Garland Joseph: Hello, this is Garland Joseph. I am speaking with Keely Nguyen at Watzek Library on February 7, 2020. Thank you so much for being with me, Keely.
Keely Nguyen: Thank you for having me.
GJ: Could you start by introducing yourself and telling me a little bit about your life and how you and your family ended up in Portland?
KN: I am a second generation American. Or would it be first generation? Basically my parents immigrated and met at PCC, Portland Community College, while they were learning English, but my dad came during the 1990s. That was similar to my mom, but they had different pathways of coming to the United States. For instance, my dad basically received a green card because he had American blood from the rape of the village that America allowed. Vietnamese populations with American blood could come to the United States, so that is how my dad received his status. Then my mom—her dad (my grandpa) worked for the military in some way, but I do not know the extent of it. He owned a bar that was stationed at the military base.
GJ: Do you know what parts of Vietnam your parents are from?
KN: My mom is actually ethnically Chinese.
GJ: Oh, OK.
KN: Her family immigrated to Vietnam, to Nha Trang. They tried to escape Communism. Then they started a business in the little islands. They had a little supermarket. They were fairly well-off because they were benefitting from the colonialism of the Chinese. Then they lost their business due to the war. They had to settle in Saigon, which is a city. My dad—he lived in more of a province near Cambodia. It is a rural area, so they used to have a rice farm before communism took over.
GJ: What were you going to say?
KN: I was just going to say government prosecution is just very sad. I would just say it leads to intergenerational trauma within families.
GJ: Right, what brought your parents specifically to Portland? How did they choose Portland over any other place in the United States or in the world?
KN: It was actually really interesting because my grandpa received a map of the United States, and where he could choose to go, but he chose a place with a church because he knew a pastor there before him.
GJ: What church was it?
KN: I am not too sure because I think it has died out.
GJ: Oh, OK, got you.
KN: Yes, but they helped families from Vietnam settle in with social services. They provided apartments and places to stay and clothes.
GJ: Do you know of any of these groups or services that helped your family settle? This is your mom's side of the family?
KN: Yes. I do not know what it is called exactly.
GJ: That is OK. That is totally fine. So your mom came here with your grandfather, correct?
KN: Yes. She came with her whole family—my grandma, my two uncles, and one aunt. So basically the whole family.
GJ: OK, and how did your dad end up in Portland?
KN: He had an uncle that came beforehand. I think they both just chose it because it was above California. There was a lot of employment for industrial workers.
GJ: Did your uncle sponsor him or was that a part of the green card program?
KN: He was sponsored by his White side, I guess.
GJ: OK, I see. Do you know what parts of Portland your parents settled in when they first moved here?
KN: Yes, they actually settled in the Tabor area. It was probably the Jade District before it grew into an actual hub for Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. That was in the beginning of it.
GJ: That is interesting. Did they know they were living in the same area when they met each other at PCC?
GJ: That is OK. What area of Portland did you grow up in as a kid?
KN: I grew up in the Lents area just because my parents bought a house five years after immigrating. They just wanted to find the closest neighborhood with a lot of transportation. They said it was very undeveloped at that time, so there were not any homes near them. [The neighborhood they settled into had] new homes for those who wanted to start a family.
GJ: What do you remember your neighborhood being like as a kid?
KN: Honestly it was kind of ghetto. I mean it is still very ghetto just because there are a lot of low income and more Hispanic and Asian populations there, I would say. The zip code, 97266 is one of the most diverse communities in Portland. It is a hub for immigrants. That is what I saw a lot around my neighborhood, specifically at the Starbucks.
GJ: What about Starbucks? It is just sort of around the area?
KN: Yes. There was a Starbucks in Eastport Plaza. I feel like it was pretty diverse because there were a lot of working-class White people in my neighborhood too.
GJ: What would you like to do as a kid in your neighborhood?
KN: My dad and I would just ride our bikes around town. So that was really wholesome.
GJ: What elementary school did you go to?
KN: I went to Harrison Park—it was called Clark Elementary School, then it became Binnsmead and then Harrison Park. [Clark Elementary School and Binnsmead Elementary School merged to form what is now Harrison Park K-8 School.]
GJ: So it is now called Harrison?
KN: It is near the Jade District on 89th and Division. There was a very strong Chinese and Somalian community there.
GJ: What do you remember your elementary school being like as a kid?
KN: I just remember it being very difficult because I had to learn English and I felt like there was a lack of culturally competent teachers around. The standard of curriculum is based on receiving state funds. The school was [following] the No Child Left Behind [Act], so it was being closely watched by the government due to its already low test scores.
GJ: Could you give an example of one of these experiences that you had? Like with a teacher that could not understand your position or location, or a time when you saw how federal law was prohibiting your educational experience?
GJ: If those questions make sense...
KN: I just remember how... I do not know what it was called anymore, but elementary kids were required to take a state test that measures their reading and math skills. I remember how my teachers would always expect me to do well on the math portion because obviously numbers require less reading, you know? They would think of me as a model minority. But with reading and writing, there was less expectation compared to the white kids. I remember just writing an essay before and meeting the requirement, but I think my fourth-grade teacher said, "Oh do not worry about it." It was because I was comparing myself to the white kids. I felt like she should have helped me improve my essay, you know? Rather just saying it was because they are white so they speak English, more you know? But I feel like the attention should be equal.
GJ: What grade was that in again?
KN: Fourth grade.
GJ: Were you aware of these tensions in earlier grades?
GJ: What were your classmates like?
KN: A lot of my classmates lacked a lot of resources. So for instance, they were low-income or non-native like English speakers or if they were White they tended to not have the best resources, so I felt like the students needed more attention, if that makes sense.
KN: So they were very rebellious with the teachers and a lot of them refused to learn. Then I remember how there would be a few students that would want to learn, but it was like some Asian kids or White kids. I was privileged enough to not—I was not low income or anything, and my parents were very attentive when it came to schooling—that I was able to excel in the standard requirements. But I felt like a lot of kids did not have those resources, so they were not able to fully have their needs met basically.
GJ: Do you remember a time in elementary school where you felt like a teacher was able to meet the needs of you or other classmates?
KN: I do not think so.
GJ: That is OK too.
KN: Sorry I just do not remember that far!
GJ: No it is OK. Elementary school was a long time ago.
GJ: What do your parents do for work? What have they done for work as well?
KN: My dad is an electrician, but my mom owns a nail salon. I want to highlight what I am working on in college right now. Hopefully my research project will be on the working conditions in nail salons.
GJ: Interesting. Did you go to the nail salon with your mom a lot as a kid?
KN: Yes. Because my mom runs it by herself, my dad and I clean the shop for her. This was like an everyday thing, where I would help her with the business, you know? It is very interesting how my mom has been able to run a business without needing a degree.
GJ: Oh yes, I bet.
KN: Or actually like English skills to be able to do legal documents. But I would help her with cleaning up, and running social media.
GJ: What did your mom do to open the nail salon?
KN: The majority of Vietnamese immigrants who are women tend to be illiterate, so they do not have any skills that are applicable, but nails and hair come really easily [to them] by learning techniques. [Those skills] are more applicable to making a business. With nails and hair, people are always going to need it [no matter how the economy is doing]. If that makes sense. There is always supply and demand. My mom thought that would make better money than working for a company.
KN: Being self-employed. There is just more autonomy to do what you would prefer. It is fast cash for quick service.
GJ: Where did your mom get trained?
KN: There is a beauty school in North East Portland, and it still currently exists. Because the Vietnamese population is very small, people who do nails and hair tend to know each other through that school.
GJ: What is the school called?
KN: I am not so sure, but it is near Madison High School [Portland Beauty School?].
GJ: OK, thank you.
KN: I would recommend that place.
GJ: Ys definitely I would love to look into that.
KN: You need to do more research, but yes.
GJ: So you helped your mom with cleaning the nail salon. Did you ever do anything else with it?
KN: Maybe I would do the front and back, but it was pretty much all managed by my mom.
GJ: You said you were doing research on nail salons right now?
KN: I am just starting proposals but I want to narrow my ideas down.
GJ: What are you looking at right now? What are you thinking about narrowing it to?
KN: Currently I want to look into the identity of Vietnamese manicurists and how linguistic discrimination affects their image.
GJ: Wow that is really interesting, and super cool too.
GJ: It is just a good topic.
KN: I was also thinking about the working conditions, or potentially how salons have fostered a community amongst the workers, but also, a community in the neighborhood for women to go to for gossip.
GJ: That is cool. Did you experience that community around your mom's nail salon?
KN: Yes. My mom is very involved—because she is the only one that actually works there, she has the same clients every day. They all tend to be White and affluent, but she has been able to create a friendship with a lot of her clients.
GJ: That is cool.
KN: Yes. For instance, she would hold anniversary parties at her salon every year and invite all her clients to come in.
GJ: That is cool. Do you have any fond memories of those [events]?
KN: Yes. Every Christmas my mom would receive a lot of presents under her Christmas tree. It was so wholesome to see my mom be so happy with all of the presents that she received. Because they did not have a Christmas growing up. Then it is just crazy how much she has managed to impact random people's lives for them to reward her so much, if that makes sense.
GJ: No, that does. That is really cool.
KN: She would cater food during her anniversary for her business. Then hundreds of her clients would come in to eat the Vietnamese food that she catered for them basically.
GJ: Oh wow.
KN: There are just little groups there just talking and hanging out in the salon.
GJ: That is really cool, so your dad was an electrical engineer, you said?
KN: No, he is an electrician.
GJ: He is an electrician, OK. How did he do both his job as an electrician and help with the nail salon? What were his roles in both of those?
KN: Honestly just kind of did it all. I do not know how he does it. He just keeps doing it.
GJ: What does his daily schedule look like?
KN: He works at nighttime during Monday through Friday, then on the weekends he would clean the salon. But I think that just shows the resilience of immigrants in general because he used to say how all these duties are easier than what he had to do in Vietnam. It is crazy to think but yeah.
GJ: That is it is really cool to watch your parents put so much hard work into everything, you know? So we are going to switch tracks a little bit. I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about your Middle school and High School experiences in Portland.
GJ: What school did you go to Middle School?
KN: So it was still Harrison Park because it was a K through eight school.
GJ: OK. Do you have any notable experiences from middle school?
KN: I kind of just hated my middle school experience.
GJ: Yeah, what high school did you go to?
KN: I went to Franklin High School, so that is more ingrained in my memory [laughs].
GJ: What was your time at Franklin High School like?
KN: I think that showed me how colorblind politics really was affecting my education. I realized more about how my community, the progressive ideas of Portland are very colorblind.
GJ: Did you say colorblind?
GJ: OK, colorblind politics. How did colorblind politics affect your schooling?
KN: I think because a lot of the teachers did not really… they treated us as equals but they did not see our own familial issues as at the end of it, if that makes sense.
KN: For instance, I just remember even the POC (People of Color) professors would be very whitewashed. Then I felt like it was preparing students for an authoritative world, if that makes sense. They would just follow the rules of the institution that were placed to actually oppress them—but to just follow those rules. If that makes sense.
GJ: The students or the teachers?
KN: I think students were just trained—I think that is the whole education [system] itself—students are trained to follow the rules that teachers have implemented, but the issue is that there are a lot of different factors that are not noted [when we look] into why the world is [the way it is]. I wish that I got that from my high school experience, critical thinking.
GJ: Your high school experience lacked critical thinking or trained students for that?
KN: Yes. [We had] more college prep or vocational opportunities because a lot of students did not have the opportunity to attend a four-year university, so it was more catered toward “Oh, go to community college or serve the military.” It did not really show the options that were available for students to actually explore. There was a lack of resources because of their identity, basically.
GJ: What do you remember the vocational programs at your school being like?
KN: I am not sure because I was never a part of it. It was very divided between the students who were more affluent [and the students who were not], if that makes sense. A lot of AP classes—and I was just a part of that and wanted to go to a four-year university. I performed well in school, but that just kind of segregated me with the White students. There were the same people in my classes. Like twenty people in the same class all at the time.
GJ: That is so interesting.
KN: I made a community out of what was offered.
GJ: Do you think your college prep classes prepared you for college experience? Do you think it was a way to break students into smaller groups?
KN: I feel like with my educational experiences, I did not really—I think with standardized testing and because everything is based on the common core it did not really prepare me to critically think about all the historical and social aspects of contemporary issues themselves. Whenever you study material you do not really question it. You just memorize it and get it over with, but that was the issue because in history classes—I think that because I had like an African American Professor who did try to shine a light on slavery more, it was more about social justice, but otherwise, a lot of it was just standardized. Either you know the information or you do not. There is no conversation about it. So students are able to say, "Well we learned about history," but not the actual reality of it.
GJ: What do you remember your other teachers being like?
KN: All my teachers were predominantly white beside one AP Lit teacher and my Psychology and History professor, he taught psych and history. But I think that he—Mr. McClennan, if I can say his name...
GJ: That is fine.
KN: He really inspired me to understand different inequalities because my experiences are not a part of academia, so I never really got to learn about it, but he always shared his experiences as Black man living in the United States. You could really see the intersectionalities of how structural racism has affected marginalized communities.
KN: That was the only professor I had that actually highlighted this issue. But for instance, I had my other professor who [was] Chinese American but she was very whitewashed herself. She did not really talk about Asian American issues. For me, growing up I always felt like a model minority, just because I had to excel in school, but she specifically never talked about the struggles of being Asian American or Asian American as a woman in academia itself, or how she was preserved at the school. It was like she was a White professor, if that makes sense.
GJ: Do you think you had a role model at that time to look up to about Asian and American and female, and living in a very White community? Did you have any sort of guidance during this time?
KN: My high school counselor was actually a Vietnamese refugee.
GJ: Oh wow what was his name?
KN: Mr. Tran. He passed away this year.
GJ: Oh, I am so sorry to hear that.
KN: Yes, so it was sad. But he always encouraged first-gen students at my school to get ahead and do well in school. He shared his own stories with the students to encourage them to fight for the American dream, but to fight for their narrative of it. He would talk about learning English, and how that was a barrier and the crisis of being an immigrant in the United States.
GJ: What were the ESL programs and language immersion programs like at your school? You might have not had language immersion programs.
KN: Yes, we did not have an immersion program besides, I think Spanish. But like a lot of it was very cliquey, if that makes sense. I felt like there was a bigger Vietnamese population at my high school compared to most schools—maybe twenty students, but there was a lot of tension between Asian Americans and Asians.
GJ: Can you give an example of that tension?
KN: Yes. It is just the whole idea of classism. A lot of the Vietnamese Americans—or specifically my friends—would make fun of Vietnamese immigrants just arriving in the United States because they were in ESL and their English was bad. They would be called a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). You could not really associate yourself with a foreigner basically. So that was really messed up. But yes.
GJ: Hey man, high school is a really ruthless time, unfortunately.
KN: Yes, that was a very rough time.
GJ: Again, what was the ESL program like at your schools?
KN: I am not so sure, I do not remember who taught it or whatever. But the ones in high school were catered to people who were just arriving in the United States, so there were a couple of them. But in elementary school I actually had a Vietnamese ESL teacher, so that was kind of helpful.
GJ: Do you remember your ESL teacher's name?
KN: I think it was Mrs. Trang.
GJ: OK. And did Franklin High School have any avenues to help you prepare for college?
KN: No. It was really difficult because they had AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), but I did not qualify for it even though I am first-gen, but I guess because of the income requirements...
GJ: Did you say AVID?
GJ: What is that?
KN: AVID is a program that helps first-gen low-income students thrive. There was also another program to feed QuestBridge scholars. I do not remember what it was called.
GJ: And those were the only programs that your school had to apply to college?
KN: Yeah there were the AP scholars, but the issues with the programs for applying to college were that they were predominately White. Because it was predominantly White kids who wanted to apply to universities.
GJ: Right, what support systems did you have when applying to college?
KN: I had my sister because she is older and is in nursing school. So she just helped me with my essay and just college preparation in general because she already experienced it. She was living through it, I guess.
GJ: Do you have any other siblings?
KN: No, I just have one older sister.
GJ: Nice and what is she doing now?
KN: She is finishing up nursing school this year.
GJ: Oh wow! What made you decide to go to Prescott College in California?
KN: Oh, it is Pitzer.
GJ: OK, sorry.
KN: I just wanted to make changes specifically in health care policies. Pitzer is really focused on combating social justice, really valuing environmental responsibility, and intercultural understanding, which is important to diversity and inclusion. Because a lot of times with our government, they strive to produce diversity, but there really is a lack of diverse experiences.
GJ: What made you interested in changing health care policies?
KN: I was a Rose Festival Princess, and I got to job shadow a pediatrician. I noticed how there were a lot of health disparities within immigrant groups that I really wanted to address. For instance, I was interning at an emergency room, and a pediatrician denied service to a Spanish speaking woman and her babies just because they were undocumented. I noticed the language barrier and there were a lot of cultural barriers to it too. I just thought about how there are millions of immigrants out there who are receiving the same treatment. My parents were probably in the same situation when they first arrived in the United States—that kept them deprived of their health rights.
GJ: How are you studying this at college?
KN: I am actually creating my own major in Public Health and Policies. So it has been giving me the flexibility to learn about how linguistic discrimination is impacting our healthcare.
GJ: That is really interesting. Do you feel the same kind of racial tension that you experienced in elementary to high school classes? Is that still prevalent in your college experience?
KN: I think it is more difficult with the college experience because now there is an issue with class. So in my high school, middle school, and elementary school the socio-economic aspect of—I think I was more in the medium-income [bracket] if that makes sense. I was not really ashamed of my parent's earnings coming to an elite school. There is the top one percent that I have never met before, and they are all college prep, like from boarding schools. That really intimidated me and that it is a predominantly White institution. It was just difficult because I experienced imposter syndrome.
GJ: What is that?
KN: It is basically when you try to fit into academia by pretending. That really causes an individual to suffer from falling behind because they feel they are not good enough because of their status or whatever. So I think I suffered through that too. But a lot of time because liberal arts colleges try to value people's experience in academia, I have been given a voice in class. But it has made me uncomfortable to educate a lot of people.
GJ: Did you feel these things during your elementary and high school experience?
KN: No, because in high school and middle school you did not really have the autonomy to speak out about injustice or talk about your experiences. When it comes to schooling you are just learning to take a test. But with college, it is difficult because you are trying to write abstract essays and have meaningful discussions and seminars where everyone has to contribute in some way.
GJ: How are the professors at your institution?
KN: I honestly love my professors just because they have been really caring and really attentive to my needs. Just because being first-gen they were able to understand sometimes I would not be able to turn work in on time. How there are very low retention rates for first-generation students. They were able to help me through my work, and explain it better. I just remember one of my professors we literally just cried in her office together about death basically. Very wholesome stuff.
GJ: What is the student population like at your college?
KN: There are probably a thousand and a hundred students, but we are part of a consortium. We are partnered with Pomona College, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd. Maybe there are seven thousands students throughout, but it is very small, so are the class sizes. It is very predominately white. So in the Vietnamese club, there are only ten students out of seven thousand if that makes sense.
GJ: What does the Vietnamese club do?
KN: The role of the Vietnamese club is to foster community within the Vietnamese students, and try to learn about our history. So they would have political tours in Orange county and Little Saigon because that was the establishment. They do cultural dances and cultural foods.
GJ: Did you have any way of doing that in Portland?
KN: No. In Portland my Vietnamese identity was not really salient just because I was always exposed to it at home. I guess being in Portland made me hate being Vietnamese. Because I just wanted to be whitewashed if that makes sense.
GJ: How did your parents try to teach you about Vietnamese traditions at home?
KN: I think that being forced to speak Vietnamese really helped. Then for instance, because we are Buddhist, that we would go to temples and celebrate the different holidays of Buddhism and Vietnam in general.
GJ: What Buddhist temple do you guys go to?
KN: We went to the Vietnamese temples in Southeast Portland. There are like three or four. That has really helped me gain a better sense of our values.
GJ: Were there other ways that you were taught about Vietnamese tradition, culture, or values?
KN: I think it has been respectively through my parents’ experiences in Vietnam because they had been cultured in the United States too. So it is just based on what they have been teaching me. But otherwise, I mostly learned through my friends.
GJ: Were your friends also predominantly second generation?
KN: Yes. A few of them were very in touch with their Vietnamese identity. So they attended church and they went to Vietnamese school…
GJ: Do you know what Vietnamese schools they attended?
KN: Yes. It is called La Vang, and it is done through a church—the La Vang Church in Northeast Sandy. But also at PCC near Tabor, there is also a Vietnamese school that takes place on Sundays.
GJ: Did you ever attend these schools?
KN: Yes. I attended the one at PCC.
GJ: What did you learn there?
KN: We just learned about speaking Vietnamese, or gaining the skills I guess, but I did not like it as much.
GJ: Do you appreciate your time in the Vietnamese club? Do you think it is a good opportunity to learn about your culture?
KN: Yes. It has given me more of an appreciation, just because here it has been really isolating. Because in Portland I had somewhat of a Vietnamese community with my friends, but coming to Claremont, California, it got more White. I really wanted to preserve my identity otherwise I would lose it.
GJ: Are there other ways besides the Vietnamese Club that you are able to preserve your identity in California?
KN: Well, yes. There is also an Asian American and Pacific Islander club—or just through my friends I guess. It has been easier to share my own narrative, just because I am not representing the public but I am representing my own experiences. I am teaching my friends about the food and the culture.
GJ: Well I think I am pretty much out of questions. Do you have any last final statements you would like to make?
KN: So with my information will it be published or where will I be able to see it?
GJ: I will be able to explain this to you, but let me turn off the recording device before, sorry! But is there anything else you would like to add to the interview?
KN: No, no thank you.
GJ: OK well, I am Garland Joseph. I have been speaking with Keely Nguyen in Watzek Library on February 7, 2020.