Vietnamese storyteller promotes peace; Surrounded by killing in childhood, Mahoney teaches lessons about positivity

Tinh Mahoney plays guitar, sings songs and tells stories for Lane students April 18 in the Longhouse.Photo: Penny C. Scott

Tinh Mahoney plays guitar, sings songs and tells stories for Lane students April 18 in the Longhouse.
Photo: Penny C. Scott

Approximately 20 students gathered in a circle around visiting storyteller Tinh Mahoney in the Longhouse on April 18 while he sang songs, played guitar and told stories. Mahoney was invited to speak to the students as part of the Storytelling Model for Social Justice through the Arts.

From his fearful childhood in war-torn South Vietnam emerged Mahoney’s personal mission to enjoy life and help others do the same. Fighting and killing was going on all around Mahoney when he was young. He lived in constant fear.

“We thought we were going to die,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney uses music and storytelling to convey his message of peace, harmony and having a positive attitude. He said he loves both Vietnam and America and focuses on the best in each country.

“I love the beauty, nature, family traditions and culture of Vietnam,” Mahoney said. “America is great. It’s a place of opportunity where, if you want to do something, you can just do it. It’s not like that in Vietnam.”

Mahoney’s award-winning documentary 7,500 Miles to Redemption is a collaboration between him and inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary to build a school in Vietnam.

The inmates were inspired to have an opportunity to make a difference in another part of the world while behind bars, one of them said in the documentary.

Mahoney teaches Vietnamese children English using American songs. He is the founder of the Village School Foundation, a nonprofit organization that builds schools and gives scholarships and private health care to needy children and their families in Vietnam.

“No matter where you are or what the situation, there will be problems,” Mahoney said. “But you’ve always got a choice how you want to look at it, and that’s what I teach the kids.”

He said that more than 70 percent of the population in Vietnam was born after the war, and that it’s time to move on.

“It’s not about war anymore,“ Mahoney said. “It’s about ordinary people.”

Lane international admissions adviser Colby Sheldon, who attended the event, said that while in Southest Asia in 2012, she was surprised to discover 27 is the median age in Vietnam.

“It’s still part of the culture in Vietnam to have a lot of fear and have a lot of shame,” Mahoney said. “But it’s slowly changing, and I like to be a part of that. There’s a whole new generation now.”

Even though there’s new generation in Vietnam there are a lot of customs that people have to follow, “It can be confusing at times because I’m not a true Vietnamese,” Mahoney said. “I left when I was younger. So I am American-Vietnamese, which is not the same.”

Lane students Malisa Ratthasing, from Laos, and Hanh Nguyen, from Vietnam, said they came to see Mahoney to learn more about their Southeast Asian heritage.

“I grew up in America, so this is home. We are a melting pot of many cultures, so it’s very different here,” Ratthasing said.

Both students agree that the diversity they see in  America means there’s a reduced focus on family heritage and tradition. Nguyen, who has been in America for almost three years, plans to return to Vietnam at the end of her schooling.

“We are more family-based in Vietnam. There’s generation after generation of Vietnamese, so we pay a lot more attention to tradition,” Nguyen said. “Here, it’s not that people don’t care about tradition. It’s just so diverse with so many cultures, it makes it different.”

Mahoney has traveled and lived in many parts of America, and he said the diversity is very noticeable. No matter where people are or what their differences may be, life is about getting along with each other.

“We pay a lot of attention to things that are not important. Life is about making choices,” Mahoney said. “Laugh and have fun and enjoy one another.”