My wife and I have four children aged 11 to 3 of mixed Vietnamese and American blood. We have tried to educate them about their ancestors–where they came from and the lives they led– in hopes that our children would grow up with a keen understanding of their roots and a sense of gratitude toward long-dead ancestors who both suffered and thrived so that current generations could live better lives. We started out 11 years ago by naming our first child Hanh-Thien after the ancestral village of my wife’s mother’s family. Our second child was named Thai-Binh after the home province of my wife’s father. Our living room features a Vietnamese-style ancestral altar with pictures of deceased relatives from Hanoi, Saigon, Iowa and California going back generations. We live three generations under one roof, allowing my children to grow up close to their grandparents.
But I worried that lighting incense and listening to family stories here and there might not be coherent enough way for my children to grasp the complicated and fascinating merging of a Vietnamese and American families into one. That is why during my recent and ongoing period of unemployment I took up a side project of scanning old photos, attaching captions identifying each person in the photo and perhaps telling a story that dates to the period of the photo. The project was massive and time consuming. It took about three months to complete. I estimate that I thumbed through about 10,000 photos dating back about 100 years, scanned about 1,000 of them, and chose the best 430 to include in a 100-page family history book that I designed and wrote using free MyPublisher software.
The first book came in the mail in early December, and I immediately began on a Volume Two that would include a new set of pictures that tell the same story. Both books are about as large as a hardbound coffee table book and of high quality. Armed with a modern scanner, I was able to blow up small, scratched up black and white photos into large sizes with restored vibrancy and scratches digitally removed.
The books begin with photos of my children’s eight great-grandparents and the first few pages include the surviving photos of those eight people at various stages of life. Only one of the eight are still alive–Harold Elston, born in 1920, lives in Denver–and we leaned heavily on him and his handwritten journals for specific names, dates, and places as well as recollections of what it was like growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression. Then the books switch scenes to Vietnam in the 1940s and 1950s before my wife’s parents left their homes in northern Vietnam as refugees and moved south when the French colonial administration fell in 1954 and the communists took over the north. I tried to juxtapose pictures of what the Elstons were doing at one point in time and compare it to what the Le family was up to at the same time but on the other side of the world. My mother-in-law Duc Le, who was born in 1940 in Hanoi provided me with stories about her childhood growing up with 14 brothers and sisters. The book continues with pictures of the four grandparents (my parents and my wife’s parents), and onto the birth of my wife in Vietnam and me in America in the 1960s, our childhoods in the 1970s and 1980s, our years at college, how we met in California and our years living in Asia in the 1990s. It ends in 1997 when my wife became pregnant with our first child, thus signaling the arrival of a new generation.
Since the book arrived, our friends and neighbors have been wowed by it but my children not so much. They are still too young to appreciate it for the history lesson it provides and instead are drawn to the pictures of old cars, funny 1970’s haircuts, and such oddities as 8-track players and telephones attached to walls. Nevertheless, I rest a bit easier knowing that family pictures and stories are safely preserved for the day that my children decide they are ready to chart their future based in small part on a greater understanding of their past. And perhaps such knowledge might motivate them to strive harder and each higher to achieve something in life that would make their ancestors proud.