth century, leave alone all of American immigration history. Some of this long and rich history, I hope, will be explained to Vietnamese readers in this blog series.
The scope is narrowed to the history of immigration and ethnicity because (a) immigration figures large in my American history survey course at Pepperdine, and (b) Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, my intended readers, figure large in the more recent waves of immigration to the U.S. I will do my best to explain this history to Vietnamese readers obviously through language, but also from a frame of reference understandable to them. I will, for instance, reference examples of Vietnamese history and literature for certain analogies. Or, I may draw comparison between the experience of this or that immigrant group to the certain experience among Vietnamese.
Will see how it goes, but it’s worth a shot. In the meantime, wish me luck because I’ll need it to pull off this series. 🙂