Former Sentinel reporter produces podcast about life 'Before Me'

Lisa Phu finishes six-year quest to learn about mother's journey from Cambodia to U.S.

As most journalists will tell you, it can sometimes take a while to earn a person's trust. But what if that person is your mom?

For six years, Lisa Phu, a Wrangell Sentinel reporter from 2005 to 2009, worked on a podcast that centered on her mother's upbringing and journey to escape Cambodia during its civil war. And though the interviews took place during two separate visits by her mom to Phu's home in Alaska, it took time before Lan Phu was ready to share her story.

"I asked her for years if I could interview her and she would always say no," Phu said. Her mom acquiesced after being involved in a horrific car accident and Phu became a mom herself.

"Before Me" begins during the Vietnam war and Cambodian civil war of the late 1960s and early '70s, when Lan Phu was a teenager. She recounted the horrors of being in the same room when her uncle was killed by missile shrapnel, fleeing her Cambodian home, being separated from her first-born daughter, and fighting for survival on a daily basis.

Lisa Phu always knew that she had another sister who had died, but growing up she never knew how or why.

Over five podcast episodes, she tells the story of not only her mother's escape but of her mother's upbringing before war tore her world apart. For the most part, it was an ideal childhood, filled with family, food and a first crush. She was a good student with dreams of becoming a psychologist because, as she told her daughter, everybody would confide in her their problems.

Those dreams ended when she married and had a child. "In Cambodia, when you become a mom, your dreams die, unless you come from a very rich family," Lan Phu said in an episode.

With research and interviews of her mom and cousin, Lisa Phu not only learned of her family's story, she had a revelatory experience.

"I didn't know that I was just Chinese until I was 20," she said. "I grew up thinking I was part Cambodian and Vietnamese. When my mom told me, I had just come back from my first backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. I felt so connected to the culture."

Mom cleared things up, letting her daughter know she was ethnically Chinese. Lan Phu's family had moved from China to Cambodia before she was born. "She said it so strongly, from that moment on I was 100% Chinese," Lisa Phu said, adding that she has always struggled with her identity, having grown up in New York among a white community and speaking only English with her mom.

Part of Lan Phu's journey was getting to Chappaqua, New York, in 1980, where a family had agreed to sponsor her and her children. During that time she was pregnant with Lisa, and gave birth to her not long after arriving in New York, where she still resides.

The process to create the podcast took some doing. Interviews with her mom yielded about 67 pages of transcribed copy. Lisa Phu would need to figure out the angle she wanted to pursue for the podcast, though she didn't consider herself a creative person.

"I was a reporter. I didn't consider myself an artist or writer. I was just a reporter," she said. Over the next few years, she continued to write the episodes while working and raising her children with husband Scott Forbes, whom she met and married in Wrangell.

She is still a reporter, working in Juneau for the Alaska Beacon, a website that covers politics and policy.

A series of connections and a grant allowed her to polish the series, which was coming in at about six episodes. Juneau-based musician Avery Stewart provided the original score for the podcast, while Dave Waldron, an audio specialist in Anchorage, helped edit it. Christine Carpenter, a graphic designer, came up with the art but added a little extra help.

"Christine also came up with the title of the show, which was huge," Lisa Phu said. "I didn't have a title for a very long time, which meant I couldn't voice the series. After hearing a description of the show, 'Before Me' was the first title idea she came up with and it was perfect."

She spent all of 2022 trying to find a home for the podcast, eventually connecting with Self Evident, a podcast production company that specializes in Asian-American stories. Lisa Phu was familiar with their work and had listened to other shows they produced. She remembers wanting to pitch her show to them, but "I never thought I'd work with them to bring the podcast to life."

Self Evident took on "Before Me." An editor went through and restructured the podcast, reducing it to five episodes, and the finished series was released in November of last year.

"Before Me" has inspired others who want to tell the stories of their families, and many listeners have expressed to Lisa Phu their desire to do so. Still, she was concerned if her mom would approve of the final product.

"She did. The first (episode) came out and she texted something like, 'I like it,' or, 'Excellent job,'" she said. Though they had a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship in the past, like many parents and their children, Lisa Phu said she believes the podcast has brought them closer to each other.

"I think my mom is amazing and I want the world to know that as well," she said. "Making this was trying to get a glimpse of what she's gone through. ... I still can't fathom what she's gone through. ... Stories of refugees are woven into us and our communities."

"Before Me" is available through podcast services or on its website at beforemepodcast.com.

 

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