A group of researchers and scholars gathered Wednesday to discuss the role of Asian Americans in history and a current project dedicated to narratives from Asian Americans living in the Midwest.
“Performing History,” is the result of a research project led by University of Wisconsin professor Timothy Yu, UW senior lecturer Victor Jew, UW theatre professor David Furumoto, and Northwestern University associate professor Ji-Yeon Yuh. The Asian-American studies expert team spent the past two years collecting oral histories, which culminated in a performance reading of accumulated stories, a workshop on migration, and tonight’s open conversation.
“This is an effort never before done to both recover histories, record oral history interviews, dramatize them, put them in new forms and make them real,” Jew said. “We hope to take this general model, replicate it, and have everyday people in Detroit or Los Angeles or San Francisco do this recovery…[but] let it not be forgotten that it started here in the midwest.”
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The project’s main focus was battling the “California-centric story,” which reinforces the idea of Asian Americans normally only residing on the west coast. This, in addition to the media’s portrayal of small-town white families comprising the heart of America, causes midwestern Asian Americans to feel ostracized, critically-acclaimed author and panel member Bich Minh Nguyen said.
Nguyen reflected on the feeling of growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in a predominantly white area of the U.S. and feeling as though her experiences were invalid because she did not live on a coast.
“General American imagination is very invested in the idea of the Midwest as a white space, and when the media refers to the Midwest what they really mean is a white family and small-town America — flyover country,” Nguyen said. “I think that investment in the whiteness of the space is another way of saying ‘you don’t really belong here, this is not your space.’”
Panel member and Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University Patricia Nguyen grew up with oral histories embedded in her life since her dad often shared war stories.
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In her interviews with Midwestern Asian Americans, Patricia Nguyen successfully collected similar personal accounts by using art and food to build cultural bridges and facilitate conversation. She said some of the best stories she heard came from barbecues, where people were able to relax and fraternize with one another.
Aside from the connective powers of food, the panelists agreed “Performing History” is a significant, unique method of Asian American representation and acknowledgment of past hardships.
“The work of performing oral history doesn’t have to end with catharsis, or end with closure,” Patricia Nguyen said. “I actually think that the work of performing oral history is the work also of justice in many ways, of inciting the fact that these oral histories can be contextualized with the larger histories of colonization, of war, of deportation, of Exclusion Acts, of internment — the fight to have these stories told and the fight to have these stories centered…is so crucial.”