Trần Khánh Linh, a junior at Oberlin College in the U.S., is the organiser of an upcoming photo essay exhibition and talk titled “When The Birds Fly Home” to be launched in Hà Nội this weekend. The project showcases the personal stories of Vietnamese high school and college students who studied abroad then returned home. Linh spoke to Viêt Nam News about the project, the inspiration, and why it’s important for our society to look at those who return home with a more open mind.
Inner Sanctum: How did you get the idea for the “When the Birds Fly Home” project? What motivated you?
Bythe end of last year, I came across a lot of discussions on social media and the news about whether Vietnamese students who study abroad should return to Vietnam after graduation. But no one provided a glimpse into what it’s really like to return. As an ‘overseas Vietnamese’ in the US, I constantly ask myself: "Where should I go after college? If I return home, what are the challenges and opportunities?”
I want to explore the challenges that overseas Vietnamese face, including reverse culture shock, differences in lifestyle and work culture, and the prejudices and pressures from their family and society.
I decided that this would be a community project as I believe it can help overseas Vietnamese in a similar situation to decide whether they should go home. The project is a combination of photography and journalism. I want the stories to be truthful yet arty at the same time.
Phúc Phạm, my friend who studied in Australia who is now freelancing in Việt Nam, and I decided to build the project from scratch and recruited other members. Surprisingly, many members of our team don’t study abroad, but they want to or have friends who do.
We came together because all of us believe in our common goal - to shed lights on overseas Vietnamese students’ often-overlooked challenges and difficulties.
Inner Sanctum: What does the project entail? What messages do you and your team want to deliver?
This project includes a photography and storytelling exhibition and a talk. The exhibition on July 16-30 will feature selected photos and stories of 35 overseas Vietnamese who returned home. It will serve as a collective voice of these people, yet simultaneously not represent anyone. We hope visitors will understand that everyone has his/her own stories. Instead of reducing those abroad to stereotypes, let’s accept their differences and be more open-minded.
We found the subjects for this project through personal connections and references. There aren’t any fixed criteria since our goal is to make the stories as diverse as possible. So you’ll see some 20-somethings who just returned home, now working at tech companies and startups; some 30-somethings who work in education or finance; and some 40-somethings who teach and do non-profit work. They come from all walks of life, studied abroad all over the world, and have now returned to their motherland for various reasons you can imagine.
The combination of photography and storytelling in this project may remind you of Humans of New York (HONY), yet this project is quite different. We do in-depth interviews in person or through Skype with the interviewees. This usually takes 30-45 minutes per person, unlike HONY, which conducts short interviews on the streets. Our photo concept is also distinctive, as we use a projector to show photos, drawings and quotes that matter to the subjects and enhance their portrayal.
The talk on July 23 will dig deeper into the stories of six guest speakers. Through their success stories and sincere sharing, the talk hopes to send a message to all overseas Vietnamese students and to those newly returned that everything will eventually be alright. Challenges come with opportunities, if we look in the right place.
Inner Sanctum: What are the most memorable stories you encountered while assembling this project?
I met a young woman in her 20s who dropped out of a Singaporean college due to a mental illness, then fortunately found a new life after returning home and working at a company that cares about ability and attitude, not qualifications. She’s proof that not having a college degree isn’t the end of the world. She’s also proof that once you hit your lowest point, you’ll rise up again, no matter what.
I also met a dual-citizen who spent 20 years studying and living abroad. After returning to Việt Nam for 13 years, he still questions where "home" is.
Inner Sanctum: What could the Government and businesses could do to attract more “birds to fly home” and to use them more effectively?
After all the stories I heard before and during this project, it’d be great if our society was more sympathetic, less prejudiced, and put less pressure on these "birds". This is something we’re advocating for.
For instance, if someone speaks a combination of English and Vietnamese, don’t immediately assume they have lost their culture or that they want to show off. For many people, speaking a combination of Vietnamese and English is a habit, after living abroad for a while. Habits take time to change.
Please don’t assume everyone who studied abroad will get a high paid job at home. This assumption puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on those who return, because life isn’t always that easy. Many people fit into those stereotypes, but of course others don’t.
On the other hand, those “birds” should know what to expect when they fly home. Opportunities won’t come knocking on your door. Some bridges don’t pre-exist for you to cross. If you want to achieve great things, expect to go out of your way and to build your own bridges. It definitely takes time, effort and courage. – VNS