Dustin Kelley: Hello, this is Dustin Kelley. Today is June 25, 2021 and we are here for another oral history interview. Today I have the privilege of speaking with Benji Vuong. Benji, it is so great to have you here today. Would you go ahead and say your name for us and also tell us a little bit about yourself?
Benji Vuong: Sure, yes. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Benji Vuong. My Vietnamese name is Bao Vuong. [I am affectionately called that by] my family members, of course, but in my working professions and otherwise in my regular life, most people know me as Benji. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and we immigrated to the States in the early nineties. I believe we were probably one of the last groups that arrived from the Humanitarian Operation (HO), which was active until 1994, I believe. We arrived in '93, so we are likely one of the last groups to settle in Portland. So our family immigrated from Saigon to Portland around March, 1993. We have been here since.
DK: What was your family's experience leading up to that transition that caused you to be one of the last waves of HO participation?
BV: I think... it was a mixture of excitement and anxiety, from what I hear from my mother. My maternal grandmother had settled in Portland prior, along with my large family from my aunts and my uncles. They had arrived earlier than we did and my mother was anticipating having that reunion of joining my grandmother and her siblings, so there was a mixture of completely resettling in a different country, learning a different language, familiarizing yourself with the culture there. Reflecting on it as an adult today, I can see the anxiety of my parents, who were then my age now. Just having mixed feelings of uncertainty of how we would be received or treated or being seen as refugees and not as citizens. There were a lot of things like that that I am sure were going through my parents' minds after they arrived.
BV: Oh gosh... I was about five years old when I arrived. I knew "yes" and "no" and "thank you" and [could count from] one to ten, I believe. So [laughing], a very limited scope of the English speaking language. I was a child, so I did not really know the politics, I did not really know anything that was to come or you know, the bullying in school and stuff like that that was to come later on. I just knew that America was great. There are cowboys, there is a lot of Hollywood stuff, a lot of pop culture, Nintendo, stuff like that. So I had anticipated just kind of living the life. Just kind of, you know, as any kid would when you are five years old.
DK: Did that match reality?
BV: I would say in the early nineties when you are a child and your biggest concern was, do I have the eighty-nine cents I need to buy a Mars Bar or a candy bar or something like that? That was the upper tier of what I had to worry about at the time, but I think reflecting on it as an adult and seeing reality as one would experience it as a person of color in public school education, living with other refugees in the community. I am sure you are probably familiar with the "Halsey Kids," as we tend to affectionately call [ourselves]. We were resettled in the Halsey neighborhood at the–– I think the Elliot apartments are what they are known as now? But there were mostly Vietnamese. There were a lot of Hmong, Mien, re, Russians, I think some Ethiopian people. So it was just refugees, like a community of refugees and immigrants, so those people shared similar burdens and similar experiences resettling in the States. But like I said, as a child I did not have all the optics and the idea of what it would look like in real life. You know, I was worried about What is fun? or What is good to eat? or Where is the next tallest tree I can climb? and stuff like that.
DK: You mentioned being one of the Halsey Kids. What was it like living in that neighborhood with so many other refugee kids?
BV: You know, I thought it was kind of... I have very, very little recollection of my life in Vietnam because I left so early and I was so young, but I remember––at least this is what I believe I remember because memory is a very interesting and unique thing––I remember living in a community where I was surrounded by a lot of people. Vaguely speaking, I can remember that. When we resettled in the Halsey neighborhood, I can remember being surrounded by other kids of similar age, who, for the most part, more or less, looked like me, spoke the same language as me. Of course, there were other Vietnamese kids and stuff like that. It gave me a sense of belonging––at the time, at least. I knew that I would go home from school or whatever we were doing––picking strawberries in the strawberry fields, doing child labor work that was not fully enforced back then in the nineties––and feeling like it was a fun thing, it was something you had a community with. Even though, looking back at it, you can see the mishaps or the boo boos that we made as a community [laughing], it was something that we got through together as a community of color. It was reassuring and it was good to have.
DK: What schools did you attend growing up?
BV: In the Halsey neighborhood, I started kindergarten at Jason Lee Elementary and then eventually after we moved, I went to Rigler Elementary, which is still here by Prescott. From there, I would have technically––because of the way the public school system works––I would have gone to middle school at Whitaker, which is now closed down, as you know, because Whitaker had lead poisoning, so they demolished the school. So Whitaker now is just a field. It is just an empty field right on NE 42nd by Killingsworth. Because I wanted to be around my friends and my peers, who were the Halsey Kids. Most of them got bumped up to Gregory Heights Middle School, so that is where I wanted to go, so I pleaded and begged and I asked my mother, "Can I go to Gregory Heights somehow?" I do not know how she did it, but she got the paperwork for me squared [away], so I eventually got to go to Gregory Heights Middle School, which is now, I believe, known as Parkway Heights or something like that? So yeah, I went to Jason Lee and then Rigler and Gregory Heights, which was out of my neighborhood district, and then I would have gone to Madison High School, bumping up from Gregory Heights, but instead of doing that, I opted to apply for a magnet school because I wanted to get a head start on a health program, so I applied to Benson Polytechnics and went to Benson for high school.
DK: What was your experience like in PPS [Portland Public Schools]?
BV: Ooh [laughing]! There is.... That is uh... [laughing].
DK: That is a big question.
BV: That is a very big question! I remember being made fun of a lot. I remember when we first arrived, we had very little clothing with us, so the only clothes that I really had to wear, I think were from The Salvation Army. Some of them were obviously dated or whatever people were gifting us. There are little things that are so weird to me that I recall to this day because I was so embarrassed that it left a scar on my heart. One of those things was me wearing a Barney t-shirt in third grade and I remember being made fun of by a girl named Brittany or something like that [laughing]. Not to be stereotypical, but she made fun of me for wearing a Barney t-shirt. She was like, "Eeew! Who is still wearing a Barney t-shirt?" and stuff like that and I threw that shirt away and I never wore it again. But other than that, we had Vietnamese traditional outfits or costumes that typically one would wear for an important day or something like that, to mark something of significance in your life. I remember one of my first days, I think we wore something like that and mine was made fun of like, "Why are you wearing PJs to school?" This was, again, in the early nineties when there was not a lot of cultural sensitivity, even for teachers! I remember being made fun of a lot, especially when my mother was cooking for me and making breakfast and stuff like that. I would go to school and I remember the smell sticking to my clothes and all the kids would move away from me or make remarks like, "What is that smell?" So it is a lot of things like that that I think put a mark on children.
DK: Thank you for sharing that.
DK: What was it like for your parents and other family members to–– as they entered American society as well and began jobs and started looking for new opportunities here––What were some of your family's experiences and how they thought through that process?
BV: I think it is the same! It is very similar to what I am dealing with even today. Just relying on the community, relying on the community that you know, which is the Vietnamese community. Like I said, my grandmother from my mother's side and my uncles and my aunt had settled here first, so they had the hard part of learning how to navigate the system and then from there, they kind of showed the way to my mother and father on how the American system works: Where do you look for jobs? What do you do? How do you buy a car? What is insurance? All these things. And so more or less, I feel like we had it a little bit easier than my aunt and uncles, who had to learn the way themselves. I never really got to sit down to talk to them, really heart-to-heart, to find out how they learned how to navigate it. I believe my maternal grandmother was brought over the same [way], through the HO program. I think it was a Methodist church, or something like that, some kind of church sponsorship or something that had some kind of programming to help with immigration or just to help immigrants in general. I do not think it was something where they were saying, "You have to be a member of the church," or "You have to go to church every Sunday," and stuff like that. It was just kind of like they helped immigrants resettle in the States. I think they may have had some help with that. But yeah, my aunts and uncles arrived much sooner than our family did, so we had help from our family when we came.
DK: Growing up, did you feel connected to Portland's Vietnamese American community at large?
BV: Yeah, I would say the Vietnamese American community, from what I remember in the nineties, was very tight-knit. Everyone knew each other. Everyone knew their next-door neighbor. Everyone knew the family down the street or whoever, these kids in school. I think that IRCO [Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization] was a big part of that. IRCO already had an establishment here and I think it was very impactful to have an organization like that to help guide and support the Vietnamese refugees who came. There were already, at the time I believe, social workers and caring community members from the Vietnamese community who were helping new refugees settle in place, and we were very grateful.
DK: Were there specific elements of Vietnamese culture and traditions that your parents really wanted to maintain as they raised you in the United States?
BV: I think there is a saying in Vietnamese that they say “tiếng việt còn, người việt còn,” which translates loosely as, "So long as the language remains, the people remain." So what they wanted me to retain at minimum is to speak the language. I was given a lot of comic books as a kid in Vietnamese and my mother taught me how to enunciate and how to... you know, because Vietnamese was Romanized by Alexander de Rhodes from, I think, Portugal. They used a similar French system, so I could read the alphabet and I could learn how to enunciate and because I had speaking knowledge, I could teach myself to read, essentially, once I had the interest from these comic books. That was a good way for me to retain the language and still speak the language because I had practice at home. I had the vocabulary and I had the oral skills and I needed to work on my reading and my written skills, so comic books helped me. But in addition to that, I believe we also had a program at Rigler Elementary, where every period, I would be sent to a Vietnamese teacher who tutored and taught us the Vietnamese culture and language and that was something that I later would come to find as fairly rare. Not a lot of programs have that, but I had that at Rigler. It was basically just me and another Vietnamese student who was basically like my cousin! But yeah, it was just the two of us and we would sit down with this one teacher and go through Vietnamese history and learn how to read and write in Vietnamese. I think that is something my parents wanted me to retain at minimum. Of course, they did not directly make me do anything, but there were a lot of indirect persuasions, I guess, because they were watching Paris by Night which is a huge Vietnamese entertainment [series] and just a huge Vietnamese diaspora legacy, I guess. That really helped a lot of first, second, and third generation [immigrants] to retain the culture. I learned a lot passively through that. I do not know if it was intentional, but it was at least what we experienced and it was good to have that because I would say I have a pretty solid identity, as far as my heritage and all that goes.
DK: Do you remember that teacher's name, who worked with you and your cousin?
BV: Oh gosh, I wish I did. I would love to contact her and find out where she is today! I think her name is probably [Unclear name 18:52], but I am probably mistaken because I was in... fourth and fifth grade, I think? This was a long time ago and I barely remember the name, but yeah, she was a teacher for a long time. I think I kept in touch with her up until maybe when I got to college, even. So we stayed in touch. I wrote her letters and you know, she was very dear to me and likewise. So yeah, we stayed in touch for a while, but I have since lost touch with her, so I do not know where she is, but I remember it being Phương Anh Trần. Those are the three names that pop up in my head.
DK: You mentioned college recently. I am curious where you went to college and what you studied?
BV: Yeah, so after Benson, I went to Portland State [PSU]. I wanted to be local and stay around, near my family. Our family is very close, so I did not want to go to an out of state school. Like I said, in high school at Benson, I was a part of the HOSA program. Benson had two tracks, basically: one was HOSA, H-O-S-A, and the other one was VICA, V-I-C-A. HOSA is the Health Occupations Students of America, and VICA is for the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. So VICA was for students who were studying engineering, aviation, stuff like that––mechanical sciences and stuff. HOSA was for students who were health oriented and wanted to go into medicine, veterinary, stuff like that. So I did that fast track for medicine and then in college at PSU, I continued with that and enrolled in the pre-med program and majored in biological science. I did organismal biology and did a Spanish minor.
DK: What was your experience at PSU like?
BV: Oh, gosh [laughs]. The biology department was not the greatest at Portland State. It was okay, but it was not––I think Portland State was known for graphic design and more for business oriented stuff. The sciences were okay. They were mediocre. You know, it is a state university. It was fine, for the most part. I just kind of worked my way through it. It just felt like I was doing the coursework just to get through it. I did not feel the passion that I wanted to. Once I got more into doing internship rotations and stuff around hospitals and saw how the workflow is in real life, it kind of just turned me away from what I wanted to study, to get into medicine.
DK: So what do you specifically do for work now?
BV: I am, surprisingly, a park ranger [laughs]. I do a lot of also what is called "gig economy." I also do photography. You have probably seen my photos from Instagram. I work more on community-based photography instead of, you know, a lot of people these days for social media will do wedding photography and stuff like that for commercial publishing or editorial or studio shoots. I tend to work more on community stuff, so for a few years, I have also done commission work for the Oregon Arts Watch, which is like a local publishing newsletter online. I work with different programs that are funded by the Oregon Arts Commission. I work with the Native American kids programs for Beats Lyrics Leaders, Piano Project. So they tend to be more of community-based projects instead of individual company or individual portraits. In my own time, I like to do my own landscape photography for myself. I will sell some prints here and there, but most of my income from photography is from long term or community-based projects. So those are my gig economy [jobs] and I will do some writing, some photojournalism when I can. I have mostly been trying to get into environmental work. I want to work on the stuff that I feel like is important or pertinent to our changing climate, our culture, global warming and all that. I want to get into something that I feel will leave a lasting impact on the future. [Being a] park ranger is kind of a stepping stone to getting into that. Hopefully I want to get into some kind of research position, but I am feeling out the water in local state divisions and hopefully I will get into national programs.
DK: What are some of your work experiences as a park ranger? What are some of the things you do?
BV: We do many things. There are a lot of misconceptions about park rangers, of course. We are not law enforcement, we are basically just the rangers. We deal with the park division only. So we typically enforce only local park statutes or laws. Some of them are state laws and some of them are federal laws, for example. A lot of it is just compliance. Park rangers are some of the most low-key people you will encounter. Typically, we are not going to give you a hard time. Everyone is at the park to enjoy themselves. The park is your park. So we really just try to mitigate any kind of situations. The way my manager describes it is, we focus on the three Ps which are: we are there to protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from the people. So our job is just basically to keep peace. If people are getting rowdy and the camp is getting a little too crazy, we get sent in to make sure there is peace at the campgrounds, no one is fighting, everyone is honoring each others' space. So, it is a lot of stuff like that and also maintenance, of course. If there is any kind of issue, like we had a burst pipe recently, so you have to dig a hole and fix the sprinklers and stuff like that, maintaining the lawn, removing some trail debris, stuff like that. You try to be a steward of the parks. Remind people not to litter, of course. Keeping our space neat, tidy, and clean for future generations to come. So it is a lot of compliance. There is not so much enforcement. Of course, there are different people in different positions where most of what they do would be enforcement, just to get around. If someone is driving drunk or something on a park highway and stuff like that, of course we will enforce that, but other than that, most park rangers are just kind of keeping the peace [laughs].
DK: Is this a state park, state forests, something different?
BV: Yeah, I work for the state. State parks.
DK: Do you still live in Portland or do you live a little further out?
BV: I live out in Madras, but I come back into Portland on the weekends. I guess I have my dog here and our family is really now just my mother and myself, so I check in to make sure everything is okay at home. With the heatwave that is coming, for example, I just want to prepare for that––remove any yard debris, minimize any fire risk, have some kind of exit plan, just kind of make sure that things are okay at home. I just installed security cameras for safety because there have been a lot of upheavals lately around the neighborhood. There have been a lot of gunshots lately. Just more stuff like that, making sure that I feel okay when I am not at home and my mother is left to fend for herself basically. I want to make sure she is okay. A lot of the time when I am at work, I do not have access to the internet or any kind of signal as well, so it is something that I am conscious about and I am a little bit concerned about, but I know that for the most part, she will be okay. My dog is here with her, but he is a senior dog. He is fourteen and he is a lab mix, so he is not going to do anything outrageous, but he will alert her. They have some companionship. I go home and I check in on them, but most of the time I am in Madras.
DK: Last summer––as you know more than anyone––there was so much happening with fires in the state of Oregon and I know that this summer is predicted to be a dry summer. How has fire impacted your day-to-day work environment?
BV: Yeah, it is something that is on our radar. It is something that we are concerned about, obviously. It is also something that we are expecting. That means that we are trying to be better prepared for it. Of course, we are moving debris and talking to... So the owner of the states... you have shared property. You deal with ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, which maintains the public land. We do not patrol those areas, so it is up to ranchers and farmers and other people to create their own fire lines for safety. I feel like last year's historic fire was sort of an immediate wakeup call for rural Oregon to prepare and know that we are dealing with unprecedented times where we have to be prepared for these scenarios. It is no longer something that is theorized, it is something that will happen. I think with just having exposure to that and real life tragedies, people are now better prepared for it. So yeah, it is in our discussions. We talk about it. We have team meetings where we discuss fire hazards and fire safety and how we can mitigate that for our community and the parks. But yeah, it is something that is constantly on our minds. Telling people to water their lawns, but doing it at a certain time, reminding people to be conscious of their water use, and things like that. We can only appeal to the public to be stewards of the land that we are on, of course this is native land, but to be mindful of the land that you are on and take good care of it because it is where we all live and we will be affected by it, so we should all be stewards of the Earth.
DK: I just asked you about this last year in terms of fire safety, but obviously the last twelve [or] fifteen plus months have been challenging in so many contexts––thinking of the pandemic, thinking of the protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd––I am curious how you may have been impacted either personally or professionally during this last fifteen months plus?
BV: Yeah, as a person of color, but as an Asian American, I feel like we are definitely piggyback riding on the blood, labor, and sweat of the Black community who are working really hard to fight for their rights. I think with the recent Asian Hate campaigning [and] a lot of the racist attacks on Asian Americans also brought to light everyday experiences that people of color have to deal with. I think a lot of people are not mindful of little things like microaggressions that lead to prejudicial behaviors or discriminatory thoughts that could lead to acts of violence. I think that is now being more openly discussed as a larger community. We as a state and as a nation are discussing that more openly than in the past, where I felt like it was maybe scooped underneath the rug and just kind of left, you know? Like, "I do not see it and it does not bother me?" But now, thank goodness for Gen Z who are very, very much out in the open and fighting on the front line and being very upfront about it. I am very grateful for that because I am definitely following their leadership, because I feel like they are headstrong about it and they are not holding back and I think that is the kind of attitude that is needed to basically burst this bubble open so we can start to really discuss about, "This is our history. Where do we go from here? How do we change? Of course there is a lot of discussion about reform, but will reform work or do we need to completely irradiate the structure that America is built on and form a new society that we want, that is not racist? I myself also participated in the protests during George Floyd and I feel like it was the first time that I actually saw a global movement, not just a domestic, for us in the States, movement. I feel like I have a lot of friends internationally who spoke about George Floyd and posted on social media and I thought like the attention was necessary for us to have, but of course, we are seeing some backlash of that with the white supremacy and racist America coming out and attacking people of color.
I was brought up very Taoist and so I believe in fluctuation of energy and how things are. If there is a disturbance in the air, there will be equal fluctuations of something else in balance and out and I believe that we are in this time period where there are a lot of changes and so we are seeing a lot of happenings and some of it may be bad, but those bad happenings are necessary to balance out the energy that we are seeing that is shifting our society to be a better society. So I feel like a lot of that is... I am not endorsing all the violence, but of course we expect that to happen any time when we are fighting back, when there is any kind of resistance. We have seen that in past history. Fighting the Jim Crow era and now we are dealing with the truly racist America today: the summation of Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, all that together. I feel like the modern day and the young generation have to deal with that at once, whereas our ancestors were working with that in stride. We, of course, are standing on the shoulders of giants. Gen Z, in my opinion, is really at the forefront of inheriting all this trauma and really learning how to navigate it themselves, for the most part. So kudos to Gen Y and Gen Z.
DK: You mentioned participating in some of the protests. Can you share a little bit about what your experiences were like, what you saw and heard?
BV: Yeah, I mean I, of course, was just one of many who came down to the protests last summer and throughout the whole protesting in Portland and downtown Portland around the four hundred blocks or so. It was a huge crowd. In the daytime, what I would see was there were a lot of people who would march and chant and go down with signs and then by the late evening around after, I would say, nine-thirty towards ten p.m. towards the later night when most people have gone home, especially people with kids and bicycles and stuff like that, there is a smaller crowd and then that is usually when the police come in and start assaulting people, basically because there is a smaller crowd and they are more vulnerable to the kettling tactic that the police would use to separate groups and start attacking people, unprovoked. I definitely witnessed and saw that firsthand. I mean I had to deal with getting tear-gassed myself. I remember choking with my [laughing] peer––who came down to the protest with me and we were there together for safety––and we were both just choking on teargas that was thrown aimlessly.
I remember also doing a quick video and video interview because I do a lot of volunteer and community work with the unhoused community in Portland and I was interviewing a man who was out collecting cans because that is his main source of income and he was telling me how he was just passing by––because there are a lot of empty cans there. For him, that is his income so he was collecting them––he was also getting targeted by the police at random because they are thinking that he is one of the groups that are causing the so-called riots. Everyone gets caught in it because when they start to use chemical weapons, it is indiscriminate. Everyone is affected by it. It does not matter what your reasoning is for being down there, if you are there, whether you are trying to make a few bucks or whatever, you are going to get impacted. From how I see it, yeah, they were targeting anyone who was in that block. They were basically just trying to dissipate the crowd. Or that is what they would say.
DK: I realize we kind of shifted to several follow up questions after one another and I am going to go back to some of the questions I shared with you in advance. I am looking at the questions marked "community" and I am curious how you think about the word "community." What is community to you?
BV: "Community" in Vietnamese is “cộng đồng” and for me, the way I understand cộng đồng, meaning community, is you are basically a participant and someone who has signed a social contract with the people that you live in and around with. So when it comes to community, my upbringing is that you are not isolated from where you live, so you have a duty to your neighbors and whoever is around you because you have a crucial role in that, you participate in that. Your everyday behaviors and what you choose to do impacts your community. I remember––at least back in the early nineties in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam––people would go to the same street markets, the same small business vendors. These [would be] just [people] who cook from home or something and bring their baskets with them and they would just either cook there and serve there or... you make a difference in that person's life being a regular customer to that person and buying the fresh herbs or produce or whatever it is they are selling or fish. So to me, the way that I remember and the way that I was brought up, as far as participating in your community, is that you have a vital role in your community and you should engage in whatever capacity you can because our livelihood––for all of us––depends on that. We support each other, we have each other's backs, and there is no separation of the individual and the people you are around. You are a part of your community so you have to engage in a way that serves our community. That is how I was brought up.
DK: Do you currently feel a connection to the Vietnamese American community at large in Portland?
BV: I would say I have felt less connected in recent times because the Vietnamese American community has grown. I remember, like I said, growing up as a Halsey kid, being from one of the last groups to come from the HO program, you knew all the other people who came with you. Maybe they were from group H or group G or whatever. You knew their family or their kids. So we all kind of had shared experiences and we knew each other very intimately. It has been a few decades since. The Vietnamese community has thrived and people have moved and gone on to different places, you know? You get Vietnamese Americans from different states settling in Oregon from California, Idaho, Texas––from all over. So it is not that I do not feel a kinship to the Vietnamese Americans, it is just that it has grown, it has gotten bigger. Also, now I am somewhat becoming sort of an elder, comparatively to the younger Vietnamese Americans and so, I feel less connected that way, just due to the dilation of time and the progression of the Vietnamese American diaspora, scattering. So I do not feel as close, mainly because we have gotten so big and we have scattered.
Of course there are still the pillars of the Vietnamese Americans in Portland who are around. Like I saw on the channel, for example, William Vuong, who is the owner of [Rose VL Deli]. He was actually my teacher at Gregory Heights. He was one of my Vietnamese teachers and I recognized him and I was like, that is Hanh. That is his Vietnamese name, Hanh. So people like that are, I would say, staples of the Vietnamese Americans in Portland that you recognize. I would say I am probably one of those people now, who came here at a young age and grew up in Portland and have seen the changes through the decades and have remained in the area. A lot of people have gone to other states or different cities for graduate school or work or whatever––myself included, of course, but Portland is always home for me. So I still feel connected to the Portland community, to the Vietnamese community in Portland, but I feel less connected because I know that it has grown and scattered.
DK: You mentioned a few community organizations that you have participated in. I was wondering if you had any others that you would like to list or if you participate in any religious organizations?
BV: I do not consider myself religious. I was brought up Confucianist, Taoist, Buddhist, but I think that is very common for a lot of Southeast Asians and just in general with Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people are––outside of South Koreans––some of the largest groups of minorities who have a large Roman Catholic following. But I was brought up Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, and I was not a devout religious person or anything like that. My parents just kind of taught me to follow the code of morals and ethics, so that is what I go by. I do not necessarily adhere to any certain creator or anything. I do not practice, I do not pray or anything like that. I just try to be a decent human being and I think that is most people, but yeah, I do not have any specific institution that I subscribe to. As far as organizations, I have worked with APANO in the past, which for me, is a staple of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community at large in Portland. IRCO, as I have mentioned, I feel is a stronghold for the Portland area, and I would even say [for] the States. There are so many newer and younger––today they call them "mutual aid" groups. There are a lot of mutual aids and independent groups that are either started by a small community of even three or four people and stuff like that. I cannot list them all, but yeah, I am very much connected to a lot of them. Of course also, on Instagram and Facebook and all that. But as far as institutionalized and larger networks, I would say APANO and IRCO would be the bigger groups.
DK: When have you felt the most at home in Portland? What do you like most about Portland, having grown up [here] and visiting Portland a lot still, and about your community that you have described in Portland?
BV: That is a very existential question to ask! I do not really know. All of my memories, for the most part, are in Portland. Portland has always been my home. I went to school here from kindergarten to college and beyond, so most of my memories are in Portland. This is just what I know as home! It is where I have played in the mud or in the puddles when it rains, or made my little origami paper boats and floated them in puddles or played out in the streets and gone rollerblading with the neighborhood kids and my sister and things like that. Going down Marine Drive was a treat for us sometimes. Like we would go on Marine Drive and go on that nice little pathway where you can skateboard or inline skate and just take in the sight of the Columbia River. Of course, as a park ranger, I love parks, nature, and outdoor stuff. I also did outdoor school counseling and stuff like that. So I have always really been involved with the outdoors and the nature community. So that for me will always bring me back home.
I mentioned that I did a Spanish minor in college, so I spent a year studying abroad in Barcelona in Spain. Before the pandemic hit, I was working in Beijing, China working on contract teaching English there and then I moved to Germany in Berlin and then I came back to Portland, so I have had my dabble of traveling around and exploring and seeing different places and living in different places and working in different places and Portland is always home for me because every time I come back, I breathe in fresh air or just, you know––comparatively of course to Beijing, which is very different. It is a megacity––It feels like home and I love when I can take off my boots and my socks and have my bare feet rooted to the ground here and feel the wet soil when it rains during the springtime. Seeing the local gardens––like all my neighbors, everyone is a master gardener. Everyone does their own gardening and is a steward of the forest and nature. That is where I really feel at home because I feel like that is where people really tend to, or at least make a concentrated effort to be a steward of the earth.
I really grew up on the international channel, which was a public channel on television back in the nineties and I watched a lot of Carl Sagan. He was really, I would say, my––and Bill Nye the Science Guy, of course––but Carl Sagan was my mentor. He was my teacher, he was my tutor, he was the person who taught me to love science, to be compassionate, to be mindful and respectful of other beings, not just human beings. So I tend to aspire to be like that. I notice that in our little corner of the world, more people––at least here, per capita––are attuned to that and are mindful of their surroundings. I am grateful for that because having traveled and lived elsewhere, especially in megacities where they are much larger and denser and more concrete jungle, it can feel very lonely. It can feel very discouraging to see all the pollution, all the trash and all that. Even if our recycling program here is a dud. It is not real or whatever, it is propaganda or greenwashing, I know that. I feel like people do genuinely care. At least the citizens, who believe that they are doing well and they may not know better, but if there was a way to do it better, they would try. So I feel very much at home with the eco-conscious community here.
DK: I think that is the most detailed response to that question that I have ever received and I very much enjoyed hearing your answer.
BV: Thank you.
DK: I had asked about positive things, things you like about the city, and when you feel most at home. Conversely, I am curious if you have experienced challenges in Portland? I know you talked about your experiences as a student and some of the challenges with bullying that you experienced. Later on and in other contexts, do you feel that you have encountered discrimination or racism in Portland?
BV: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean it is no secret that Portland is the whitest major city in the United States by capita. I experience that in my work life, I experience that in other places. I will say that in summary, I do see progress and I do see change coming. It is just that change will take time. I remember, even working in Sellwood, which is more of an affluent neighborhood. We have different people from Dundee, from Lake Oswego coming over to shop in Sellwood––I just remember not necessarily feeling alienated, but just feeling out of place. I did not feel like I belonged in that neighborhood. I just knew I stood out like a sore thumb. I was a checker after college, a cashier checking people out. I remember even just well meaning, but just white women who have blindspots and who just do not know better and they would see my name tag [said] "Bao" and when I would ring them up and they would say "namaste" and bow their head down to me [laughing]. They were just really stereotypical and really cliche gestures that I am like "Well, we do not... I mean, I am not Himalayan. I do not do Tibetan stuff or Indian stuff. I am actually a Vietnamese Chinese American," and it is just kind of silly to see stuff like that sometimes and it is little things. I think they are not trying to be racist, they just do not know better. They have these blind spots and that is their way of tipping their hat to you I guess, but it is often now perceived [laughing] to not be in good practice to do that.
But yeah, I have experienced that and of course, growing up in Portland with it being so white...little things to everything you do in your everyday life. Sometimes I feel like I have to justify or explain or like, "Oh, you are not married and you still live with your parents!" and stuff like that and it is like, "Well, yes. We are kind of like the Italians, where if you are not married, you do not leave your family. Even if you do get married, you get married into your family. Your spouse lives with you guys and you have multi-generational households," like all of the other people of color all around the world. [It is] how we live. Whereas in the States, it is like, "You are eighteen, move out of the house!" and that kind of thing. There are a lot of cultural differences. I think there is a lot of stigma with how people tend to look at people of color and not understand culturally how different we are and how we see family dynamics and the community around us and how we operate. I think they are just curious, but they do not know how to respond in a culturally sensitive manner. So sometimes it goes bad. But yeah, I still deal with that every day, but I will say that I have seen changes in the workplace. I have seen laws being repealed or put in place regarding how you can wear your hair or your earrings or tattoos and stuff like that, so there are changes. It is just slow moving because that is how the States work.
DK: You have spoken a little bit about generational differences in general and some things that you appreciate about Gen Z. I am curious what differences you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
BV: Speaking for myself specifically, like I said, I was brought up very traditional. I would not say my parents were conservative. It is just that I was taught to uphold and respect our elders in a certain way, whereas I feel like Gen Z today are fully integrated Asian Americans into American society and have fully embraced and adopted a democratic, diplomatic culture of what they perceive to be righteous and there is no stopping that. I think a lot of it is good. For me personally, I would try not to pick a fight with someone who is older than me. It is that ageist thing where it is kind of like as a younger person, you are supposed to give respect and show respect to someone who is older than you. The Vietnamese language is very pronoun specific, for example. So how you address someone is not just "you" and "me," it is kind of like "Hey, Auntie" or "Hey, Uncle" or "Hey, Great Auntie" or "Hey, Great Uncle." You have to respond to everyone with a certain reverence or respect and I think that Gen Z does not necessarily adhere to all of that wholly and Gen Z have really learned to define a path for themselves. They really are making their own way and not listening to the old way and in many ways I commend that because they have the bravery to bring forth LGBTQIA+ issues and racist issues––all these things. They are confronting it head on, rather than sweeping it under the rug like past generations. I have huge respect for that. I believe that I am on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y [laughs] where that ship has sailed for me and I cannot bring myself to be like a Gen Z person. Although I aspire to and hope to be like that, I just do not have the knack for that and the life experience that they do today. I have structures that have been implanted on me by my parents, whether I like it or not. Whether it is direct or passive, it is what I inherited from my parents. It is what I have retained or choose to retain and it is part of me. It is part of my fiber, it is part of my existence.
I just feel like I cannot do some stuff that Gen Z can do, and I do not think there is anything wrong with that. I believe they are the future and I want to leave it to them to pave the way because we are going to phase out and they are going to lead to a more righteous and more conscious society. I just feel that a lot of the old traditions of the Vietnamese culture are going to be watered down or lost through this, but I hope that they will keep the good and leave the bad. Of course, there is Vietnamese culture, as with a lot of Southeast Asian culture, can be very sexist, very misogynistic because it is still very much upholding patriarchal society. I personally do not adhere to that, so I would like to see a lot of that gone, but I would like to see it done in a graceful and a peaceful way that will honor our ancestors without taking the negative.
DK: I think I have asked you all the questions that I had in mind, but with that said, I am curious if you have other questions that you were hoping I would ask in more detail or if you had any other stories that you would like to share?
BV: Not off the top of my head, unless you have any other questions about old Portland or anything else I can... [laughs].
DK: I guess a follow-up to what you just said, how have you seen Portland evolve over your time in the city?
BV: Obviously a lot more development. I would say that Portland is still very much segregated, but that is also changing slowly, of course. You can walk down the Mississippi district or Alberta––North Portland––and see redlining. The evidence of redlining is still very much there. I remember MLK [Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard] would be the street where they would send the gang enforcement police there. I remember skateboarding down these bigger streets and you would have to be careful of either dodging bullets or scooting aside because the cops are blazing down the street. That has not really changed. Cops are still doing that, still targeting people of color––especially Black folks and Native folks. I do see the influx of people from different states, like I mentioned with also Vietnamese Americans, but also people from different demographics are moving here. I do see that social media is creating a change because people are seeing stuff like popular parks or beautiful scenery in Oregon and diverse terrains and the high deserts and the oceans and all that Oregon has to give, so I see a lot of people coming to Oregon for the nature and outdoors. Like I said, I remember as someone who had gone through the public school education here, you would be sent out to woods for outdoor school for a week and you learn about the salmon cycle and the soil and you learn how to not litter and all this stuff. I feel like some of that has been muddled or just washed out and it is kind of... It is not that people are inherently bad. It is just that they did not have the privilege that I had of growing up, of learning how to be a steward of the Earth and of nature and tending to the land that you are on, taking care of it and being respectful to it and I feel like, at least as a park ranger and someone who cares about nature and all that, I see a shift and a change in that people litter more, people are not conscious about dumping stuff. Thinking that it is just out of sight, out of mind, but it will come back and get all of us later on, so I have seen a lot of those changes. I have seen a lot more development in the city. It has grown tremendously, of course. We have all felt the impacts of that. You have actual rush hour now and we did not have that in the past. Of course more bridges and all that, so yeah it is a changing city and I do not know... I definitely feel like the minimalism movement also sterilized and removed a lot of the charm that is Portland, that is quaint and old and beautiful in some way. Like stuff that you would see in Astoria, Oregon still, for example. So I do not know, there are a lot of changes to Portland that I have seen. It definitely feels more urbanized, whereas Portland in the past felt more like a town.
DK: Well, on that note, I think we can conclude today's interview. This has been Dustin Kelley chatting with Benji Vuong. Today is Friday, June 25, 2021. Thank you so much, Benji!
BV: Thank you, Dustin.