Cham People and Going back to Vietnam
Interview by Sara Caswell Kolbet
[00:00:00] JULIE: I am Julie T. Underhill and I am the daughter of a woman who emigrated from Vietnam of French and Cham descent and the daughter of an American Caucasian military contractor who was stationed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War who met my mother. They left during the fall of Saigon and I was born in 1976 the following year in the United States.
[00:00:30] SARA: And talk about your experience of growing up what it was. What did you know about your cultural identity?
[00:00:45] JULIE: My first nine years I grew up in the house with my mother and I was the oldest of four children born in the United States. After she left Vietnam when she left Vietnam she left behind five children. So my is is the I’m sorry the motor just kicked in. I can start again. Is that gonna?
[00:01:06] SARA: I can hear it but if it’s going to go on and off.
[00:01:13] JULIE:How I Grew Up?
[00:01:14] SARA: Yeah start with you’re a growing up and you’re talking your mother.
[00:01:18] JULIE: So for the first nine years of my life I lived in Texas in a home with my mother who had left behind five children during the evacuation. I was the oldest of four born in the United States. And as the oldest of her children I was a sort of a confidant for her. Her experiences in Vietnam included losing her first husband he was killed in action after 13 years of marriage and having to dig up his body and bring it home. She was still full of a lot of grief about that and there are many other ghosts in the house. I had followed her from Vietnam to the United States and she also married a man. She divorced my husband. She divorced her.
[00:02:09] SARA: There was a car…
[00:02:13] JULIE: My mother divorced my father who had left Vietnam with her in 1975 and married her third husband when I was about four years old and he was a former Army captain who served six tours in Vietnam and met and married my mother. Not too long after he returned and between my mother’s grief over leaving her children behind. Losing a husband and also having a sister of mine get killed combined with my stepfather’s unaddressed trauma from Vietnam that began to rise after his marriage to my mother as a result of all of these circumstances I had to leave home at 9 and was put into foster care. And after that my relationship to Vietnam was a gradual winding back in to try to determine what had happened and what had created the circumstance that forced me out of my own home and into a greater awareness of how Vietnam fit into my life which after I left my mother’s home I was no longer close to Vietnamese American society anymore. I was a bit estranged from it.
[00:03:45] SARA: So as far as identifying me when you were younger and you identified with Vietnamese culture?
[00:03:56] JULIE: I identified with at first I would describe to people when they asked What are you anyway? I would I would say that I was Vietnamese and American. And as I grew older I began to realize that my mother wasn’t simply Vietnamese. Her father had been a French soldier who had been stationed in Vietnam during colonial occupation of Vietnam. And her mother was one of the ethnic minority groups of Vietnam the Cham who are a race numbering less than 100,000 today in Vietnam. And as I understood more the complexities of my mother’s ethnic background I was finally able to say I am French time and American which of course led to a history lesson of French colonialism and a bit about U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. So understanding my ethnic identity began to be very closely related to understanding the historical circumstances of my mother’s birth and my father’s reasons for being in Vietnam to begin with.
[00:05:23] SARA: When was this? Did you know this as a child? What you considered when you young?
[00:05:33] JULIE: Yeah. When I was very young I knew that I had siblings who were still in Vietnam who I may never meet and my connection to Vietnam at the time was almost like I was grasping at my family’s ghosts which included older brothers older sisters and an older brother who may possibly never make it out. And it was this quiet desperation in my family our relationship to Vietnam because of the way that war has fragmented the family itself. I had to constantly consider the place as a fresh wound while at the same time living in a society that really wasn’t comfortable talking about the war in Vietnam nor addressing its repercussions at all.
[00:06:33] JULIE: So after I left home my I had a very few conversations with anybody until getting into college actually who were willing to discuss the Vietnam War with me or how my family had come to be in any complex terms. It was very difficult to find my relationship to the war because of that. And it really took some intense work that I chose to do while I was in college to begin to open up that dialogue more explicitly. However in my late teens during a trip to visit my mother going back to Texas from where I was living in Oklahoma at that time during a rare moment alone my stepfather who had been responsible primarily for my reasons for leaving home.
[00:07:27] JULIE: He let me in on something that was pivotal to my understanding of my relationship to war which was that I had always strongly resembled for him someone that he had killed that he had executed when he was piloting helicopter missions in Cambodia and it was quite an admission to me that no one else heard. And it started to expand my consciousness of the interconnectedness that I had with the war in both Vietnam and Cambodia at that point. It’s almost ironic tragic fate that this man who piloted helicopters in Vietnam would go on to marrying a Vietnamese woman whose oldest daughter would look just like someone he had killed.
[00:08:25] JULIE: But that was the circumstance that we found ourselves in and understanding that interconnectedness really forced me to examine my own grief around what I knew were some of the repercussions of that war on my own life. And forced an inquiry into a dialogue that is still continuing today in the work that I’m doing. And it forced an inquiry that I’m still continuing today in the work that I am doing around the Vietnam War and the repercussions of war and general.
[00:09:11] SARA: So I may go back over things that’s.
[00:09:14] JULIE: OK just fine.
[00:09:15] SARA: I want to make sure I cover.
[00:09:16] JULIE: Ok that’s fine.
[00:09:20] SARA: So if you could describe the time in your life when you begin to connect with your mother’s culture that was in college or you’re talking to people in this group and then what was that connection like for you?
[00:09:41] JULIE: Vietnam was brought home for me in many ways when my siblings emigrated when I was 15 and suddenly I had three older sisters and an older brother who couldn’t speak any English at all who are quite dislocated and still very traumatized by my mother having left them behind. And I gradually learned the difficulties that they had faced when I was growing up as a child and they were still there which included my older sister trying to escape Vietnam being detained in Cambodia in a prison for two years and tortured. Those kinds of stories happening to my own siblings began to enlarge for me to my own potential for having gone through the same thing if I had been born there you know just about a year separated my mother leaving Vietnam for my own birth and I could have easily had the life that my siblings had a few years later. In 1999 I went to Vietnam for the first time and the intention was to meet my family to meet my grandmother and while she was on her deathbed and to see where my mother had come from I went with two older siblings in law my younger brother and my nephew and we traveled throughout South Vietnam. And finally for the first time I saw members of my mother’s people the Cham in full blood. Basically my mother was half French and my sisters. Should we wait? I’ m all right.
[00:11:30] SARA: OK so we’re talking when but when you begin to connect to your mother’s culture you’re talking about when you had gone back to the office when you’ve gone back to Vietnam which is another question.
[00:11:43] SARA:But I think it was more of the connection you were feeling with your brothers and siters.
[00:11:50] JULIE: At first. Yeah. And then I guess I’ll start in 1999 just go from there. In 1999 actually visited my mother’s country for the first time which completely changed my perspective on where my family had come from. And I actually got to see for the first time my mother’s people the Cham in the village that my mother had come from and meet.
[00:12:24] JULIE: Hopefully there won’t be any sirens or anything. The dogs all hell their fire truck got to.
[00:12:39] JULIE: So I see for the first time I saw what a Cham person looks like. I had never even seen a photograph of the Cham and they are not represented at all in any ethnographic accounts. And so it was it took years for me to actually understand where I come from from that side of the family.
[00:13:07] JULIE:The Cham are an Austronesian society that settled in Vietnam about 2000 years ago and lived there for about 1300 years before they were conquered by the Vietnamese and after conquest they were put into the most and fertile parts of Vietnam and sort of have been living subsistence level since then even while the rest of Vietnamese society has modernized in many ways the Cham are still living out of water wells and with very little electricity.
[00:13:43] JULIE:So actually understanding for the first time who the Cham were and seeing their faces hearing them speak a language completely different from the Vietnamese. It gave me a perspective that I had never had. And when I came back I started researching the charm in order to understand them. And I started exhibiting some of my documentary photography that I had done during that first trip to Vietnam in becoming more open to talking with people about the Chinese society. But later on a few years after that I found myself needing to revisit the Vietnam War and I was in a program at the Evergreen State College where I was receiving my bachelor’s degree and it was a film video program and I started working on a family history documentary on the repercussions of the war.
[00:14:40] JULIE: And I went to Texas to interview my mother and my stepfather about their experiences during and after the war in Vietnam. And I did very extensive research on Vietnam and I got far enough to realize that I wasn’t equipped yet to finish the project. I got far enough to realize that I wasn’t equipped yet to finish the project.
[00:15:09] JULIE: There were still too many omissions, complications and repercussions of war to actually give me the strength to complete it and within a year of that I started working on a documentary project with women survivors of war from Vietnam and El Salvador in conjunction with a nonprofit started by a man named Mike Bame? who is a Vietnam vet who’s been doing peace and reconstruction reconciliation work in Vietnam for the past 14 years. And in order the process of beginning to work on that documentary it was a way for me to transform some of the feelings of compassion and a need for healing that the first 20–. The first 25 years of my life and my connection to Vietnam had cultivated so beginning to work on that project.
[00:16:12] JULIE: It was very therapeutic for me and it allowed me to enlarge my grasp of the repercussions of war past how my family had been affected. And on to how other people had addressed the need for healing in their own lives. (Talking about the background sound) And we could wait till that like Motors down a little bit seems to do but the cycle is you know you should have this down by now.
[00:16:44] SARA:It’s actually not so bad. I think it’s just it starts out I think and hinders that.
[00:16:47] JULIE:And then it goes ok with this motor cycle this go down. I mean I’m going to backtrack a little bit. Beginning to work as the documentarian on this delegation in which I will be writing producing and directing a documentary about the sisters meeting sisters delegation and the name of the documentary is “Crossing Fire and during “Crossing Fire” women from Vietnam and El Salvador we’ll be talking about their individual family and community needs around addressing the trauma the violence and the economic destitution that occurred as a result of the wars in both Vietnam and El Salvador.
[00:17:42] JULIE: And it’s groundbreaking because it’s actually a discussion between women survivors of war from two separate countries on two different continents but whose wars shared similarities and yet who are both at a very different cycle of time since the end of the war. So they’re at different levels of organizing to address their needs around war. So I begin to work on that project “Crossing Fire” in 2000 and that year I also went to Vietnam for my second trip to attend a postwar reconciliation learning and healing tour of the Vietnam War and I traveled with about 20 other people and the trip was organized by Sage colleges in New York and I traveled with scholars veterans of the war other children who had either come from Vietnam or are born as a result of the Vietnam War. And I went to all the major sites of war seminar over the history and atrocity of that place and got to participate in other people’s healing around the Vietnam War as two of the Vietnam vets. I was traveling with were facing for the first time the intensity of their need to heal from the effects of war.
[00:19:14] JULIE: So we got to have that experience together and we are all still very close as a result of it. Each trip to Vietnam brought me to a different level of understanding the first trip was about my family and the second trip was specifically to address war. But I really needed to transcend my family’s experience of war and to bring my understanding of war into a much larger context both to heal on a personal level from how war had affected my family by seeing how it affects everybody’s family and to have a greater understanding of the context of the war in Vietnam in general. Partly so that I would understand my opposition to it ever occurring again and to consent for a war happening on a widespread level.
[00:20:18] JULIE: The more you learn about one more war in particular the more cautious you are for the more cautious the more cautious you are. The more you learn about one war the more cautious you are consenting to another and the more I’ve learned about the war in Vietnam and my family’s relationship to it. The impact of repercussion upon the lives of people on both sides of the conflict the less tolerant you are of approval for any forthcoming war.
[00:20:53] SARA: Let me ask you a couple questions now about yourself and your relation to other people. How other people perceive. As your question is because you do not look entirely Asian and making people perceive you as white or something. Describe how that has played out. You mention So what are you anyway?
[00:21:19] JULIE: Throughout my life I’ve gotten the quizzical stare and the where are you from. No really where are you from? OK. Where are they from? I’ve heard lots of guesses as to what my ethnic origin is but because my mother is half French have Cham and my father is Caucasian I have three fourths Caucasian in me and only a quarter Cham and even the Cham don’t look as Asiatic as the Vietnamese do. It’s a different kind of Asian ethnic origin. The Austronesian people closer to people from Borneo and Sumatra than from Vietnam actually. OK. Sorry. Yeah. OK. And let me just regroup in my head for a second.
[00:22:24] JULIE: Throughout my life I’ve been asked so what are you anyway in that sort of quizzical stare which people are trying to place what combination of elements turned into your face that they’re looking at. And rarely do people guess that I’m Vietnamese of any kind. Some people can tell you that I’m part Asian but it usually results when they ask in a kind of history lesson of French occupation of Vietnam and the ethnic minorities of Vietnam and my father’s reasons for being over in Vietnam during the war and so in many ways being asked that question I I haven’t. Hold on.
[00:23:16] JULIE: The direct racist and the direct racism I have felt around my ethnic origins often came as a follow up to the commentary of what had happened to my family as a result of war and specifically I remember this occurring when in the year 2000 a coworker asked me again what my reasons were for wanting to work on a documentary with women survivors of war. And I cited that my family had been so impacted by war that it is kind of a healing effort for me to work with people who were transcending and addressing the needs of war. And I had recapped you know my mother lost her first husband he was killed in combat. She had to dig up his skeleton and bury it and still very traumatized by that. A sister was killed. There was sexual violence against four women members of my family as a result of war trauma in my mother and my father and stepfather is very palpable throughout my whole childhood and even now looking at them how they cope and interact with people in their lives.
[00:24:44] J; And as I was explaining all of this the woman that I was talking to sort of looked at me in this way and kind of slit her eyes a bit and said well you’re going to have to remember that if it wasn’t for war you wouldn’t be here. And I had a moment of realizing that it was as if she hadn’t listened to what I had said had happened. She had no compassion for what my family actually went through. She only wanted me to appreciate that I was in the United States and failed to see and comprehend how the impact of war was still affecting my life whether or not I was here. And her in her mind safe from these things that had happened. That kind of reaction has given me an insight into how far away we are culturally from addressing the impact of war and that has been the most difficult thing for me is seeing how that has been the most difficult thing for me is seeing how superficial almost the comprehension has been in many segments of society over the real impact of war and an unwillingness on most to recognize the repercussions of war. The imagination that if you leave the place of battle and you know the family is somehow safer that it doesn’t continue. OK.
[00:26:29] JULIE:Sorry. They’re happening to repair the building. They come here to I didn’t have any of this was happening. It’s okay. I was talking Where was and do you remember where I was in the discussion when.
[00:27:04] SARA: You were talking me about.
[00:27:05] JULIE: Oh sorry you go in.
[00:27:10] SARA: Well. OK. There’s a couple more questions are OK. OK. When you were with other people. Do you ever feel like you do not belong or that you are in other situation?
[00:27:27] JULIE: I don’t belong in Vietnamese communities. Because all they have to hear is that my mom is French and charm and they know that I’m not really Vietnamese. And I have very little contact with Cham communities in the United States. But I do know that there’s enough of a cultural and ethnic difference that a lot of them that I have been in touch with are very excited that I’m so interested in learning more about the culture and connecting with people. But I am an outsider essentially. And as far as the homogenigenzation of American society goes you know there are many people who are mixed races enough so that you’re starting to go down into quarters and Halfves and on some level I identify with people who are in that kind of a situation more than necessarily from Vietnam or from an ethnic minority in Vietnam and from European you know colonization of French Indochina because it’s very hard for me to find anyone that I can talk to who have that ethnic background at all in the United States.
[00:28:53] JULIE:So I feel in other in that I’m enough of a mix that I don’t really have anyone besides my immediate family who are my same exact ethnic background but I can relate to other people who have been struggling in many ways with having multiple ethnic origins because it complicates things. So be honest about what your background is and when any person like me brings that to the table everyone who is present has to reconsider another place in the world that they haven’t thought about. Another combination of you know socio political elements that can bring about a certain person as a result of for example a war or an occupation.
[00:29:58] JULIE: So I relate in many ways to being a war baby and to the people who have come about as a result of of war and that’s been something I’ve identified with for a long time as well. And I’ve tried to connect up with other veterans’ children so that I could talk to people who had also grown up with you know having a father who had served in Vietnam and seeing how that had affected their lives.
[00:30:34] JULIE: And I’ve also tried to find children who have Vietnamese mothers and American fathers to begin a dialogue with them about that particular combination of things having the war at the dinner table literally both sides of the war arguing sometimes with each other about what the real motivations for war were how the war was carried out and all the mistakes that were made to the impossibility of winning the war. I’m hearing that argument played out hearing that argument played out… wait.
[00:31:23] JULIE: Hearing the refrigerator you start and stop. I’m embarrassed that my refrigerator continues to go. Table thing because I have a good example of this.
[00:31:36] JULIE: Not many people I have ever met. Grew up with war at both sides of the dinner table as a child. I would hear my mother argue with my stepfather about strategies that had happened during the war. For example my mother would scream at him. Do you realize how easy it was for the Viet Cong to get someone to blow up a village in South Vietnam on account of you. All they have to do is shoot up at your helicopter and you return fire and blow up the whole village and you kill everybody and all the surrounding villages hear about it and they know the Americans did it and all it does is support what the VC is doing because they know that anybody afraid of what has happened in that last village is going to be on their side. Do you know how easy it was for us. Not for us. Do you know how easy it was for the VC to get you to do that and you just did it. And my stepfather would just stare.
[00:32:43] JULIE: It was the first time anyone had called hi…it was the first time anyone I called him on any of it and I watched and and whined and unfurl at my table and although the subtleties of the kind of warfare that they were talking about were sort of lost on my mind at the time. As a child I knew I was in a situation that was very intense very unique and almost indescribable to my friends as a child.
[00:33:20] JULIE: People I knew learning how to talk about it well then I repeat myself learning how to talk about it was almost learning how to translate the omissions that were occurring as well as the ghosts which had followed everybody home and were living in the house and tormenting my family. On a daily basis as a result of the war and not many other people.. sorry.. not many other people could relate to that. Especially in Texas and Oklahoma outside of communities of other Vietnamese people who had grown up in the shadows of that war.
[00:34:13] SARA: Do you feel at all like the term bridge walker connection between two cultures right.
[00:34:26] JULIE: Yeah. Three three and one. I’m not sure that I’m a bridge walker or I’m not sure that I’m a connection between the cultures other wait. Hold on. I do feel that I’m a testament to the repercussions of war and to the repercussions of the United States being involved in the war in Vietnam. And I feel that as I’ve grown older I’ve become more comfortable speaking and being part of that helping to on. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more enlightened and more aware about the role that war has played in my life and it’s become something that I’m more able to talk to people about. And in many ways I am but people that were alive during the Vietnam War generation I am almost a relic of how they felt about the war at the time.
[00:35:52] JULIE: As I have engaged people who are of my parents generation about my own life experiences they will say I remember the day your parents got out of Vietnam. I remember the day that Saigon fell. I remember the helicopter lifts off of them the building and the Air America building and I almost become this connection between people’s perceptions of Vietnam and what the actual repercussion is of the war.
[00:36:24] JULIE: As I tell them this is how I came to be. This is what happened to my family. This is where I’m at right now. I learned a lot about or see in showing my documentary photography. Excuse me in showing my documentary photography that I’ve taken in Vietnam. I’ve made an additional bridging of sorts in that I have opened up a dialogue with people about their perceptions of their memory of Vietnam and what people actually look like and how people are or are alive now. And I think that that’s a vital step to take for us to recognize Vietnam as a place beyond the war itself as a place where people are still alive.
[00:37:18] JULIE: And you know get beyond our images of Vietnam with the napalm girl and the monk immolating himself and for me showing my documentary photography that I’ve taken in Vietnam helps me and other people get beyond our collective images of Vietnam as being a place where you know children are being napalmed monks or immolating themselves where people are being assassinated at gunpoint in the street. Our memories of Vietnam are very much formed around the images that we have of the war there and I consider it an act of healing to show documentary work that humanizes the face of Vietnam today so that people can respect the survival that’s occurred in the country not just the destruction that took place during the war.
[00:38:35] JULIE: That’s OK.
[00:38:35] SARA: Sorry.
[00:38:36] JULIE: That’s fine. I really want. I want my work to give people the opportunity to be able to respect the survival of the people in Vietnam not just the destruction that occurred during the war there.
[00:39:05] SARA: What was it like for you to go back to Vietnam and meet especially Cham people?
[00:39:21] JULIE: My most vivid feeling of homecoming in meeting my family was the very first night we were there we drove up. It was very late at night in the entire village seemed showed up to meet us. And there were literally dozens and dozens of people in a concentric ring around the van that we had rented wide eyed watching us get out. And I looked around the sea of faces and tried to take it all in. And I got to this young girl’s face and almost everybody stood there stunned except for her. She had the biggest smile on her face that I had seen on anybody’s face. And in looking at her all I could think of was how much she looked just like me when I was a kid and it turned out this was my aunt’s daughter. So this was one of my younger cousins. And she looked more like me than anyone had in my entire immediate family. And I perceived her smile at me.
[00:40:38] SARA: Wait a sec. Bckground noise.
[00:40:40] JULIE: OK.
[00:40:41] SARA: She looked more like me…
[00:40:42] JULIE: She looks more she looks more like me than had even my own siblings. And the smile on her face and her complete endearment with me are mutual endearment towards one another during the rest of my trip. Made me feel like I was home for the first time on some level. Even my younger brother pointed out to me the only one there qualified to say this because he had been in my life as I was a child. He said she looks so much like you. It’s unbelievable. And I’d never had that feeling once in my life before with any of my siblings. I’d never seen anyone that had my smile had my eyes have my skin color had my how my smile had my eyes have my skin color had my sense of mischief even the way that she fought and played with her cousins and friends and even the way she ran away laughing was so much like how I remember myself as a child.
[00:41:56] JULIE: Meeting my grandmother on her deathbed. It was a very sad thing for me. Meeting my grandmother on her deathbed was a very sad thing for me and very joyous at the same time. I got to see her before she died. But I also could not speak to her in either Cham or Vietnamese I had learn neither language and she couldn’t speak English and was losing memory pretty quickly. So she’s blind. And when I came to sit next to her she would run her hands all over me and ask in charm urgently who are you. Who are you. And I couldn’t tell her who I was so I had to get my brother my older brother who was born and raised in the village to translate for me and.
[00:43:22] JULIE: I’m going to backtrack just a little bit to by the time I met my grandmother she was on her death bed. She was by the time I met my grandmother she was on her deathbed she was blind. She was severely emaciated and without much strength left in her and was losing consciousness quite rapidly. I would come and sit next to her on her bed and she would start to run her hands over me and ask me and Cham “who are you? Who are you?” She said she sounded scared not able to identify me and me not answering her back.
[00:44:09] JULIE: So I call out to my brother, “Nin, come in here Grandma I need you to translate for me grandma needs to talk.” So I would say tell her who I am again and he would say “oh you know it’s Lee’s daughter she’s coming to visit from the United States.”
[00:44:26] JULIE: And sometimes she would start to cry and ask for my mother who wasn’t there with us. And sometimes she would run her hands over me again as if to identify me and she would start to cry that I had finally come to visit her. And after a few minutes of sitting there she would start to touch me again and she would ask “Who are you?” And if my brother had left at that point I’d have to call him back in and have to tell her again who I was. And this happened many many times during my visit.
[00:44:59] JULIE: It was almost for me my inability to speak to my grandmother in her language and tell her who I was was symbolic of the disconnect in the separation that result because of war. Without the war, I would’ve just been her granddaughter and it would have been. Without her war I would have been her granddaughter and she would have known me I should have recognized my touch even I would have been able to speak to her in her language but because of the refugee status my mother had because I was born and raised in a country far away from her. Upon meeting her it was almost like she was meeting a stranger and her inability to remember what was happening meant that I had to be reintroduced to her over and over and over again.
[00:45:56] JULIE: And that was very painful for me on some level that I couldn’t just say in her language. Hi grandmother. I’m here. I’m here to meet you. Instead I had to rely upon a translation that was lost literally within minutes. Let’s see… OK. Sorry. You have to remember.
[00:46:34] SARA: I know I know. I don’t want to lose it at all. If you could start with because because of the war… OK.
[00:46:47] JULIE: OK. Just yeah. I’m going to go back to my mother going to talk about my mom for a bit. As a former officer’s wife my mother would have been in great danger if she would’ve stayed in Vietnam and she had had a relationship for almost a year with my American father which also put her at great risk when Saigon was falling. She left Vietnam not intending to leave her children behind but she left five children behind in the countryside with her mother. My grandmother who then raised them after my mother left coming. Sorry. My mother’s forced migration from Vietnam as a result of war and the circumstances of the fall of Saigon made it impossible for her even to return to see her mother again.
[00:48:17] JULIE: And so me coming as her daughter to meet her reinforced for me how war dislocates and severs family relationships and makes it impossible for you to come back as anything other than partially a stranger. And there is an enormous sadness for me in feeling that with her even that I couldn’t speak to her and I felt some disconnect from my aunts who still had negative feelings towards my mother for leaving Vietnam.
[00:48:59] JULIE: So… being in my mother’s village for the first time really gave me a clear sense of what the damages still were at her having left at the same time everyone in the village wanted to talk to me so they could tell me how years ago for example some woman’s husband who is a medicine man had saved my sister from a poisonous snake bite as I’m walking down the path. People are coming out to tell me this. They want me to know their connection to my family. They want me to know that they know how I am related to them.
[00:49:55] JULIE: As I stayed in my mother’s village I met so many people who wanted me to know their connection to my family and therefore their connection to me. They would go back 30 years into a story just to let me know that at one point someone in their family had helped someone in my family. And it was the strongest sense of village. I (Pause) have ever waited for my refrigerator to stop making noise sorry. Yeah yeah.
[00:50:53] JULIE:Starting a family… it was a strong sense of a village that I had ever experienced. And I started to perceive how interconnected people’s lives are when they live in the same place for centuries together and their families and their ancestors are intermingled with my own. I had never had anyone need to relate to me on that level. And there I was being pulled by the arm into a long story almost everytime I went anywhere. And I loved that I felt very welcomed by that I felt very included and connected by that and it didn’t matter to them if I couldn’t understand. My brother, my sister would translate and I would hear the whole story and the whole time there would be smiling. Sometimes they would touch my face and told me that I looked just like my mother who was a beautiful.
[00:52:10] SARA: What is your goal in documenting your history?
[00:52:33] JULIE: I originally started to work with the repercussions of war and my family including talking to my family specifically about what they had gone through as a way of healing and addressing as a way of healing and addressing the things that had happened. In 2000 when I started working on the family history documentary on the effects of war in my family I almost was doing it against my will. I didn’t really want to work on it on some level but I felt like I really needed to. And it began a path of kind of healing and excavation that brought me closer and deeper to the pain that I still had surrounding the war in Vietnam and kind of paved the way for me, paved the way for me. Hold on I want to back up a little bit.
[00:55:36] JULIE: It got me closer and deeper to understanding what was unaddressed. Still what the omissions were as a result of the grief the trauma the violence the the things were just not allowed to talk about still even and the next step for me. Because I got too close to all of that was to sort of push the project back so that I I’m be put the when I got when I got that close I flinched on some level and it was hard for me to continue with the work.
[00:56:36] JULIE: I almost began to work on the documentary that I’m doing called Crossing fire as an antidote to having so many things that could not be addressed still because a delegation between women survivors of war who are coming together choosing their own agenda for how they’re going to talk about war was a lot easier to work on on some level than all of these things and my family which still have no way of even being described on some level. For me the…hold on.
[00:57:22] SARA: Maybe this is somthing you can do with your family.
[00:57:26] Yeah yeah yeah. I’m sort of trying how to go there.
[00:57:36] SARA: A bit more solid. A bit more…
[00:57:47] SARA: When I started to work on crossing fire I thought this is good. This is a way for me to use my compassion and my sense of need to address the effects of war as a result of my family without actually involving my family. I wait till the… sorry it’s taking so long. I apologize.(stopping for noise) Sorry about my apartment…so close to.
[00:58:51] JULIE: When I started to work on ‘Crossing Fire’ I actually felt relieved that I could transform the preoccupation I had with war and with healing and surviving war into a positive discussion between people who want to come together to talk about war and to look at their mutual concerns around it. It allowed me to keep my family history sort of still close to me as I struggled with the meaning of it. I wasn’t quite ready to actually share that meaning yet with other people because there were so many things about it still that were contentious within my own family. It was almost like an open wound on some level. But in the last couple of years I’ve been asked by my family to go back to Vietnam from my grandmother’s burial ceremony and to document that to do a photography project and to make a documentary video on it. And I will be addressing the site while I’m making.
[01:00:22] JULIE: Sorry… In making the film. I’m going to obviously focus on the ritual of my grandmother’s re-burial which will be digging up her body cleaning the bones and recommitting them in a very elaborate ceremony that the entire community participates in. I’m going to definitely focus on that but I’m also going to look at how what it means for my family to go back for that and the importance of describing the relationship between men and women in Cham society. I’m from matrilineal so and that’s why I want to say that the Cham are one of the last remaining matrilineal groups in the world and they are one of two native Hindu Asian populations.
[01:01:27] JULIE: A lot of Cham are Muslim but my family is Hindu charm and my family has retained its matrilineal aspect. So the re-burial of a grandmother in this. The re-burial of a grandmother in a natural and you know society is a very important event and it means a lot to my family… (sound) is that breaking? I heard breaking.
[01:02:02] JULIE: It means a lot to my family to be able to give my grandmother a proper burial because the first time she died holy man wasn’t around and couldn’t bury her couldn’t give her a sanctified burial which in a society where ancestors are very important. Giving someone an improper burial is a disgrace that is unimaginable and will result in illnesses and all sorts of negative outcomes as a result of my grandmother’s spirit not being rested and not feeling that she has been honored enough. So I’m going to be talking about how war played into the reasons for my mom leaving and I’m going to be addressing that in this family history documentary I’m becoming ready.
[01:03:09] J; I have done extensive research on the historical and ethnic origins of the people. I’m starting to actually speak about Cham society and Cham cultural survival at a conference for example soon And I am in… that’s pretty loud.
[01:03:38] JULIE: I’ve been talking to Cham people in both the United States and Australia in addition to scholars who have done field work with the Cham in order to get a greater grasp of the culture. There’s not very much on the charm at all documented in any archive that you talk to that does Asian history. You’ll get a few of the same articles are kind of repeated and there’s been there has not been a significant study of the Chinese since the 1920s and the effort that I’m making to piece together what happened with Cham civilization from when they originally settled in you know all the way through to when they were conquered by the Vietnamese and even now when they’re struggling to survive. That’s a very hard history to find out about. There’s not very much on it and there’s very little on there matrilineal ism and very little on there. Reburial ritual. I found cultures and other Austronesian societies who do that ritual in the Philippines in Madagascar and other places like that. But I have not seen or read or heard about it described at all occurring with the Cham. Yet that’s going to be the ritual that I’m documenting.
[01:05:13] So in a way it’s a process of discovery for me at the same time. It’s giving me kind of a way of going back into my family history another way you know not necessarily directly pertaining to the war but more on how you know ethnically I have a mother who’s half French and half Cham. And what does that mean? Where did we come from? How long are we there? You know what are our differences from the Vietnamese How are they getting along or not getting along in Vietnamese society today. What does that mean to me? These are all questions that have motivated the work that I’m doing around my grandmother’s burial and around future interest and Cham society.
[01:06:05] SARA: Because you’ll be sort of be partially an observer because you’re doing the documenting. Will that make it easier do you think for you to sort of be there with your family and maybe deal with some family issues. Sure.
[01:06:23] JULIE: No. No. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay that’s a good one.
[01:06:30] SARA: Which the fact you answered scientifically it’s very interesting.
[01:06:35] JULIE: (laughs) Well I’ve done a lot of preparation and you know and other stuff. Because I left home at such an early age. It took me years to start to understand the conditions that led up to me leaving home. And it has taken me. I’ve been for about eight years I’ve been trying to address that specifically with my mom in an effort to kind of heal it and sort of overcome it. And we’re still in the process of doing that. But it hasn’t quite happened yet and in many ways I see working on the project about her mother’s re-burial…(sound) I’m going to wait for this to finish.
[01:08:15] JULIE: In many ways I see you working on the project about my grandmother’s re-burial my mother’s mother’s re-burial a way of connecting with my mom over something that transcends what some of the things that came out of my childhood are and you know she has apologies to make to her mother for leaving to begin with which she has never gotten to do. And you know my grandmother refused to die before she saw her her daughter again. And that didn’t happen. So working on this project with my mom is almost a reconciliation effort with her because she and I still have so many things that are unresolved between us and which are still taboo even to talk about. So in some ways I’ve seen my interest in doing this project with my family as kind of a forced healing on another level over things that are still very much raw. You know despite years of actually trying to go there it’s sometimes it even seems impossible to really hold on. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say.
[01:10:25] JULIE: Sometimes I’ve thought of the project with my mom about her grim story. Sometimes I’ve thought of the grandmother reburial documentary as a way to have some peace with my mom over something before she dies which I would really like to have and if we worked on this project together and honored her mother together it could be my contribution to that and my recognition of the greater unresolved things in our family which include many years of guilt from having left her children behind in her mother’s care as she started a new life in another country she needs to apologize to her mother for that. And the burial will be an effort to do that. And in many ways I need to still make peace with my own mother and working on a project working on a documentary about her mother’s re-burial because she’s asked me to is a way of making peace with my mother and hopefully I know that between all of that it’s going to be another life transforming experience for me just like going to Vietnam the first time was is something that will completely change my perspective on where I’ve come from and what my ethnic identity is what my history is as a human being on this earth.
[01:12:05] SARA: And I’m going ask you if there’s anything else you want to say and before that of you could just do introduction again “I’m” and what you do as a second half of that.
[01:12:17] JULIE: I skipped that one.
[01:12:20] SARA: That’s fine and I just realized we hadn’t gotten there.
[01:12:25] JULIE: I’m Julie T. Underhill and I’m the daughter of a woman who emigrated from Vietnam of French and Cham descent. And the fact… I’m Julie Underhill and I’m the daughter of a woman who emigrated from Vietnam of French in Cham descent and of an American Caucasian man who was stationed in Vietnam as a military contractor during and after the war in Vietnam. They left during the fall of Saigon and I was born in the United States. The following year in 1976. At this point in my life I do documentary work both documentary photography and I’m beginning to make documentary films and a lot of my work focuses on Vietnam. Some of it is in relation to my family and some of it is in relation to a larger context of the need to address the causes concerns and effects of war especially in women’s communities and war.
[01:13:40] JULIE: I …hold on (pause) Without my family history and without the legacy of having been born a child of war I wouldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing now. And I also find the work that I’m doing now to be essential in transforming my relationship to how I came into this world and what it has meant for me to be of French cham and American descent.
[01:14:23] SARA: Anything else you want to being Asian? We talked to when you were growing and what you knew about your cultural identity. Do you have any…what do you consider your cultural identity now perhaps?
[01:15:17] JULIE: Even though I was born in the United States I grew up in the United States and I continue to live in the United States. I see Vietnam as bringing together the elements by which I came to be. I see my mother’s father having been a French soldier. I see my mother’s mother having been a Cham woman in South Vietnam near Phan Reng and I see my father’s you know efforts to aid the military effort of the United States in Vietnam as creating a circumstance by which I came to be. And I feel very much like a child of that war even if people can’t identify it when they look at me I carry that war within me and I live with it every day as I always will.
[01:16:12] JULIE: And it’s important for me to continue to relate to the war on that level but also… help… but also contextualize how it affected everybody involved not just people who are in Vietnam or not just people who are in Vietnam. My own family members there but those who served and who came back having to piece together what in many cases was as a shattered perception of why they had gone there to begin with and what the real gains were. I have done several projects with Vietnam vets specifically so that I would understand it from their perspective as well because I never wanted to imagine that the victims were only on one side. In fact everybody involved in war walks away with it impacting their family and the people in their lives and sometimes it’s only perceptible if you’re in a family or close to one. But once you see it happen it’s undeniable to you that it’s not happening to everybody involved. And you begin to feel you begin to feel like part of a bigger community of people who are impacted by war and that acts that you start to feel like you’re part of a bigger community of people who have been impacted by war and that transcend borders decades, nationalities, ethnicities… you know if you look at both sides involved even if you think about it in that term it’s not just the aggressor and the victim it’s everybody involved.
[01:18:26] JULIE: Having a mother who is a military widow whose first husband was killed in combat after 13 years of marriage having a father who was a military contractor working on military aircraft and loading bombers and having a stepfather who is in combat for six years. All of those perspectives together gave me the impression that he can’t get into a dichotomous thinking about the victim of war being on one side because that’s simply not how it is and everybody who participates in war is changed by it and frequently it’s in families not even addressed. You can’t even talk about it. The damages are so deep and the trauma is so shameful on some level.
[01:19:24] JULIE: In some ways I was lucky that it was so overt because. Or so overtly discussed because it could, it gave me more of a sense of where things were really coming from instead of just leaving– instead of just living in this sort of cloud of darkness and not being able to identify where I had come from. I am you know hold on.
[01:19:58] JULIE: From the beginning of my life, things were so difficult for my mother that it became impossible for me to ignore that we were in a state of trauma still as a family. And although her pain was more immediate more articulated than the pain of my father and stepfather in time understanding how their experiences shaped them gave me a much wider sense of how war had affected us as a family. And the more you understand about it the more that you can forgive certain transgressions that occurred because you put them in the context of what your family is actually dealing with.
[01:21:04] JULIE: There are certain things of course they’re still very important to to figure out and address but the context alone is is very helpful for giving you a sense of why you why this time why this family why did any of these things happen and what does it mean to me that it happened like that? How do I get beyond it? And what do I need to do in order to find out how who do I need to include in the dialogue? And who do I need to reach out to in order to make sure that it is complicated of a question as possible and not just limited to how my family was affected but how it affects everybody that it comes into contact with?
[01:22:05] JULIE: I allow the answer ‘what are you anyway?’ to become more complicated in time as I understand more about the conditions surrounding the war in Vietnam. I allow people to learn as much as they can from me if they’re interested in. I allow people to learn what they can for me and I try not to oversimplify things because I feel like that’s happened so much on a cultural level that if you are somebody who bears a more complicated story than what the official history of a place suggests it’s important for you to be able to engage people in a dialogue about it. It’s important for them as well because we all need to actually understand what happens when wars take place. Otherwise we are going to blindly commit the same human travesties again without having any sympathy for the concept of what the repercussions might be. And that’s become less and less acceptable to me as I’ve you know grown up and gotten a much clearer sense of how interconnected it all is. And I really want to devote part of my life to doing what I can to raise people’s awareness around war and around the need for healing and addressing the effects of war partially so that we have more insight into why they shouldn’t happen at all. The fact that war created a circumstance in my family in which I had to leave home at 9 as a result of it. And yet we’re still really not able to fully talk about that in my family.
[01:24:26] JULIE: I think of that magnified on a social level of all the missions that we have to make around the violence the dislocation and the trauma of war and just the emotions in my family that are made magnified on a much wider scale. There’s so many stories that are are too painful to even convey. And in some ways the history of of the real effects of war are in what remains necessarily and spoken it’s not the history of the real effects of war. The history of the real effects of war also come through what no one can say because it’s too horrific it’s too incomprehensible. And after that on some level it’s just survival.
[01:25:46] SARA: Maybe one of the effects things too of things not being said.
[01:25:51] JULIE: That a good one. Um. One of the most widespread effects of war is that there are so many things that are never said about what happened during the war and what’s happened since in people’s hearts and minds as they’ve tried to come to terms with whatever side they were on and try to cope with their memories. And there ghosts that they brought back with them.