Madison's Asian American youth tell
their stories
   
By Laura Salinger

      Mytoan Nguyen and her mother made their way to California as Vietnamese boat people   when
she was just a tender two years old. From there, Nguyen’s mother would attempt to adapt in this
new and strange place while Nguyen, so young, would spend her formative years in the country that
she would call home. Nguyen would hear certain things about their past and the culture of her
birthplace from her mother but not others, she says, as she tried to navigate that tightrope between
two cultures and what she calls “multiple identities.” Thus began Nguyen’s ever-evolving journey to
develop and understand her identity. This spring, she helped youth work to understand their
identities as well, through a creative writing/arts program called “Telling Our Stories.”
      On May 6, area youth took the stage to tell their stories about their family history and their life
now in America. It was a chance to give them a voice, to help them understand their history, and to
share the many different stories of youngsters growing up who are balancing varying cultural
identities.
      “For me, it was important to highlight stories from Wisconsin youth who have gone through
some type of refugee experience,” Nguyen, a UW-Madison Ph.D. Sociology student and program
coordinator, says. “It empowers them to tell their stories.”
      A diverse group of 14 students were paired with mentors-graduate students and community
educators-who met for seven workshops where youth learned different components of storytelling
and developed their own stories. From spoken word to short stories to cover art designs, youth
were encouraged to examine their own histories and use their own voices to bring it to life.
      The goal of the program, along with teaching various means of storytelling, is to ensure that students understand their own unique family
history in order for them to create a solid sense of place in the world. It also was a way to create community, says Nguyen.
      "This project really is a collaborative effort in the truest sense—UW-Madison graduate students, school staff, the school district,
educators, and volunteers from a number of non-profit and community agencies in Dane County have come together to contribute different
pieces to the puzzle,” Nguyen says. “We hope that it is a model that addresses the need to build stronger campus and community networks to
help youth."
      Satyamedha Bathula, a sophomore at Madison’s Memorial High school, came to United States from India when she was ten years old.
“It was a huge change,” she says of coming to live in the United States.
      Because of the program, she says she was able to talk to her parents more in-depth about their life in India and journey to the states.
“It is such a nice program,” she says. “I had a really good experience with my mentors.”
      Perhaps the most telling result of the story was her vibrant and poignant poem called “My Journey.” Although a little shy to take to the
stage, Bathula’s poem brought to life the colors of Indian bazaars coupled with the emotions of a strange, and sometimes intimidating,
journey to the United States.
      While they learned to craft poignant short stories, poems, and artwork, participants also learned about themselves.
      “In this program, I learned a lot about myself and my history,” Pa Houa Thao said. “I learned to appreciate myself.”
      Flora Katz-Andrade says the program helped her gain confidence. Starting her life in Brooklyn, then being raised in Brazil, then ending up
in Madison, Wis., she has had many different experiences for such a tender age. The program helped her to piece those experiences together.
“It was a big lesson for me because I am not very confident with writing,” she says. “It is basically about finding myself, being not one
nationality or the other.”
      Originally supported by UW-Madison’s Humanities Exposed Scholars Program, Telling Our Stories had additional support from the GEAR
UP Program, PEOPLE Program, Madison Metropolitan School District, UW-Madison’s Educational Policy Studies, Asian American Studies
Program, Sociology Department, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and A Room of One's Own Foundation (ROOF). Pending funding, an
anthology of the students work will be released in the summer or fall of this year.  
      For more information about the project, visit
www.refugeestories.wordpress.com.
Clockwise from above (L-R)Program mentors Elizabeth Thao and Chong Moua; Program youth participants (l
to r) Bahoua Choua Thao, Maikha Vang, and Pa Chee Thao; youth particpant Flora Katz holds up artwork
created by Tenzin Kelsang;
Program creator Mytoan Nguyen at the podium; Youth participant Steven Her
performs spoken word

(Left) Steven
Her with his
mentor
(Left) Maika Vang
with her mentor
Program creator Mytoan Nguyen (center) receives thanks and
congratulations from peers, mentors, participants, and attendees.