An Oral History

Ba interview 1

This weekend marked a very special milestone on the Dragonfish Path, one worthy of awakening the sleeping Dragonfish Blog. I achieved an major goal for the year by recording an oral history interview with my grandmother before our family Christmas gathering. Part of understanding where I come from is understanding who I come from – and I know my mom’s mom (known as “Ba” in Vietnamese) is full of stories that I’ve never heard.

A few months ago, I sent my grandmother a list of nearly 50 questions, everything from what toys and foods she liked as a child, to how the conflicts in Vietnam affected her life. In a more perfect universe, I would have been able to understand and speak Vietnamese well enough to conduct the interview myself. But in this case, the importance of getting the story surmounted my language hangups and I enlisted the help of my mom as an interviewer. Rather than interrupting their flow to get things translated, I just sat back to bask in the interaction of these two important women in my life, content that I could pick out enough words to know which question they were on, and requesting more elaboration at some points.

Ba interview 2

The quality of the video is far from professional as I futzed over the background and lighting. Most important was trying to make sure Ba was comfortable, and it seemed most fitting to shoot the video at her kitchen table. And at the end of the day, the main thing is that we captured her story (or at least the parts that she was able to tell in our hour-and-a-half  recording session). When I first sent her the questions, Ba had told my mom and aunt she wasn’t sure who would want to listen to her stories. But I think we convinced her how much this would mean to her children and grandchildren, and at the end of the interview, she said she was happy to be able to share something with us in this way.

I hope to work with my mom on the translation and try to stitch it together with video I collected on our family trip to Vietnam with Ba earlier this year. With any luck, I may have something to show for it by the time Ba turns 90 next September…At any rate, the dream of the Dragonfish Path is still alive, and I hope to keep moving forward on it step by step.

One last note on that illustrates the intricacies of the Vietnamese language. There are no simple words for “I” or “you.” Everything is contextual (which means just starting a conversation with someone is rife with pitfalls for the beginning language learner). Before we started the interview, my grandma asked how she should refer to herself. We decided that the more formal “toi” was too impersonal, and so she referred to herself as the more familiar “me” or “mom,” since she was talking to her daughter, my mom.

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