Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this interview took place over Zoom. The audio cuts out in places.
Dustin Kelley: Hello, today is February 8th, 2021. My name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark's Watzek Library. I am joined by Mei Bailey, a junior majoring in sociology and anthropology. Today we are speaking with Nhu Le via Zoom. Nhu is a student at Portland State University [PSU] where she is an officer with the VSA [Vietnamese Student Association]. She also works with APANO [Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon] as an intern, and her work is largely centered on this project, actually, where she interviews participants in the Vietnamese language and provides us with translated transcripts, and you will be able to see a lot of her work up on our website very soon, this month actually, so it is really good stuff. We are just really excited that you could be here with us today. Thanks for speaking with us.
Nhu Le: Hello, Dustin and Mei. I would like to introduce myself: my name is Nhu, I am currently a sophomore at PSU and I am majoring in business information technology and analytics; a long major name. And my pronouns that I use would be she or hers.
DK: Awesome, thank you. Let us begin by just talking about where you are from. I know you attend Portland State University, so you are clearly a Portlander right now. Have you always been a Portlander?
NL: Yeah. I was born in Portland, Oregon, and have been living here all my life.
DK: What neighborhoods have you grown up in?
NL: When I was younger, I lived in the Northeast neighborhood, like on Glisan and 90th or so, until I reached third grade. I began to move to Southeast Portland area near Woodstock, and now I am currently living in Southeast Holgate and 22nd, Portland, Oregon.
DK: So you have experienced quite a bit of the city, then.
DK: That's great. Growing up, did you attend Portland Public Schools?
NL: Yes. Starting when I moved from Northeast to Southeast, we changed the boundaries so I had to transfer to Portland Public Schools from David Douglas District. So I have been attending Portland Public Schools for a while. And I attended Joseph Lane Middle School, and then I transferred into Grover Cleveland High School.
DK: What was your experience like in Portland Public Schools?
NL: I guess there are ups and downs for every district. When I was in middle school, I did not know much about the experience and all I knew was just friends and teachers and all of that. But when I moved up to high school, I realized there were a lot of issues regarding racial equity and I participated in a class, which was supposed to be a club, called Care Leadership, and we were exposed to a lot of issues such as discrimination between students and the school staff, especially with the security. One example and project we were working on were hallways and hall passes. We had a survey for every student, and most of the students that were stopped are Black, and some are Hispanics, and others would be Asian, but it was a small percent. But the majority were Black students, and we could talk to assemblies and stuff like that to bring it up to the board and especially the admin, the principal, and all that too, so they were aware of the situation. We were advocating for equality and justice and stuff like that, and when I was in high school I heard a lot of stories that were very unjust and I learned more.
DK: Thank you for sharing that. What were any of the tangible responses? Were any policies changed or any noticeable differences because of your advocacy?
NL: I would say it was kind of difficult, because we were just students we couldn't do anything. But we were trying our best. I remember during my senior year or junior year we were drafting up a new policy for the Portland public school handbooks. But we were drafting it, we were trying, but after I graduated I was trying to see if there are any updates and I still have not seen that much. But there are two sides: one is very supportive of us, and the other, not really, and we are just, like, against one another kind of. But luckily, right now there are students who continue to run the class and they are very active in it, so I am really glad that they are moving on.
DK: At the schools you attended, did you have a lot of Vietnamese classmates?
NL: To be honest, there were a lot of white students at my school, like white-dominated schools, so I do not see much Asians in there, but I would say that I had like one to two Vietnamese friends and that is pretty much it. What I have seen from other classes, there are just very small percent[ages] of Vietnamese students at the school, like maybe five percent at the most. I am not sure the actual population rate.
DK: Fair enough. Did you also attend Vietnamese schools as a child?
NL: I would say that I am more unique than other students who were born here and grew up here. I did attend Vietnamese schools, but I only attended maybe kindergarten, and then I stopped. I only learned the alphabet and how to put the accent correctly, but other than that I learned Vietnamese by myself at home, and my parents helped me with learning and I started to learn more about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese traditions, and Vietnamese language itself. I have to say that I am fluent in Vietnamese, compared to other people who attend Vietnamese school.
DK: Growing up in Portland did you feel connected to the larger Vietnamese American community?
NL: Yes, I do. One is because, my dad, he is very active in the Vietnamese community. He is the reporter of the Saigon Broadcasting television network, which is headquartered in California. So everyone knows him, maybe like ninety-six people out of one hundred Vietnamese people here know him. I followed him everywhere when I was little, and people began to know me, and they know my face wherever I go. I feel connected and I remember one of the Vietnamese community presidents was like, "You are going to be the next president," and I was like, "No, no." But yes, I do feel connected. I volunteer for the Vietnamese community and I do everything I can to help them out.
DK: That's great. So, you mentioned that you learned some about your Vietnamese culture at home and that is where you spent time learning the Vietnamese language. Can you talk a little bit about the specific aspects of Vietnamese culture and traditions that they wanted to pass down to you and maybe some about what formal language training might have looked like at home?
NL: I think the most important thing would be, since Lunar New Year, Vietnamese New Year, is coming up, I would like to talk a little bit about that right now. So, what I learned specifically for Vietnamese New Year for example, like the superstitions. You cannot mop or you cannot maybe take the garbage out of the house on the first day, for example, January 1st, or New Year's Eve. It means if you take your garbage out it means you are going to take the money out for the year. It is just, like, very similar like that. The funeral traditions, like how we tie our white scarves on our head, and there is a lot of different ways to tie. For example, the sister would tie differently than brothers and the oldest son would tie differently.
For the language itself, my dad, he expects me to speak Vietnamese at home, like maybe all the time, when I was at home. He said he does not mind if I speak English outside of the house, but when I step into the house he expects me to speak Vietnamese, always. And as I grew older he loosened that a little, because he does not want me to feel too pressured, so I began to mix speaking English and Vietnamese together and then he would be like, "Okay, that's fine." Since I am so used to speaking Vietnamese, it is just a thing that I began to listen to Vietnamese songs and read Vietnamese books and talk to Vietnamese friends. Some people think I was born in Vietnam. No, I am from the United States. I was in ESL [English as a Second Language] for five years, and they still think I was born in Vietnam because that is when I was very bad at English. That is how it works.
Mei Bailey: When you were a child, did you enjoy learning about Vietnamese culture and language?
NL: I was very shy. I have been introverted, and until now I am still introverted. I would say that I was very shy to speak Vietnamese in front of a large crowd, besides family. But compared to other people I did not feel pressured. I am a fast learner with Vietnamese traditions and culture, so if I do not understand something I would ask my family members right away and they would explain it to me. Until now, I have books that explain the traditions more in depth, and I learned it from books or by myself right now.
MB: Thank you for sharing. Shifting gears a little bit to talk about college, you said you are currently at PSU as a sophomore. Can you talk a little bit about what influenced you to go to PSU?
NL: I graduated high school one year early and now I'm currently a sophomore. I'm supposed to be a freshman but since I graduated early I'm a sophomore. I applied to multiple colleges when I was transferring and in the process of graduating. At first, I wanted to go Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. I loved that place—I feel like it has a lot of pre-med, the courses are very planned out, and I like how it is. But then I started to think about my financial budget and I realized that Portland State University offers four years free, and even if I have to pay back some, it would only be around six hundred per term or seven hundred per term. It's not like one thousand, three thousand, or something like that that I cannot afford or to the point where I have to borrow a loan. I think a lot about my financial budget and my parents’ as well, so I would say that the financial budget would be the major part of my decision of going to PSU.
Besides that, I feel like the buildings are very attractive because it is remodeled and all that, and I realize there are a lot of programs that I could join. For example, right now I am in Empower, which is for Asian and Pacific Islanders, and low-income students, and first-generation college students. And they offer a lot of support and I am going to be a mentor for other students who are incoming freshmen as well next year. The third factor would be … [Nhu pauses, thinking]
MB: No worries. We can come back to that if you'd like. So, you told us what you were studying, but do you want to say a little more [about] why you chose to study it, or how the major is going for you?
NL: I think I have switched my major four or five times now. In the beginning I was a pre-med student. I took all the prerequisites and all that. I was a certified nursing assistant for six months or so because I wanted to explore the medical field, until one point when I thought to myself, This is going to be a career that I will have to stay with maybe forever, until I die. So, I have to think thoroughly and what I really am passionate about, not just something I like or my family members like. I thought to myself that I wanted to start a business or something like that, so I began to explore in the business field, and then I switched, slowly, to the business field. I realized that I am very good at math since I was in middle school, and I am still good at math. I am really passionate in it, so I was majoring in accounting. And then, in the end of 2020, APANO offered me a position, like a contract position, called Data Manager. I started working with APANO, and I did everything that was in my responsibilities, and I managed the data and did everything that I could do for the Cares Act funds, and distributed the funds, and all of that, and I realized that, "Oh, this is something I am really like, and I feel relaxed. I do not feel pressured, I do not feel stressed or anything." So, I explored the fields and realized that PSU just offered a new major, which is business information technology, and I was like, "Oh, this is a good opportunity," so I switched to the major.
MB: Cool! So the COVID-19 pandemic has really clearly impacted education. What have classes been like for you?
NL: For me personally, COVID-19 does not impact my education much because, like I said, I am introverted. Even if I go on campus I do not talk to anyone, I just go to class, and when class ends I take my backpack and go to a corner and study and that is it. Since freshman year I would take, for example, sixteen credits, half of the credits would be online and the other half would be offline, so I am very used to the online education and I do not see that there are any cons. I would say there are more pros. The cons would be that I cannot meet the professor directly, and that is the only con. But otherwise it is more convenient and I have more time for myself and I can study whenever I feel like it. It is just convenient overall, and I like it personally.
MB: Is PSU kind of hybrid right now or is it all online, or some in person?
NL: Most of it right now is online, majority are the remote classes, and I think they are planning to go on campus during fall, but I am not hoping for that. Just because it has been one year already, and I have not gone on campus and I have become lazy, and I just want to stay home and study. That is my thought, but some people are struggling with online education too so I am very understanding for their part as well. I do not expect them to stay home like I do.
MB: Has your family encouraged you to attend college, or did you feel any expectations to do so from the Vietnamese community?
NL: I think most of the Vietnamese families do encourage their children to attend college. Especially for my family, they immigrated here and they have experienced the hardships: they did not get a job right away, or they were struggling with the language barrier. I remember my dad told me that he had to deliver newspapers when he just came here, and would ride bicycles delivering newspapers and all of that. And he also had to collect cans and bottles to sell and get the money and help out [his] family. He told me of these stories, and he encouraged me that I should get the education that I deserve, and he said that the United States offered a lot of opportunities for students to be successful, and if I do not grasp that opportunity then that is maybe a big mistake. I think every parent just wants their children to be successful and they support me all they can and they do not want me to become someone that is a bad model for the society.
MB: You mentioned the organizations Empower and APANO. Do you participate in any other extracurricular activities, or do you want to talk more about either of those?
NL: Besides Empower and APANO, I am also in public relations for the Vietnamese Student Association at PSU. This is my first year becoming a board member and it is … [00:23:54 audio cuts out] … there are some difficulties, and since it is remote … [00:24:08 audio cuts out] … especially communicating and networking, so all the work and assignments are put onto my shoulders. There is a lot on my plate, and I have to struggle through, but luckily other board members understand and we just work out which is better and I feel less stress.
MB: What are some of the things that the VSA is doing this year, especially now that it is remote? What are some of the goals you are working towards?
NL: One of the goals we are trying to aim for is connecting with students, because, for example, it is on campus, then there would be thirty to forty students coming to the workshop. But now, since it is remote, it is more difficult so, maybe, one workshop we only have eight students, five students coming. I remember the last two weeks there was no one coming, only one student came. So we are really struggling with that only. Usually we would have a culture show, and we were planning to have a remote culture show with prerecorded dance and singing and all of that, but we decided not to because it is just not convenient enough and we do not think anyone would enjoy that either, so we just put it aside and wait for next year, and we just plan out another workshop to substitute that culture show.
DK: You mentioned participating in APANO, and I am curious if you partake in any larger community organizations or religious organizations?
NL: I did participate in a religious organization. It is called Our Lady of Lavang Parish, and we just moved into a new and bigger church so there is a lot of work. Due to COVID there are a lot of restrictions and we are trying to bring everyone together as much as we can under the restriction. We are just trying to bring everyone together and some people are just trying not to. Due to COVID they have just become lazy and they do not want to be active anymore, which is a big struggle for us. We are still trying to build community, and the youth would do their part and the adults would do their part.
DK: What has the transition in moving buildings been like?
NL: I think it is kind of like we are buying a new house. There is a lot of moving and it is called “rent-back.” I remember the former owner of the church organization of the building over there, rent-back would usually be one month and then they would move out, but they kept on asking us to rent-back for one month, and after one month it would be like, "Oh, can we rent-back for two months or so," which is kind of out of our plan and all that. We officially moved here, and we are still trying to do construction and remodel to make the buildings look nicer and more safe. Everything is organized now, but for the Vietnamese school I feel like the online education for the Vietnamese community is kind of different than public schools in Oregon because they are more structured and we were like, "Oh, we just now merged onto online education so we do not have any experience with that." So, there are a lot of students attending Vietnamese school but they are struggling with that as well, and the teachers are struggling with that as well. There is not much communication and it causes a lot of arguments. We are just trying to do our best and moving is very good, I would say.
DK: Do you have any special memories affiliated with your church membership, or things that are extra special to you that you look forward to celebrating every year?
NL: I would say that this is not a good memory, but it is kind of good. During 2018, when we were at the old church there was an accident before Christmas Eve. There was this man who was driving an SUV car and crashed into our building, which caused a big collapse. We had to close the doors and everything was destroyed, including the statues and the chairs and all that. Luckily, where the choir stands upstairs did not collapse, which is good. I feel good about that because I realized that we had a stronger bond. After twenty four hours everything was cleaned up before Christmas Eve, and we still celebrated Christmas Eve in happiness and joy and that is all that matters. From there, our bishop realized we should get a new church and now we are here in the new church and I think that is a good memory.
DK: Thank you for sharing that. I want to ask a few follow-up questions about APANO if that is okay.
NL: So for APANO, as you know, I am working on the Vietnamese Portland project and currently I am still a contract data manager. For my part, on the project I am still trying to find people, get people to do the interviews and connect with other people. As you know, there are more difficulties with connecting and their schedules are a bit weird compared to normal times. It is just a trying time right now. I think everything is good and I feel like APANO staff are just trying to navigate through working remotely as well. I think everyone is still loving each other and it is called teamwork, so that is all good.
DK: What is it like to be the one doing the interviews?
NL: I would say I learned a lot. I never make people cry, but through interviews I have heard, I have seen people cry when they talk about their stories, and the last two weeks I interviewed this one person and she cried because she talked about her parents' story, and it was kind of awkward for me because I do not want to make them cry. But I think it is just touching, and I learned about [their] experience and I learned about how to value what I have right now because what I have right now is what some people did not have when they came here. I would say that I am thankful for this project and this opportunity to interview people and to learn about their story, because when I meet the people I interview in real life they are very happy and very friendly, but I do not know their story and I do not know their background until I interview them. I realize that everyone has their own story and we should not judge from the book cover.
DK: I understand what you are talking about. It is really impactful to hear other people's stories and to see a world much larger than our own, so thank you for sharing some of that perspective. I really appreciate it. What social and economic issues do you think the Vietnamese community [faces] today?
NL: I would say the social issue would be the Vietnamese flag, I think. We still have some issue with that, and some people, I understand that they are very hurt from the war and Black April and they lost what they fought for. Some people have not come back to Vietnam for twenty, thirty, or forty years since they left and I understand the hurt, but the issue is that, for example, an international student does not know anything about the flags and we have to sympathize that and we have to understand, but some people tend to not understand and that creates a gap between the two. We cannot presume that every international student from Vietnam is communist, for example. It would just create more issues every day and we can never … [00:36:44 audio cuts out] … and we need to love each other and we need to respect one another. We cannot hold grudges forever, and what we can do right now is to bring all people together through love. That is what I think.
The other issue would be the Vietnamese older generations do not understand the Vietnamese younger generations as much. Sometimes the Vietnamese youth want to help out the older generations within the community, but the older generations just think that we do not know anything, that we are still little, and that we do not have much experience to help them out with certain stuff. That creates another issue as well, so it cannot bring everyone together because there is a large gap between [them], and I think that is the biggest issue that we face today. And it needs to be fixed through something, it cannot continue to linger.
DK: In your mind, what role does being Vietnamese American play in your life?
NL: That is kind of a difficult question. I think being Vietnamese American would be … I bring up diversity to the community in the United States in general, and I get to express my uniqueness and culture, my traditions and all that. It is not bad to be unique, but sometimes we experience discrimination and they think that we are different but we are not, we are the same as others. Being Vietnamese American is very interesting. I get to experience between the two cultures, living in an American place and the two cultures mix and I take what is good from being American and what is good from being Vietnamese. It is just mixed together and I am who I am today.
MB: Have you ever traveled back to Vietnam?
NL: I would say no, I have not. I have seen the cities from videos and all of that, but I never came back to Vietnam.
DK: Sometimes we ask second generation Vietnamese immigrants like yourself to talk a little bit about their family's history with setting up a home in America and what the experience immigrating was like. I am curious if you would like to talk at all about some of your larger family's experience.
NL: Yes, I can talk about that. Let me start with my mother's side first: My grandpa is the first person who came here to America, and I heard from my mom that my grandpa had swam from Vietnam—I don't know the ocean or the river—from Vietnam to China. He had to swim for a long time, extremely long time. He reached China, and I think he got arrested for crossing the border illegally. Luckily, though, he had someone who was currently working in America, so that person sponsored him to America and he came here and then sponsored my mom's sibling and my grandma over here, and then my mother was the last person who came to America, during 1998, I would say.
For my dad, he was sponsored through the HO [Humanitarian Operation] program, and he came with his siblings and my grandparents. They came here [and] my dad got his associate’s degree at Kirkwood Community College. In the beginning, he was living in Iowa and then he drove from Iowa to Portland and settled here until now. For my mom, I remember when she first came here she cried every day. It was kind of depressing because she misses Vietnam, and she said that the environment here is different and she could not fit in yet. So, she had to take four or five years to get used to living here, and my dad was the person that helped her become more familiar with the environment here and tried to comfort her. She learned English, and she was supposed to work at Providence because my dad has a friend who worked there and offered her a job, but she did not take the opportunity, unfortunately. So she is currently working here at TE Medical Corporation, and my dad, he currently works at Amazon. When I was born there was a lot of struggling. They lived in an apartment and they bought a home and it did not work out, so we had to rent a house again. We recently bought a house, and our goal is to keep the house right now. I am trying my best. My part is to study and work and graduate and help out my parents. My parents just do their part working.
DK: Thank you for sharing that. I had not written that question down in advance for you, so I appreciate you answering that off the cuff. I am curious, at the end of this interview, if there is anything we did not ask that you would like to discuss, or if there's any questions you were hoping that would be asked that have not?
NL: I would say that usually when I interview people I would ask what they think about what older generations should understand about the Vietnamese younger generations. Personally, if I was asked that question I would say the older generations have their own thoughts and their own mindsets and their own way of living in the old days. Times are changing, everything is changing, so I just wanted to say that I hope the older generations understand us more and try to work with us as well as we would work with them, in a positive way. Of course, I do not want anything bad to happen, I do not want any gap between the generations. Sometimes we want to say something but the older generations just stop us, so we cannot say anything at all. That should be fixed as well. We do not have much experience, but we will learn from the older generations and whatever they do not know, we will explain it to them in a respectful way. It does not mean that we are trying to step on their foot or anything, we are just trying to explain and we hope that they will cooperate with us to make the community become stronger every day.
DK: That's great. Alright, I think this concludes our interview for today. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Mei Bailey speaking with Nhu Le. Today is February 8th, 2021. Thank you.
MB: Thank you.
NL: You're welcome.