Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am one of the librarians at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is March 12, 2021, and I am meeting with Cat and Suu Nguyen via Zoom. Cat and Suu, thank you so much for meeting with me today. I very much appreciate your time.
Cat Nguyen: Thank you for meeting you too, very flattered [computer noises].
DK: So I would like to chat about both of your childhoods a little bit. Cat, we will go ahead and start with you, and then we will continue on with Suu.
DK: So Cat, could you start by telling us some about your childhood in Vietnam? For instance, what part of Vietnam was your family originally from?
CN: I am Cat Van Nguyen, I was born on August 20, 1946, in Cát Bi village. As you know, the town connected Hai Phong and Kiến An in North Vietnam. That is it. I [was] born there, the place I was born in. I lived there with my parents when I was young.
DK: Now, am I correct that your family moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in 1954?
CN: Yup, correctly.
DK: Where did your family move to?
CN: In 1954, after the Geneva [Convention], they divided both parts of my country. Then my family, my father, made the decision to move to the far south with the republic. They do not want to live with the Communists, that is the reason. They move and as a child, I follow them [speaks in Vietnamese]. Yes, I lived with my parents in Cát Bi village [speaks in Vietnamese]. When I moved to the south in 1954, we started living in the Vung Tau in South Vietnam. About almost sixty to seventy miles south of Saigon. That is where I lived when I started living in South Vietnam.
Dk: So Cat, what were some of your earliest memories and what was your family like?
CN:I lived in the Vung Tau. My father had eleven siblings together. I am the oldest one of ten brothers and sisters. You know, that is the reason we live and work. My dad belonged to the soldiers of the Republic of South Vietnamese Army. Then that is it. Then I grew up in the south and was going to elementary [school]. And in North Vietnam, I already [went] to school. But I [knew] how to read and write only. Because you know about eight and nine-year-old kids, I lived in a village in North Vietnam before I moved to the south, I go to school. But I go to school in the village and study with one of the [people] who knows how to teach the kids. They call it the teacher, the village teacher—no class, no everything, no class. They do not put the levels in the classroom. They just put us to study together with one teacher for every level. Then, at that time, I knew how to read and write already, very well. I go to the south and keep going and get in the third grade in the elementary school.
DK: What was your elementary school like?
CN: Regular elementary school, yeah. I lived in Vung Tau, that is a very good place to study too. They have a very good school system over there. They have elementary and high school too, junior high and high school over there. But I cannot get into the public school. I studied in private. I studied in a private high school. After I finish elementary in public, I cannot get in because in public high school in my country, [it is] very very hard. For example, the whole program, they just have only one high school, only one school for about over 200,000 people. So that is the reason—population—it is very hard to get into the public high school. And I have to go to a Catholic private high school over there. But I study until ninth grade only. Because at the time in 1962, ‘63, ‘64, at that time in my country they study in high school, they submit and finish junior high school first, they call it graduate junior high school, that looks like it is the ninth grade. But we call it Lop Chin. We call it Lop Chin, that means ninth grade.
DK: Excellent, thank you so much.
CN: Yeah, then after, I have a certificate of finished ninth grade and I picked a school.
DK: Thank you very much for telling me about your childhood, Cat. Suu, I have some of the same questions for you.
Suu Nguyen: Okay.
DK: So, where was your family originally from?
SN: My family lived in North Vietnam in Thai Binh, I was born there in [CN: 1949] 1949, yeah. And I lived there until [CN: 1954] 1954. My parents [CN: moved to] moved to South Vietnam. At that time I was just five years old, I did not know anything.
DK: Where did your family settle in South Vietnam?
SN: [CN: Ba Ria] Oh, my family lived in Ba Ria. I lived in a village in Long Hương. [CN: the Catholic people lived there] Yeah, the Catholic people lived in there. The people moved to North Vietnam, moved to the south, and lived together in the village. I [grew] up over there with my parents.
DK: So what were some of your earliest memories?
SN: Oh, around ten years old, I remember I went to school and after I finished school [CN: go to vocational] I [went] to the vocational school for around four years. After I graduate[d] I [got] married—at that time in my age it is super married early, at eighteen. When the people are twenty years old, not married, so old. I married early at eighteen years old after I graduated school.
DK: So you got married at eighteen, you said?
SN: Yeah, yeah.
DK: So how did the two of you meet? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
CN: We did not know anything. We did not know each other.
CN: We are an arranged marriage.
SN: My husband live[d] so far and I did not know him and my cousin and his cousin know each other and my father and my grandfather came to me and just a few months and we got married right away.
DK: Were you excited about having an arranged marriage?
SN: Yes, we live until now, yeah! We live until now, fifty-four years.
SN: Fifty-five years.
CN: In coming, it should be we [are] married fifty-five years.
DK: Congratulations by the way, that is a wonderfully long marriage. That is wonderful.
SN: I have eight kids, yeah.
DK: So Cat, you were a part of the military in South Vietnam. Is that correct?
CN: Yeah, yup yup yup.
DK: Can you tell me a little bit about some of your experiences?
CN: Yep, well I was, at my age when the elections were elected and go to the army, I should be twenty-one. But at eighteen after I finished the school, after I got a certificate from school as I told you before, and I wanted to go to the army right away to become a soldier right away. That is the reason I heard of some program, looked like [it was] from the United States—USOM. U-S-O-M. That means you do not belong to [unclear] or something, I do not know. But they have a program there—they direct a person to become—they do training us, support us, and then become a soldier to protect my country. That is the reason. I like it, and I registered for that group, and with the support from the United States government. I [did] not know anything much about them because I [was] just one of the soldiers. I worked with them for about… I worked with that program for almost two years.
Then they transfer us to the Vietnamese, they call it [speaks in Vietnamese], I do not know anything for the program. I [was] not like a soldier, but like people that work in the village. I think, with the company, the reason [was] not by the weapon but by the way of learning the political and something like that [computer noise]. I become to that group for about three more years. That means five years together I am with that group with the support from USOM. Then after 1968 after sixty-eight, sixty-nine, I get in the Vietnamese army to protect the Vietnamese army. Because after the Tet Offensive in 1968, after that the government asked every people, go somewhere before, to go back to the Vietnamese army, the Vietnamese public to defend. That is the reason I go back to—because the government of the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese government. That is 1969 [computer noise]. I get in the military belong to—I got paid by the Vietnamese government, then after that I am fighting after training for about a few months in training camps and I go back to the battlefield. After the first time on the battlefield, I [got] hurt, I [got] wounded. I [lost] my leg. I amputated my leg.
DK: So, what happened with your leg? Can you tell me more about that?
CN: I stepped on the mine with my company, go to the battlefield. I stepped up on the mine and the mine exploded and I [lost] my leg, my left leg, and wounded the right one. Then after that, I go to the hospital for about three or four months. After sitting in the hospital I go back to somewhere quiet. [speaks in Vietnamese] Rehabilitation in the army. I have to leave, they give me a prosthetic leg there, then I start walking. Then the government at that time, I heard the Vietnamese government, they opened a classroom for the class to become a civil officer to be working in the city hall or something somewhere. Then they make the first priority for a person who has a background in the military. They need to take a special test—that is the reason the veteran affairs of my country introduced me to go there and I go to there. I get into the cycle, study for almost two years. Then I become a government officer.
DK: So Suu, while Cat was away at war what was life like for you?
CN: [speaks in Vietnamese]
SN: Oh, I stay with home and take care of the family only. We got a kid [Suu, Cat, and their child speak to each other in Vietnamese]. I just have two kids, three kids, yeah [people speaking in the background]. I have three kids, at that time I stay home and take care of them.
DK: I believe you also indicated that you helped Cat's family, you were staying with them and also worked in the fields some. What were some of the crops that you were working with? What were some of the plants and crops that you were growing?
[Cat and Suu speak to each other in Vietnamese]
SN: I just stay home growing vegetables [Quynh Nguyen: like rice] like rice, greens, and fruit, and vegetables.
DK: Well thank you for sharing that. So, this next question is for either one of you. What prompted you to leave Vietnam and come to the United States?
CN: In 1979, I [left] from the reeducation camp. Then I [went] back to meet my family and at that time I am very—they do not allow me to do anything. They do not allow me because I belong to the old government. The new government, you know the communist version, does not allow me to do anything to support my family. But with some friends, best friends, they introduce me to go to the [CN: speaks in Vietnamese, QN: workplace], the workplace in the deep part of the mountain. I go there and dig the hole and [QN: collect the rocks] collect the rocks and put it down and I work for them. They [hired] me to work for them, they [did] not pay by the weight, they pay by what I make. What I make by the rock, that means I have to do [it] myself, my body, to go up through the mountains. Then build the deep and make some clear the rocks and I use something to take it out from the whole thing and put it down the hill and break it together like the rock, call it [speaks in Vietnamese] that means about two fourths, [speaks in Vietnamese] wide then put together. Then they pay us two đồng, that means about a thousand than before. At that time they already changed the currency [speaks in Vietnamese] in the old country, the old government, only one đồng of the new government. That is the reason they pay two đồng for the whole rock, one meter, then they pay two đồng. Right now that currency, they do not use any đồng anymore. They simply use at least about 5000 đồng. But at that time they pay only two đồng for one meter high and one meter wide.
CN: Yeah, every month I make about—every month I make a maximum of about ten đồng, that is it, ten đồng for a month.
Quynh Nguyen: So dad, that was your work?
QN: That kind of work was hard. So that is partly why you and mom decided to leave.
CN: Yeah, instead of that, for leaving they give me they agree to sell for us, the food, just twenty-one kilogram, right? But you know they never serve a little food like that, twenty-one kilograms of rice, some small box about every month, five small boxes of noodles. [Speaks in Vietnamese] Then one toothpaste and some matches. That is it. That is the only food benefit, that is the whole benefit, they agree to sell with the price of the government, that is the deal, that is why it is that cheap. If not, I have to go to buy some things and I work for them like that for six months, then I escape.
DK: Very difficult work for very little reward.
CN: At that time because I desperately leave from the reeducation camp, I [do] not have Vietnamese citizenship. Every day I have to—every week, twice a week, I have to meet them in the auditorium of the building. I meet some of the area police to report to them who I meet, what do I do during the week.
QN: So dad, after the war, after the communist takeover, because you were with the South Vietnamese army you lost your citizenship, it was stripped away.
QN: So you no longer had citizenship in the new government.
CN: Correct, yeah. I do not have any other citizenship. They do not count me as a citizen. That is the reason at that time.
DK: Did Suu lose her citizenship too?
DK: Did Suu lose her citizenship too or just you?
CN: No, she still had it. But actually, you know—
SN: Only you.
CN: Because at the time, the culture in my country. Because I was born and I belong to the old government. The new government coming, they strip off everything, but only me. But you know I am the main support of the family of my culture. That is my culture, I am the main support. The woman usually—because at that time we had four kids, at the time after my country fell. I already had four kids. That is the reason my wife cannot do anything with the four kids, four small kids. She should stay home and just grow up some vegetables and some things and help with me together to raise a family. That is it. But luckily, even though we are very poor, but we still put my kids in the school. But my kids, even they usually are against them, they are very hard to get into the school. But I [knew] someone luckily, I [had] a friend and they [helped] me to try to get and put my kids in the public school, that is a good elementary, in kindergarten, first grade, or second grade, that is it.
DK: So you have lost your citizenship, you felt this pressure to provide for your family, you needed to provide for your family so you made the difficult decision to leave Vietnam. Can you tell me about what your experiences were like in preparing to leave and then actually leaving the country?
CN: After I leave from the reeducation camp, they took off every citizenship from me. That is the reason I cannot work well with them. Even if I wanted to work with them, but you know. I told you before, I [had] some friends, they [gave] me temporary work at the workplace, they call it [speaks in Vietnamese], that means the [speaks in Vietnamese] Mountain.
QN: The quarry where they dig for rocks.
CN: Yeah, dig for rock. Yeah, I worked there for about six months. But they let me off, they cannot, because the reason they can not accept me to work [is] because I do not have the citizen[ship], that is the reason they told me that. I do not have Vietnamese citizenship, that is the reason they cannot let me work there anymore [phone rings]. I thought at that time, I thought with a reason like that, I am the person [who] very wants to serve my country like the military or like a civil government officer. Then, I very, very [much] like to work with them to build up my country but they do not allow me, they not allow me. That is the reason I thought, “Oh, because they are like that, I should be thinking about escaping from my country.” That is the reason I start. With some of my friends, my friends, because my friends are from the old government, meet together in the reeducation camp or something.
At that time, I told you the truth, at that time I had a little learning about the political or something. That is the reason they very trusted me, the government in the village. The village government they very like me and usually ask me and they encourage me, maybe if you want you can buy one of the boats. Because the people, they escape from my country they [QN: get caught] get caught, they take everything. Now they put them in the jail, now they have property like the boat, the fisher boat, and they want to sell it [to] someone. To want to become the fisherman. One of the officers in my village, he know me and he is a friend of me, too. Not a friend but he is more liking me. That is the reason, because I [taught] him something, that is the reason. He tells me, write a letter, application, to buy the boat, he is the person certified. Then go to the police and they sign and agree to sell for us one small boat—that is the reason I become a fisherman. Actually I do not know anything about fishing. I am not a fisherman but at that time I wanted to escape, that is the reason.
QN: So Dad, he actually helped you. The local village officer helped you and suggested that you put in an application to purchase—
CN: To buy—
QN: A confiscated boat, one that was used by others who were trying to escape. [CN: Correct, yeah.] They got caught and then these boats then go up for sale. So that is what happened.
CN: That is the reason, after I bought that, after I have the permit to [buy] that boat and they agreed to sell it for me. Then because I have some friend, right, before we make together, you know. The boat, when they take [it] from them the old person [who] escaped before, because it takes about three or four years—that is the reason, long time, it is very very bad, cannot go right away. Cannot go fishing right away—that is the reason I have to appl[y] again for repairs. Make repair for about a year.
DK: That is a long time.
CN: Long time—a year—because actually, I [did] not know how to become the fisherman. I [was] not the fisherman, actually that is the reason. But the reason, only that, because we want to make friends together, we make a group, we meet some people like us together. Then they have the money then everyone puts something in. For example my family friend, they have money [computer noise], they said, "Oh okay, I have the money, I put it for you to take it." Then I go with twenty people, go with us together.
QN: When we finally escaped?
CN: Yeah, when we escaped, they go twenty people like that, like the group and my family. About, you know [talking in background] no, thirty people because my kids and I have five more siblings, my siblings and my wife's siblings together. That means thirteen people. The group of other people, they have twenty people. That means we are over thirty, then almost thirty five. Then after that, we [had] to become the fishermen for about six months together. You know, at that time it was very hard. Every day, if I go fishing I have to go to the government in the village, the police station in the village. I appeal to them with papers, which day I go, what time I will go, and what time I will go back, just the planning. Give them the planning for today to go fishing. Then every fish, everything I catch on that day, I have to go back and sell for them. They agree to sell for us, they sell for us, then that is the reason they will sell the diesel to run the boat. That is the reason—we are not real fisherman, we do not know how to catch the fish. Usually we had to ask the person, the group person, to put money for us to buy somewhere with the black market price. Then go back and sell for them with the real price to buy.
QN: So you had to buy the fish because you were not very good at fishing. Because truly the fishing boat was just a pretense [Vietnamese word] to sort of fool the government. But to establish the fact that you were indeed fishing for a livelihood and not planning to escape with the boat.
CN: Planning for an escaping family. Actually, you know, I am not a fisherman. I do not know how to fish.
DK: So how long did you do this?
CN: About six months, almost not six months yet, a little more than five months, then we escape and make it final.
DK: How did you know it was the right time to leave?
CN: The reason—every day, I go to the sea. From my village to the sea it takes about twenty minutes right on the river, then [to] go to sea about twenty minutes together. At that time they already had some of the control place. Every time when I park there, I simply show them the paper, the permit, to go fishing. That is every day. Like that, then I do that for about five months. Then I make a decision. The reason, the time we escape together after almost five months fishing, we already used a lot of money. A lot of money because we have to buy something then go to buy something with the black market and go back and sell for the government with [Suu speaks in Vietnamese], then sometimes we have to give them money to actually do.
QN: Bribe money.
CN: Yeah, bribe. That is the reason, it is very, very hard at that time. That [was] the reason we finally think we would rather escape. I know escaping is very, very dangerous. But, you know, I thought we would rather die. We do not want to live with them.
QN: Can you talk about [Vietnamese words] like how wise you were as you were setting up this pretense [Vietnamese words]. Every time [Vietnamese words] you took the whole family, so that you created this idea that you always go fishing with your family and so it would not look strange and alert anyone.
CN: You know the reason to make the habit every time I go to fishing—I usually [had] my wife and all of my kids even though they do not know anything. But I usually put them in the permit and have their name on it together. It makes that part a few months, for people never think I escape, just my family go fishing with some in the boat. Like my brother-in-law, not the person, he is the captain. I am the captain, the real captain, but I do not know how to drive the boat. That is the reason my brother-in-law, my wife's brother, he knows how to ride the boat. Yeah, go together [computer sound issues] that is the reason we go like that fisherman.
QN: I am sorry—would you, Dustin, would you mind pausing for a moment?
[interview paused to fix sound issues]
DK: So you were telling me about how you were giving the appearance of fishing and you would take your family with you. After having done this for a long time, how did you know it was actually time to leave, like the moment had come? What time of day did you leave?
CN: Yeah, I told you a little bit more, at that time because I [was] thinking that I [was] not a fisherman. I [was] thinking about becoming a fisherman because I want to escape only. That is the reason. Like that, we [made] some friends and [made] a group of people. At that time if I want to escape I have to buy some oil, diesel, for the boat, the food, and everything should be made by step by step. That is the group of people, the money. I do not have enough money, that is the reason I open and make a group. Like almost about ninety people together in the boat. Original, ninety-four people because four people, they did not pay. But ninety people, they pay. Ninety people including my family already paid me and we are ready, that makes it about forty more people. Forty more people, they contribute with the money to pay for the—you remember I cannot lie to the police because they know if we escape, they know. That is the reason, they need money, they need money. That is the reason they ask us to give them some money, then they are asking for us to leave. That is the reason [conversation in background].
Yeah the reason—finally our group [made] a decision together, we [made] that [decision] October 17, that is the date we escaped together at that time. Before that we have my brother, my family, my brother helped me to buy the oil, the diesel, and they usually—because at that time in my country, everything you buy, buy in the black market only. Cannot buy the real thing like here, you only have—if they know you have like that and they will pick up right away they will catch you right away. When you want something, when you want the diesel or some dried food, then you have to have a place to hide. My brother—I remember my brother in law. We live together in the village, same village. Then, I remember he put us some grow for our vegetables and he dig it at night and he put the oil [SN: under] with a five-gallon tank together, deep in the underground and grow the vegetables up there. Waiting for the day to escape.
As I told you before, we [were] planning and teach to become a fisherman for almost six months, that means a little more than five months. We only prepare everything. That is the reason— prepare everything. That is the reason. Then after, on the date of that and my brother should be help. They know we already organized where [to] bring the diesel and the food—go to somewhere, cannot bring to my boat because my boat should have two more controllers. As I told you before, the police control before I leave. That means they will take it if they see a lot of diesel, a lot of food, they will right away. That is the reason—even the village already agree[d] for us to go but somewhere higher, they [did] not. I do not have enough money to buy anything. That is the reason. Then I have to do it in secret with help from my family for my oil, for my food, even from the people of my friends too. I [had] to make some good secrets with someone I believe and they agree[d] to help. For example, they live and I put ten people in one house. Another ten houses like that and when the time comes, for example, we think about seven of us and six or five we are ready, divide people to become the people, like go to the deep market and if [speaking in background] Yeah, but we usually go to it at night.
SN: We escape at night.
CN: At night it is very hard to hide us, four people and another family. But because a lot of families, they will know, that is the reason. Every people should be—do like they are hiding somewhere. Because the people in the cities, they do not know, but they should be wearing dirty clothes or something, exactly like the [speaks in Vietnamese]. Then, every people already know where to go. One group, one leader, they know where to go and leave first and go to the nearby river where the boat will pass and stop by the group together like that.
DK: So you get everyone together and then on the ocean, you are on the open ocean for four days, is that right?
CN: Five days. Five nights and four days. Five nights and four days.
DK: What was that like?
CN: It was—
SN: Very bad.
CN: Very bad. At that time, the sea is very calm, very calm. I think that everything, we go one day, two day, and three day we start seeing some—looked like we go to the international line in the sea. We already [saw] some big ships pass, but they do not allow us to go. So we waited at night, we saw them by the light they own. But you know when we come too close to them for about one mile, they turn off the light. We do not know where anything is in the sea. That is the reason. On the time, finally the fourth day, the final day, we meet one of the ships with the American flag. Yeah, with the American flag, but the tank ship. But they put down the anchor so they—
Bao Nguyen: Put down the anchor.
CN: Yeah, they put down the anchor. I thought if you know someone close to them, maybe they will take us but when we go there for about half a kilometer, just about six foot or something. Then I saw them take up the anchor, then they start running. They already come, I saw the American flag and some people, they stand on the side and they saw us already. About three hundred meters, that is the reason I [saw] people together, they stand on the… but finally, they run away. At that time we had a big problem because when they run, our boat is very small, we look like [we are] sinking because they run so fast, the tank, they are running and they make a big wave for us. That is the reason—I talked with one of my friends. He was military, in navy before, he is the navigator and he said we are not very far from the land anymore. Just about with the speed of our boat you can take about five to six hours and you can go to the land, the island.
We agree okay, because two nights to get there, two nights. We met about four or six boats, a big ship, they run to us but looks like the economy from I do not know the country. But when we come there close to them they turn off the light, they do not accept us, that is the reason. At the time of day, the fourth day, I saw one of the American flags, with the very, very big ship with the American flag. But they take the anchor up and they run. That is the reason, nobody take us at that time, that is the reason we have to go by ourselves. That is the reason we take off and my friend, he is the navigator, he knows. He continues to go for about five or six hours, for five or six hours within that, and we saw the light go up, the land go up, like a hat in the ocean. But we start showing that about early morning. I said early morning, but about five. Because in the sea, you know, I saw the sun rise very, very, very early. That is the reason, about five o'clock I already [saw] daytime. Then I saw the American tank ship, then they run away. We make decision to go. Then we start at about five or six o'clock in the evening, we were nearby one of the big islands—we call it the big, we call it the island with the coconut only. Only coconut. Then at that time I wanted to get in there but the navigator tell me, cannot get in. Because it has some sand holes.
BN: It is called a dry sand bar.
CN: Dry sand bar, yeah, that is the reason.
DK: So, where did you make landfall?
CN: Then we go there for about seven or eight o'clock. We cannot get in the island. We come to the island but it still had about almost one quarter mile. We stay, put the anchor down, then at night we are still worried. At the time we know some people will come and take our boat—take our boat because at that time we do not know where to go but the navigator tell me he is a very good one. He told me this [is] Similan [?] Island. He told me because he had the map. The map—he told me, the Similan [?] Island I know. Then in the map says that, then it does not have the people live here. But at night because it is eight or nine o'clock. We divide for some of the young people, for the young men we divide. Because we are very worried some people will come and rob it and take off. That is the reason, because with the background in military, that is the reason, order them to protect themselves, ourselves, and the boat together. Then waiting there in the morning because at night we have to take off the water because the water will run through the boat because that is the reason the boat will turn off the engine. That is the reason they cannot take off the water itself—that is the reason we had to divide people who cannot sleep, but take up some of the water out of the boat and waiting.
In the morning, I saw two small boats. Two very, very small boats. They [were] sailing by person. They go to us and they ask [in] English because the navigator, he is training in the United States and he knows English. He [was the] captain of the navy, captain of [speaks in Vietnamese] for South Vietnam together. That is the reason he knows English and he asks them, "Where it is?" They said, "Indonesia.” That is the reason. That is the first place we come. Then they agree and we have just a small boat. At night, I saw only three lights of the house, small house, in the island. That is it, do not worry very much because just three house, they are just about ten people, we are in the boat about ninety people, we do not worry, that is the reason. In the morning when they are sailing out with the small one, it is about four people each. That is the reason I am and some strong men we go together with them, go to the island hutch. But thirty people are still in the boat. Then they have us sailing. When I get in I saw the dream coming with the fair water. That is very good for when we go.
For five days and five nights, we do not make any sound or anything, especially for the women or something. Then I saw it was very safe, it is safe for us to borrow his stuff for a while. Then we [told] them to keep going. They keep you there with their boat. Then we use three small boats and we go to the ship, then ask people if they want to go, if they want to go to the island or take a shower or something and eat. Then we go to the island [in] our boat together for about a few hours. We eat together, ninety people, over ninety-four people. We go to the boat, but at that time we still have ten people, they did not want to get onto the island. Ten people still want to live on the boat, they still stay with the boat and we go to the island. We take the shower and we make light. Four days, four or five days in the boat, we eat very, very leniently, living only because we do not have enough food and water. That is the reason. Now we see fair water in the stream. Then the people there—they are very nice, one family very nice. They sold [to] us, [made] the cooking and they [made] the map to go to the sea. They go just about ten to fifteen minutes and they come back with the whole bucket of fish for us to cook. That is the reason.
DK: That is wonderful.
CN: Yes, the whole fact. Then [there were] the coconut trees, a lot—the whole island, only coconut—do not get other trees. Only coconut. Every house I saw, they have at least three, four, five groups of monkey. They already trained monkey and they tell monkey to go to the coconut tree to the top and take the coconuts down for us to yield like that. They ask us for pay for a little bit. We have enough, we agree. After we stay[ed] there for about a few hours, looked like four or five hours because in the morning until three o'clock and two o'clock, we start[ed] to go back to the ship. One person in that island, they [left] us to go to another island, [that has] the government because their island does not have any government. But they already asked us, apply for them, apply for gold for about [speaks in Vietnamese] I do not know, that means—not that the house a very small one like that, my wife's ring give about two [speaks in Vietnamese], they asked like that and they will help us to lift up by the boat. They go to our boat, then tell us where to go. Go to another island with them there for about two hours driving, driving the boat. Then, they ask for [speaks in Vietnamese] then after because they help us to get the fish and coconut for eat, for the ring, and they ask for [speaks in Vietnamese], very cheap. Then we agree. Then they lift up to another, because we do not know how to go because at that time a lot of the sand, I do not know, not the sea anymore. If by the sea we are going to have a lot of bass and [speaks in Vietnamese] coral. Without their help we cannot go. Our boat cannot go. That is the reason we have to go with them. Then go to another island called Pulau Laut. That means the island Pulau Laut. Then, in the Pulau Laut when I [got] there [it was] already at night. Because we start at about four or five. We set for two hours but we have been there already night. I do not remember what time. But they have the village over there, they have the government. They have the leader of the village over there and they have the radio to contact with other islands too. I just get in and they do not have anything. But the second one, they have it. At first we come there and they put us and they have the market [speaks in Vietnamese]—they have it for the Islam.
BN: Mosque, mosque.
CN: Yeah, they put us in there with the place for the people, but no roof. Only the one has the door [to] get in, but no roof. It was raining. We [had] to take care of ourselves. Then we were put there, we lived there for about a week in Pulau Laut. Everyday we [went] to the village leader. I ask, because at that time I am the leader of my boat. The village, they already give us when we come there, looks like the United Nations already give them the project or something. When they have the boat people come in, they give us—
CN: Rice and a little dry fish.
SN: Dry fish.
CN: They already give us a little bit. We start, go to the village and borrow something or borrow and cook and we eat together. We cook and we eat together like that for about—then the chief of the village, they ask us [for] a little bit of money, gold, and we have to give them a little gold. But okay, they give us—we are free to go around their village.
DK: So eventually you make your way to the Galang refugee camps in December?
CN: Yep, for example, before we go to the refugee camp, we have to go to a few more islands before I get there.
DK: A lot of islands, yeah.
CN: Yeah, Pulau Laut, I lived there for about a week. And the reason we lived there [is] because they kept waiting for another commercial person—they come every week, and we will follow them. Their ship to go to another island that has a big government. Look like the village go to the district like that. Then we live there for about a week. At day time okay, but at night time some time we had some bad people in the village, we live in the mosque. Now some people, they come and pick some things. Some bad people but that is the reason. Some like women then they live because we have spent the journey in the sea, very tired now. We do not worry. Some people in the village, some bad guy in the village, at night they usually come and they saw us and they take off something and they run away. That is the reason we have to provide for our group. You know, to put the women and our kids in the center and the men around like that. Sometimes when it [was] raining, we [had] to use some of our tarp to prevent wet. Then after that, we live there for almost ten days, almost ten days, over a week. Almost ten day. Then they have another person, they come and they ask us for two more little gold to allow them to go to Sedanau. The town is called Sedanau, they have the big navy camp over there. I saw the submarine. I saw the big ship of the military ship over there and they put us in there. They tell us, go to there. But with actually write a letter for them we agree to give them the battery of our boat [for] free. Because at that time in Sedanau and Pulau Laut, we still used my boat. In Sedanau, they take off my boat. They put us in the house. They make our boat with the water with some pole. They put one group of us in the house, they lock it. Every day they bring us [audio cuts out 1:09:25].
[audio resumes 01:09:36]
At Sedanau, that is the big place with the navy camp—Indonesian camp, military camp. That is the reason I saw submarines, I saw some military ships too. That is the reason. But they have a town near there. I have some ship, international ship, they are coming. They have some big tank like that. But they make us live in one of the storage [Suu speaks in background], the storage in the house for over ninety people in the house. They lock it. Every day they have three people get out, every day three people get out to go to the market and buy something they want, buy our own. The currency we exchange with them by the gold we bring. We bring with us the gold in the ring or something like that and they give us Rupiah—that is the Indonesian money. We go to the market like that, and buy some. They give us some money. They give us the rice and the fair water everyday. Then we can go down to the—when the sea is right, the water nearby—that we can go down and take a shower by the sea, by the water sea. But get in the house and sleep on no bed, no everything. We lay on the loft. Ninety people. We live there for about a week. We live there for about over a week. Then they depart to the United Nations, then the United Nations have the big ship, called it the Sea Ship. Yeah, I remember the name of the ship and it was Sea Ship. They come and take us to the refugee camp. The first refugee camp the United Nations [had] over there. Call it the Kuku.
DK: So did the boat lead your boat behind them or did you get on their boat?
CN: No no, got on their ship, not boat anymore. The big ship right now—we go to the big ship for about a thousand people. Not for the small boat anymore. The small boat they already [kept] it. I do not know where to deal with that but you know. But to get in the Sedanau, they [do] not allow—look like I saw them take a voyage for the—they come and they put the thing on that and they take [it] away from the place, I do not know where to go. I do not know my boat now.
DK: So you spent about a year in the refugee camp—what was that like?
CN: At first, the first refugee camp I come in Kuku—called it Kuku Indonesia. [SN: I live there] I live there for about a month. In about a month, they have the Sea Ship already come after they go around for another. Because Indonesia is an island country. The big ship will go around and around and make every island have them report them [SN: over there], have the boat people come and they pick them up first, then they [go] around like that for a month. They go back and pick it up at Kuku and transfer and go to the Galang camp. I [got] in the Galang camp, I remember, on the [twentieth] of December. I [got into the] Galang camp. Galang had two camps, and had two parts: Galang One and Galang Two. At first, every people get into Galang One, get in there. The United Nations will interview you and divide everything, waiting for the delegation of every country to make the interviews for who qualifies for which country. I lived in the Galang camp for twenty days.
Then I got the United Nations. That day United Nations do something and build and make. My family [unclear] for something first, I call it an interview with the US government first. Then the first delegation of the United States delegation call me first Cat Van Nguyen, the family of fourteen people. Because at that time it was fourteen people—sorry, thirteen people—because I live there for a month for a year. That is the reason, I have one more kid over there. Bao—that is the person who [was] born there. Then about twenty days, at the first interview they already accept me. Because I bring every document with me, every day I work with the United States government in my country, like the state park. In Vietnam for about four year, two year, then they transfer[red] me but they still support. Even they transfer[red] to the Vietnam government, but they still support three more years. That means for five years I work with them. As a soldier, I have some medals and the certificate and something. I show them and they accept my family.
I can speak a little bit of English over there, just a little bit. Before I worked in the [unclear] with them because the council—usually the government, the American council—they go with us with our group. For example, the group of twelve people, ten people, or twenty people like that, they usually [had] one or two or three councils go with us together, fighting together like that. That is the reason I know a little bit of English, but not very much. Then after that, at the United States delegation they interview me and they accept me and of course the whole family. Usually my family, they call it my wife and my kids only, but after they interview and I show them every document I have, they ask me, "Do you have any brother and sister here?" I said, "Yes, I have one sister—my wife's sister, my wife's brother and sister." They said, "Do you want them to go with your family?" "Yes," I said yes, I like it, because I take responsibility with them, [they are] my sibling and my wife's siblings. Then they put [us] together in the family.
DK: So you were able to all stay together, that is great.
CN: Actually, usually people when they get a delegation—the first interview, they are waiting for another interview, a final interview. It usually takes about forty, sixty days. Forty or sixty days [of] waiting like that. Because the first interview they will bring the people that filed that time, go back and check and if it went through they will come in the final interview, the second time. For about forty days, for a little more than a month—that means about forty days—the second interview comes. They come in the interview, then because I told them the bike route I have to learn from the US training me like the demolition specialist. That is the reason they accept everything. I have every paper, I have every certificate and paper to show them.
That is the reason. At that time, I [was] already [in] contact with my own group in the United States. They already send the letter to verify to me. They give me some money too, that is the reason. Then I live there for about… actually, the people with the final interview, they sent me appraisal and that is the reason they send me the security interview again, one more time after the final interview. They still send me to another place to live interview one more time. Then finally I got everything because that is the truth. I tell you the truth, I tell them the truth. Then they accept everything. At that time my family, that is the first person, because at that time the US government [had] the order every boat people accept into the United States. Should get into another camp to study the way things are, called it “orientation study” for three more months. Study about the life in the United States. That is the reason I [was] waiting to transfer to go to another camp called Galang Two. At first I go to Galang first, Galang One, then now I transfer and go to Galang Two. I live[d] in Galang Two for about eleven months together. I live[d] in Galang Two [for] eleven months. That means together with the date I escaped for about over two years, a little more than two years, but it is okay.
DK: So in the response you gave me earlier, I just want to make sure my timeline is correct. You left Vietnam in October 1981, and you got to the Galang Two camp in December. And then arrived in the United States in Portland in December 1982. Is that right?
CN: Yeah, eighteen of December 1982, I got into the United States. So in the Pendleton camp.
DK: That is a lot of changes in a short amount of time.
CN: Yes, a lot of changes.
DK: So you went from Galang to Camp Pendleton.
DK: And then directly to Portland.
DK: Now, what led you specifically to the city of Portland as opposed to other American cities?
CN: Actually, I have a cousin here. I call her my sister, but [if you] call it in an American way, [she] should be called a cousin, not a sister, because my dad and her dad are brothers. That is the reason I call it first cousin. She does not know how to write Vietnamese. Even Vietnamese she does not know, that is the reason she never [got in] contact with me. She never [got in] contact with me. I did not know where I [would] go [in] the United States. At first I thought my wife [had] some of my family. My wife's family [had] some people liv[ing] in Texas. They already sent a letter, they said they sponsor us already. They are waiting to see us. I usually thought, I go there, I never [thought] that I [would] go to Portland, I do not know. Then here, I have my cousin here, but she never contacted me by letter or everything. I do not know how I can. Then when I come and sign the final paper, sign the final paper to get into the United States to get the visa, I saw, “Go to Portland.” Portland, Oregon, I do not know. I usually [thought] in my mind I [would] go to Texas with my wife's family but I never know here. I write letters to her, to my cousin, but she never write back. That is the reason I do not know anything. She never contacted me by letter because at that time no internet, no Wifi, no everything—only letters. That is the reason I do not know where to go. Then at first when I sign the paper, I know the sponsor, the local sponsor. That is her name, that is my cousin's name. Now she has gotten away already. Then I know her, I will go here. I do not know where is Portland. I checked the mail, the regular mail, with my wife's relative. I usually go to Texas. I know a little bit about Texas. I do not know anything about Portland. But they [sent] me to Portland.
DK: You arrived in Portland in December of all times, in winter.
CN: Yeah, fourteen people in my family—that is eight kids, seven kids, and five more siblings, and my wife and [her] siblings.
DK: So what were some of your first impressions of the city of Portland?
CN: We went once a year to the program—called it the Lutheran Family Service. At that time I [had] just come in the night of the eighteenth and nineteenth—that is the big snow storm. I never knew that, because I live with sponsor. The sponsor told me, my cousin [told] me, "Do not get out, you will fall." That is the reason. I [did] not know the weather [was] like that before in my country. All icy everywhere, [in] 1982. Icy everywhere in Northeast Portland. At first we lived in the apartment nearby the MAX. Because my family lived in a two bedroom house, two bedroom apartment. My cousin lived in the three bedroom apartment nearby in the next building. Then we live there—after one day they let us go to visit the Lutheran family service for them to make some paper to get into the United States or go to the doctor and for everything. Because the Lutheran family service, that is the real sponsor. They just represent the people. Then we [went] there and after I applied, they [gave] every people $500 for one person. They give us to buy something, to pay rent and everything. That is the reason you know we had a little money at first, that is it. Then they help us to fill out application for the public at that time. Because at that time, I had seven kids. That is the reason. I start to go in Portland and my kids go back to school. We had just only two [kids] go to school [at] first, you know. Three go to school. I think my first son at that time got into sixth grade and the second one in the fourth grade then, Quynh, the daughter you talked with before, she now goes back to work. She was in the first or second grade, I do not remember. But that is the grade.
DK: So, was it easy for you to assimilate into the city of Portland and into American culture?
CN: Very—because I already told you, I already had an orientation class in the camp for at least three months. That is the reason I know a little bit. Then I think anyway, the living here is more better than [in] my country. That is the reason. Anyway, the easy way to live here, better than my country. That is the reason and I agree and I start to go to work and I start to go to school together.
DK: Were people in America pretty welcoming to you and your family?
CN: I do not see any discrimination, I do not see anything. I met all good persons. Then actually I just go to work, go to school, and then go home, that is it. I do not know anything, that is the reason. I feel very, very pleasant, very pleasant to live here. Thank god I am happy to live here. I start[ed] to have some kids over here and then they [grew] up and I put them in the school. Myself, I go to school too.
DK: Were there community organizations? I know you already mentioned Lutheran Family Services, but were there other organizations that you became connected to early in your time in Portland?
CN: Because I, my family, was born and raised as a Catholic person. That is the reason—I know in Portland has the Vietnamese Catholic here, that is the reason. I visit with them, then they already know me—someone here in the community, they already know me. After that, then I volunteer to work in the parish council and I worked as a secretary in the parish for eleven years.
DK: Which parish was this with?
CN: Southeast Asian Vicariate. Southeast Asian Vicariate.
BN: The parish is Lavang Church.
CN: Now we call it Our Lady of Lavang. Now we call it Our Lady of Lavang. But before, we called it Southeast Asian Vicariate.
DK: Good to know, to thank you for that clarification. You mentioned that you were part of a council and were you also a treasurer at one point as well?
CN: I am the secretary, not the tax person.
DK: Oh, secretary, okay.
CN: I was the secretary for eleven years until 1994.
DK: It sounds like church has been very important to you and your family. Were there special services or events that you looked forward to as you attended what is now Our Lady of Lavang?
CN: Yes, now I am in Our Lady of Lavang. I am just an active member, that is it. Because I work and I am just an active member. I go to church every day and I went to attend the church every day. I contribute to the church as much as I can. That is it. I like the way like that to make the community become stronger. In my thinking, I keep the family tight, strong, and our community strong and society will be stronger. That is it, that is the reason I do it. And when I have been living here for almost forty years, then I think that is more better than my country. I have a chance to go to school and I am working. And I am saving money and send my kids to school too. Then with that, as I told you before, I am the traditional Catholic. That is the reason I want both of my kids to graduate from the Catholic Grace. Both of them from elementary—half of them grow up from even elementary, I still put them in the private school. But at that time I [was] very limited in money, very limited money. That is the reason I [wrote] a letter to the Archbishop of Portland and they helped me. They helped me to pay for the kids to attend a private Catholic school. That is the reason you know, now.
DK: That is wonderful.
CN: Then after that they go to high school, all my kids attend high school [at] a Catholic school. Most of my kids. Only one of the first ones went to public school. After that, the second one through the eighth. After that, the first and fourth, the fourth was mentally lacking, the Catholic school [did not] have a program for her. That is the reason she and the first one, the first and the fourth attended the public, and otherwise six of them graduate from the elementary to the college—all of them [attended] Catholic school, private Catholic school. That is the reason. Myself, I believe that I have only an associate’s degree from Portland Community College. But I still work until now, until I retire.
DK: So, you took classes at Portland Community College. What jobs did you hold here in Portland?
CN: I studied Para Media. That means library, but you know, I do not have to work in the library. I saw the Portland public school and the University of Portland opened a job when I took some work over there. I saw them open a job and I applied for them to work in the fiscal plan for over twenty four years over there. Because I worked there, that is the reason my kids had my benefits to attend there free. That is the reason.
DK: That is a great benefit.
CN: Yep, I have almost four kids, yeah— [speaking in background] five—I have five kids finish from the University of Portland. Even they attend honors school. I have two attend honors school. But the University of Portland still pays for the children to attend. They still pay for [it].
BN: They have a tuition remission program for a lot of Catholic universities in the US. So two of my sisters went to Saint Marks College in Washington, myself and two of my other sisters graduated from University of Portland.
DK: That is great, thank you Bao. So you have been in Portland now a really long time. In what ways has Portland's Vietnamese community changed since you first arrived?
CN: Yes, at first when I arrived it was just very small, we had the parish, called it Saint Rose of Lima. They [gave] us the prayer for our community to make the work shift every week. When I [came] there for about a year, we start[ed] with the help from the archdiocese because at that time, when I [came] here I start[ed] working with our community right away. That is the reason I know, about in 1983 we started buying Holy Child Academy before. Called it Holy Child Academy and now [has] become the Southeast Asian Vicariate with the help from the archdiocese of Portland. We will make a parish over there. The parish over there in 5904 NE Sandy, NE Alameda Avenue in the street. Then, right now, my community is very, very, very big—over six thousand people. That is the reason we have to buy the big church in the New Hope Church last summer in Happy Valley. We just bought it for about over a year.
DK: How do you like your new building?
CN: Oh it is huge, very nice, very like.
DK: Some other participants have told me about it and several have referred to it that there is finally enough space to park.
CN: Yeah, now we have more than enough because it is almost a thousand [in the] parking lot—in the parking lot, over a thousand parking spots. That means our parish does not have enough, only special days. That is a very good one.
DK: Well, I have a few more questions and we are coming towards the end. So, one question is have you been back to visit Vietnam?
CN: Oh yes, I have. I have gone to visit a few times. Even I [have taken] the whole family before, [when] my parents [were] still alive—now they [have] passed away. My mom [was] ninety-four and my dad [was] ninety-one, and they passed away. In 2003 and 2005, my mom passed away first— before that, I [came] and I [brought] the whole family. The whole family [went] to Vietnam to visit them. When Quynh had a chance to go to work in the Peace Corps in Africa, my family [went] back there and visit[ed] them before she [went]. That is the reason.
DK: What was it like to return?
CN: That is very, very sad. At that time my mom and my dad [were] already old, and he still start sick. But [the] first time when I [came] there after almost eleven or twelve years [living] in the United States. That is the reason—when I come back I did not recognize my house anymore. They are changing everything. Some they deal and my family house, my old house, that is the reason. But I did not recognize where are the ways to get to my house. Because in my country, even I live in Vung Tau, the travel city that is very good for transportation. But even, very hard because I could not live in the main street, I lived in the small street—that is the reason I do not know the way to get in. At first—now it is okay, now I know. At that time in 1986, I [went] back the first time, 1996 yeah. 1996—the first time I go back to my country [speaking in background] yeah, ninety-five, ninety-five.
DK: Was it difficult for you to come back and see the changes?
CN: No, the reason I [came] back [was] only [to] see my parents, only [to] see my parents. Visit my parents and talk with them and I usually live[d] there for about one week, two week, then I go. Go back because I have to go to work. I do not stay there. One time the longest visit was during the summer—my wife and my kids [went] there for about over a month, a little more than a month. Then they go back for thirty for everything. Otherwise I go with them. But I have to go back earlier, go back to the United States earlier to work.
DK: Well congratulations to both of you. You have reached the end of my questions. You have chatted with me for so long and before we end the conversation I want to know, is there anything that we have missed? Is there anything you wanted to tell me that I have not asked?
CN: Actually, I do not have anything to tell you about with anything. I just answered your questions. I thought it is not enough. You want to have more questions, just ask and I try to answer, that is it.
DK: You did and you gave me so many details. This was wonderful. I so appreciate it.
CN: Thank you.
DK: Thank you so much for your time. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley chatting with both Cat and Suu Nguyen. Today is March 12, 2021. Thank you for listening.
CN: Thank you, you are welcome.