Xuannha Truong Vo: Could you start by telling us where and when you were born and giving us a brief overview of your life here in Portland?
Ken Truong: My name is Ton Cuong Truong, or Ken Truong. I was born in Vietnam on December 3rd, 1948. I went to the United States in 1979 as a refugee. I crossed the border for the third time. There were three types of refugees: the first priority was for the people working in the US, the second priority was the parents who sponsored their children, and the third priority was the ones who used to work for the previous government of Vietnam.
XV: What were the circumstances that brought you to Portland?
KT: I crossed the border from Vietnam to Malaysia, then went to America. There was a close friend who was my sponsor, the current owner of Fubonn Shopping Center. He is Vietnamese- Chinese. He was a refugee who got helped by an Indian ship and then he went to Japan and finally to the United States. I contacted him when I was at the Malaysian camp. Some people had children in the US and Australia who had contact information for those sponsors.
XV: Are there organizations, family members, or friends who helped your family establish itself in the US? Who was your sponsor? Why did you come to the city of Portland specifically?
KT: Fubonn Shopping Center’s owner, who also came from my hometown, sponsored me to Portland and helped me rent a place to live. My boss then sponsored me. Friends in the company I worked with and some social workers helped me out. At that time, I spoke Vietnamese-style English. After a while, I could recognize if it was a black American or a white American on a phone by their voice.
The USCC organization in downtown Portland (at 8th Street and Washington Street) has Pastor Park who is Christian and helps the community. There was a Lieutenant-general named Thuan in the lower position, now he has retired. He still lives in Portland, but he doesn't remember anything because he is almost ninety years old. I'm not part of that, I am Catholic who belonged to the CWS organization in NE Portland. I don't remember it clearly.
XV: What were your first impressions of Portland?
KT: Previously, I came to the Seattle airport with the newly established Alaska company. On the flight from Seattle to Portland with my wife and four children, I did not know what to do. I was also worried and confused. When I arrived at Portland airport, I found it was so different. In the villages in Vietnam, houses were built by tile and cement walls. The houses here are wooden houses. Vehicles are also abundant. I like one Vietnamese idiom: “God gives birth to elephants, so he can live.” It applied to us.
When I came to America, they were all white, very few Asians. It was a bit scary and a little strange. I tried my best to learn. Going to work, I learned from an American colleague how to speak English and how to pronounce. They are very happy, friendly, and very helpful. For example, if I had an accident, they called the insurance company because I did not know English. I felt helpless sometimes. At that time, I was scared to work.
XV: Describe the neighborhood in Portland you first settled in. Did you feel isolated or were there other Vietnamese-Americans nearby?
KT: Back then, the city was small. Since 2000, the population has increased. In 1998, more people from California came here to stay. The city was growing along with the population. There were less traffic jams before. The streets were almost clear on the weekend because most of us worked on weekdays. Now there are also traffic jams on the weekend. The cost of living was low, with affordable gasoline and cheap food. Life was easy. However, with the growth of the economy along with more houses, the prices went up slowly, the money slowly depreciated and then fluctuated in the economy.
The Portland environment is very good. The weather is cool, the same as Da Lat city in Vietnam. Gentle people. Now it is a little volatile, people smoke and use drugs too much. The beggars in the past were at the bus stations asking for quarters. Now they stand at most intersections. It was not like that before here.
Houses used to have basements and a large double garage. The basement is cool in summer and warm in the winter, which is good. In recent years, they stopped digging the land to build basements in houses. They build houses with different levels and single garages because they have less space. I think it has happened in the last ten years.
Vietnamese often have big families and they usually buy large houses, then they have to sell the big one to get a smaller one when their children move out.When I first came to the US , I-205 was about to open. I-5 was the only freeway in town with traffic jams sometimes. In the past, the billboards were paper. Roads are now better and electric road signs warn about traffic jams, which is much better for us to know ahead of time about traffic. The iPhone is also good for that. In the past, there were few cyclists and they had no bicycles lane.
Tuck Lung was a restaurant on 4th street, Fong Chong Market was next door. Seven Stars and the House of Louie were also close. There was a Vietnamese market in Tillamook street and Mekong market on 39th Ave with four or five different owners. They have all disappeared. I think it was another market owned by a person named Tien at Belmont street. Then to An Dong Market, Oriental Market on Killingsworth Street, and Thanh Thao market on Sandy Boulevard. Recently, we have new markets such as Fubonn, Hong Phat, and we used to have Thuan Phat.
82nd Ave used to have a lot of second-hand car shops and K-mark that moved out of Portland to Beaverton vs Milwaukie. Legin on 82nd Ave was closed and Portland community college is there now. The malls are new. Lloyd Center was the only mall in town which was convenient for us to shop there. Vietnamese used to live all around the town, not the same neighborhood as currently.
XV: Was it hard to adjust to life in America? What were some of the challenges you faced?
KT: We can call the police on the phone if something happens. Life quality here is higher and different than in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they can live upstairs and have business downstairs at their houses. [In Portland] we have different areas for businesses and residents. They clean the street which is good.
Language is a problem. I have a job so I can support my family but I was not as wealthy as the people who came here before me. I just bought a used car and rented an apartment. It was quite difficult. When I was working to raise my kids, I also tried to give my children enough means to study to get into society more easily. My children must be good and better than me. In the past, I did not go on vacation or anything because I just didn't know much. In summer, I went to Lombard Street and Columbia to buy a summer ticket for my child to swim. Now my grandkids play soccer and other sports. They join in everything-- go camping, hiking, basketball, and do other things. My children are better, and society is better.
XV: What events brought people together in the Vietnamese community? Were there particular places in particular where they gathered? Were there restaurants, shops, or religious institutions that your family particularly frequented? In what ways has the neighborhood changed since then?
KT: Racism is an issue in any society. In Vietnam, there is a distinction between the people from the north and people from the south. In America, it is also due to different lifestyles, personality and languages. For example, at school, refugees get free food when Americans have to pay to line up. Some American was unhappy and jealous about that. That was just a few individuals. Gradually, discrimination is flattened. I was not discriminated against by anyone. I did not speak English well but they were friendly to me. They were also polite. I worked there for thirty years and I trained so many people. They don't mock others. They are polite. The Vietnamese people mock others but the Americans don't. They have a high level of knowledge, at least high school, with a sense of helping new and friendly people.
[Interview continues in Vietnamese, no further English translation available]