Dustin Kelley: Hi, this is Dustin Kelley. Today is Wednesday, August 19, 2020. And I am in Watzek Library chatting with David Ngo via Zoom. And David, we are just really happy that you agreed to meet with us today. And I was wondering if you could begin by telling us a little bit about yourself.
David Ngo: Alright well, I’m David. I am nineteen and I live in Oregon currently. I’m going to OSU [Oregon State University] to study Psychology. And both of my parents are Vietnamese, and they came here in ‘89 and ‘92.
DK: Great. So, you live in Portland? What neighborhood do you live in?
DN: Currently, I live in Gresham. In the suburbs, it's a pretty nice, safe place. It’s good. But when I was growing up -- actually I was born in Michigan, but then I moved to Oregon when I was two. My childhood was mostly in Burnside, around the Burnside area. And it was a pretty rough neighborhood back then. A lot of shootings at night, stuff like that. But we moved to a better place recently -- not recently, but a few years ago -- so that’s good.
DK: Did you attend Portland Public schools?
DN: Yeah, I went to Bella Creek Elementary School near where I live now. And then I went to Centennial High School, and now I go to Oregon State University. So all public schools, yeah.
DK: Can you speak a little bit about what your experiences have been like at those schools?
DN: They were good. I think it was a good experience. Because my dad is a Seventh-day Adventist, we have the option to go to Seventh-day Adventist private schools, right? But my dad chose not to have me in those schools because he wanted me to just socialize more. And like understand the community more and just be more open in comparison to, like a niche group, like Seventh-day [Adventist] kids. So it was a good experience going to public schools. A little rough around the edges a little bit but it was good.
DK: Did you also attend Vietnamese school as a kid?
DN: No, actually. My grandfather taught me Vietnamese so I didn't go to Vietnamese school at all.
DK: So growing up in Portland did you feel connected to the Vietnamese American community at large?
DN: I think it was very niche for me because I mostly attended church, the Vietnamese church that my dad was a leader of. So most of my interaction with the Vietnamese community was through the church. There I kind of just learned manners and learned how to talk to older people you know. Yeah most of my interaction was through church yeah.
DK: Your dad mentioned having a Vietnamese Art Show that the church hosts. Is that what the title is? Vietnamese Art Show?
DN: Yeah, yup Vietnamese Art Show. We just invite artists from Seattle, California, and Oregon. We just have an art show there every few years or so.
DK: Can you talk about what those are like?
DN: Let's see. There is usually a theme every single time we do it. So last year it was “Portraits of Life.” So all the artists essentially painted a portrait and during the art show they just kind of gave an explanation of what it is. And so, my dad, he painted Albert Einstein, just like famous figures or people that they admired, and applied meaning to it. Most of the older artists, they drew paintings from Vietnam. Paintings that they would just like as memorabilia or trying to like convey something that they experienced during the war, so. So most of them are from Vietnam.
DK: That sounds really fascinating. Your dad also mentioned that your, the church you have grown up in, it includes a lot of kids. And he said it’s not your typical church structure. I was wondering if you could walk us through what a typical day at your church looks like?
DN: Okay so churches usually have a sound system, right, where you know you use the sound system to project and technology to make sure that things run smoothly. For our church we had kids around twelve to fifteen operate them. At other churches, it’s usually more experienced people, sometimes even professionals. But my dad, like, we just had kids run very important things and be responsible for very important tasks, like, the sound system, recording things, and online things like that. So my dad -- he kind of explained it like a training ground. It was kind of rough because you had kids from twelve to eighteen, developing still and trying to understand who they are, and my dad would put them into these positions with a lot of responsibility. So yeah it was a good experience just learning. Like he put me into the sound system position when I was twelve. And I had to coordinate Christmas events or Tet, like New Years' events, when I was like fourteen or fifteen with my cousins who were also in the sound system. So like having that much anxiety and having that much, like, on my shoulders at fourteen or fifteen was really intense but then also it helped a lot later on when I was doing more important things.
DK: So trial by fire?
DN: Yeah trial by fire essentially, yeah.
DK: So besides working with the technology, can you walk us through, like, what the schedule and what some of the core pieces of your religious services look like?
DN: A lot of manual labor [laughs]. Going to church is quite basic. We have praise songs and have a sermon. But then outside of that -- like the youth, we did a lot of volunteer work and a lot of cleaning the church lawn mowing, and landscaping. During the winter we have blanket drives for the homeless in Portland. And so we would gather like 500, 600 blankets, and distribute them around like four in the morning sometimes. The first time I participated was when I was eleven and thinking back now that is pretty risky. An eleven-year-old going to distribute blankets physically, like there, to give blankets to homeless people, who were still asleep. That was a good experience. Yeah, it was a lot of trial by fire and a lot of manual labor. I don't know how else to describe it.
DK: That is all good. So you talked about how your grandpa was the one who actually taught you the Vietnamese language. What did those lessons look like?
DN: He would come over every Sunday, sometimes with Mcdonalds, and we would just sit down for like an hour. He would just teach me how to write, how to read. That went on for about two years. Then at one point, he was like I don't need to teach you any more, you got this. Yeah, that was the end. It was quite simple.
DK: So was it important to your parents that you learned about Vietnamese culture and tradition?
DN: My parents didn't really explicitly teach me about the traditions. It was mostly [that] I was surrounded by it in my environment. Like a mannerism, for example, like greeting other people or saying goodbye. And just the clothes that we wear. Like all the minor things are the environment kind of subtly teaching me. Like my parents, my dad is a pastor at a church so he is always busy with other kids or with the church itself. So he never sat down and explicitly told me this is what you need to do, this is what you do. It was more like reminders from everyone else.
DK: So let's transition a little bit to your current education. You said you are a student at Oregon State University studying psychology?
DK: What led you to select psychology as your major?
DN: In part having a Vietnamese background. Like my grandparents coming from a very rough environment in Vietnam after the war. Then also things that happen in the US. One particular thing that stands out was a school shooting when I was around sixth or seventh grade. Just hearing it on the news, I got really invested in that. And I wanted to understand why they happened. And how I could help kids in those situations -- like in those very dangerous situations. For me it was like I was kind of responsible in a way, like I want this to be my responsibility to help kids in those situations. And to also give back to the community that welcomed my people, essentially the Vietnamese people, into the country.
DK: So what specifically are you hoping to... let me rephrase this, what age groups are you hoping to work with your psychology degree?
DN: Children, mostly children, and adolescent teenagers. Kind of like my dad. My dad works with a lot of teenagers who have come from Vietnam to the US. And most of them it was a new culture and a new language, and their parents hadn't settled into the country yet. So my dad tried to help kids integrate into the US. And I want to do the same thing with kids who are already here. I just want them to develop in a way that is healthy for them and make sure that the community is also safe in general as well.
DK: What year are you in your studies?
DN: This is my second year at OSU. So I just finished my first year.
DK: What a first year. So for our listeners, this is the summer in between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-21 school year. We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and education has changed quite a bit. What a challenging freshman year for you. I am curious if you can walk our listeners through what your classes have been like so even in the transition time even maybe in March, when your campus life probably changed.
DN: Oh yeah, definitely. Well the transition actually happened the week of finals my winter term. So I took two of my finals in person. And my last final for my stats class, we took it online. That was kind of the beginning of online classes. And it’s definitely a new experience. Like learning online because you don't interact normally with the teachers, right? It is a new experience for everyone. Because for OSU we have e-campus and then we have regular classes. So some of the professors have never worked with the technology before. And so for the first two or three weeks of the spring term, everyone including the professors were still trying to figure out how to use Zoom. Like how do I even communicate with my students and interact with them online effectively in a genuine way? So it was really funny watching teachers figure it out and also my fellow students trying to figure out how to interact with my professors. And one thing -- trying to build connections in college is an important thing. Trying to understand your professor and trying to communicate with them and trying to build a connection is also much harder online too. Because you are in a world apart, physically you are not a world apart, but like you are physically far away and you can not communicate as effectively as in person. Office hours are also online too. So just being able to make things happen for my future are kind put on hold too. Because I cannot build those connections with my professors and I cannot go to internships. A lot of those like potentials are reduced because of COVID.
DK: Before COVID-19 were you studying in person in Corvallis?
DN: Yeah, yeah. Studying in person.
DK: So, the upcoming school year is just around the corner. How is COVID-19 going to affect you this upcoming school year?
DN: Ninety percent of classes throughout the whole school are going to be online. All of my classes personally are online. So it is going to be interesting. What were you saying…?
DK: So will you physically be returning to campus?
DN: I will be returning to campus because I have an apartment down there. But I won't be attending any of the classes physically. I will be going online for them.
DK: So you mentioned a few of the cons of the format of online instruction. Are there any pros for online education?
DN: It is much more lenient than physical classes. Like teachers in my spring term, there was a lot of compensation that occurred like being late for something like an essay or an assignment. You can use COVID as an excuse for turning something in late. So that was one of the pros. The other pro is if you don't like to be social it is very easy to go to class and then just leave the meeting. It’s all good. Yeah, that is some of the pros.
DK: Great. Did your family encourage you or expect you to attend college?
DN: Personally my parents didn't expect me to go to college. But they encouraged me to go to college like, oh yeah, college is a good opportunity for you but you don't have to go if you don't want to. But for my grandparents and extended family, it was expected. Like “you are going to college or you are going to be a failure,” that type of thing. I understand that there is a stereotype for Asians to become doctors, right. Well, it is a kind of reality. Yeah most of my relatives are like, "Oh David what major are you going to do?" I am like, "Oh I am doing psychology." They are like, "Are you still able to become a doctor through that major?” So there is definitely pressure from my family to go to college and pursue a career.
DK: Can that weigh heavy on you, or how does that impact you?
DN: I take pressure from my relatives and my family lightly. Almost in a humorous way. But the pressure that I have is kind of self-inflicted. Mostly because you know the trauma that my grandparents and parents experienced in Vietnam. I want to repay with gratitude through having a good life. And developing my career is kind of like repayment almost, that’s how I feel. Simply because they went through a really rough experience immigrating and living through post-war Vietnam, and I don't want their sacrifices to result in me not doing anything with my life.
DK: That makes sense. So prior to transitioning to online education were you able to participate in any extracurricular activities or clubs on campus at OSU?
DN: No. Wait, are you talking about once online started...?
DK: Prior. So when you were on campus in Corvallis were you able to participate in any student organizations, activities?
DN: Yeah, I was a part of a physiology club at my school. I was one of the officers there. And it was good I would design flyers and banners for the club, and we just promote psychology events around the school. I also play tennis at OSU. But once COVID started they didn't even allow us to play tennis [laughs]. So the club activities were also shut down so we had to move everything online and we had meetings online and stuff like that.
DK: So at the beginning of the interview you discussed your connection to the church you have grown up in. The Vietnamese Adventist church. I am wondering if you feel any connection to any other organizations that work with the Vietnamese American community.
DN: No there is a VSA, like the Vietnamese Student Association at OSU, but I haven't participated in that organization.
DK: When you were a kid in Portland did you participate in any other community organizations beyond your church?
DN: No, it was mostly just my church. Everything revolved around my church essentially.
DK: With your dad being the pastor, I know that many children of religious leaders sometimes face some extra pressure or expectations. And I am wondering if that was part of your experience as well?
DN: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s kind of like a label, like you are the pastor's kid so you have certain expectations. Certain mannerisms you have to perform and you have to be polite. Also in relation to career-wise, if you are the child of the pastor you better be successful or you know you are going to bring a lot of negative things to the family. It is an expectation -- you have to be successful. There is no other excuse so yeah there is pressure from that. But for me I kind of took it on as more of a duty. Like I accepted it like oh I am the pastor kid so I am going to do this. I have to do what I need to do.
DK: Do you have any siblings?
DN: Yeah I have an older sister and a younger brother.
DK: Do you think the expectations were any different from you or your brother as opposed to your sister?
DN: Yeah my sister takes it more negatively. She is more rebellious about it. Like she understands that she has a duty to the church, right. She plays piano for the church, and that is more of a duty than something she enjoys. So it’s, I don't really know how to describe it. I think me, my sister, and my little brother, we work as a team kind of. We do what needs to be done at church and once it is over we live as regular people, not as pastors' kids. It is interesting.
DK: I think that’s great. So I want to transition a little bit to talking about the Vietnamese American community at large. I am curious about what social or economic issues the Vietnamese community faces today?
DN: I think most of the families I know who are Vietnamese, career-wise they are very successful. And most of their children are also very successful. But one thing that I think is lacking -- because my dad, he has worked with a lot of families, a lot of Vietnamese families, and I also got to experience this through him and the kids of those families -- there is a disjoint between the parents and the children. Because the parents are very career-oriented, because they want to make a living in the US after immigrating from Vietnam. In the family structure, the kids are very alienated from the parents if that makes any sense. That is one of the issues I think. For me I think it is because of how each generation is raised. In Vietnam, you grew up in a very tough environment. The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War Two, including the French... sorry I just got a call. Okay can you still hear me?
DK: I can hear you.
DN: Okay, yeah. So as I was saying, the rough environment required the people in the family to stay together. So you grow up in an environment that requires conformity and requires you to bring back the things that you find out there. Sorry, let me close the window [gets up to close window]. So I was saying that everything you find out in the world or in your career you have to bring back to the family in order for them to survive in postwar Vietnam. With starvation and just being persecuted by the communist government. Kids in my generation are raised in a very individualistic culture. So I think those two contrast with each a lot. Yeah and it creates a kind of a divide between the parents and the kids.
DK: That makes a lot of sense. I am curious, what role does being a Vietnamese American play in your life? In terms of how you see yourself.
DN: I think it is mostly for me right now it is a sense of responsibility to make sure that I can do as much as possible for the country I was born in, which is the US. Because this country helped my parents and my grandparents, you know, this is so much better than what Vietnam was thirty or forty years ago. And being able to give back to the community and showing that the Vietnamese people are very grateful for what was done and what was given to us. Just being grateful in general and trying to help out as much as possible, yeah. Also appreciating our history and making sure that it does not go to waste.
DK: Speaking of Vietnamese history and experiencing Vietnam. Have you ever been able to visit Vietnam?
DN: No, I was actually supposed to go this year, this summer, but COVID happened so I was unable to go.
DK: That’s really frustrating.
DN: It is, it is very frustrating.
DK: Having never visited Vietnam, and hearing so much about it, what are the things you most feel connected to about the country? Does that make sense?
DN: Yeah, yeah. This is going to sound kind of weird, but all of the traumatic things. That is what I feel connected to. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Like the war stories, what my grandparents had to go through, that is the root image if that makes any sense.
DK: Yeah. Is that because that is what you have heard most from your parents and grandparents?
DN: I do not think it is what they say the most, but to me it is the most important. Like it is the thing I see as like oh this is the important thing that they are giving me. There is all this trauma that they have experienced in Vietnam. And now they are here in this country where they are able to express their potential, and to have a dream properly in comparison to Vietnam where they can't live properly.
DK: This isn't something we discussed earlier but I am curious if there are a few specific stories that you have heard from either of your parents or from other relatives that have really shaped your identity as a Vietnamese American?
DN: Um-hum, yeah. There are a lot of stories but there are two in particular. One from my mom's side of the family. It was after the war. And my mom’s side of the family, they are very wealthy. They are business people. And my grandpa, he sold tractors to farmers throughout the region. And so he had a lot of money. But after the war a tactic that the communist government used was they would exchange money they would change the currency so that the wealthy people would have their money taken and redistributed. So what my grandparents did was -- they took all their money and exchanged it for gold so the value wouldn't decrease. And throughout and after the war they always thought of escaping the country even though they were wealthy and they had a lot of money and power within their town. But even with all that power and money they still didn't want their children to grow up in this environment where they were constantly persecuted. And so one boat ride to the Philippines or out into the ocean to escape Vietnam -- my grandfather had to pay ten gold bars. Let me try to find a visual of how big the gold bars were. But okay I don't really have a visual for it but ten gold bars was the price to escape Vietnam, essentially. That is what my grandpa told me. He said he would rather die out in the sea than to have his children and him live in Vietnam at that time. And so that was one story. Also, my grandparents did not even go on the boat after paying ten gold bars. If they had they probably would have died out at sea because the sea is very dangerous. Also, my aunt at the time got really really sick the day before they were scheduled to go on the boat and so they stayed back in Vietnam. That is probably why I am here today because my grandparents decided to stay until the right time. And then they were flown to the Philippines.
Then the second story was actually in the Philippines with my [paternal] grandpa. My grandfather was a soldier in the Vietnam war. He was a radio operator, and I think it was the last year of the war. The communist soldiers were mortaring his hometown and he was there. So he had to run and get my grandma and my dad from the house. And as he was running he would have to tear off all his uniform and run back to his house naked. Because if he was captured with his uniform on he would be shot. So as he was running he tore off his uniform and then gathered everyone to escape. And that was a traumatic experience for him, having to run through gunfire, mortars and to tear off his own clothes, and to pray that his family would survive the attack on his hometown. Then, post war, my dad's side of the family was not very wealthy compared to my mom's side. A lot of times they would have to borrow rice from their neighbors or eat this thing called [unknown 34.43] which is like a Vietnamese potato. It is like a potato, but that potato was specifically used to feed pigs and that is what they would eat. It was very common for them to eat that. So there was starvation during that time at my dad's side of the family. They did not have a lot of food to eat. I am not sure if my dad told you this but he also had a half-American brother. And that was a pretty rough experience for my grandpa because he would constantly be persecuted for that. Oh, you have a half-Vietnamese son, so the neighbors and the communist government would always be on the watch for him. The only way he was able to survive persecution was because he was an artist. He was commissioned to paint paintings of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese propaganda. So he was considered a valuable asset to the government, and that was really the only reason why he was not sent to reeducation camps in the north. But in the Philippines all the pressure that he experienced -- one day he climbed the small hill that overlooked where the refugee camp was -- it was at that moment where he was like there was no point in living. He wanted to kill himself because it was too much for him. Too much pressure, they had gone through way too much in Vietnam and even though they were at the gate of paradise, which was America, he just could not keep going. It was too much for him. His family was in such a rough situation in the refugee camps. I am not sure if my dad told you this either, but my grandpa was saved because he heard music from a church in the refugee camp. And that brought him out of his suicide, right, he had no hope. But through going to church and through his friends he was able to recover from that. So hearing those stories growing up, it helps me realize -- oh my grandparents, they look very sweet now and they are very happy now -- but a few years ago they were going through a lot of darkness and a lot of unprecedented -- I don't even know how they would have felt so hopeless and so much tragedy in their life, like how do you even operate as a person. But then somehow they are able to survive that and somehow they are still able to love me, love my siblings, and my cousins. Somehow through that traumatic experience they are still able to care and still have hope for me and my generation.
DK: That is great. Thank you, David. I am wondering if there is anything we haven't discussed today that you would like to discuss. Any questions you hoped I would ask but I have not.
DN: Let me see. I think we hit most of them. But if you have any more questions feel free to ask.
DK: I think that concludes the interview portion of today's conversation. Again, this is Dustin Kelley. I’ve been interviewing David Ngo. Thank you David for being with us today.
DN: No problem. Yeah it was good to be on.