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?
Kiệt Đào Vân: My name is Kiet Dao Van.
XV: What were the circumstances that brought you to Portland?
KV: I am here because I have acquaintances who say that I should stay here to let their children study. Fortunately, that is also true. Pastor Do was the one who sponsored me and he saw that it was only my son and I. The Workerlife Organization asked him to help us. He found an apartment for me to live in, at 4624 SE 64th Portland, Oregon.
XV: Are there organizations, family members, or friends who helped your family establish itself in the United States? Who was your sponsor? Why did you come to the city of Portland specifically?
KV: In the beginning of my life here, the person who sponsored me helped me to stay at his place for several months, but recently no one helps me. The owner of my old place helped me find a job as a painter. I saw a job announcement and went to the American employment office called CIPPA in the city. I submitted my resume. They thought I had some skills and referred me to the Portland Public Schools. I worked as a teacher’s aid, but it was not enough money.
XV: What were your first impressions of Portland?
KV: I lived in the same area with other Vietnamese people who came to the United States in 1985. I moved to another area after a few months to share a room with an American family. Things did not go well. There was an American who did not have a job. He invaded my room for money and then I went to find another room to share with an elderly Vietnamese on Hawthorne Street in Portland, on the 30th block. I could not live there for a long time because it was inconvenient, so I had to find another place to live.
XV: Describe the neighborhood in Portland you first settled in. Did you feel isolated or were there other Vietnamese Americans nearby?
KV: My recent residence that I have lived in for about thirteen years is the Columbia Retirement Community at SE 169th Street and Division. The most significant change is that there are a lot of nearby buildings where immigrants live about two blocks away from me. My current place has also changed. Many immigrants from the Soviet Union and Africa came to live together. There was not much change there except for many immigrants from Mexico and Nepal. The street is a bit nicer and not much different.
XV: Was it hard to adjust to life in America? What were some of the challenges you faced?
KV: The challenge was a welfare issue, or taking care of my family. My wife does not know English so I had to find ways for her to get a written exam [at the DMV]. In the past, there was no computer, no Vietnamese test. If you do not work here, you cannot survive. She then went to work for a tailor shop near her home [46th and Foster Street]. I took her to apply for a job before. We failed because she does not speak English. I read the American newspaper to look for job opportunities—the Portland Daily Journal. I read the American newspaper to find out things. The Indochinese organization sent a Chinese person who speaks English to teach me how to take the bus. I know English, but the bus system was troublesome, but it was quite easy for me. Then I found my way. The bus system is still the same, the bus numbers generally vary slightly. When I was there, it was bus number 4, but now it is number 2. The American society has changed so much. They had the MAX in 1985.
Although I know English, there are many difficulties. Thanks to them providing welfare like food stamps, doctors, and all that. When I had a place to live, I bought an American Medical Book, which at that time cost me thirty dollars, to know how to take my wife and my children to get blood tests, go to school, and other things. At that time, there was rarely an interpreter and no Vietnamese doctors. I did it by myself. I was very fortunate that the school I worked with provided health insurance. I was an interpreter for my wife and my children at the time. My wife was lucky. Even when people said, “Pick up this, pick up that,” she did not understand at all.
Another challenge is family conflict. My wife does not understand the difficulties of taking care of the family. I have to take care of everything. I still was burdened by Vietnam. My monthly income was five hundred. I paid rent which was two hundred and other costs, and I also had to send money to people in Vietnam.
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?
KV: Indochinese. However, they disrespected the refugees including me. When they saw on my resume that I was working for an American, they treated me better. I have to survive.
XV: What kind of work did you do and how did it compare to the work you did in Vietnam?
KV: No one helped me thirteen years ago. I searched for jobs myself. When I first came here, the church did not help me at all. Only my sponsor. I stayed in his house for a while, then I took care of myself. An American man who used to know the owner, who hired me to paint the house, told me to apply for a job. I had applied for a job before but could not get it. Then I saw an announcement in an American employment office called SETA, who helped refugees. I went there, submitted my resume, then they realized that I knew English and they just referred me to Portland Public Schools. After that, I found that I could not live as a teacher’s assistant with four and a half dollars an hour, so I became an interpreter for the Indochinese Clinic, taking care of refugees such as vaccinations, eye exams. I feel like I could not live as a teacher's assistant working seven hours a day and I did not get paid in the summer, so I went to PPS for the ESL [English as a Second Language] program. They saw me as qualified and they accepted me immediately. After one or two months, when I saw the Multnomah County employment office, I took a translation exam, then I was accepted and they sent me to the Indochinese Clinic as an interpreter.
There is a difference. In Vietnam, I worked in the military and here I was a teacher’s assistant. There are differences but I have learned it so it is easy, smooth, but the money was low so I became an interpreter. Working here requires a lot. Too different. Requires much knowledge. Doing junkie work here requires a lot of learning.
XV: What was it like to raise children in Portland? If they attended Portland Public Schools, was that a positive experience?
XV: The public school system here is generally different from Vietnam. It seems easier to learn here than in Vietnam. There are many programs to help students out. When I first came to the United States, my son's school provided a bus service. Two of my daughters went to school near the house, which was also convenient. My friend said studying here was better than in California. Later I realized he was right. In Cali, girls have difficulty succeeding. When I worked at school, I cried in front of students’ parents. The Vietnamese girls that came here were surprised. The boys here could not make fun of American girls so they would follow and tease Vietnamese girls. I interpreted for some Vietnamese families who were in a situation like that. There were boys who worked at Burger King, when they had money to buy a car, they came to seduce and drove the girls away to another state. It was terrible! It was not that there was no such thing here in Portland. At that time, I translated for a family who was looking for their daughter. They did not know English. I also had a student who was a victim of that seduction, and then she had children. Her sister asked me for help.
The method of education at school here is modern, full of books, good, but the quietness in the classroom is not like Vietnam because it is devastated. Most students, especially the Black students, did not study. They played and distracted other students. My son was a victim of discrimination. White Americans, they cannot distinguish between Vietnamese and Chinese. They called my son Chin, which means Chinese. It affected him. When I returned to work, I was defeated. Some Filipinos or Latinos were more useful for American teachers, so they were treated more respectfully.
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?
KV: The first problem is how to make the Vietnamese who came here unite together, to come together, so that the Vietnamese people will stop disbanding. But that is inevitable because old people like me are going to die soon. The second generation, like my kids, could not uproot or even live together.
XV: What local (Portland-specific) public or political issues are most important to the Vietnamese community?
KV: I am very sorry that Vietnamese people cannot stand next to each other. Vietnamese people who came to the United States in 1975 and Vietnamese who migrated later also despise each other. In addition, the Vietnamese are also very envious of each other. Although we left our country to live here, we are jealous—we jostled, scrambled to fight for a better job for ourselves. Educated people despise uneducated people. People who came here first despise people who came after. There are anniversaries and memories at the churches or temples and pagodas. However, we need to love and unite with each other to resolve the deep contradictions that I mentioned above.
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?
KV: I did not go to those places often because I was short on money. I am not Catholic. When I was back in Vietnam, I did not have any religion. When I first met the man who sponsored me, he was Catholic so I went to church with him and was a Catholic for a while. I realize that the activities were different in the locality [i.e. people from different provinces of Vietnam]. Catholic people were mostly from central Vietnam. I am not from that area, so I felt alone. I did not have a car so I stopped going to church. However, I learned a lot from the church. I do not have a house or a car now but I still do charity. When I returned to Vietnam, I still gave money to other people.
I did not have a phone, so I did not know much about the news. When I returned to Vietnam, I did charity by reading news in the newspaper. A police newspaper posted a picture of a brain tumor kid who needed just $100 more. I personally went to the Cancer Hospital to give $100 to his parents. Another time, I saw a kid who sold lottery tickets with his mother in the street who was the same age as my grandson here. I went looking for him later and I prayed from my heart. I met him. I gave him a few hundred Vietnamese Dong [Vietnamese currency] at first, and then I brought $100 over to a jewelry gold shop in exchange for two-million-something Vietnamese Dong for that person.
I do not see Vietnamese leaders here. If you want to be a leader here, you have to be good at English to influence a city, like talking to the mayor. In addition to invading this melting pot society, you need to be good at many other things.
XV: How is the Vietnamese American community in Portland changing? Do you worry about younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans?
KV: I am very happy that the younger generation is free from the worries of life, but it is not easy to live in America. Especially at this time, everything is high-tech. My first concern is English. If my children lose their jobs now, it is hard to find other jobs. I am worried about that. I am nothing now. Moreover, it is very competitive. One example is school. You must be good in English and good at computers and all other things. Life is such a competition. For example, twenty years ago a Vietnamese engineer was very precious to Americans, but now Indians and the Chinese have taken it over. The Vietnamese have downgraded.
XV: What is your relationship with the country of Vietnam today? Do you go back to visit? Do you stay in touch with relatives?
KV: My brother just died. My siblings are all dead. I no longer have any contact with Vietnam. My life was so miserable that I did not know how I survived to this day.
XV: Is there anything we have not asked about that you would like to discuss? Do you have any additional experiences that you would like to be preserved in these oral histories?
KV: The point that I met with you today is that I want to convey to you how the Vietnamese community can come together and help each other. If you want to live in this land, you have to contribute to the Americans, such as a rose ceremony or something. In addition, we also have to contribute to other works to show them that we come here and follow the American lifestyle. Why do other people go to collect trash on the street or to help homeless people, and the Vietnamese do not do those things? We need to show Americans that we also have the same social spirit as them, and that we have the spirit of love and mankind. We, the Vietnamese, just care about ourselves. The reason we cannot do that is we do not stand together. The churches are with the churches. The temples are with the temples. The HO people are with HO people. We need to be good at English. For example, if I, as a community member, went up to tell the mayor that I wanted to contribute to the garbage collection on the highway, I would not know how to say it without English. If we can be united, the Americans will respect us and help us. To do that, the community must unite, must have manpower. I am too old. I do not want to hurt others’ feelings.