Dustin Kelley: Hello, this is Dustin Kelley. Today, we are here for another oral history interview. Today is June 25, 2021. I am just going to go ahead and let my guest introduce himself; say your name and just a little bit about yourself.
Huy Pham: My name is Huy, last name Pham. I am an entrepreneur and an educator. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, first generation Vietnamese.
DK: Growing up in Portland, what were some of the neighborhoods you lived in?
HP: We spent most of my childhood in Northeast Portland when it was still affordable. My parents bought a house when I was like six or seven in the Laurelhurst neighborhood, which is still Northeast Portland. They just planted and have been there ever since, so I grew up in that neighborhood.
DK: Can you tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like?
HP: My childhood was spent skating and being surprised at what White kids could get away with in their families. [Laughs] That was my childhood. I skated—I think was the majority of what I remembered about being a kid. I skated and snowboarded. My family set us up in a neighborhood that was predominantly White, but my family was still very much like, "You will not lose an understanding of where you came from and how you are just because you live in this neighborhood." We were very, very Vietnamese living in a very, very White neighborhood. It was just a trip cause I got spanked and it worked, I respected my parents. It was just crazy growing up with all these different families from single moms to multiple kids, like your nuclear family, and seeing the dynamic of those families juxtaposed with mine—thinking my family was strict, not really realizing that my family was instilling in me discipline. That was really my childhood. Skating, music. My dad is a musician so I learned a lot of music. Honestly, my dad spent his hard earned money giving us extra-curricular activities. I did wushu kung fu for like seven or eight years. He funded all my skating and snowboarding activities. I was playing music, like I played the guitar, piano, drums so I was doing a lot of artistic stuff which was so influential in shaping my adulthood. That was my childhood in a nutshell.
DK: Can you tell us a little bit more about the different members of your families?
HP: I am the oldest of three brothers, mom and dad, and then somebody on the couch or in one of the spare bedrooms, or on the floor for as long as I can remember. My childhood was full of people that my family was taking care of, as they were transitioning here from another country or trying to get on their feet so I always had uncles. My brothers and I are at a gap of five years so I am significantly older than my second brother and the one after that—they are just a year apart. My dad came from poverty in Vietnam and my mom came from extreme wealth—like extreme wealth, with five servants in her home at all times growing up. She is actually a first generation Vietnamese from China, her dad was a businessman. He was born and raised in North Vietnam, came down to the south in the war and just was poor. He loved music when he was little and his grandmother was very pragmatic, "What are you going to do learning music? Get a job." And grandpa wanted to indulge this, so he went to music school. What is ironic about it is he ended up playing in cafes at a very young age and making more money than the entire family combined. He actually helped take care of the family at a very young age. I am talking thirteen, fourteen, he was making good money in Vietnam playing at cafes and jazz halls and music halls, that kind of stuff. The family was in the export-import business so they were just very wealthy. Then the war leveled the playing field, they met in a refugee camp. My dad got chummy with my grandmother cause he is just very smart. "I like her, so let me get in with grandma. Grandma likes me, I'll be in." He did that very well. They landed here in America—mom was in New Orleans, Louisiana and my dad went to Portland because he has an uncle over here who sponsored him. They sent letters to each other, they linked up, and we have been here ever since.
My brothers are extraordinary. Youngest brother did Teach for America for a ton of years, taught elementary school in Compton for close to a decade, got his master's, went on to work for a senator's campaign, from there to law school, now works for Stanford, and is waiting to take his bar [exam]. The kid is an overachiever. My other brother is a dentist who owns his own practice that is extraordinarily successful. That is my family in a nutshell. My dad got a job at the DHS when he got here because he could speak English—you did not need a master's at that time to be a caseworker for the DHS, you just need to be able to provide a solution to a problem. My mom took care of us. He worked nine to five there, then five to seven he taught music lessons, then eight to ten he did janitorial work five days a week. On the weekends, he played in a wedding band. My mom took care of us, a full time schedule with three boys, probably harder than what my dad did. From there they built up enough savings to buy a home. They bought a home, bought a small business, a little dry cleaner. My mom worked at the dry cleaners all through my teens all the way up till now. So they are both in place, actually kind of doing the same thing minus the janitorial work. The hustle mode is still on because my parents are like so many other immigrant families, they are the unrealized American dream. They did not understand the game of capitalism so when they went in to play it, they got into a bunch of consumer debt so retirement stresses them out. I think what is cool is that the first generation kids, because there is a heavy emphasis on education, are actually the American dream realized because we know how to play the game. By knowing how to play the game, it is like all the other families that are multi-generational here that understand how this whole thing works and what consumer debt actually is and how the machine runs. That is family in a nutshell.
DK: How long had your parents been living in Portland before you were born?
HP: Like four years, something like that. A short time.
DK: You mentioned a lot of uncles and other people staying in your home, were a lot these individuals family members?
HP: No. My dad taught music lessons and played in a band so there were always band members that needed housing as they were transitioning from one thing to another. There were cousins sometimes that would come in from troubled homes in California and stay with us, trying to get their act straight. Foster kids, there are a lot of Vietnamese foster kids. That was really the spectrum. It was not always blood family, but it was family, right?
DK: You mentioned that your dad was initially sponsored by one of his uncles. Do you have a large extended family in Portland as well?
HP: No, just that uncle and his family. It was a huge blessing for us that he was here. Portland, as an environment, has helped us stay clear of the trappings of the first generation, especially young men. First generation Asian-American, especially from Indochina. The crazy stuff you can get caught up in, Portland helped to navigate away from that. It was here, definitely. My dad was like, "Hey, my son is gangbanging. Let me see if I can get him into something constructive so he stops gangbanging." My exposure to the Asian hood was [that] all the kids that would come over and learn how to play the drums and piano were hood. Some of them I would see in high school later on. I was always exposed, but I was also always out, like I was not welcomed because I was the son of the music teacher. I saw all of it. I saw all the guns, the drugs. I think that experience heavily shaped how I navigate even now.
DK: Where did you go to school in Portland?
HP: I went to Benson for high school—so a magnet school with all these kids funneled in there. This is what is funny about Benson; Benson had a health occupations program and if you know anything about immigrant families, the only jobs that they know are valid in America are lawyer and doctor. If you cannot cut it as a doctor, then pharmacist, dentist, nurse. Nurse all the way down at the bottom. So this health occupations program was apparently a leg up to get that thing going, so all the Asian kids flooded into Benson, that included all the super hood kids too. So I went to Benson and it was kind of a trip being there. I would have much rather gone there than the school I was supposed to go to, which was Grant.
DK: Can you talk a little bit about your experience overall as a student within PPS?
HP: You know, I thought it was fine! I hear a lot of people complaining about Portland Public Schools. I have an issue with school in general. I think it would have been really great to learn how to balance my books and build an investment portfolio in high school because my Roth IRA, if I would have started it when I was eighteen, would be significantly more valuable when I am sixty-five. That would have been super helpful, I had to learn that reading books on my own. That is the kind of stuff I have a problem with formal education—it is setting up kids to work in an industry that is rapidly disappearing. Transitioning into the knowledge economy—I do not know how public schools are set up now—but my experience did not set me up for the knowledge economy I exist in now. Something as simple as a framework for testing an idea, validating it or not validating it and moving on, would have been super helpful in high school. Like, "Hey, I do not know if I want to be a doctor." "Well, have you thought about shadowing a doctor for like a month? Just watching his life and asking him and asking her, and just going back and forth with a variety of doctors to do a few AB tests and see if you want to do this for the rest of your life." That would have been so helpful, I did not get any of that. I got standardized education. I think the social side of it was the most valuable. My experience in Portland Public Schools is unique because it was a magnet school that brought people from all different walks of life that felt like they were misfits at their own schools. It was this pool of just very interesting people from all different neighborhoods around the city. I think my experience in high school was very not stereotypical.
DK: Growing up in Portland, did you feel connected to the Vietnamese-American community at large?
HP: No, and that was intentional.
DK: Can you talk more about that?
HP: The Vietnamese community at large––my family felt I needed to be indoctrinated into American culture so I could understand. It was always about education. They saw in Southern California and in Louisiana the natural inclination for the Vietnamese community, any community—Laos, Hmong, any community—they band together because it feels safer. But in that safety, they saw complacency that they wanted us to overcome. So by not exposing us heavily into… other than just family, we still understood—I can speak fluent Vietnamese. Culture was not missing, I know my culture. I eat the food, I eat the weird stuff, I eat the stinky stuff. I am still there still, but the community banded together and in that it was safe and they [my parents] knew that was not the best bet for us. I do not know if they knew it consciously, but it definitely was intuitive. It was very apparent to us that they wanted us exposed and indoctrinated into what American life is like, not what Vietnamese people living in America are like. In that, I think they gave all of us a leg up. I was not close with the Vietnamese community. I have a ton of close Vietnamese friends, but they are like me. You can look at us in a spectrum of our friendship and it is not a bunch of Vietnamese dudes, not even a bunch of Asian dudes, really. It is everybody, but they just happen to be Vietnamese and we happen to care about the same things and have similar experiences so we are good friends.
DK: Let us fast forward a little bit. Did you attend college after going to Benson?
HP: Yes, I did. I did three years of biology at University of Portland which was really expensive and very pointless because I am not doctor material. Then I quietly and sneakily transitioned to business, then I was like, "Man, private school business classes are expensive. I probably should not be here anymore." Then I went to Portland State to finish my degree. I got a degree in advertising and management which was also kind of useless relative to what I actually was doing in college that got me to where I am now.
DK: What influenced some of your decision points for your initial degree selection in biology? And, then some of your pivot points later on?
HP: There is a toxicity in the Vietnamese culture that I think is very unintentional. It is two fold—it is immigrant families in general, the parents tying their identity, and therefore their value, to the performance of their children which does not actually make any sense, but it is a natural thing that happens. Like, "My son is a doctor; I can be proud. It makes me a good person. My son is x, my daughter is x, etcetera, it makes me a good person. I am therefore validated by the performance of my children, it makes me—and it is actually validated and enforced by the community—not a good person.” It is a terrible lie, but I received it and I believed it about myself, that if I did not perform to this standard, really, the undergirding message that my parents were unintentionally delivering to me was, "We will not love you. You have to earn your place." It is just silly. I have two little boys, they do not have to earn squat. If they had to earn anything, they would be homeless right now. They are inherently valuable because they were created to be valued. They are beloved children as I am a beloved child. But, growing up in that, I was like, "Alright, I guess I will try to be a doctor!" I did terribly in biology. I was looking at it, "What is this? I do not understand any of this." So I played that game for a little bit and then I was like, “You know what? I am actually this.” I actually looked at my own behavior. I started selling burnt CDs in elementary school because I had a desire to buy more music for myself and did not have a way to fund it, so my uncle bought a CD burner and I started burning CDs and selling them for five bucks to other kids to earn enough money to go buy more music. That kind of thing. I was like, “I should probably be in business.” That is when I transferred. At that time, I did not really have the language to really explain to my folks what this was all about. I did it quietly and then eventually I was like, "Hey, I am in business now. I am not going to be a doctor."
DK: What do you do now? And, how did you come about doing that?
HP: I am an entrepreneur by the textbook definition. I see a problem. I find a solution or I understand that there is a solution available. Then I codify the delivery of that solution so that I do not have to do it. So currently—it is such an interesting time for this interview—I recently transitioned from the creative services back into the entrepreneur space, so I have been doing a lot of consulting for awhile. It was specifically to retire my parents. My mom still owns the same rinky-dink dry cleaner. They need more capital in order to make the transition happen than what my brothers and I are able to provide at the moment. So I asked myself, what is a solution that is a win-win for everyone where they can comfortably retire and I can do what I am good at? So right now, I am building a start-up that does shoe cleaning, like sneaker cleaning, and clothing cleaning, but delivery. So think like Amazon-logistics, but like 90s Calvin Klein aesthetic. It is actually named after my mom. We just got off a conference call before this one with my team—we are talking about the storytelling behind this and kind of the bones of this brand. It is the immigrant story meets the first generation story—like the product of the immigrant story. It is cool because simultaneously the bold spirit of my mom and dad and the influence of hip hop culture on me and my brother. It is this merging, it is also simultaneously very Pacific Northwest, very West Coast in general. It is not the hard-edge immigrant stories you hear in New York and Miami. It is chill, right? We are building a brand. We are validating the service in Portland. It is something I am going to move into venture funding for.
DK: That is fascinating, thanks for sharing about that. I am curious—this is not a question we discussed in advance and I hope that is okay—it sounds like you have an interesting viewpoint on the city of Portland as a whole and kind of its trajectory. How you have seen it changing over your lifetime? Could you talk a little bit about your perceptions of the city as a whole?
HP: The punk rock kids that ruled over Portland grew up and got real rich doing creative work. That modernization of Portland is rooted in the creative class that was rotted in punk culture, growing up and shaping some of the biggest brands in the world. Like Doc Martens is downtown. The headquarters for Doc Martens is in downtown Portland. That is wild, but totally on brand. That is what I have seen. So me growing up, in elementary school to middle school, I was predominantly surrounded by white kids, and a few black and Asian kids here and there. I was still very much the minority. In high school, those numbers changed. Then moving out of that space, those numbers really changed, because I participated in the creative class. And that creative class is both all of the people of color coming together over shared love of things like Slum Village, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. To all the imports to the agency that serve Nike were predominantly people of color or Nike itself. So you had this influx of all these different cities— [interruption]. Portland itself is punk grown-up. That is what it feels like to me. I was there for the birth of Bishops, which leans fully into that culture. Bishops is a unisex barbershop. It perfectly nailed Portland—stickers everywhere, wheatpasting, less hip hop graffiti and more like literally punk culture. That messy aesthetic grew up and brought Scandinavian modern design to Portland. A lot of them cats now run creative agencies. They run design studios. They run communications for art. I think that is what I see in Portland. The unique ebb and flow of this underbelly, but Portland as a whole is wealthier. It seems like people are doing much better than when I was growing up. The prices of houses are proof enough. I think that the big thing I witnessed is that punk grew up. The punk culture that was with me growing up, grew up.
DK: Can you talk more about the punk culture that you experienced growing up and what some of your memories of that are?
HP: I navigated the hip hop circles, but the circles were small. Satyricon was seven days a week, just wild. Then we had our little hip hop room like at the Fez that could fit fifty people and we were happy with ten people in there. I always saw it as, “This is actually Portland, and this is what I love, over here.” But this is actually Portland. Mohawks, donuts, cigarettes, and Dante's, which is a bastion of that world that is really no longer prevalent. Again, everyone grew up. The Tube, which is a bar downtown, which went from punk and cocaine to like hip hop and cocaine to like hip hop and beer. The transition is like punk grew up, punk grew out of it. Like the dude who owned that place sold it and opened up a chain of pizza shops. He lived above the freakin bar for awhile. That is Portland to me, that is my experience with that world. Mikey, the owner of Tubes, was always a super nice guy and we would say, “What's up?” to each other. He was that world. He was tattooed strippers and I was hip hop.
DK: What are some businesses or locations in Portland that have special meaning to you personally?
HP: So me and my brothers are b-boys so we break dance. We have been kicked out of more community centers than I can count. If we went on a tour of every single practice spot, a bunch of little grubby kids trying to dance and have some fun. We were identified as being potentially miscreants that were going to do some damage, cause hip hop was not cool yet. Hip hop was not as accepted as it is now. There were like two spots in the city where we would go buy mixtapes from Boston and New York. 2nd Avenue Music (2nd Avenue Records), the woman that curated and purchased music at that spot just loved everything, but she was just very much Portland. She just had such a deep respect for hip hop culture because it had so much in tandem with the culture where she was from so she bought all the underground stuff and we would get it. But those places are nostalgic for me, those places hold meaning. At the University of Portland, we got kicked out of the studio rooms. I used to open the windows to the studio room and all the b-boys of the city would climb in and practice at University of Portland so they caught us and kicked us out. Peninsula, we had practice there. They kicked us out. Dishman (Matt Dishman Community Center), we had practice there. They kicked us out. We have been kicked out of at least two dozen spots and it would just be hilarious to actually go around. We have memories, lifetime friendships that were built from these locations cause all these grubby kids were getting together trying to figure out how to dance. But I do not have anything like Chinatown means something to me or anything like that.
DK: I am curious if growing up, or currently, you have any connections to community organizations or religious organizations?
HP: The closest one I have a connection to right now, and it is a loose connection, is APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon). It is an Asian service nonprofit off of 82nd. My wife used to run a dance company and one of her dancers is actually a worker there and we got connected and worked together on a few projects. The community, yes, but not actually community organizations. On the religious side, I left the Catholic church when I was eighteen. The last straw was I made my first gay friend and there was anti-gay legislation happening in-front of my church and I did not get any questions answered that I had growing up in the church. It was not a Vietnamese Catholic church, it was just a Catholic church. I was like, "Ah, I am done." I found God when I was about thirty-three. I am almost thirty-nine now so I am a Christian associated with the [Seventh-day] Adventist church, but not actually a deep participant of the Adventist church. We operate a ministry out of Hawaii actually.
DK: When have you felt most at home in Portland? What do you like most about your city and community?
HP: When have I felt most at home? At a party called the Fix, which happened about a decade ago. I was like, “This is really awesome.” That is where I made a ton of network connections early on. And then, [I also feel at home] at my mom's house. As far as being on Mt. Tabor, nothing like that. So those two spots.
DK: Conversely, have you experienced challenges in Portland? For instance, any discrimination or racism?
HP: I feel like Asian-Americans, especially first generation Asian-Americans, have a very interesting space. We navigate a very interesting space of not necessarily a ton of overt racism, but a constant stream of microaggressions. Like my neighbor, she is so uncomfortable pronouncing my name that every time she pronounces my name, she exclaims it. I am like, "You can just say Huy. It does not have to be Huy [uses a higher tone]." The first generation mentality, and I speak for my family, is that there are bigger fish to fry, keep it moving. Like engaging in this does not get you to your end goal of providing a sustainable life for your family so keep it pushing cause you are going to deal with this your whole life, everywhere you go. You go back to Vietnam and it is classism to a degree that is like “Woah.” I have experienced it. It has not been crazy explicit, not in the same way my black and brown brothers and sisters deal with it. Like Jerome is easier to pronounce than Hoang. It is a different type, and that is just one aspect of it, just a constant stream of microaggressions. We just learn to live with it.
DK: In your mind, what role does being Vietnamese-American play in your life?
HP: I am going to go back to this because I said it earlier—we are the American Dream realized. Because if I did not have the example of my parents grinding it out, working hard but not smart, I would not know that I was looking for working smart and working hard. Both the work ethic and the education. They gave us the work ethic, it was clear, so we have the ability to step into spaces and do things that my parents could not even fathom. We could dive into this for another hour. We are the American Dream realized because of the foundation our parents layed.
DK: I am curious, what differences do you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans? I know you have spoken to this a little bit.
HP: It depends. I think there is a wiring for pleasure and power in people. The driving force of, “Do I want pleasure, or do I want power?” I think you can see it very clearly in the generation I grew up in. You see the lens which is, “I am the master of my own destiny. Let me build this company that is going to dominate this space that not very many competitors are in right now, so we can definitely cement this.” Lynn is absolutely similar to me. She is building a company that empowers women on a foundation of mixed martial arts and boxing. The other side of it is like my friends that kicked it everyday and drank and smoked and did illegal things to continue fueling that desire for an easier life because that is what their parents were demonstrating to them, the desire for an easier life because life sucks and it is really hard. I think that dichotomy is what I have witnessed. I understand very clearly where I fall and where my brothers fall.
DK: Is there anything that we have not spoken about today that you were hoping would come up, a question I have not asked, or anything else in your experience that you would like to share about?
HP: Not necessarily. A lot of the stuff I talked about is a hypothesis based off of observations. This idea of the desire for control and the desire to establish and cement yourself so you work fourteen hours a day and focus purely on education and assign value to yourself based on your children's performance and then your children then agree to this and become extraordinary, but are not necessarily secure. The other side of that [is] this escapism. I am wondering if this is actually uniform across the spectrum of the Vietnamese first generation experience that you are interviewing for. Is this as clear as this duality in my mind is presented? Other than that, no, I think this is cool.
DK: Well, thank you for taking the time today. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley chatting with Huy Pham, and today is Friday, June 25, 2021. Thanks again.