Farming while Southeast Asian

Photo of Lan Dinh

What does it mean to Farm as descendants of a displaced Southeast Asian diaspora? What would a growing guide that captures our community’s stories of land look like that can be a time capsule of selfdetermination skills for future generations?

Continuing from thinking through the years, I pull from past writings to build the context that I hope to utilize during my fellowship and go deeper into.

Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos came to the U.S. en masse in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America, which followed hundreds of years of colonialism. The legacy of colonialism meant that the region experienced one of the worst levels of land-ownership disparity in the world among the wealthy and poor leading up to the war. This is what inspired Vietnamese revolutionaries to organize peasants around the promise of equitable land redistribution. This is a war in which the U.S. dropped 19 million gallons of Agent Orange herbicide on 4.5 million acres of land, which contaminated water and soil and continues to cause serious illness.

More than 1 million people fled land dispossession, violence, genocide and starvation. Southeast Asians were relocated to the U.S. between 1975 and 1995 as part of the largest resettlement of refugees in U.S. history. Tens of thousands were resettled in resource-deficient areas of Philadelphia where they faced loss of voice and social isolation due to poverty, racism, and language barriers. Mostly populated in South Philadelphia, as development and gentrification rises, the Vietnamese community continues to be uprooted along with other working-class communities of color.

In a 2017 Grid article “Access to land contributes to healing and self-determination”, I wrote: “Land has always been political and personal to Vietnamese people. Although there has been trauma from oppressive denial of land, chemical warfare and displacement, it has also served as a source of resilience and as a political tool.”

As a community of refugees from the Vietnam War, many of our elders, parents, and students experience trauma and intergenerational trauma. Stories of poverty, war, escape, and imprisonment are whispered but rarely spoken. High school students express never learning about their own history and their parents and grandparents not wanting to talk about it. The pain of the loss of a home—memories tied with a country, loved ones, and a life that used to be—lingers.

However, the small concrete porches of South Philadelphia also flow of lively green vines, vegetables of different shapes, and smiling content elder faces with calloused hands.

For five years, VietLead’s annual summer high school internship has collected the stories of how food and land have been a way in which people have asserted their self-determination.

Photo from Grid Article “Access to land contributes to healing and self-determination”. 2017

In 2018, I wrote a reflection on our community storytelling work at VietLead :

Through this centering of land of food, community members eased and relaxed a bit. Students reported a visible change in their loved one’s face. Stories were extracted of green thumb farming legacies and delicious aromas resurfaced of family prized recipes of pho and ca tieu. Growing and cooking evoked nostalgic memories of a former home. And sometimes the incantation of ancestors carried with it deeply buried stories of pain, loss, and trauma.

We believe healing is essential to the work that we must do in our communities to fight and build another world. In order to heal, we must create safe comfortable spaces for storytelling and witnessing of the trauma.

In 2019, Leah Penniman wrote an amazing book, Farming While Blackan archival collection of Black Agrarian resistance knowledge. Penniman writes that the book “[carries] on the legacy of our ancestral grandmothers, who braided seeds in their hair before boarding transatlantic slave ships, believing against odds in a future of sovereignty on land.” The book and its impact on Black growers and the BlPOC community inspires my fellowship work.

Now, in 2021 and five years later in the life of VietLead’s community organizing, we have over one hundred stories of how Southeast families have turned to land and food for self-determination. I will be weeding through these interviews, searching for seeds and rich compost. Further, I hope to open community participation to collect further skills and knowledge. Like our past interviews have shown us, interviewees feel validated when their knowledge with land is acknowledged. This project hopes to honor the agrarian knowledge and inspire the next generation of Southeast Asian growers.

Additionally, my fellowship will capture food workers, to be explored in my next post. Not only have people asserted their self-determination through tending of the land and food but they have also done it through building out businesses and corridors. They asked what may others in my community need? How can we sustain ourselves on a larger scale? These folks built small businesses in a ransacked section of South Philadelphia along Washington Ave. The small businesses included ethnic grocery stores, money wiring, the beginning of banh mi and pho shops. To be continued!

Copyright 2021 by Lan Dinh. All rights reserved.

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Lan Dinh (she/her) comes from a family of Vietnamese refugees, farmers, and fisherfolk who resettled in West Philadelphia. She is the co-founder and Farm and Food Sovereignty Director at VietLead. She manages intergenerational farm and garden programs to reconnect diaspora high school youth to land, cultural resilience, and to reclaim their ancestral roots.

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