As is well known, the wars in Southeast Asia – conflicts that we often discuss under the rubric of the “Vietnam War” but that exceed any one nation – profoundly affected both that region as well as the U.S. Less is known, however, about the approximately 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees that have come to the U.S. since 1975, fleeing war, genocide, and political repression. In the late 1970s, Lowell, Massachusetts – home of the American Industrial Revolution – became a relocation center and secondary migration hub for Southeast Asian refugees. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city’s population of 106,519 residents is over 20% Asian American, mostly of Cambodian descent; Lowell is home to the second-largest Cambodian American population in the U.S. (after Long Beach, CA). But community leaders believe that Southeast Asians American underreport due to undocumented status, fears of deportation, or fears of governmental officials. For this same reason, the total Southeast Asian population in Lowell, including significant Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai populations, is likely near 40,000.
While aware of the growing Southeast Asian populations, many people do not know much about the larger context of the wars in Southeast Asia or about the experiences of Southeast Asian Americans as told from their perspectives. Scholars in a variety of fields (history, public health, psychology) have published studies of the Southeast Asian Americans populations in Lowell, and a number of recent graduate theses from UMass Lowell, MIT, and Georgia State University explore similar issues. But these are scholarly materials in academic venues, not meant for general audiences. Moreover, the voices of the Southeast Asian American communities themselves have seldom been heard.
These collections will be of extraordinary value to scholars in a number of fields, including history, English, cultural studies, Asian studies, and sociology. The SEADA debuts at an important moment in Southeast Asian American studies, which was born out of the intersections between the interdisciplinary fields of Southeast Asian studies (area studies), American studies, and Asian American Studies. As noted by the editors of a special issue on Southeast Asian American Studies of the journal positions: asia critique (Summer 2012), the field has transitioned from sociological studies treating refugees as objects, towards treatment of Southeast Asians in the diaspora as active agents in multiple, contending historical formations. Because most SEADA materials were produced by and for the community, this archive would provide unprecedented insight into what the editors call “the particular resonances of secret wars, refugee archives of feeling, and the recursive traces of both of these through circuits of culture and capital” (673). The SEADA will help illuminate the complexities of self-representation and community memory, and will also serve scholars of US immigration and the legacies of US wars abroad.
A digital archive is optimal for this content, as it provides accessibility to scholars, students and teachers at all levels, as well as Southeast Asian American and other communities across the country, who may not have the resources to travel to Lowell. The digital platform will enable students, teachers, scholars, and community members to be active participants in the production of knowledge (e.g. lesson plans, genealogies and personal research projects, translation, transcription, etc.)