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'Inheriting' podcast explores how historic events shape AAPI families


The stories we tell ourselves over the years, over the generations help define our families and our identities. Maybe just as important as that, though, are the stories that we don't tell ourselves but can still feel like they're hovering in the air all around us. A new podcast from LAist Studios and the NPR network helps families tell those stories to each other and help better understand their family histories and the cultural heritage that they came from. And that can be hard.

The podcast Inheriting focuses on Asian American and Pacific Islander families and explores how events that played out decades ago in places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Guam and elsewhere can still be felt in families today. I spoke to Emily Kwong, the host of Inheriting. Emily, welcome to the show.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Scott, it is so good to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

DETROW: I am really glad to have you. And I want to start out with this. I think a lot of listeners know you from Short Wave. They know you as a science reporter and host. This is really different. What led you to Inheriting? What what were you thinking when you started this project?

KWONG: I like to say that this is a show that I've been preparing my whole life to make, which is a big statement, I recognize.

DETROW: High stakes.

KWONG: You know? And I've spent some sleepless nights staring at the ceiling. The reason is because I grew up Chinese American in southern Connecticut. That is a really particular kind of upbringing. And it meant that there just were very few families like mine. But I'm not here to really talk about representation. What I'm here to talk about is, like, loneliness and isolation and feeling really disconnected from your own history because maybe your family doesn't talk about it very much.

And I think that's true of immigrants, of refugees, of people all over this country for whom what they left behind before they came here is perhaps traumatic, perhaps not something they can safely talk about. It features seven families from Cambodia, Guam, Japan, India, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam. So we go across the AAPI diaspora.

It's eight narrative episodes. Each episode is looking at how one historical event has shaped one family. So it's kind of like a crash course in Asian American and Pacific Islander studies. But it's also really trying to bring people together in conversations about what happened in the past.

DETROW: So you went ahead, and you made this podcast. Tell us about some of the stories that you found.

KWONG: So we put out a call-out sheet. Basically, it was like a Google Form, a really nice Google Form. But we asked anyone to send us a story idea. And the question was, you know, do you have an unanswered curiosity about your own family history, and would you be willing to talk about it on an NPR podcast? And over a hundred people submitted. We pre-interviewed about 40, and we just distilled and distilled and landed on seven families.

And one of the people who wrote in to us is Bao Truong, who basically has always been shaped by the Vietnam War. His father fought for the South Vietnamese Air Force and came to this country after the fall of Saigon. And he knows if that war hadn't happened, he never would have been born because his parents met here in the United States. So he's always wondered, like, yeah, how do I connect with my Vietnamese culture when I was born here?

He started watching films from Asian directors, so people like Wong Kar-wai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And so at this moment in the story, I was talking about watching these films and realizing how much of his Vietnamese heritage he's been pushing away.

BAO TRUONG: What did I leave behind? And I think it was in this moment of, like, clarity, of, like, young adult reflection that I started feeling really nostalgic for this self that I left behind, this culture that I turned my back away from for so long. I look back at my life, and I feel very embarrassed at how long it took for me to come around to accepting who I am.

KWONG: And Bao finally had a name for this placeless feeling he had as a kid.

BAO: I have this concept of inherited nostalgia, of being homesick for a place you've never known, a place that's never been home.

DETROW: That's a really powerful idea, inherited nostalgia.

KWONG: Yeah, it's a really compelling idea, and I think shared by a lot of people who have connections to other places. When we talk about war, when we talk about racism, when we talk about assimilation as experiences among Americans, I think that this show is trying to basically reconnect those feelings to historical events, especially when a lot of these histories just aren't taught in school.

You know, the Vietnam War is taught a certain way, depending on the school district you live in. I was never taught about Japanese American castration growing up in Connecticut. So in some ways, this class is the Asian American Pacific Islander studies class that I always wish I had, but it just folds in a lot of family, a lot of family feelings, too.

DETROW: I want to talk about one of the biggest choices you made here and one of the most interesting choices you made here is that you are the host of the podcast, and you are telling us a lot of the backstory here, but you are not actually doing the interviewing. You are facilitating family members talking to each other. Why was that so important to you?

KWONG: So yeah, actually, in the course of learning Mandarin, I chose to interview my own father and shared that story on NPR. And just like the reaction it got, the sense of, like, oh, yeah, my family also lost our language, and and here's how - also, wow, so cool to hear a daughter and father talking about the past. I was like, ah, this is a show. That's what empowered me to proceed in this direction of making a show where I'm helping people have conversations and I'm facilitating conversations.

So the next clip we're going to play you features Victoria Uce. She is a young woman who lives in Long Beach, Calif. Her parents are both survivors of the Cambodian genocide. And who she's interviewing is her father, Bo, who lost his parents at a really young age but still remembers his mother. And one of the stories that Bo told Victoria is about the lengths his mom went to to find them food in the labor camps.

DETROW: Let's listen to that for a moment.

KWONG: Bo's most vivid memory from that time was when his mom called him over to a hole in the rice paddy. There was a snake inside.

BO: She knew that I'm not afraid of water lily snake. And she's a devout Buddhist, but because of hunger, she told me that there was a frog inside the hole in the rice paddy.

KWONG: So Bo stuck his hand in the hole to get it. Instead, he grabbed the snake.

BO: The snake resisted. And then suddenly, I pull, and I toss the snake up in the air. And then when it fell down on the ground, and my mom just close her eyes and beat the hell out of that snake just to feed her children, you know. I love my mom, you know. They took her in 1977, and I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to my mom.

KWONG: Bo thinks he was 7 when the regime took his mom and his baby sister. There was no grown-up around to explain their absence, just Bo and his three other siblings left on their own.

BO: We don't know where our parents were. And we're like - we were so excited. Like, hopefully, they would come one day, you know. They never came.

DETROW: I mean, Emily, families here are talking about historical events, but also deeply personal, often traumatic memories like that. I mean, that's - you could hear the understandable emotion as he remembered that and how he said goodbye to his mom or didn't say goodbye to his mom.

KWONG: Yeah. And I think one thing our show is really deliberate about was taking care of the people who participated in this project. So we had a consulting psychologist throughout production. We also did a lot of check-ins with the sources, like, after these interviews to, you know, just say, how did this conversation shape you? How did it shape your relationships with each other? And I think that people really responded well to it. They felt taken care of. Or at least I really hope that Bo and Victoria felt taken care of while they were talking about this.

DETROW: So like you said at the beginning, this is a project you've been thinking about for a pretty long time. And this has been a pretty personal project to you. And I feel like you probably had a lot of ideas going into about how it would turn out. I'm wondering what the biggest surprise to you has been as you've put these episodes together.

KWONG: I think the thing that has most genuinely surprised me is how people, when given permission, actually really do want to talk about this. People are really looking for context to understand the world we live in today. And they're also looking for some kind of emotional toehold to know that they can survive the hardest things.

And when you listen to people who have survived some of the hardest things and how they've continued to be a family, you start to look around and realize you're just not as alone as you think you are. Sometimes when I'm struggling as a person, I really do think about what my grandmother went through, what my great-grandmother went through, and I reach for it when I just am at a loss for how to move forward.

DETROW: That's Emily Kwong, host and co-creator of Inheriting, a new podcast from LAist Studios and the NPR network. Emily, thank you so much for coming by the show to talk about this.

KWONG: Scott, thank you so much for having me. It was really good to talk to you.

DETROW: Anytime. The first five episodes of Inheriting are out now. You can catch the show on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to Inheriting senior producer and co-creator Anjuli Sastry Krbechek and executive producer Catherine Mailhouse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.