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Car Stereos and Family Secrets: Preserving Stories Through a Senior Capstone Project

With his parents and extended family coming to America as refugees from South Vietnam after the Vietnam War, Nathan Le '20 knew he had to keep their stories alive.

He was able to devote a year’s worth of time and energy to doing so, writing a collection of essays about his family and his place in it, through Commonwealth’s Senior Capstone Program, a unique academic opportunity reserved for a small number of students each year. You can learn more about Nathan’s project and read one of his essays below.

This piece is one of my favorites and a good excuse to talk about the historiography of the whole capstone project. It's about my Uncle Tung, who was the middle child in a household with six other siblings. They all lived in this tiny apartment in Stockton, California. In this time, he's in middle school; his younger siblings (Ly, Huong, and Loc) are small children, while his older sisters are either in high school (Sen) or adults (Hieu and Tuyet).

I enjoyed writing this piece in particular because of the work I had to do to get it, flying back to California to conduct interviews with my aunts and uncles. When I asked Tung about his life, he didn't tell me this particular anecdote; I ended up getting it from several of his sisters. Apparently, they were more than eager to "spill the tea" about their siblings, so now I know all these family secrets. I had to prod my uncle to get his angle on the whole thing… 

"Car Stereo"

Tung was sitting quietly on a bench. He ran his fingers over the cuts and scratches on his arm, and brushed a few shards of glass off his shirt. He stared intently at his feet, doing his best to ignore the policeman waiting next to him. He had never been here before, but figured out very quickly he had been brought inside a police station. He had been told to call somebody from his family to come pick him up. His sister, Hieu, was not happy to hear he had just been caught breaking into a car.

Some of the older kids from his school told him it’d be a good idea. Tung liked them, and it wasn’t like they ever got in serious trouble. It was only until after the police pulled him out, dangling from a broken car window, that he really understood he had done something wrong.

“You’re young, kid. What are you, in middle school?”

Tung waited silently.

“You shouldn’t be doing things like this, you know. I can tell you don’t speak English too well. You really don’t want to get in trouble again.”

Somewhere down the hall, the sound of footsteps could be heard, marching closer and closer. Tung sucked in his breath as he felt a sharp tug on his ear. His mother pulled him aside while Hieu greeted the officer.

“Hello, sir. Yes, I apologize. Yes, we’ll be taking him now. Okay, what do you need me to look at?”

Tung managed to free his ear as he watched Hieu walk off with the officer. He couldn’t muster the courage to look up at his mother, who had yet to say a word to him. She’d let go of his ear, only to take a firm grip on his wrist. They stood together, in the hallway, waiting for Hieu to fill out paperwork. A while later she returned, and took them back to the car.

The ride back was long, and quiet. From time to time, the silence would be interrupted by their mother’s exasperated sighs. Hieu tried once to tell her what had happened but was quickly stopped. She didn’t want to know. She had already seen enough.

When they returned to the apartment, it was a little after dinner. The younger siblings had returned to their bedrooms, while Tuyet was waiting at the dinner table. She came over to welcome them.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You were cutting class with those kids again, weren’t you? Why can’t you just do what you’re told? What is dad going to think about this?”

Tears began to sting Tung’s eyes. It wasn’t the berating by his sister, or the whack on the back of his head. It was the thought that their father would find out what he had done. A heavy dread filled his chest, and he began to cry.

“Enough out of you. Go to the bedroom with your little brother and sisters.”

Tung was sent away, while his mother, Hieu, and Tuyet stayed in the dining room. Their father was still out, working. He wouldn’t be home until later at night.

The sisters waited until their brother was behind a closed door, then invited their mother to talk with them. She decided to go and tend to the children, then left as well. Hieu began.

“He’s not in trouble, for now. It’s his first time, he’s young, so it won’t really affect him.”

“Won’t affect him? It’s not about whether this won’t affect him. It’s the fact that he’s eventually going to do something even more stupid. He never listens to us, and never listens to what dad tells us to do.”

“Okay, okay, but he’s not like us, you know? He’s not grown up yet, he doesn’t really understand how to behave.”

“It’s not that hard, is it? Listen to dad, follow the rules, do as you’re told. It’s pretty simple, actually. You’d have to be stupid to not get it on the first try. But he’s never doing any of the things he’s told.”

“What about dad? What do you think he’ll do if he finds out?”

“I can’t imagine. He can’t find out what happened. Tung did something bad, but like skipping class or something. That’s all he should know.”

Tung sat in his bedroom with his siblings. Loc, Huong, and Ly were too young to understand. Sen didn’t want to ask, being well aware of what it looked like when her brother was in trouble. Ly started crying, and Sen got up to help. Tung arrived first to help his little sister, who had just tripped. After a while, Tuyet came into the room. She had some news for Tung.

“We’re taking you out of school. We’re transferring you to Lincoln.”

Tung had little time to react before his sister continued.

“We’re sending you there with your sister, so she can keep an eye on you.” Tuyet gestured towards Sen.

“You’d better behave there.”

Learn more about Commonwealth's Capstone Program.