Sunday, April 12, 2015

Week 3: Conservative Ethnic, Forgotten and Invisible Histories

Ogee Erana
Venice Santos
Xanh Tran
Izabela Villanueva

Week 3: Conservative Ethnic, Forgotten and Invisible Histories

Underhill “Luminous Elegies: Chăm Family Documentary in Phước Lập, Vietnam.”  
Underhill uses photography as a tool to bring forth and visibilize the Cham identity to a larger audience. To bring this topic into perspective, Underhill relates the struggles and cultural identity of Cham individuals to Native Americans as both are invisibilized by multiple societies. Typically, America is either considered to be a land of all white people or a land of immigrants; these problematic ways of thinking further marginalizes the Native American community. The same explanation can be said about the native Cham people that have been invisibilized by multiple communities and nations as well. Underhill uses photography as a medium in an attempt to shed light on the Cham culture.
Underhill hoped her photography would capture “elegance and resilience, even in death” (Underhill 794). It was interesting to note that Underhill’s photographs were the first she had ever seen of the Cham; meaning there has supposedly been no photographic documentation of the Cham prior to Underhill. I believe the minimalistic captions that Underhill uses allows the audience to analyze the picture without much context. The captions simply state the people, in relation to her, that are represented in the photos but no other context, allowing an intimate connection to be drawn as family plays a role in the photographs. The monochrome effect of the photos portrays the concept of death as it is commonly believed that the absence of color represents darker times while echoing Underhill’s hope for elegance through simplicity and focus the subject. While I am able to make these small observations about Underhill’s photography, I am left to wonder how easily others can make these connections based on their various life experiences.
During fall quarter, I took ASA 189B: Asian American Photography where I learned to analyze photographs through a critical perspective of what it meant for photographs or photographers to be considered Asian American photography. Some questions came up as I viewed Underhill’s photos: Who is to truly judge a photograph and create an interpretation? The audience or the photographer? In this case, if Underhill’s message is not properly received by the audience, then is her message invalidated? Or is it the audience to blame for not viewing photography through a critical lens? And finally, why must photography be the sole source to capture the sentiments of Underhill? While it is easy to suggest that Underhill used photography to document the Cham since photography is regarded as the best and most convenient way of documenting and proving existence, I believe Underhill might have exhausted all other alternative means to bring the identity of people to a wider population. Photography somehow has been deemed by Westernized audiences that it is the sole proof of existence and without photographs, a group of people are supposedly unseen and thus viewed as nonexistent. It is hard to challenge this notion of photography as it has been engraved into the mindset of most people in today’s high-tech society to think simple mindedly and view things via a screen or image instead of actually reading the stories behind the images and listening to the voices of the individuals that told the stories. Underhill recognizes that her photography lies “in the liminal zone between history and memory” and the new generations must establish a reconnection with the stories that created their identities.
A family portrait of her maternal aunts and uncle, from Julie’s first trip to Việt Nam in 1999.

Underhill “You Didn’t Kill Us All, You Know – Part One and Two.”
While reading this passage, I didn’t know what words or feelings I wanted to use to describe it. Could I call it acts of racism against the Chǎm people? Should I say this is discrimination against them as a people, because many people Underhill encountered thought her people were “all killed off.” Maybe this is just plain ignorance for the Chǎm people and their history which leads to the forgetting of their existence. Clearly, Underhill cannot and did not forget her people. I really felt the oppression Underhill faced as she encountered these people that greeted her existence as Chǎm with such a shock and disbelief.
“We were never meant to survive.” The Chǎm people slaughtered through genocide in a way that was meant to not leave any survivors, but in reality the Chǎm continue to thrive and live in areas of Viet Nam and Cambodia. How can someone claim a motherland when they mentally exclude groups that call it home as well? “If you don’t even know about us as a people, you certainly haven’t held a lifetime of racist and discriminatory assumptions about us.” The reactions Underhill receives when she introduces herself as Chǎm show how much more she and her people must work to establish and affirm their existence.
What I find interesting is that Underhill connects the struggles of the Chǎm people to the Native Americans via the Trail of Tears. I then was able to relate these two peoples struggles with that of my own Pilipinos via the Bataan Death March. I may know of these histories, but in the education system today, only 1 out of these 3 are taught. I ask why is that? Why is it that history taught in schools is so selective to a racial group and though the Trail of Tears is mentioned, it is taught through an American point of view. Therefore, either way no history is told correctly. This idea really didn’t hit me until we spoke about it during the first week of school while watching the documentary about the Viet Nam war. This also feeds into the theme that these people and their histories are invisible and eventually forgotten because no one is teaching them correctly or teaching it at all. Another difficult part is trying to explain your people to the closed-minded and sometimes, the very people who slaughtered your race. She says, “If you’d thought the Chǎm were extinct, how might you acknowledge the history of the conquest of the Champa wthout reproducing the troubling refusal to “see” us.” One key point that Underhill addresses, is that history should not deter the progression in relationships between people and nations. We must continue to educate eachother and never forget our histories so they carry on even after we are gone. Though it is difficult to find people who are willing to learn said histories, those few who do and those few willing to spread the knowledge are out there. This is the light that Underhill says is waiting to shine through the cracks and areas where history of the “forgotten’ and “invisible” are being told.

Nguyen “The Gift of Freedom - Introduction"
The introduction of The Gift of Freedom summarizes the redefining and understanding of what freedom is and how freedom is perceived. Overall, the concept of freedom is largely perceived, especially from a Western point of view to be universal and maintains a formal structure. However, Mimi Nguyen looks into freedom not as a force but as a small catalyst that allows systems that benefit from the commodification of freedom. The concept of freedom isn’t a force; but is something manufactured to be attached to and help manifest systems of measuring intelligence, modernism, capitalism, politics, and society. To have freedom is to render change on a certain peoples, their mindset, their country, and their livelihoods that help objectify, calculate, and exchange standards and systems of these peoples for the preferred standard and systems of the prominent power. In this case, the US is used as the example of the prominent power.  The US uses “the gift of freedom” as justification for colonial and liberal notions and acts that instill the mindset that the US is universally setting the standard for freedom and what freedom brings: the ability to choose, the ability to have equal rights, the ability for a better education, the ability to better yourself, the ability to be safe, and many more idealistic values.  Freedom, as Nguyen states, especially that which the US gifts to people comes with the understanding that the giftee is obligated, indebted, and subjugated to the freedom gift giver. Freedom, then is established as a property that is subject to the assessment of the gift giver, in this case the US.
The example that Nguyen brings up is that of a woman named Madalenna Lai who is an immigrant success story. She brings the narrative of being an immigrant who was gifted freedom in the US after escaping a war-torn Viet Nam. After leaving Viet Nam, she raised her kids on her own and managed to create a business for herself. In Lai’s quotes, she states gratefulness for the opportunity of plentiful food, a good educational system, freedom, and human rights.  Conversely, Lai deals with the paradox in America that she is in debt in the economically. But she maintains that the freedom she and her children currently have is beyond any value; thus establishing gNguyen’s argument that the gift of freedom instills the sense of obligations and owing to the power that bestowed of the gift of freedom. With Lai’s personal narrative, Nguyen explores and contemplates the liberal powers behind the ability to choose what freedom entails; but also manages to explain that there are positive sides to obtaining freedom.
Nguyen challenges the disclosure of freedom, the authorities behind freedom, and acknowledges all aspects of freedom both positive and negative. Within the rest of her book, she combs through personal narratives of people from Southeast Asia who have experience the gift of freedom. With their accounts, she studies how freedom is closely tied to liberal imperialism, is commoditized, and affects people differently.

"Nguyen challenges the disclosure of freedom, the authorities behind freedom, and acknowledges all aspects of freedom both positive and negative."

Pham “For Father, For Country”
For Father, For Country is a narrative of a man who dealt with the questions of his father’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the reason behind being in America, and of his own identity. The author wrestles with his memories of the war, what he understood about his father, and the difference in his understanding of the war and the teachings about the war. The author proves that the love for his father, the journey which his father went through, and his own journey helped him come to the conclusion of the question that lead to all of the questions he dealt with: what did America give to his family?
The narrator starts with an explanation of the pride he had in his father and the reminiscing of the memories and the understanding he had of his father’s role in the military during the war in Vietnam. Growing up, he saw how the images he had of his father and the war juxtaposed each other. To him, his father was a joking, but proud air pilot who did his duty while in the teachings of America he was taught differently about the participants of the war especially non-American ones. He posed the question to himself whether or not his father committed atrocities in the war. What furthered his confusion was the lack of recognition that his father received for being a part of the war. During his father’s funeral, the narrator posed many more question connected to the fact that his father was being buried under the honors of a country that did not exist anymore. These questions take on a resented tone marking events like the US quickly abandoning its allies and his father’s own decision to stay behind to be held prisoner for years while narrator and the rest of the family got the opportunity to go to America.
These contemplations and confusion was only resolved after, the narrator joined the military and similarly went through a war. His understanding and perspective had changed. The narrator makes the connection to his current war that to his father the US represented the freedom that was taken away after the Republic of Vietnam lost the war. From his own experience in the war he is able to come to the conclusion that fighting in a war means fighting for the freedom, the people, and the flag that could get taken away if the war is lost. To his father, the war that he lost took away all that and more, but the US was a source of a new beginning for his family. The narrator is able to see in the end that the reason why his father never looked back was because the US was a second chance at the freedom that he had fought and lost. This very lesson is why the narrator says he will do the same with the war he fought and how he and his family will be forever indebted to the US.
This story provides a complex admiration and yet resentment towards the US by a Southeast Asian and his understanding of the Vietnam War. There is admiration for his father, the memories he hold of his father’s military endeavors and friends, and US itself for being a source of new beginnings. However, there are tones of resentment in how the US abandoned the war effort, fails to acknowledge all the participants in the war, and how the author’s own experiences with his father’s death and life confuses him. Furthermore, the narrator proves Mimi Nguyen’s point in that freedom does come with some sort of debt; the speaker says so in his final paragraph tying the positives of what America brought to his family with the quote “for that we are indebted” (Pham, 13). The complexity of how Southeast Asian Americans see the freedom that America gives them renders their own notion of whether America is a positive power or a negative power despite all that America has done; thus showing how much power the US has over the commodity of freedom.  

Vang “The Refugee Soldier: A Critique of Recognition and Citizenship in the Hmong Veteran’s Naturalization Act of 1997.”
Vang discusses the contradictions in how the US government deals with Hmong in recognition and naturalization by using narratives of alliance and racial primitivity, and portraying the Hmong as soldiers, refugees, and stateless people at the same time.  
Vang’s first point is that the US recognition of Hmong peoples through citizenship “reproduces the unequal Hmong-US relationship (as a debt owed)”. Their status as a “refugee soldier” creates a relationship with limiting contractual citizenship based on an “equal” exchange of service for citizenship. The recognition of Hmong veterans for their sacrifices and contributions “reproduced the violence of US militarism though its recuperation of the nation-state as moral and benevolent”. Vang sees the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 1997 as a productive but incomplete site of state recognition, involving without addressing pasts and presents of “empire, citizenship, ‘secret’ wars, and racial difference”. 
Connecting Vang’s work to current events in the community, the Hmong are considered by the public eye as backwards and “primitive” in the light of the more recent events, and there has been little discussion of the so called “secret” war. More commonly, when any news concerning Hmong communities arises, it usually involves gang violence or domestic abuse, the only ways mass media sees fit to recognize them. The complexity of citizenship, while unique in the refugee soldier dynamic to the Hmong, is seen also in other communities such as those of Koreans and Cambodians, so Vang’s critique of the US’s recognition and naturalization policies gives another perspective and sheds light on the complexity and implicit effects of legislation and history.

Questions given by Professor Valverde:

  • What are some attitudes of Southeast Asian groups towards the United states?  
  • What are the sources of these sentiments and why are they still so prevalent?

5 Questions for Class Discussion!
  1. Does the freedom and liberty in America represent something negative or positive to you personally? To your family?
  2. How does photography affect the understanding of a situation or an event?Why is it that photography is taken as proof?How did reading about the event alongside these images change your own understanding or make you question it?
  3. In what ways does the U.S. create the concept of freedom and citizenship?How does that tie into the creation of one's identity?
  4. Do you identify yourself as having freedom and what exactly does that freedom entitle? Who set those standards for you?
  5. Considering the broader analysis on the Viet Nam War and how it shaped perspectives via media and promises, how has it changed your own understandings of the current war? or even past wars that not only the U.S. has fought but other countries as well?

1. Julie Thi Underhill. “Luminous Elegies: Chăm Family Documentary in Phước Lập, Vietnam.” Positions. 2. Julie Thi Underhill. “You Didn’t Kill Us All, You Know – Part One and Two.” 3. Mimi Nguyen. “The Gift of Freedom – Introduction.” 4. Pham, Andrew X. “For Father, For Country.” 5. Vang, Ma. “The Refugee Soldier: A Critique of Recognition and Citizenship in the Hmong Veteran’s Naturalization Act of 1997.” Positions.

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