[This interview was originally conducted in Vietnamese and was translated by Xuannha Truong Vo. Our records do not include the original Vietnamese transcript.]
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?
Truy Le: I was born in Quang Binh, Vietnam and went to the south after Geneva in 1954. After that, I went to Hue City and went to school when I was young. My family moved to Saigon and raised the family [there] since 1959. I became a teacher in Quy Nhon for a couple of years and taught at the Nha Be Middle School. I went into the army in 1968 when the Vietcong came to South Vietnam. On April 15th, I went to the Thu Duc Reserve Army 268 and was a military officer. I graduated from the Saigon University of Pedagogy. I attended the express courses at the university because they needed teachers at the time. I taught from elementary to middle school. Because I also graduated from the Law School in Saigon. I was actually born in 1939 but because of the war at Chien Khu, I went to Dong Thoi city and moved to the South in 1954. I changed the year I was born to 1944. The reason why I did it is because I wanted to go to school. Because during the war time at Chien Khu, Viet Minh didn’t go to school. It was the war between the Viet Minh and the French. Later on I went to school at Hue City and went to the South to continue my education.
XV: What were the circumstances that brought you to Portland?
TL: I crossed the sea by boat and came to the US. I was in Viet Cong’s prison for two years because I was an officer in the Thu Duc Reserve Army 268 in 1968. After two years in that prison, in 1970 I started teaching. I travelled from Quy Nhon to Nha Be Middle School. Then I taught at Le Van Duyet- Gia Dinh School until 1975, when the Viet Cong came in. I went to the Viet Cong’s prison for two years. In 1977, I was moved to the Kinh Te Moi area, the new area which is far from the city of Saigon. The Viet Cong made us live there to wait so they could bring us back to the city again. So I had to go to Trang Bom, Dong Nai city. A year later, the Cong San [the Viet Cong] saw there were not enough teachers, so they wanted me back and I lived in Saigon to teach students.
During the time I was in Saigon, I tried to find a chance to escape the country. I couldn’t live under the control of the Cong San. I tried to cross the sea several times, two times, until the end of the year 1980 when I made it. I went to District 6 where I started my trip to the US around 10 or 11PM when everyone was eating and drinking. I went to a small house, then I went to a small boat with two other people. At midnight, the boat departed at Vung Tau Beach. I went to a big boat at Can Gio city. I knew that the captain worked with the police officers who were in charge of that area to let people cross the sea. Around four or five in the morning, we left Vung Tau Beach. There were 203 people in that small boat, three-by-twelve meters. I remembered the exact number of people because when the big American ship helped us, I was one of the two or three people who wrote down the name of each person who was admitted to the big ship. I turned that list of people into US Customs. I was on the ocean for five days. After a couple days on the ocean, the engine of the small boat started falling apart. The boat was leaking, people in the boat started bailing out the water. The youth was the first group, then the older people continued the work. Around 4-5pm, we saw the big American ship which was carrying oil from Singapore to Japan. It passed the Japanese area and then our boat was in the national ocean area. If the Americans didn’t help us, I think people in our boat would definitely have died and our boat would have been left under the ocean. All of us would be in the shark's tummy. [laughing] Around six days, I only brought one can of food, sugar, a lemon, one can of milk, and a raincoat which my mom prepared for me. When it rained, I used my raincoat to get the water and I drank it for several days.
Back then, when the American ship saw any boat on the ocean, they would help out and take the people from the boat to the Philippines. That was my case and I got the approval to go straight to the U.S.
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?
TL: When I left the country, I didn’t think about my life. The one thing that I cared about at the time was escaping the country. I didn’t even know if I would live or not. When Americans from the ship helped us and lowered the stairs, we let women go to the ship first, then the youth. I was the last person who boarded the American ship. When I was up there and looked down, our small ship just looked like a leaf. Everyone laid down on the big ship right after we just got on the American ship. We felt like we had just gone from hell to heaven.
When I came here, I graduated with an associates degree from PCC Sylvania [Portland Community College] in March, 1981. The reason I came to Portland is because I had a friend who worked with me as a teacher in Vietnam and studied at the law school; he came here in 1975. I contacted him by talking with his relative. I got his address and he sponsored me. He helped me with the paperwork.
XV: What were your first impressions of Portland?
TL: When I finished ESL and had a two-year degree from PCC, I went to California and Oklahoma for several months to find a job. However, I came back to Portland because the weather is nice and the people here are friendly. I found a job. It was hard to find a job here. I applied and worked for five to seven different companies but it was not my right career path. My career was industrial graphing. I graduated with a two-year degree with that major.
XL: Describe the neighborhood in Portland you first settled in. Did you feel isolated or were there other Vietnamese-Americans nearby?
TL: My friend let me stay at his house for the first couple months. Then, I moved out and rented a place to stay that was closer to PCC Sylvania from the West side. The owner was Vietnamese, so they let me rent a room there. It was on Capital Highway. The owner drove me around, the city here was pretty and romantic. I felt like life here was easy to live and breathable.
My neighbor was white. Only the owner of the house where I stayed was Vietnamese. I walked twenty mins from the house to PCC for two years. There were not a lot of Vietnamese people compared to today.
XV: Was it hard to adjust to life in America? What were some of the challenges you faced?
TL: I didn’t feel any discrimination from people who lived here. The challenge that I faced was finding the job that matched with my major that I studied at PCC. That’s why I worked several months at one company then I switched to another company and I worked five to seven companies. Finally, I worked as a secretary at US Bank for six years. It was only a part-time job, not even a full-time job. After that, I worked as an operator at Nike for sixteen years. It was a full-time job. Besides that, I didn’t see any challenges in my life because I faced too many things in life already. I adapted to things here very easily and quickly.
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?
TL: Back then, when I came here, an event that brought people together was anti-Vietcong or support Mr. Hoang Co Minh. They created an organization which connected people together to help out Vietnamese who lived in Vietnam.
Religion brought people together. I was the one who created or was the first member who joined the VNCO (Vietnamese Community of Oregon). La Vang Church was the place where lots of Vietnamese get together. Also, there were two big organizations. Pastor Cao Dang Minh from USCC and the Civil War Service helped refugees from Vietnam. Civil War Service was a Christian community, they had sixteen different churches to sponsor Asians to come to Portland. I remember Ellen Martin was a manager from the Civil War Service.
Monk Thuyet Minh Tuyen from the temples and Pastor Cao Dang Minh came together and created an organization for the Vietnamese community.
There were only 2 temples and only one to two Vietnamese markets: Dai Chung and An Dong. An Dong market was on Foster street and later on they moved to Powell. Now both of them are closed. In terms of restaurants, I only had lunch outside at McDonalds because the Vietnamsese family [I lived with] provided my breakfast and dinner.
XV: What kind of work did you do and how did it compare to the work you did in Vietnam?
TL: The jobs that I worked here were more to help me survive. It was not the right job that I studied in school or the major I love. In Vietnam, I studied to be a teacher, and when I graduated I became a teacher, which was what I dreamed of since I was young. Not many people finished middle school compared to now in Vietnam. Here, in the US, I went to work just to make money and survive.
XV: What was it like to raise children in Portland? If they attended Portland Public Schools, was that a positive experience?
TL: The education system is different in different places. It’s hard to compare here and in Vietnam. In Vietnam, the first thing that we learned in school is how to behave well, after that we were taught other subjects. Because of that, kids in Vietnam behave better than kids here.
XV: What social and economic issues are most significant in the Vietnamese community, or with refugees more generally? Could city, state, or federal programs do more to address these issues?
TL: When the Vietnamese community was small, everyone cared about everyone. As it is getting bigger, people don’t want to join or care about the events that the community has.
XV: What local (Portland-specific) public or political issues are most important to the Vietnamese community?
TL: The community here is friendly and open minded. The Vietnamese in Vietnam are more close minded. The Vietnamese community is not big and hasn’t lived here long enough like the Chinese community. So, they have more companies and are stronger than us. The Koreans came here before the Vietnamese. But our community is stronger than the Hmong and Mien communities.
XV: What groups or organizations do you participate in or rely on? Are there individuals in the community who you look to for leadership and guidance?
TL: At the beginning when I came here, there was no organization that helped me. I was looking for jobs at the Job Fair, I found jobs by myself. At first, I had a friend who worked at Nike and introduced me to the Job Fair. He told me the date and time. I was working at the US Bank and I asked to leave work to go to the Job Fair. After the interview, they hired me. I worked there for sixteen years until I retired. I retired when I was above seventy years old.
XV: How is the Vietnamese-American community in Portland changing? Do you worry about younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans?
TL: Lots of Vietnamese here cannot keep the Vietnamese tradition here and Vietnamese kids here cannot speak their native language. Even in California, there were lots of Vietnamese who lived there and lots of Vietnamese family members in a big family but they don’t care if their kids can keep the traditions and don’t teach or talk with them in Vietnamese. That is my concern about the younger generations of Vietnamese Americans.
XV: What is your relationship with the country of Vietnam today? Do you go back to visit? Do you stay in touch with relatives?
TL: I have many relatives that still live in Vietnam. Every several years I come back to Vietnam and call them on the phone sometimes.
XV: Is there anything we haven’t asked about that you’d like to discuss? Do you have any additional experiences that you would like to be preserved in these oral histories?
TL: Everyone in the community needs to improve themselves, to get along with each other and with other local communities here. Especially the younger generation of each community needs to learn their own culture and native language. Older generations need to care more about the younger generation and help them keep their own traditions. The Vietnamese community should have more events to focus on keeping our culture and encourage the young generation to join the community’s activities. The first and second generations need to stay close with the third generation to keep our Vietnamese traditional lifestyle. The Vietnamese young generation needs to understand and speak Vietnamese and if they could read Vietnamese papers, it would be awesome.