Growing up in the Triangle, Anna-Rhesa Versola felt like an outsider. Born in the Philippines, her family moved to American when she was three for her father to receive medical training. Soon after they moved, Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines at the time, declared martial law and they decided they had to stay in America. In an area where Asian-Americans were in the minority, she remembers people objectifying her appearance. Strangers would come up and touch her hair, they would say she looked like a doll, they would even reach to touch her eyes saying they were doll-like. Even when she went on to study journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, she remembers few people looking like her on campus.
After graduation, while working at a crime reporter, Versola went on the mission of trying to find the name of the first Asian-American student to attend UNC. She was shocked to find out how few resources that were available to answer her question. She found that even parts of academia dedicated to documenting diversity were lacking in representation of Asians and Asian-Americans. The Southern Oral History Program, whose interview archive holds over 6,000 interviews, only had forty-seven interviews with people of Asian descent when Versola tried to search through their collection. This lack of representation lead to the creation of Southern Mix, an oral history project focused on collecting the voices of Asians and Asian-Americans living in the South.
Yesterday, we were joined by Anna-Rhesa Versola as well as Emmanuel Lee, an undergraduate researcher for Southern Mix, as part of our lunchtime discussion series, Tell About the South. Versola discussed her motivations to found Southern Mix and her memories as a child that compelled her to start the project while Lee presented interviews he collected over the summer for the project.
Lee was raised in Hickory, North Carolina and is Hmong. During our discussion, Lee reflected on how even though there were “Hmong Days” at his school growing up, he still felt embarrassed about his culture. Even though he would wear traditional Hmong clothes to school to celebrate Hmong Day, non-Asian or Asian-American children would make comments or ask questions that made him uncomfortable and ashamed. It was only once he got to UNC Chapel Hill that he started to fully embrace his identity as Hmong.
Lee discovered the Southern Oral History Program through a friend and rushed to apply to perform research for Southern Mix. Like Versola, he wanted to see more representation of Asian and Asian-American voices, especially from less represented Asian ethnicities, and to challenge seemingly complimentary stereotypes Asian and Asian-American groups face such as being called “model minorities.” Collecting these interviews also allows Asians and Asian-Americans to bring visibility to their personal histories and allows them to validate their lived experiences.
As the undergraduate researcher for Southern Mix, Lee decided to return home to Hickory to collect his interviews. Lee wanted to collect interviews from people who were already comfortable with him so they would speak more candidly and honestly when answering questions about their culture. The resulting interviews from the summer came from both Hmong and Filipino interviewees.
During the Tell About the South discussion he shared two clips from interviews he collected over the summer. The first was from his interview with Marita Poblete who is Filipino. In this portion of their interview, Poblete discusses citizenship.
The second clip he shared was from the interview with his mother, Pai Lor, who is Hmong. Lee’s sister provided the English translation for this interview and in this clip Lor answers a question about what it is like to be a woman in Hmong culture.
Through continuing to collect interviews, Southern Mix hopes to expand representation of Asian and Asian-American voices in archives and to create a greater awareness of the Asian community’s presence in the South. More information about the project exists on the project’s website.