Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley, I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. I am joined by Aidan Bennett. Today is May 19, 2021, and we are here for another oral history interview. I want to welcome our guest, and I'll allow you to state your name and tell us a little bit about yourself.
Roman Vo: Hi, my name is Roman Vo. I was born in Vietnam, and I grew up in Vietnam, finished high school in Vietnam, and then my family moved to the United States. We landed in New York, so I stayed in New York for eight years. I started in Rochester, New York, so Upstate New York and then I finished high school—well, I went back to high school in New York—finished high school in Rochester and then went to community college for two years before I transferred to the University of Buffalo, finished my BS in electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo and also a PhD in electrical engineering in 2011. Then I landed a job with Intel in Portland and moved to Portland in 2011. I lived in Portland from 2011 until 2018 and then I took an expat assignment in China, so I moved to China for two years—still worked for Intel—and then after that assignment moved back to Portland in summer 2020, worked for a couple of months before I changed jobs with Facebook in the United Kingdom. I moved to the UK in September 2020, and I have been in the UK since then. So, it is my pleasure to be interviewed. I hope that I can help with something or my story is interesting or something that can help you regarding the Vietnamese community or my experience with the Vietnamese community in Portland.
DK: Well, we are so glad to have you join us today. You mentioned that working at Intel was what brought you to Portland. I am wondering what some of your first impressions of the city were.
RV: Well, I did not know anything about Portland before I moved there. I know it’s on the West Coast, you know, somewhere ... It's a hipster city, that's all I knew [laughs]. So, to be honest I moved there because of a job. But, as soon as I moved there I really fell in love with Portland, with the—well, I had cultural shock the first week when I moved to Portland. Moving from New York where people were so uptight and, you know, like when you ask someone, some stranger, "Hey, why are you asking me something," you know? So when I moved to Portland people were so friendly, so nice. They talk slowly, they speak slowly, they do everything much slower compared to people in New York. So, I had cultural shock the first week and then I really fell in love with Portland in terms of the culture, the food selection, the outdoors—I love outdoors, I try to be outside as much as I can—and with the, you know, with the coast, with the river, the mountains ... so, basically, I love it.
DK: That's amazing, what were some of your favorite outdoor hobbies? You mentioned just a little bit about that. Can you talk a little bit more about your outdoor experiences?
RV: Very many summers I went hiking almost every weekend at the coast. We loved taking our dog to the coast, to the beaches over there and she can run freely. And camping, you know, we camped quite a lot both at Mount Hood or at the coast. Yeah, and so we went fishing a couple times, I do not have a boat but one of my friends had a boat so we went fishing and we went crabbing a couple times. Yeah, so mostly hiking, camping.
DK: What neighborhood in Portland did you first settle in when you moved to the city?
RV: I lived in Hillsboro, so just right across [from] Intel. I could walk to work. [laughs] I know that sounds so crazy, but I walked to work and then I walked home for lunch and then I walked back to work after that [laughs].
DK: What was your neighborhood in Hillsboro like?
RV: It is at Orenco Station. So, when I moved into the house in ‘11, there was a little development over there. I really liked the house, the area, how the neighborhood developed. But in, I think, later in 2013, '14, they put [in] more condos, more apartments and with the store, you know, so apartments on top and then stores on the lower floor, so they have a pub there, they have a couple restaurants and a small neighborhood shop—I really, really liked it, the area—a lot of small businesses and it turned up really nice.
DK: Are other members of your family in the greater Portland area, or are they still back in New York? Did you just come by yourself to move to the greater Portland area?
RV: Yeah, so I moved there by myself in 2011. My mother at that time was still in New York and my brother was in Texas. And my husband was still in New York, but my husband moved to Portland with me in 2015. Finally, before I dragged him to China and the United Kingdom and other places [laughs].
DK: Were there events in the Vietnamese American community that brought people together, or were you able to get acquainted with Portland's Vietnamese American community?
RV: Yeah, so actually that is a very interesting question. When I was in New York, when I was in school, I had some Vietnamese friends but I did not get very close to the Vietnamese community, mostly because I was too busy with school and working full time, you know, to support myself through school. But, when I started working at Intel I kind of had some free time, and I started getting closer with the community; not really in Portland, but in Beaverton. I volunteered to teach Vietnamese to the American-born Vietnamese kids every Sunday at the Buddhist temple in Beaverton. What I liked about that is not, so ... teaching Vietnamese is one thing, but the second thing is I thought that it was very interesting and very important for the kids that every Sunday they come to the school and they bond with their friends. I find that important because when they grow up they have someone or some friends that share something that they may not find important now but I think when they grow up, you know, the roots are still there and they can develop later. So, for me teaching Vietnamese is one thing, but having that bond so that they can develop later is more important.
DK: What was the name of this temple?
RV: Phật Quang, so P-H-A-T Q-U-A-N-G.
DK: You mentioned that you enjoyed working with the students, the younger generation during your time there. Do you have any other experiences with the temple that you would like to talk about?
RV: [laughs] I consider myself a Buddhist, but I do not practice, so I don't join their ceremonies that often [laughs]. If we look at how a temple operates in Vietnam, that I know, and how that temple is operating in the United States, it is completely different. For me, it is not a religious center but it's more of a cultural center. So, besides the ceremonies for religion-related [reasons], they also have a lot of events to keep the Vietnamese culture alive in the United States, in Portland. So, we have a lot of events, for example, like Vietnamese New Year, or what they call Chinese New Year. We have memorial day, that is, when the—we call it the Black April—that is, the beginning of the exodus of Vietnamese leaving Vietnam when the communists took over. So, a lot of celebration, a lot of events like that to bring the older people together so that they do not feel that they were left alone, but also to bring the kids together to teach them about the Vietnamese history and also Vietnamese culture. They may not find that important right now, you know, the kids, they enjoy going ... they go for fun. But I find that it is very important when they grow up, that somehow they will go back. An example is my cousins: they were all born in the United States, and when they were kids they did not speak Vietnamese at all, but when they grew up, somehow, they went back and [found] their own roots and learned Vietnamese on their own and they went back to Vietnam to study more about their culture.
DK: I am curious when, in Portland, you felt most at home.
RV: I would say around 2017. That is when my mother passed away and I was alone in Portland and my mother was in Texas at that time. Well, of course, at that time I was in Texas, but after everything I went back to Portland and I got a lot of support from, you know, from the temple, from the community. I felt that ... very warm, you know? That something there in Portland that ... I feel warm, I feel secure, and I would feel like family ... I don't know.
DK: Conversely, did you ever experience any challenges in Portland? Were there ever times when you did not feel at home?
RV: Yes [chuckles]. It was in 2020, after two years in China [I] went back to Portland in the summer of 2020, because COVID and also the Black Lives Matter, you know, protests. Before I moved to China I sold the house, so when I went back to Portland I stayed in the Portland city itself, in southeast Portland. So closer to the community, the Vietnamese community in Portland, and so I talked to them a lot more, more than before, you know ... The Vietnamese community in Portland—I don't know a percent, but I'll just throw out the number—is very right-wing. Of course, it has a history of anti-communist and anti-socialist, but people [were] really angry—I am not sure [if] angry or sad. It is a mixed feeling that they really blame the—well, of course, I was not there during the protests or during the riots or whatever—but they really blame the protestors [for damaging] the city, and that makes me really angry or sad [at] the time same, that I felt a little disconnect with my understanding and the larger Vietnamese community.
Aidan Bennett: You said you went to university in the United States. Could you talk a little bit more about that experience and any other educational experiences you have had here?
RV: Oh yes, I can talk about that for days [laughs]. So, growing up in Vietnam—and my parents are both teachers—and the education system, or the mentality in Vietnam—or, say, in larger Asia—is teachers know everything. You cannot say "Ok no, you're wrong," or "Oh, I think this way." They say "One plus one is one," you have to say "Yes, one plus one is one." Also, growing up in the Asian culture, we are taught to ... how to put this ... so, they try and teach us not to do things because, like, fears. For example, when we see a monster we should run and hide, you know. Or, if you don't do this you will be punished. So, when I came to the United States and I went through one year in high school, and also the first two years in community college, I was really quiet because I, you know, as a guy who grew up in Asia I was kind of reserved and also feared to say something wrong, feared to ask questions. I had to appreciate that my first English teacher in high school, she just really encouraged me to say things, ask questions, or to read something even though I could not read English well, but she said "Just try!" So really, that helped me draw me ... you know, the best of myself out. I think that is the biggest difference in education [between] Vietnam and the United States, or in the larger term between Eastern culture and Western culture.
AB: And what did you study in college again?
RV: Electrical engineering.
AB: Ok. How did you come to be interested in that subject?
RV: [laughs] So, after I finished high school in Vietnam, I had two interests: I wanted to be an architect or I wanted to be an engineer. Unfortunately, I failed the exam to get into engineering school, so I went for architecture. But, when in the United States I said, "Ok, this is my chance again," and also in the United States we did not have to pass any tests to go for electrical engineering school, so I went to [both] community college to sign up for that major and, you know, tried to make up what I failed in Vietnam.
AB: And were you involved in any clubs or organizations while you were in college?
RV: So, there were a couple of clubs. One is ... I cannot remember now ... the [club name (00:18:21)], another one is the electrical ... I forgot the name ... and another is the Vietnamese Student's Club.
AB: What sort of activities was the Vietnamese Student's Club doing?
RV: So, quite a lot of activities. The biggest one that we prepared very much the whole year is, at UB we call it the International Fiesta, so it's like a festival where we bring all different international clubs in there and had a performance for one night, and so, you know, every club does something and we danced every year. Very much, we spent a long time to prepare for that performance. Another thing is we did a lot of fundraising to help the kids in Vietnam or, you know, sometimes there was a disaster—a natural disaster in Vietnam—we had fundraising to donate back to Vietnam. And also, it is not formal, but we also reserved a room in the library so we can help each other to study.
AB: So, you said the club would do dances. Are you much of a dancer yourself?
RV: No. I am not—well, none of us are really professional dancers but, you know, we do it for fun. It's what we do for fun, we enjoy it, we all do it [chuckles].
AB: Shifting gears away from dancing, you said you worked for Intel and now you work for Facebook UK, is that right?
RV: That's right.
AB: Ok, how did you come to be involved with first Intel and then Facebook?
RV: Yeah, so like I mentioned earlier I took the expat assignment to move to China for two years, and that assignment ended in 2020, summer 2020. At that time because of COVID and also two years in China we thought, “Ok, that's it now”, you know? So that is why we did not stay in the assignment, so it was, “Ok, we will move back to the United States”, and I was looking at something else to do, so I stayed with the Silicon industry for, I don't know, eight, eight and a half years. So let's try to do something else, something new to keep me excited because, at that time ... I don't think depressed, but a little ... I lost my motivation, a little bit. Doing the same thing over and over, you know, so I was looking at some different opportunities and then Facebook came up, and I was looking at what they are trying to do and thought, “That's really interesting.” It's not completely different but it is different than what I used to do at Intel and it sounds exciting. So I said, “Ok, let's do it.” And because of the COVID, so we could not travel for work, so they suggested to me to relocate to [the] United Kingdom. So I said, “Ok, wonderful, I love living in different countries, let's do it.” So, that is how I am here.
AB: Nice, that is a great opportunity. So what are some of the differences between, say, working at Facebook versus working at Intel? What drew you to make a change, if you could elaborate a little bit?
RV: The biggest change in culture, I would say, is at Intel it is [a] very close culture. In other words, that we have a phrase that we say that we only share the information to people who have business, need to know. So, if you ask me something I ask why you asked me that, do you really need to know ... to protect the IP [intellectual property]. Facebook is completely different: the information is shared everywhere, everyone can have access to see it. There are pros and cons, that's why the first two months at Facebook I could not digest all the information out there. It's everywhere, and I don't know, “do I need to know this, do I need to know this?” It is everywhere, it is available to everyone, everyone can have access to that. It just ... we have to do our own filter to the information we need to know, you know. So, that is the biggest difference in culture.
AB: That is really interesting. This is a little bit of a non sequitur, but what differences do you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
RV: Ah, actually that is very easy. Because, within our family, during the election, we had debates so much and actually some ... between family members we just do not talk to each other because we disagree, you know, even though before the election we said whatever matters, whatever happens we are still family, we still love each other. But the older generation, because they grew up in the ... because of the Vietnam War because of anti-communist, anti-socialist so they are very right wing. They are Democrat, you know, Republican supporters—it does not matter who is the candidate. For the younger generation, and my cousins, they were born in the United States and so they are very left wing. So, they are Democrat supporters no matter what. So, that is the big difference I think, not only in my family but in the community as well that I can see.
AB: Are there ways that you find those political differences create divides in the community? Do people continue to get along even though they disagree or is it difficult sometimes?
RV: Oh, it is very difficult. Especially, you know, if you are in the Facebook group of [the] Vietnamese community in Portland and you can see that argument just going on and on and on to the point that there is no solution, they [are] just talking bad about the other side.
DK: You mentioned with your cousins and seeing some of the divides even in your extended family. When you came to the United States, how was it to adjust to that dichotomy and seeing these two different political ideologies at work?
RV: When I first came to the United States I did not think much about the politics or the culture. One of the reasons is I was too busy [making] money, to work and make a living, so I did not think much about that until when I got into college and had a little free time, especially when I got out of school I had a lot more free time to think about other things.
DK: That is fair. Is it alright if we kind of back up a little bit? I would like to hear more about some of your beginnings and a little more about your family history in Vietnam.
DK: What part of Vietnam was your family from, and could you tell us a little bit more about your family, both immediate and extended?
RV: So, my father [is] originally from central Vietnam, and my father's family had been there for, I would say, 200 years. My mother's family—so both my grandparent's or my mother's parents moved from the north to the south in the '30s, so before the communists took over from the north. And they moved to the south, so they settled in the south, and then my parents met in college and they moved to my mother's family's city, and so I was born there in the, I don't know, the north of the south of the southern tip of the central—so it is about 200 miles north of Saigon. It is a small fishing village. Let's start with my father's family. That's quite interesting because my grandfather was a governor and also a landlord, so they had a lot of land. But after '75, you know, the communists took over everything and so only left them a house. The house complex is a U-shape and after the communists took over in '75 they said, "Ok the family has only ten people you do not need that much room to live," so they said, "Ok you live in only two sections, the other sections you have to give them to the community." So my grandfather said he totally disagreed and he just burned down the house. He burned down the house, otherwise he was not going to give it to the communists [laughs]. So that is an interesting story about my father's side. My mother's side, my grandmother has an interesting story too that I just found out when I went back to the north, to her family to visit [for] the first time in 2007. So it is back to the old Vietnamese culture that I only heard, but it is interesting because it happened to my family. So, my grandmother was married first and her first husband abused her, so she ran away and ran back to her parents. But, according to old Vietnamese culture when the girl was married she [does] not belong to her family anymore. So, her parents did not let her into the house to live with them but instead built a small cottage outside the house for her to live [in]. She could not handle [it] with all the neighbors talking about how bad [it was] that she was married and she ran away, and so that is why she left the north and went to the south, and that is where she met my grandfather. So, basically, my mom's parents.
DK: So, you mentioned that you came to the United States during high school. What year did you come to the United States?
RV: In 2000.
DK: What was the experience of leaving Vietnam like in 2000? What was the process like of getting permissions and just the whole immigration process?
RV: Yeah, so my family moved to the United States under the sponsor[ship] of my uncle. So, my uncle was in the US before that and they sponsored us.
DK: Had they been in the United States for a long time?
RV: They came to the United States ... I think 1991.
DK: What was it like with your uncle and aunt sponsoring you as a family? What was that process like of getting established in the United States?
RV: It was tough at [the] beginning. The Western culture really encouraged individualism so even though he sponsored us to the US, but, basically, we had to start our own lives as soon as we landed. So that is how I got the job as a dishwasher at a restaurant the first week, and my mom got a job as a cashier at Goodwill, I think within a month. So, it was tough in [the] beginning. That is why I said, you know, the first few years I was too busy making money and working and making a living so I did not have time to think about all the things. So, just go full steam and try to make a living first.
DK: So, this is a pretty broad question: You grew up in Vietnam, you lived in the United States, you mentioned having lived in China for a while and now in the United Kingdom. I do not know if there are other countries I have missed that you have also lived in ...
RV: I lived in Japan for one year [while I was a] student so, you know, doing my PhD we had a collaboration with a professor from Japan and I went to Japan for one year to do some work over there.
DK: What has it been like to be Vietnamese and living in all of these different nations around the world, and how has that experience shaped your identity?
RV: Yeah, it made me ... I don't remember the article, but I read an article a couple months ago that said taking an expat … or living as an expat that ideas about yourself become clearer. So I totally agree with that. The more I expose myself to different cultures, I understand the Vietnamese culture a lot more. This is one thing, I talked to my friends in Vietnam and they really hate me when I bring it up because [there are] a lot of things we do, but we do not understand why we do it. So when I expose myself to different cultures I really look at why we are doing [things] that way, why we are doing certain things in a certain way because of history. And that is, you know... because of history it makes sense, but now is this still making sense to do it that way or is it the time for us to change because of you know we get more exposed to things changing around, to new ideas, to the different cultures imported into Vietnam. So I really appreciate that I had a chance to live in different cultures and, like I mentioned earlier, just makes me understand clearer about myself, about the Vietnamese culture and the way that we do things, certain things, and yeah.
Like, for example, one [chuckles] example is quite funny. We say that Vietnamese are not rushed except when they [are] in front of a steering wheel. So, I went back to Vietnam and I can hang out with my friends at the coffee shop for hours, but as soon as they get on [a] motorbike they run the red light. That does not make sense to me, like we were just sat at the coffee shop for hours doing nothing, just chatting, and now you just say you are too busy you ran the red light [chuckles]. Things like that, just small things like that, if they don't see that because they are in that culture, everyone does the same, but as an outsider—or not really an outsider but, you know—not living in that culture for a while you go back and you can see that does not make sense!
DK: I have a quick follow up to that question, sorry Aidan, and—
AB: No, you are all right.
DK: —what has it been like to go back to Vietnam? It sounds like you have been able to return a couple of times. What has that experience been like and where have you been able to visit?
RV: Yeah, so I went back a couple times. I went back to the north to see my grandmother's family for the first time. Really different culture between the north and the south. Similar ... I think the south is ... put it that way the south's culture is not similar but with the same trend or the same idea like the United States, because, you know, the south of Vietnam only belonged to Vietnam the last 200 years or 300 years. So, people from the south are really people who just migrate from other areas. So, because of that we are more open, we do not have a lot of unwritten rules that we have to follow. So, growing up in the south I had no idea that there is so many unwritten rules I had to follow. When I went to see my friend in the north I was lectured almost every day, like everything I did was wrong. Like, you have to do this first, this second, you have to do this third, you do this fourth, and so on, so on, so on. So, it was an eye-opening experience for me. And so that is the difference between the north and the south. Then talking about my friends, I had to control myself so that we [are] not talking [about] too hard things. And like a lot of things that I said I don't understand why we ... we just spent two hours there and we just [ran a] red light, it's only two seconds. Because I think the Asian culture or Vietnamese culture is there is a big thing they call "face saving," so whenever we criticize, or we make suggestions, or we disagree we have to convey the message so they cannot feel that we have really criticized them, you know, so make it as a joke, put it that way. But other than that I think, not much difference. Like I still talk to my friends as like when I was in high school, so we still talk a lot and drinking is a thing, yeah.
AB: So, you mentioned earlier that you have a husband, is that right?
RV: That's right.
AB: If you don't mind, would you be willing to talk a little bit about what it is like to be gay and a member of the Vietnamese community, or just gay and Vietnamese?
RV: Yeah, so ... being gay in a Vietnamese family is, for example, right now my father—my father is still in Vietnam, by the way, only my mother's side is in the United States—my father still is has not accepted me as a gay person. Even he knows that we have been married, we have been living together for seventeen years, he lives in denial completely, he denies it completely. He keeps asking when I am going to get married, even still now. I do not know how to explain to him, to be honest, because the Vietnamese culture, like he is a teacher also, so father and son are not friends. Like, we cannot talk about a lot of things, and father is always correct, teacher is always correct, so no dialogue. Even though we talk sometimes, we talk to each other just to check in if everyone is doing ok, that's it ... not really sharing meaningful conversation. My mother, at first she did not accept, because it is strange for her in a way. Just something that she does not think is natural. She was angry a little bit, but before she passed away—I was with her—she asked me, you know, "How is Kevin doing?" My husband's name is Kevin. And so I said he is fine, so you know, she's asking why is he not coming to see her, you know. And I said because he thinks that she is still mad at him, and she said "no, no, no, no," so that is how. And besides that all my aunts, my cousins, no problem. It is just a part of life, you know. So, overall, only my dad is not accepting. My aunt, my cousin, no one really knows because he does not want it. His thing is it is a shame for the family, so he does not let anyone know.
AB: Thank you for that answer. Is there anything else that we have not talked about that you would like to discuss?
RV: I do not know what else you have in mind [laughs].
DK: Well, I think we have asked most of the questions from our list, and you have been so detailed in your responses and shared so much of your life and it has been so wonderful, we just like to ask at the end of every interview that you have the opportunity to share anything else that may have come up in your mind after you answered a different question before, or if there is something you hoped we would ask that we have not.
RV: I do not know, yeah I cannot think of anything right now but I was hoping that you could ask more about what I understand or what I think about the Vietnamese community, but I cannot think of anything extra right now besides what I just said.
DK: Well, thank you so much for being with us today.
RV: Oh, thank you so much, it is really my pleasure to share my story.
DK: All right, I'll go ahead and wrap things up. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Aidan Bennett, we have been speaking with Roman Vo via Zoom, and today is May 19, 2021. Thank you so much!