Student Spotlight: Khánh Lê Explores Vietnamese American Identity and Intergenerational Trauma

Khánh Lê

Doctoral candidate Khánh Lê (Urban Education) says that his dissertation, Cùng với nhau chung tay: A Collaborative project with Vietnamese youth, for which he recently received a Graduate Center dissertation fellowship, is based on his lived experience. He was born in Vietnam, spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and arrived in Philadelphia with his family when he was 6 years old. 

His father spent eight years in prison in Vietnam after the war because he had fought for the United States. His parents’ and grandparents’ experience of the war, their migration to the U.S., and his education here inform his identity as Vietnamese American, an identity that is built out of the generational trauma of the war. 

Working with Professor Emerita Ofelia García (Urban Education; Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures), who was a mentor and adviser to Lê, he coined the term “transtrauma” to describe the multi-layered experience of Vietnamese Americans. “The term trans is to transcend and, here, to transcend language,” Lê said. “The term transtrauma is to go beyond the individual and to relocate trauma from the individual to the institution. I looked at how systems of domination play a role in inflicting trauma on marginalized communities. For Vietnamese Americans, it is the Vietnam War and how colonialism, the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. shaped that trauma to explain how that trauma is passed from generation to generation, how that trauma is inherited.”

His dissertation explores transtrauma through workshops he developed with Vietnamese American high school students at which, Lê says, they also “talk about race, language, schooling, discrimination, social justice, the anti-Asian vibe, about Black Lives Matter.” 

Lê is also the assistant director of CUNY’s Transformative Learning in the Humanities, a three-year initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that focuses on equitable, creative, student-centered pedagogical research and methods. 

Lê spoke to The Graduate Center about the questions he seeks to answer through his research, why he chose The Graduate Center, and what’s next.

The Graduate Center: Tell us about your research.

: My research is a collaborative project with Vietnamese American youth. How do they narrate their lives in the U.S. and the relationship with the past and the present in the U.S. and Vietnam? How do they understand or narrate their parents’ experience in the war, in escaping the war, and then coming to the U.S.? And what does this mean for them to be Vietnamese American? How do they construct their racial identity? How do they racialize others and how do others racialize them, and how do language, bilingualism, class, and gender shape their identity? What do those experiences communicate about their transtrauma? 

GC: You said that your research is collaborative. How did you develop the workshops?

: I designed eight workshops with the youth and we collaboratively answer these questions through poetry, through writing, visual arts, and theater. They wrote poems in Vietnamese and English and they interviewed their parents. The youth analyze the data with me.

I was supposed to do the workshops in person. But, because of COVID, it’s over Zoom with students in Philadelphia. Imagine talking about losing loved ones at sea. Most of the kids have grandparents that were in jail or were sent to education camps, lost loved ones in the war or while trying to escape Vietnam. I talk about this, which is very difficult. I wish I was there in person.

GC: What drew you to study at The Graduate Center?

: I wanted to be in New York, do research with Vietnamese Americans, and realized that language is important. Through my application, I met Ofelia García, whose work has made an impact in the education of bilingual and multilingual youth in the U.S. and beyond. My research is about documenting the lives of Vietnamese Americans, and this mix up of oral history, participatory action research, narrative storytelling, arts, and theater. It's not grounded and anchored in one discipline. That's the reason I chose The Graduate Center. 

GC: How did your experience at The GC influence you and your work?

: It's been an amazing experience, and I'm very grateful for it. If it wasn't for my village at The Graduate Center, I wouldn't be here and my work wouldn't be this work. I owe a lot to The Graduate Center and to my adviser and to the people in my program. Those are the people that uplift me, and that gives me so much creatively. I learned from them and they learn from me.

GC: What’s next?

: I hope to make an impact with my work because the work of Vietnamese Americans or Asian Americans in regard to language, race, and trauma in education is not visible. I hope to bring that visibility, whether it is through an academic job or working with a foundation. I hope to teach because I love teaching. 

Submitted on: APR 28, 2021

Category: Diversity, GCstories, General GC News, Grants, Immigration, Student News, Urban Education, Voices of the GC