Get started interviewing elders

It’s not always easy to have a conversation with our elders. Sometimes there’s a language barrier, other times it’s just uncomfortable or you may not know where to start.

When I signed up to be part of the Unforgotten film series to capture Hmong Veterans stories, I knew I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It was so worth the reward I received from the experience. We decided that we’d put together a discussion guide to help. We hope this can jump start your family conversation.


Who to interview?

Ease your way into who you interview. Start with a more talkative elder or parent.

  • Beginner’s Tip: It was observed during our screenings, that the women more easily and openly offered their thoughts and stories. Some of the men required more peeling and prying.

When to interview?

There are 2 approaches, each with their pros and cons.

  1. Formal – You can set aside a specific place and time to do the interview. This may help the interviewee prepare their thoughts ahead of time. You can also choose a place that is quieter or makes the interviewee feel comfortable, like in their home.
  2. Impromptu – For a more natural and organic approach, asking an elder when you are in the moment. The con to this method, is you may not be ready to record the conversation.
  • Beginner’s Tip: For impromptu conversations, try asking a simple question during a get together that several elders can chime in on together. One person’s comment may spark additional memories from others. This also removes the pressure of you having to moderate the conversation.

What questions to ask?

If this is a new experience for you and the interviewee, it may be helpful to ask more general questions. As you gather more details, you can then dive deeper into what interests you. Below are samples questions, specifically for Hmong elders around key moments:

  • What do you remember about your life in Laos before there was a war?
  • What did you do for a living before the war?
  • How did you cross from Laos to Thailand?
  • What was your life like in the refugee camps in Thailand?
  • What did you have to do to come to this country or America?
  • Tell me about that first year in this country or America?
  • What was the hardest part about living in America?
  • What do you miss about your life before this country or America?

Now it’s your turn!

Try it out and let us know what worked for you. What was great about your experience, or what was hard?

Watch the Unforgotten Film Series

The “Unforgotten” project was designed to pair students and young professionals with Hmong Veterans from the Special Guerrilla Unit, to document their untold war stories.