A&E

From Vietnam to small-town USA

Performer Judi Le ponders the question, 'So, What Are You?' in her autobiographical show at the Menlo Park Library

In 1975, on the eve of the fall of Saigon, 4-year-old Judi Le fled her home in war-torn Vietnam. After some time in a refugee camp in Arkansas, she settled with her family in Katy, Texas.

"One day you're playing in the school yard, you're having dinner with your parents and then there's this dark period; there's a shift; something's off," she said of her fragmented early childhood memories of the family's last days in Vietnam. "Why are mom and dad packing everything? Why are there soldiers? This feels important to me.

"I kept it in my head. I think it also contributed to a little PTSD. I kept having dreams of trying to save things," she said.

She became an American but, with the family's wartime trauma still hovering and as one of very few Asians in her small town, grew up feeling like she never quite fully belonged to either her adopted new culture or the one she left behind.

As an adult, she noticed there were many books about the Vietnam War but few that spoke to her experience as a child, refugee and immigrant. She decided to write a book about her family's story, but her medium changed when the San Francisco writing course she thought she'd signed up for turned out to have a theatrical element.

"I didn't realize I had signed up for a performing class. I thought it was just a creative writing class," she recalled, laughing. "But I thought, 'I've spent too much money on it; I can't get out of it now."

To her surprise, Le found that her stories worked well told aloud, and that she enjoyed performing. She moved to Los Angeles, where she worked on what became her autobiographical show, "So, What Are You?", for eight years, eventually premiering it at a theater in Hollywood.

Le will perform the piece at the Menlo Park Library on April 30 (the 44th anniversary of when Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, fell to North Vietnamese forces). Her performance is part of the library's "War Comes Home: The Legacy" program, connected to a national traveling exhibit of the same name and focusing on the impact of American wars on civilians and returning veterans.

In the show, "we hop back and forth from present day to the past, and it's semi-chronological, so the bulk of it is about us coming to America," she said. "Afterwards, there are stories of assimilation, of how I come out of it as a grown-up and how I try to weave being Vietnamese and being American.

"The premise is, really, trying to choose between the place that you're born to and the place that adopts you," she said. But, she eventually realized, both places are crucial to her identity. "I don't need to choose; it's just part of who I am."

The experience of telling her family's story has been cathartic. It has helped her better understand her parents, extended family and wider culture.

"Vietnamese people in general don't talk about the past. They like to go, 'Well, something bad happened but now we're going to put it away," she said.

"Writing the story made me that much closer to my parents' experience and what they had to go through."

Though the topics covered are often serious and emotionally powerful, the show is also full of humor, something that, like her affinity for performing, came as a surprise to Le.

"I didn't realize I was funny until I started to perform it and people started to laugh maybe it was my delivery," she said. Some of the humor comes from Le's attempts at assimilating into mainstream American culture, and the generational and cultural gaps between her and her parents, such as when they try to set her up on dates. And what do her mother and father, who went to see the show in Los Angeles, think of her performing their life stories in front of strangers?

"My dad ... I asked him if he understood it and he said, 'well not all of it, but you make people laugh. I'm proud of you' -- OK, I'll take it," she chuckled. "My mom said, 'You called somebody a bad name in your show. I don't like that; it's not how I raised you,' so, it's a mixed bag."

In the 1990s, when U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations were established, Le went back to visit the land she had left in childhood. "It was a bit of a culture shock," she said, leaving her feeling as foreign in Vietnam as she had in Texas. "I always thought of myself as being very Vietnamese, so to go there and feel very American was an out-of-body experience."

Though the war is now long in the past, Le finds that her story is still relevant to audiences.

"The environment, the way it is politically, it still resonates," she said, adding that it's been especially gratifying when young women who've felt isolated in their communities find comfort in her performances.

"It's still a story about coming to America. Everybody still has that dream, regardless of the environment, of trying to fit in. At the end of the day, we all have the same insecurities."

What: "So, What Are You?"

Where: Menlo Park Library, downstairs program room, 800 Alma St.

When: Tuesday, April 30, at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to Menlo Park Library.

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