Garland Joseph: Hello, this is Garland Joseph I am speaking with Susan Quang over Zoom on June 29th, 2020. Both Susan and I are currently located in Portland. I just wanted to say thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Susan Quang: Hello.
GJ: I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself and telling me a little bit about your life, and how you ended up in Portland.
SQ: My name is Susan Quang and I go by Susan. However, my native name is Yến Xuân Quang, and that means “A Dove in Spring.” Well, I am a retired Vietnamese-American woman who came to Oregon from Vietnam nearly forty years ago as a boat people refugee. I came directly from South Vietnam and since arrival, my family and I have been living in Oregon as a long term resident. We haven't moved and we haven't changed our residence for nearly forty years.
GJ: What city or area of Vietnam is your family from?
SQ: My mom's side came from the north. She lived in the province that is thirty kilometers from Hanoi, which is now the capital of Vietnam. Her father used to work for the French railroad and the family migrated to [a] town in central Vietnam. My mom is originally from the north and my father is from the south. He’s also living in a rural town that is mostly agricultural. So they met and start their family—my father joined the South Vietnamese government navy, while my mother was a small business owner. He was trained and served the south government navy until the fall of Saigon. That is why we got political asylum to come to the United States. My parents have six of us, I have two older brothers, myself and two younger brothers and my sisters. We all [were] born and raised in Saigon, which is the capital of the south. Because around 1954 when the country was divided in half. The North was the communist and the South was the capitalist. We all were born and raised in the South. Our parents worked very hard to provide for us so we could all have access to education, healthcare, and adequate housing.
GJ: Oh, continue.
SQ: In 1975, the communists advanced their war efforts. Slowly they [were] taking and spreading their control from the north to the center. When the American army withdrew from Vietnam in April of ‘75, my father was hospitalized—it was a war-related injury. Even though he worked for the navy and should have easy access to escape with the help of the United States government early. But because of his injury, my mom decided to stay behind and also my oldest brother who was only seventeen then. So she was very confused and scared and didn't want any of us to be sent away for safety. Our family stayed stuck for five years straight. My mom closed down her small restaurant by the government’s order. She was the sole income provider for the family then, it was very hard. My father has no job, because of his injury and old age. The new communist government feels that he is not a threat to the current regime so they would rather keep him at house arrest.
To earn support and privilege from the new government, my oldest brother joined the communist youth movement to ensure that our family can keep our housing, free health care and food. At this time, my brothers and I were the two in our late teens who had earned a living to sustain the family. Until 1980, my family together with other extended families had pulled together resources and money to purchase a fishing boat. Of course, we have to register the fishing boat and start working as a commercial fishing contractor. So we learned this trade there with the full intention to escape out of Vietnam. In 1981, my father, my husband, two of my cousins, and two of my younger brothers were able to escape successfully to Singapore. The six men were transferred to Malaysia, to the new refugee camp that had been administered by the United Nations at that time. It is the island called Pulau Bidong, on the coast of Malaysia. About six months later my uncle and other extended family members and myself escaped again. We succeeded and I joined my husband at the refugee camp, Pulau Bidong. Last, my mother and my younger sister and then a couple of my brothers came. Our first attempt was to escape together and it was unsuccessful and we lost almost everything and my mother was put in jail for two months. To minimize risk, we divided our efforts up and just went a few people at a time after four attempts and we all got out. We stayed together in Portland, Oregon.
GJ: I have a question.
GJ: What were you doing in Vietnam before you left? Also how old were you when you ended up leaving?
SQ: I started working for a government-owned pharmaceutical company as the stockroom person at the age of sixteen, the legal age to work and have a salary. While working full-time, I also earned the privilege to continue and complete my high school at night. In order to get any kind of special treatment or privilege, you got to have some connection. An extended family member who had served in the North army helped me to get the first job with the communist government. I left Vietnam when I was twenty-one years old.
GJ: So how did you end up in Portland? Was there a specific organization that sponsored you or did you guys have family members in the area?
SQ: My father has a younger sister who came to the United States as an exchange student prior to 1975. Then she studied in the Bay Area in San Francisco, California. Because of my father's past naval involvement, he got expedited to go to the United States early. Our relatives and father were our sponsors. We decided that Oregon is a much better living environment for us, the weather was good, and life is calm and easy. The access to many entry-level jobs was easy to get. It is less competitive and less pressure to live in Oregon than other states. So I feel all these reasons helped us to assimilate much better and faster than other folks that we know.
GJ: What did you all-- you talked about the work that your brother has done, but what did you and the rest of your family do for work when you first arrived in Portland?
SQ: It’s very important that a key person in the family leads and helps others. My oldest brother helped all of us to get into school. Our younger siblings were able to attend regular high school. Myself and my husband went to Portland Community College [PCC]. I earned my associate's degree from PCC in computer information services. Subsequently, I got a job to work nights while I continued my education during the day time. I completed my four-year degree at Portland State University [PSU].
With my formal education, I worked as an administrative assistant for various companies in town. Then I also worked as a marketing specialist for OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Once I completed my degree at PSU, I took the civic exam and I went to work for the Oregon Department of Human Services as the case manager. Then I became a child protective service worker. That is when I met Mrs. Tran—we were coworkers back then. Then I also took an assignment as a program rep with the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, that is DCBS. The program that focuses on Oregon minority women-owned business enterprises [to] help promote and foster the minority-owned business in Oregon. I became an entrepreneur, working for Farmers Insurance Group as an insurance agent and financial representative for twelve years before I retired from work.
GJ: The next question I have is sort of going back a little bit, but I was wondering how you and your husband met?
SQ: When I got the job with the government pharmaceutical company my husband also worked for a government revenue service. The way the communist government worked [is] that once a year they have a big summit from their communist party. All the leaders, they give out quotas, assignments, and objectives for all of the branches and all of the department at all levels. We are not communist party members, because we aren’t qualified and they wouldn't want us. But we were mandated to go to the training as their employees. We met at these trainings, we mutually discussed our wishes and wants. We knew that we cannot continue living and working for the communists because of our backgrounds.
My husband is a Chinese descendant. His mother is Vietnamese and his father is Chinese—[he] came from Guangdong, the province that is the south in China. A long time ago, his father came to Vietnam as a merchant and he stayed all his life. My husband came from a good and wealthy family. In 1979, when the Chinese and the Vietnamese government had some political disagreements and conflicts. The war broke out around and between the borders. During this time, the Vietnamese communist government rallied all the Chinese descendants to concentration camps. My husband was suspended from his work for months. They ordered him to turn in all of his personal ID, so he became undocumented person. At that time, we felt that there was no life here. My husband requested a job transfer to join my family to work as a commercial fisherman. Within a year, we were able to escape to avoid all bad things, horrendous things could happen to us or we can actually be persecuted by the communists.
GJ: Yeah, makes sense.
SQ: So we married in 1979.
GJ: Okay, got you. I was wondering what it was like for you to attend PCC and then PSU? Do you have any memories or experiences you would like to share?
SQ: Well, yes—PCC is a good starting point for any non [English] speaking people. They have a very well-rounded program—their ENNL program is English for Non-Native Speakers. It is excellent. We were able to learn writing, speaking. Then eventually once we got proficient with our English we were able to go into some advanced courses that is geared toward a profession or vocation. For instance, I myself thought I would never be able to work with people because my English would be a problem. So I pursued a technical degree and went into the technical field. Even though that is very challenging, but I knew to make up for my weakness, this is a must. The same thing with my husband, he goes and studies electrical engineering. It’s hard and it’s difficult, but with enough support, we have the faculty members, they are excellent. They literally enjoy and love working with us refugees. And the small class size has less than fifteen students. So the students had access to the instructor. If you need a tutor after hours, we have group study, we have other members of the faculty who also spend time at the student lounge to volunteer and to teach us in various subjects. Whether it is having conversations or math. So we feel like going to school is very fun. It is something we feel like we belong to, it’s part of our life. It is something that we look forward to everyday, during the first few years. Then also back then, the school financial aid was pretty adequate to live modestly. My son was born in Pulau Bidong refugee camp in ‘82. With both of our scholarships, we were able to raise our young child. Now that there are more and more people who come to the United States, which is good because at least they find a better life and better opportunity here. The resources—I believe that it’s more scarce and stretching. Nowadays it is not that much to sustain on the scholarship. That is why we were so eager to learn and get on with our life within the first five years.
GJ: Right. I was wondering what neighborhood did you guys settle in when you first came to Portland and what do you remember that neighborhood being like or community?
SQ: Oh, this is very interesting. We came to the United States because we were being persecuted by the communists because of our objection to that regime. Oregon has cheap housing, better job opportunities, and better schooling. We chose to live in North Portland because it was the cheapest housing in Portland at that time. Also all of us, except for both my older parents who don't formally go to school, all of us go to school at PCC Cascade Campus in North Portland. We lived in a diverse community, where African Americans are pretty friendly, walking the streets and seeing them and saying, "Hello, how are you today?" And then working side by side with a Mexican coworker. We get along and we share our foods, our culture, or festivities that they invited us and we invited them. So we never feel any kind of discrimination, any kind of division, any kind of alienation living in North Portland. We always feel like they welcome us and they like us and likewise. So that is how it goes for the first few years of our life. They say you should get mugged, the children should not hang out with the gangs, druggies, or people intimidate you and stuff like that. We don't experience any of that and we live right around the PCC Cascade Campus. Three of my younger siblings, they went to Jefferson High School. My younger sister, she was valedictorian. She has African American friends and all sorts of friends, Ethiopian, Laotian, Mexican, and all sorts of people. Later on, Russian and Bulgarian, and we went to school with [those] people too. We met in school at PCC and shake hands, laughing, sharing our lunch meal, and chit chat. Then after that, we go on our own way. You know, it is not like now, it is pretty sad. I wish we could go back to that old day. I miss that.
GJ: Why do you think people had a negative perception of North Portland? Are you referring to the time period of the 1980s and 90s?
SQ: Yes we lived there, we came to Oregon in July, ‘83.
SQ: Okay—in July ‘83 we lived by North Killingsworth area by Jefferson High School, by PCC Cascade. Well, I have to say that North Portland was not an ideal place for most people because of run-down housing. We got a high rate of crime whether it is personal property crimes like car theft or mugging and then drug use. Yeah, you would see that people would stay in their corner, dealing, and stuff like that. But I feel the problem back then is not prevalent like now. The problem is even worse now—and the City of Portland, around that whole decade of the 80s, around the 90s and now, the City of Portland has made many efforts to revitalize the neighborhood, more new construction going on. PCC Cascade expansions, Jefferson High School has a new upgrade. The city of Portland has done a lot of improvements for North Portland. So two things I feel that why we didn't feel excluded, oppressed, or being scared when we lived in North Portland, I guess it is because naturally, us Vietnamese people we are humble people, we are friendly people. We came from a place even worse than North Portland, so when we were living in North Portland that is the better step for us. That is why we feel that none of those adversaries were a concern to us.
GJ: Right—what was it like raising your children in Portland?
SQ: Upon my graduation from PSU, I had a daughter. She was born in ‘85. Both of them attended elementary school in North Portland. She went to Beech Elementary School. So we moved to live in North Rosa Parks, the neighborhood closer to UP, University of Portland. They both attended Chief Joseph Elementary School. Both of my children attended, prior to Portland Public School, they both attended the head start program. You know the children there—it is a multiracial organization from the staff to the students. So my children grow up being unbiased, they don't have any issues with race or they don't have an issue or the problems like some other people. Because they experience with it early on I think. So today, the colors of the person make no difference. Up until now I think that is good and I am very pleased with the way they turned out.
GJ: You in this interview have mentioned quite a few different jobs that you have done in your life. I’m interested in how you decided to go from getting a degree in a more technical pathway but then you ended up going into social work after you graduated from PSU. I just wanted to know how that happened for you.
SQ: How does that transition to—okay … Well my associate degree in computer information services allowed me to work in the IBM mainframes. Everything back then, they had a central data processing center. And usually that type of work, you work second shift, that swing shift. Ideally, that would work out for me because of the childcare arrangement that worked out for my family. Also, that is the only thing I can do based on my ability at that time. But I had such a good experience at school. Once my children became toddlers I [was] still involved in school by volunteer with the head start programs, and because of that I got free childcare. While the children [were] in the daycare center, I continued my education. Later on around the eighty, the center, the data processing center, is sort of phasing out. They replaced it with the personal computer. The internet gives free access to the information, and we can virtually work everywhere, anytime. So that is why I changed from—when I transferred to Portland State University there was only one program, well actually two programs, that they would allow you to transfer straight. That could be business administration and engineering. So when I transferred to Portland State they took all of my credits and I had to take a lot of classes in accounting, business administration, in order to get the admission to go to PSU.
Once I did and I completed that program, then I decided I have always feel that I like to work with the public and I feel like if I get a chance to offer my service to a public entity I will do so. So at that time the state of Oregon had a testing center located right at Portland State University. So out of my curiosity, I took the civic exam to work for the state. When my name was called up, I was interviewed for the position and I go to work for the Department of Human Services as an accounting technician based on my training at Portland State. But while I am there, the population we served and the district that I am working for have numerous Vietnamese speaking clients that need help. Especially the older generation. I had been called out from my regular position to go to help other workers as an interpreter. Then my direct supervisor discovered that I am bilingual and bicultural. He said, "Well, why don't you become a social worker? Because we need more of those people. Anybody can count numbers and punch in a keyboard, but we need people to speak Vietnamese to these people. To help them with their self-sufficiency." So their ideas were interesting and I say, "Why not?" I was thinking that it was just pure luck, you know, one thing leads towards the other.
I feel like I'm pretty lucky to have the exposure to all of these opportunities. I got all of the support from all the people I came in contact with. So I feel like if I get a chance you know that to use my language skill, to use my ability, to help, serve, guide pretty much my own people I would certainly do so. So I took a job and then I went down to Salem for training—a month to learn. Then I became a case manager for the Department of Human Services. I worked again at Northeast Portland, North Albina branch. Many social workers tried to steer away from its poverty-stricken location and a high number of caseloads. But I was fearless. I took a job and I went there and worked there. I was fine, so I have experienced living and working with African Americans, all sorts of people, and never had any problems. Then I also transferred to work in Southeast Portland. That is where I worked with the Russians and Ukrainians. Because around the early 90s, there was a new wave of refugees that came from Eastern Europe. Later on, I ended up working at 122nd. I worked in the high crime poor neighborhood, Brentwood and Darlington. That is a very poverty-stricken and heavy drug use area, and I worked there. After nearly over ten years of serving and working in human services, I feel like I wanted to change gear.
So when the position opened at the Department of Consumer and Business Services I wanted to take that challenge to learn about the program that is able to elevate and help people with their economic prosperity by working with the small business administration promoting and helping minority or women-owned businesses. I went in and worked for two years. After working that many years on the public side, opportunities also opened up. Somebody told me “Well, maybe you can be your own boss,” and I say “Okay.” Well actually, it wasn't my desire to leave my state employment but my father had a stroke at that time and he was paralyzed for fourteen months. Since my mom was a typical Asian woman in her sixties, she doesn't drive and she doesn't speak much English. So with my father's illness, I took a two-year leave of absence, a family medical leave of absence to help my family. While I did that, the opportunity opened up for me to learn about insurance. I did self-study for three months and took the state exam, and I was able to get an appointment with Farmers Insurance and open my own agency. My father, after fourteen months, he passed away. So it was just something that was a coincidence that I needed the time off from all of my hard work, and I feel at that time that after a number of years of working in human services I need a new challenge. So it just worked out for me.
GJ: Okay, I was wondering how would you compare the Vietnamese community that you grew up in to the Vietnamese American community today in Portland?
SQ: Okay, let me see if I understand you correctly. So you want me to explain about if I was living just strictly in a Vietnamese community back in Vietnam versus the Vietnamese community in the US, and what is the difference?
GJ: Yeah, you could talk about that difference, or you could talk about even the Vietnamese community in Portland and how it has changed from the 1980’s to 2020.
SQ: Right. Well okay, first all, if I was born and raised in Vietnam and didn't have the opportunity to come to the US, my life would be less fortunate and less interesting. I wouldn’t be able to pursue formal education. I wouldn’t be able to pursue employment in various fields. I wouldn't be able to compete and challenge myself to some interesting job assignments. Mainly because back in Vietnam the woman's role was to be domestic. Parents didn't have high aspirations for their daughters. Pretty much after high school that is called adequate. Once you married and settled down your role would be raising the family. Very few people work outside of home, very few women I would say. Some families, they had their own business or trade. Usually, the woman takes on an associate or subordinate position to help fathers and husbands. Pretty much they don't have their own identity basically.
The transition when they came to the United States [is] there are ample opportunities for women to get in terms of employment, advancements, education, and economic prosperity. Whether it's culturally available to us or promoting, allowing us to have access to those. Even now, in Portland, Oregon, there are Vietnamese Americans living in a subculture from the mainstream. We still pretty much carry on the same old Vietnamese traditions while others learned to adapt, enjoy and benefit from all of that equal, fair, good treatment to us women. For the young Vietnamese American people, even the Vietnamese like my daughter, I feel that they lean more towards the mainstream culture instead of the Vietnamese. Slowly, I see more and more people, the younger population, they adapt better, they assimilate better. They use their mainstream culture as their way of life. Which is great, yeah.
GJ: I am cognizant that we are coming up on close to an hour so I just wanted to see if there anything else that I haven't asked about that you would like to discuss.
SQ: Well if there was one thing I would hope for the next generation of Vietnamese Americans to accomplish, I would want to tell them to focus on education. Because that’s the key to stability and success. With that, also it would allow them with social mobility and give them the opportunity for positive assimilation. But then also don't forget who you are and maintain your heritage, because that is what makes this country so interesting-- that we are together, but yet we are different. And it’s okay to be like that. So that is what I want to say. In terms of community, I would encourage people regardless of their races and regardless of their gender to have a sense of community. Have a sense of community, don't feel like you got to give to be a part of it. Actually the organizations that will want you to join those organizations depend on your interest and depend on your ability, not only that they will give you a warm welcome and a sense of identity. They give back to you in terms of friendship, in terms of understanding. I myself-- now days my husband and I [are] already in our retirement. We are supporting, I would say, a couple organizations in our interest. One of which is we are the volunteers of the SOLVE program, You know, to clean up the environment and we are doing that every spring and fall. Then we are also Friends of Trees. Oregon is a very green state and we would like to keep it that way. In terms of human services, I have served the adults with families and children, and have always thought of what is like to work with the elderly population. So I did a volunteer assignment with the state of Oregon. I was a long term care ombudsman for the State of Oregon for two years. Well you got to be trained because there are a lot of legalities doing that job. So you got to be trained and certified to work with that population and I did that. I feel brave. So I feel that not only that I expanded my horizons, these assignments give me the opportunity to contact, to give back, and to understand more. Then of course I have my own faith, my religion that I am maintaining and supporting a Minh Quang Buddhist temple right in Southeast Portland. So in closing—oh boy, we said that we won't take that long but we did. [laughs] So in closing, I would say I am proud to be a Vietnamese American and I am happy to be a Portlander. I love America for its ideals. I love this mighty country with all of its abundant natural resources, the melting pot culture, and truly it is a land of opportunities. I am very blessed and I am very thankful.
GJ: Nice. Well, thank you so much. This has been a great interview, alright--
SQ: Thank you.
GJ: So again this has been Garland Joseph. I am speaking with Susan Quang over Zoom on June 29th, 2020. Again, thank you for doing the interview with us.
SQ: Thank you. I appreciate your time and effort and I wish you the best. Hopefully, you get to interview more interesting people. I hope that my story wasn't a bore to you.