By Nora Pehrson
Growing up in the 1970s in College Park, Maryland with a Vietnamese-born mother and an American-born father, Virginia Humanities Fellow Kim O’Connell’s experience of identity has always been complicated. How can immigrants assimilate into a new place without sacrificing their heritage? What does citizenship mean in a state that includes nearly one million foreign-born residents? These are some of the questions that have shaped O’Connell’s work. Her forthcoming book, The Saving Grace of Spring Rolls, uses her own family history to navigate and illuminate the broader Vietnamese immigrant experience in the years during and after the Vietnam War.
The theme of O’Connell’s work happens to align with the recently concluded “Voices of Vietnam” series by Virginia Humanities’ With Good Reason radio show. Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Voices of Vietnam” explored the unresolved tensions in our understanding of the Vietnam War and the perspectives and people it forever changed. The final episode in the series, “A Lost Homeland,” shared the stories of some of the Vietnamese communities that formed in America after the fall of Saigon.
Sarah McConnell, host of With Good Reason, recently sat down to talk with O’Connell about her time as a Virginia Humanities Fellow. They discussed the complexities of having a biracial and cross-cultural heritage, dissected the idea of the United States as a melting pot, pondered intergenerational shifts in values, and examined the cultural significance of spring rolls and properly cooked rice.
SM: Most Americans remember the desperate, dangerous exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families after the fall of Saigon [in 1975]. But your own mother’s journey to America began before the fall.
KO: That’s right. My mother was a very bright student in school and got herself hired as an instructor by the U.S. Army to teach Vietnamese to American soldiers. She was at the Okinawa army base in Japan when my father landed there in 1964. They were back in the United States as a married couple by early 1967.
My mother was able to get out of Vietnam not as a refugee, but as a young bride with a bright future. That was the reality I accepted for a long time. But I feel more empathy now for the difficulties that she went through leaving home.
SM: Your mother made sure everyone in your family spoke English, listened to American music, ate American food. Did you feel like the all-American family?
KO: Yes and no. I lived in a suburban house in College Park, Maryland, and I had white skin like my father. My mother felt a great sense of gratitude towards the United States and her way of repaying that gratitude was to be as American as possible. She was a PTA volunteer and held potluck dinners with the neighbors. But we did experience some racism because my parents were an interracial couple. People yelled things at my family and I had a neighbor boy that liked to call my brother and me “VC,” for Viet Cong. That was his supposedly funny little nickname for us. And I don’t think my mother had many close friends until the Vietnamese enclave was established in Arlington. There were many years when my mother was doing her absolute best to fit in, but was probably pretty lonely as a person.
SM: Tell me about your forthcoming book.
KO: My book is a hybrid of journalism and memoir. It builds on my own personal story of trying to understand what it is about me that makes me half Vietnamese. Many Vietnamese immigrants and refugees come here and have a hard time figuring out, “How do I become American, how do I stay Vietnamese?” It’s a struggle for me as a child of this interracial union to try and understand that, as well.
SM: The title of this forthcoming book, The Saving Grace of Spring Rolls, is very poignant because it is one of the things that most notably bound you and your mother at your best.
KO: That’s right. We have been cooking and eating spring rolls together for more than forty years. Whether it’s spring rolls or some other dish, for a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, cooking and eating and shopping for food is such a strong way to feel connected. So that’s why I chose that title.
SM: Tell me about your mother’s spring rolls and how she made them.
KO: Well, they’re packed! She uses two different kinds of meat and a whole range of vegetables— carrots, onion, mushrooms, jicama, peppers, and bean sprouts. It’s all seasoned into this incredible mixture that’s even greater than the sum of its parts. Then you set up a factory on the table where you have the filling, the spring roll wrappers, and usually a little beaten egg which binds the wrapper together. And you have to fry them standing at the stove. It’s a wonderful, aromatic, and very rewarding process.
SM: As part of our “Voices of Vietnam” series, we created a nationally broadcast mini documentary on the experience of Vietnamese Americans after the war. It’s called “A Lost Homeland.” What stood out for you as you listened to the younger Vietnamese Americans in that episode talking about wrestling with their identity?
KO: I really related to that part of the program. The speakers talked about how the first generation of immigrants felt this kind of reverence and gratitude toward the United States, while the younger generation is more progressive. There’s a little more dissent in the ranks. That’s the same tension that I’ve experienced with my mother.
SM: You write about a Catholic priest who described the struggle to be from two countries this way: He said it’s like catching two fish with two hands. It’s not easy.
KO: Yes. It’s really kind of impossible, actually.
SM: I think there is a lack of understanding on the part of most of us. We think each little family, far flung from one another, will become Americanized. But sometimes the very opposite happens.
KO: That’s right. We all remember the phrase about America being the great melting pot. The overarching idea of that is that people’s selves kind of disappear as they melt. Now there’s more of a sense that what we really need is a mosaic—we need all the pieces to be there. The effort to spread out [immigrant communities] was an effort to make them melt away, but instead they kept sparkling and creating these enclaves, like Arlington’s former “Little Saigon.”
SM: A few years ago, you had a project that was funded in part by Virginia Humanities where you put together an oral history of the Vietnamese Americans who settled in the Arlington, Virginia area outside Washington, DC. That turned out to be the largest congregation of Vietnamese Americans on the East Coast. What did you learn about that community and what that gave to Vietnamese Americans who were settling here?
KO: It gave them a sense of home. The oral history program was really led by Virginia Tech students, and I served as a consultant. A Virginia Humanities grant allowed us to use those oral history interviews in support of a booklet that I wrote called “Echoes of Little Saigon” that was published with support from the Arlington County government.
What I discovered in that process was how important small acts—like shopping for a bottle of fish sauce—were for building a sense of home and a sense of peace. That’s what allows you the strength to confront all the tasks that face you in terms of setting up a new life.
I was very much struck in your “Lost Homeland” program, in fact, by how some of the interviewees were talking about rice and how important it was to have rice cooked right. It sounds so basic, but actually, an investigation about the importance of rice is part of my research because rice is the lifeblood for so many cultures.
SM: Can you tell the difference between rice à la American and rice à la Vietnamese?
KO: I certainly can.
SM: Give me one tip about rice that’s not just “add rice to salted boiling water.”
KO: Rinse it several times. You take all this surface starch off the rice and it just cooks up fluffy and perfect. My mother would always do that.
SM: What did your experience as a Fellow at Virginia Humanities last spring give you?
KO: The fellowship afforded me an office at the Library of Virginia for the spring semester of this year. Just to have that space and time to really think deeply about my project, to write, and do research, it was just such a gift.
Kim O’Connell was gracious enough to share her mother’s recipe for Vietnamese spring rolls (Cha Giò) with us! Download it and share them with your family.
- Listen to With Good Reason’s “Voices of Vietnam”series and explore related lesson plans.
- Learn more about Arlington’s Little Saigon in the booklet mentioned by O’Connell.
- Hear Virginia Folklife master artist Nam Phuong Nguyen play a Vietnamese lullaby on the dan bau.
- Hear Vietnamese immigrant Nhi Le share the story of her journey from Vietnam to Virginia, part of the New Virginians exhibit we produced for the 2019 commemoration, American Evolution.