My favorite food as a kid was lasagna because Garfield the Cat’s favorite food was lasagna. I chose to play the saxophone in middle school because Lisa Simpson played the saxophone. When I got to college, I studied Latin because I thought it was hilariously ironic to study “a dead language” (shout-out to Max Fisher in Rushmore).
For good or bad, or somewhere in between, I’m very much a product of American acculturation.
And as a Vietnamese kid living in rural Minnesota, I was really influenced by American pop culture because, at home, there seemed to be no time for our own culture. My dad would occasionally listen to Vietnamese music, but my mom turned it off, claiming it was sappy and that she didn’t need to be reminded of the old days.
Sometimes, we rented Vietnamese-dubbed kung fu movies from the Asian grocery store, but that was a rarity since the grocery store was far from my hometown.
Although I no longer let my favorite TV show characters dictate my life decisions, I still love pop culture. One of my favorite TV shows is the beloved classic, Parks and Rec. In times of distress, I find it incredibly comforting to laugh at these characters that exist to make the same joke over and over (Jerry, Gary, Larry, Terry, amirite?).
I see merit in an art form that is accessible to a wide range of tastes, but I still mourn the loss of not knowing enough about my own culture. That’s why, as a filmmaker and puppeteer, my work combines my identity as a Vietnamese American with my love of pop culture. We have stories to tell and should be a part of the American zeitgeist.
Many of the stories I tell are to help my community move forward and heal. The Vietnamese community has experienced historical violence and colonial oppression that can result in higher rates of addiction, poor mental health, and fractured relationships. While we shouldn’t be defined by these injustices, they can be an aspect of our identities.
My stories feature characters grappling with the past and their pain. Ultimately, they are transformed by the struggle, and they are able to walk through the world from a place of hope and power. I want to go on this hard journey to confront our history, and I invite others in my community to join me. However, I know that we can’t take our medicine without a heaping spoonful of sugar… and spice.
I want to create stories that are emotionally moving, stories that make us laugh, cry, and gasp in awe. I want to share stories my family members can understand and enjoy, but I also want to bring them somewhere else. Puppetry speaks to me because the stories I tell can break from reality.
People can return from the dead as ghosts and cars can crash through bookcases. Anything is possible and creativity is highly encouraged with puppetry. I can tell big stories, ones that my community and I desperately need to hear, but haven’t because it would require a massive budget, cast, and crew.
With puppetry, all I need is some cardboard and paper mache.
See more of Oanh Vu’s work here.
See more stories from our multi-media series Art Is…
Production Team: Ryan Klabunde, Kate McDonald, Jim Kron, Eric Pagel, Terry Gray.
Like Oanh Vu, puppeteer Kallie Melvin also explores issues of identity in her work, admitting that, “In a world of black and white, I always felt lime green.” And fellow Art Is cohort member Andrew Young explores the intersection of family history and identity in his puppetry.
“I’m a multidisciplinary artist building a world full of characters that are sometimes human, sometimes anthropomorphic creatures that exist in a space between dream and myth, yet are rooted in real-world experience.” Get to know puppetry and stop-motion artist – and founder of Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop – Chamindika Wanduragala.
“This journey of love is a layered one, akin to two rivers running parallel: a yearning to discover my Vietnamese roots, and a desire to better understand my parents and their painful pasts. As these two streams of soul searching converged into an ocean of historical and personal knowledge, I came to love myself and my heritage almost as much as a spicy bowl of homemade phở.” Writer Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen shares her own journey to embracing her Vietnamese heritage.