Zoë Maughan: This is Zoë Maughan and it is September 27, 2022. I am in Watzek Library and I'm meeting with Hai Pham via Zoom today. We're so glad to have you here to share some of your story and I'm wondering if you could begin by stating your name and telling us just a little bit about yourself.
Hai Pham: My name is Hai Pham and I'm a pediatric dentist here in Beaverton, Oregon in the Hillsboro area. As a profession, I take care of children of all different ages and all walks of life and also including with some medically fragile children and some of the most vulnerable populations in Oregon that are on Medicaid.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could begin by telling me a little bit about your family, where you grew up, if you have any siblings, things like that.
HP: My story begins about 43 years ago. My parents fled Vietnam on a boat and my dad was actually the captain of the boat. He took everybody out to the ocean not knowing if we were going to survive or not and during that time the boat was robbed by pirates on several different occasions. My mom and another young girl had to hide in a tiny engine room while my mom was pregnant with me to avoid getting kidnapped or having other horrible things happen to her. By the third time the boat got robbed, the pirate essentially said, "Hey, there's going to be a commercial vessel coming in this direction so why don't you guys go over that way." So sure enough, my dad went there and there was a commercial ship that came and rescued us and took us to the Malaysian refugee camp in Pulau Tengah area. That's where I was born in a humble grass hut. After being there for almost a year we got sponsored to [the] United States, and ended up in Corvallis, Oregon.
I have four siblings and there's a big age gap from me and my youngest brother. My sister is down in California and she's in marketing. My brother is a pediatrician down in the California area. I have another brother who lives here locally in Portland and he does marketing. My youngest brother just started his pediatric dental residency at OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University) Doernbecher, so a pretty exciting time. He'll join me probably in about two years once he gets done.
ZM: I was wondering if you could share a few memories from your childhood?
HP: Growing up, we had a great childhood. These were the days you go play until it started getting dark, "Alright just come home before it's dark!" So I'd ride my bike, go hang out with friends. I grew up in Corvallis. Yeah, it was great. I didn't know that we didn't have much, because as a kid all you really care about is having fun with your friends and playing video games. My parents did an amazing job giving us love and taking care of us and making sure we got the education we needed. It was great to have, Corvallis is a beautiful city.
ZM: Are there organizations, family members, or friends who helped your family establish itself here in Oregon?
HP: Yeah, there was a lady named Florence Converse—she's no longer with us—but the story there was that my parents and I were shopping—it was probably late October, we didn't have any warm clothes or anything like that—she came up and said, "Hey, do you want some jackets?" Literally invited us over to her home and got us some clothes. That was the start of an amazing friendship. She ended up helping taking care of me and my sister, babysitting us while my parents could work, which was great. Another organization down in Corvallis was the Vina Moses [Center]. It's a place where you could get free clothes, shoes, backpacks, and things like that for school. I still remember going there as a kid, I actually got my first pair of Nike's there. They were a used beat up pair of Nike's. All the other kids had it and I said "I want one.” We couldn't afford it so I found it there. I still remember washing and cleaning it until it looked new and actually wore those until they wore out. But that's another amazing organization. Hopefully someday I can do something really nice for them, give back [and do a] backpack drive for them also.
ZM: What was it like for you and your family to adjust to life in the United States and specifically in Oregon?
HP: Definitely for my parents I know it was very difficult. Speaking to them now, reflecting on our past. They were homesick. They came here in their late twenties and thirties, it's quite a hard transition not having much and having to work a lot of odd jobs to make it, not knowing the language, there's me growing up as a child, my siblings. It was hard because you're trying to balance the American culture with the Vietnamese culture. My parents also learning how to adjust… It's a fine line trying to get the best of both cultures into their children. So I’d say overall it was great, I know it was really difficult because we really didn't have much growing up.
ZM: So now we'll transition a little bit—we already kind of have—into talking about life in Oregon. I'm wondering if you could share when specifically you arrived in Oregon and maybe some of your family's first impressions of the state.
HP: 1980 is when we came to Corvallis and I mentioned it was amazing, it was so green, so different from Vietnam. It was amazing the accessibility of things and also how welcoming and kind the people were here. Taking in refugees, especially during that time, a lot of immigrants were coming over from Vietnam after the war. They say that this is the greatest place in the world because it's here to help you, if you will, and then the sky's the limit on what you can do, all you have to do is put your mind to it.
ZM: What schools did you attend and can you share a little about your experiences there?
HP: If you wanna go really far back, I went to Garfield Elementary School and then Highland View—that's no longer there I think it's a new school, I don’t know what it’s called I think it’s Linus Pauling I believe—and then high school at Corvallis High and then Oregon State University. I ended up for my dental training at OHSU Doernbecher for my pediatric residency. It's great public education, it has helped get me to where I am today and all my siblings ended up going through Oregon State for college.
ZM: It sounds like OHSU is what brought you to Portland but that was my next question. What brought you to Portland?
HP: Dental school [at] OHSU. [I] came up here in 2002 and completed my training and decided to stay. [I] realized this is an amazing area and wanted to raise my family here in the Hillsboro area. It's fantastic.
ZM: What in particular appealed to you about the area?
HP: I definitely like the culture, the diversity, the performing arts... There's a little bit of everything for what you want to do. Also how close it is to the mountains, the ocean, the rivers for fishing, doing outdoors stuff like hiking and things like that. [I] spend a lot of time outdoors and that's how I unwind, if you will, from the stress of the daily job that we have everyday.
ZM: Can you tell me a little bit about the neighborhoods you first lived in? What the neighbors were like, what those spaces were like, how they might be a little bit different today?
HP: When we first came to the United States we ended up in South Corvallis, I think they call it South Town. It's more of an area where people come to have a new beginning, if you will, in that the housing costs were a lot lower, it probably wasn't the nicest area. Later on we moved not too far from Garfield Elementary School. Same thing there, we lived in a duplex for the longest time. The neighborhood was great, it was a diverse neighborhood. There were kids from all different parts of the world which was great. We were able to express different foods, cultures, learned a lot. That's the neighborhood that we lived in, we didn't live in your typical suburbia down in Corvallis.
ZM: Did you have any Vietnamese neighbors?
HP: Well, we were related to them [laughs]. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in Corvallis back in the day. As far as the AAPI community, I was probably related to the majority of them. There was maybe two or three other families at the time. We were there and we were really good friends, we bonded together, shared food, had meals together, helped each other out, especially if parents had to work odd hours. Our parents worked all the time, my mom and dad did housekeeping when they first came to the United States. I still remember going to a doctor's office, playing with the stethoscope while they clean at ten, eleven o'clock at nighttime, things like that. All the families helped each other out.
ZM: These other family members… Did you all come together or can you share a little bit more about how you all came to be in Corvallis?
HP: I think they came down for various different reasons independent of each other. Just like with any type of community you hear, "Oh, there's another family over here," that they share the same experiences as you or [the] same culture, so you reach out to them or vice-versa or whether it's through church or different community events and then you become friends… I'm still friends with their kids and gosh, it's been forty-three years now.
ZM: So how did you decide to attend OSU (Oregon State University) and what were your experiences like there?
HP: One of the driving factors was being close to my parents, my siblings, so I could help keep an eye on my siblings. For us—I'm the oldest child—so it's unspoken but you kind of feel that responsibility to help out whether it's financially or doing day care and making sure your siblings don't get in trouble and kind of looking out after them if you will. So that was one of the things why I stayed locally over at Oregon State and on top of that it was a really good science program, engineering program, health care system, and it got me to my end goal which is being a pediatric dentist today. I definitely got a lot of scholarships to go there which was great, so I didn't pay anything which was fantastic. Pretty much a full ride on academic scholarships.
ZM: What did you study while you were there? What was your major?
HP: I was a Biology major with a Chemistry minor.
ZM: From there how did you decide to attend OHSU in particular?
HP: Same thing, I wanted to be close to my family to help out in case [they] needed anything. So that's actually what brought me to OHSU. That's actually the only school I applied to for dental school. Looking back on it I should have applied to like twenty or thirty but I was fortunate enough to get in on my first try which was great.
ZM: How did you become interested in dentistry? And what about pediatric dentistry in particular appealed to you?
HP: Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician. Actually my pediatrician at the time mentioned his concerns about where medicine was heading and things like that and he told me go [to] go talk to my dentist because they still help people and give back to the community and they still make a big difference in people's lives. I had a great relationship with my dentist at the time, his name was Alan Palmer. He was so kind and he would help our family out when we couldn't afford things, things like that. Just very friendly. Every time you came in you felt welcome. It was like a mentor, if you will. That's what got me into dentistry. Pediatrics, I'm like a big kid at heart. A lot of times you'll see my cartoon t-shirts, Iron Man t-shirts and things like that at work, which is great. And then the other thing that drives me to want to work with children is they can't advocate for themselves, I'm a big advocate for making sure that children get the best care possible, and the best start because sometimes children aren't fortunate enough to be born to a situation where they can have all the basic necessities that they need. That's what really drove me to pediatrics. Plus you make a difference that lasts a lifetime.
ZM: You mentioned that you provide dental care for underserved children. I was wondering if you could share more about how you started doing that.
HP: It started early on. Even [in] dental school as a dental student you go on Medical Teams International vans to volunteer. That really sparked my interest in that portion of it. But even before that, growing up my parents did a lot of volunteer work and that really instilled in all the kids to pay it forward. So I have a big mentality: always pay it forward. And that's kind of how I got started, growing up and seeing my parents do that. As far as the vulnerable kids, everyday in my office if the family can't afford it, I say, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of it. Just pay it forward." I've been doing that ever since I started. Even when I first started it was 2009, it was the start of the Great Recession so people were losing insurance getting on COBRA [insurance]. I didn't have anything so, "Ehh it's fine," I didn't know any better so I was like, "Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it." Just seeing how grateful people were and how touched they were to be able to get that care just really affirmed that being a pediatric dentist is one of the greatest jobs in the world.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could share a little bit more about your experiences volunteering with your parents?
HP: Definitely going to food drives. Going out later on when we could afford it, we’d adopt a family and give them Christmas presents and stuff like that. Because I remember when we first came to America we'd go to events where we would get free gifts and things like that for Christmas. That's something that they've always wanted to help give back for.
ZM: As far as advocacy goes, I'm wondering if that's something that you learned a lot about in your program at OHSU or if that is a personal interest? [I'm] wondering about how much that was you pursuing that versus also it being in the curriculum and the balance between those.
HP: Sure, they did talk about community health in dental school and we had a couple courses on that. But I think that was just something that was innate in me that drive to help make a difference. In 2007, I got diagnosed with Leukemia and almost died because I couldn't afford my care. It landed me in the ICU for about three weeks and another week in the hospital. Once I got out, that's when the real battle began. So almost dying in the hospital, that was the easy part [laughs] it wasn't until I got out trying to fight to get my care was really eye opening. [I] realized that this was a broken system. That's what led me to patient advocacy and the Knight cancer students were amazing. I rave about Dr. Brian Druker all the time saying he's an amazing person, so humble, and he revolutionized how cancer is being treated right now, with the meds that I had to take and still have to take. That made me realize that I do so much free care in my own office as the other docs that work with me in my office, but I need to have a bigger platform in order to influence change, advocate for change in policies and things like that. That's what led me to run for office — to really help make Oregon a better place for everyone.
ZM: So you've certainly led us into the next question which I was just going to ask if you could share a little bit about how your experience with cancer furthered your passion for healthcare reform.
HP: Knowing first hand what it's like to not be able [to] afford care—wasting away and was really ready to meet my maker—made me even more passionate about not wanting this to happen to anybody else. My parents were going to sell their home to try to pay for my meds which wasn't going to last for very long. At that point I had three siblings still living at home, so I couldn't do that. Literally I lied to them and said, "Hey Mom and Dad, I already am on it," which I wasn't, because I didn't want them to worry about me. No one should have to go through that and I truly believe that health care is a right and not a privilege and we should all have access to it. How do we get there is a whole different conversation.
ZM: Can you share more about how that motivated you to run for the legislature and if maybe there were additional motivations as well?
HP: Absolutely. It's very interesting because having Leukemia and getting asked to do talks and different things through OHSU and the Knight… One of the talks was with the Governor, Governor Kate Brown, and I started talking to her press secretary and finally, "Whoa, who is this guy?" type of thing [they asked] "Do you want to meet the Governor and a couple other patients?" Then it led to, "Hey do you want to introduce her and share your story?" So we hit it off at that meeting and then the Governor asked me to join her children's cabinet which is amazing. Children's Cabinet advocates for children and vulnerable populations and things like that. That really gave me some insight like, "Wow, they are really doing some incredible, powerful work here down in Salem that are changing lives and helping make lives better."
ZM: Can you share an example or two of the kind of work that the Children's Cabinet advocates for?
HP: From child safety, the foster care system, education, early childhood services, those are all very important things because for children you need to make sure they get those services early on so they are not left behind. The farther that gap becomes in their education and certain basic services, it's a lot harder to get those kids back on track which trickles down to the later years of education, high school, graduation rates, things like that. So we really, really need to focus on making sure these children get access to education and essential services they need early on.
ZM: What issues have you campaigned on?
HP: My platform is definitely education. Focusing on early childhood education. I'm a big advocate for children. Also—not talking about just higher education—but trade schools and vocational schools because not everybody goes to college so you need to have an alternative path for those individuals so they can have a successful career, too. That leads to the next thing which is jobs, they are kind of interconnected, right? I want to be able to help create good jobs for everybody that pays well. I see too many families in my office who are families working multiple jobs but they're still underneath the poverty line so we've got to address that. Last is the health care, they have to have health care… Health care costs are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy here in America. I experienced that first hand, if I didn't have insurance at that time, I would have had to file for bankruptcy because my hospital costs at the time were horrendous, I was in the hospital for a long time. It cost a lot to find that care. All through those from education, to jobs, to health care are my core things I want to focus on. Right now the labor force issue is so important. There is a huge labor shortage from all different industries so I want to help figure out a way we can improve that.
ZM: What has your campaign been like so far? I'm wondering if you could share some experiences of what that's been like?
HP: It's been great. I've had a really good time talking to a lot of constituents, hearing what's important to them. Meeting other legislators, they are very welcoming and supportive and very helpful here in Oregon, it's been a very positive experience. Meeting different stakeholders here in Oregon. That's been great too because I'm learning about things like, "Oh, that's a very good point, so let's talk about that a little bit more."
ZM: I know this is a big question but what does the day in the life typically look like for you?
HP: It's busy. [laughs] My day starts around 4:30 in the morning. I get up, do emails, and then when I'm in the clinic or in the operating room—my surgeries some days start at 6 AM—so I'm at the office by 5:30, 5:15 in the morning prepping for the first surgery of the day. Those will usually go till about 5 PM. I have a one-year-old at home, so when I started all this he was just born and that was the biggest thing, trying to figure out is this the right time to do this with such a young child, literally an infant, a newborn. Besides that this was an opportunity that was available to me. So when I get home I spend about two hours or so, three, and just focus on family stuff: being present in the moment, give my wife a break because she's been home all day with him, helping make dinner, and just enjoy family time. Then everybody goes to sleep and I'm working again. I work as late as I need to. Some days I get four, some days I get six hours of sleep but I'm passionate about what I do and that's how I get so much done in [a] short amount of time. A lot of people ask me how can I be on so many boards, run a practice, make a difference, and now run for legislator… I don't sleep much and I'm very good at managing my time, so every minute of every day I'm literally working.
ZM: My next question was: is there anything in particular you do to maintain that work-life balance as much as you can?
HP: [laughs] I think that's a magical unicorn that we all are chasing. And it's tough, we try. I think the best that I do is that time when I'm home with my wife and my son doing family stuff, I make sure my phone is off and I don't check my emails because your phone will blow up all the time. If it's truly important my staff or whoever needs to get a hold of me knows how to get a hold of me.
ZM: We'll shift to a community discussion now. I'm wondering if you currently feel a connection to the Vietnamese American community here in Portland and if you could share a bit about that.
HP: I think the Vietnamese community here in Portland is great. It's not as big as Santa Ana and some of the other states. But it's small enough where there’s one degree of separation, somebody knows somebody especially with our parents generation—they all kind of know each other. It's one of those things I'd like to get to know the Vietnamese community a little bit more and expand on what we can do to help the Vietnamese community because there are still new immigrants coming in. Language is a barrier, accessing different services and things like that. It can be very difficult, I’m very sensitive to how difficult it can be the first time to a country. To be able to work with my fellow legislators and community leaders and how do we improve that experience for them. Also in school, because a lot of these children don't speak any English when they first come to America, and how do we help them navigate the school system and get them up and running quicker, if you will.
ZM: Are there events that bring people together in the community or places in particular like gathering places?
HP: As far as Vietnamese New Year, the Chinese New Year, usually is a good time. Everybody comes in with the moon cakes and everybody gets together. I know there's a big Catholic influence with the Vietnamese now. La Vang is a big one we can talk about on the East side. I know those communities gather through that. I'm sure there's other things but for me I spent the last twenty years just working, work, work, work, so I didn't have a big opportunity to get too involved in all of that but hopefully when I get more time, I can go out and do more of those things.
ZM: That makes sense. Do you currently participate in any religious or community organizations?
HP: As far as community organizations, I belong to the Dental Foundation of Oregon—I'm on the board of directors. It's a fantastic program, you might know it for the Tooth Taxi, so you'll see the big Tooth Taxi around giving free care all around Oregon which is great. I still remember being on it as a resident when it first started and volunteering on it and going over to Eastern Oregon with the van and providing care and stuff like that. So that's probably the biggest thing with that. Right now local schools that have charity events, I donate to all the schools and fundraise and being sponsored there to help them get the funding they need for whatever they need to use it for.
ZM: What local public or political issues do you see as the most important to Portland's Vietnamese community?
HP: I think right now, like with any community, it's education, getting a good education. Because in the Vietnamese culture, education is very, very important. I think having a good public school systems so the kids can go there and get a good education is probably the number one thing right now so we really need to focus on that.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could share when you have felt most at home in Portland and what you like about the city?
HP: It's great, when I go to my local Vietnamese restaurant here in Beaverton—the closest one is Tan Tan —I just go in there speaking Vietnamese, ordering good authentic Vietnamese food. It makes you feel at home especially if you can't get a good home-cooked meal it's kind of nice to go out to good Vietnamese restaurants to have great, amazing food. I'm a foodie too, so I'm always looking to try new restaurants. So if you have any, let me know.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could share a little bit more about the community within Beaverton. I live in Beaverton as well and I know there are so many wonderful restaurants and community gathering spaces and things like that. So I wonder if you could share a little more about your experience in Beaverton.
HP: Yeah, Beaverton has been great. My wife and I enjoy going to the farmers market. I see tons and tons of patients there all the time, which is great. Same thing with the Hillsboro farmers market so we got there to support the local businesses and families. That's one of our favorite things to do, is going to the farmers market.
ZM: I'm wondering if you would like to share any experiences of racism or discrimination that you have experienced in Portland or in Oregon.
HP: It's definitely a reality. I think as a minority you've experienced racism in some form, some very blatant to some very subconscious, inadvertently if you will. I've been to places where people say, "We don't want your kind here," when I'm out in certain areas of Oregon to help volunteer to provide free care for children. But I don't let it get to me because for me it's like I return that with kindness because I want them to know that we're really nice and we're here to help you. I want to show everybody the beauty of our culture. It's hard, racial profiling growing up in the nineties, eighties and stuff like that. It's definitely a different experience when I'm in my scrubs versus when I'm in my everyday street clothes and I don't have my white jacket on. I think it has kind of gotten better in recent years. In the eighties and nineties, I felt more of it if you will. But now—it's still there—it's not as blatant.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could share just a little bit more about that distinction between when you're in your scrubs versus not?
HP: As far as… What do you mean by distinction? As far as…
ZM: Like how people might treat you differently?
HP: I guess it comes with more of a different respect factor. He's a health care provider versus someone with my man bun, my long hair, and things like that. It has made people a little bit more nicer to me if you will. I've gone to grocery stores before and I forgot my ID or something [like] my credit card so [I say] I'm the owner of Hi5 Dental [and they say] "Oh, I took my kids to see you!" Like "Oh, hey cool I don't actually…” Because they know me, my reputation, what I do, and the work I've done for the community versus if I was just another face in the crowd.
ZM: I'm going to backtrack a little bit. I'm wondering if you could share a bit about how you started Hi5 Dental and what that process was like?
HP: In 2009, I graduated dental school and then I was going to start my own practice, then a great pediatric dentist who I respect, Mike Stapleton, reached out to see if I wanted to take over his practice. He had been around for almost forty years or so in the Aloha area. We have a lot of patients from the Aloha-Beaverton-Hillsboro area. We take care of kids from all around the state who drive six plus hours to come see us who are medically compromised. I always had a vision I wanted to have my own practice so I can always do what I need to do, what I felt was right to my heart and so that was a great transition point to get into the community with a practice that had a good reputation. Then from there I opened up multiple practices and got more involved with the hospitals. So how that led to natural organic growth, we probably have over ten thousand plus patients now easily between the practices and the orthodontic side of things. It's naturally growing based on people's needs.
ZM: In your mind what role does being Vietnamese American play in your life?
HP: A big role. It's in my DNA. Growing up first generation I got a lot of those Vietnamese values that my parents grew up with and I am trying to instill them in my son now. My wife is Caucasian so sharing that culture with her also, it’s who I am. That's what I love about America, it's a melting pot, where you get cultures and things from all different people and areas but a big part of me is Vietnamese American and I identify as Vietnamese American and I want to share that with the world.
ZM: Final question is: What differences do you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
HP: That's a very good question and I think it's a tough question to answer because it's kind of a blanket statement. I think the newer generation, if you will, do things a little bit differently because they have a lot more of the American culture and society that they could relate more to. And I think the older generation—the first generation—they still have a lot more of the culture that they come from instilled in them. It's not a negative thing, it's a beautiful thing. But I do worry that as the generations come up we lose a little bit of that culture. Simple things as how you address adults and respect for certain things and how we take care of our family. I'm still very family-oriented I took care of my parents and whatever they need. We're there, all the kids, so when they get older and they can't care for themselves we'll live in the same household, that's just how it works. When I first came to America our grandparents lived with us. Caring for my parents is a big deal, I'm essentially their sole caregiver.
ZM: How do you see yourself passing those values on to your son?
HP: Just living by example. It's something that you can't really just tell somebody, you just have to do it and they model it just like with any parent. You do things a certain way the kid is like, "Oh, interesting, OK," and then it becomes a part of them. I don't think my parents were like, "You're gonna do it this way," they just did it and then like "Oh, this is great," and then that's who you become.
ZM: So in closing is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to discuss?
HP: I think you guys had a very robust set of questions. I think you did a nice job and I look forward to seeing what the final interview turns out as. And I look forward to working with Vietnamese Americans and pretty much everybody here in Oregon because my goal here as hopefully soon-to-be legislator down in Salem is to work with everybody. I truly believe that good ideas come from everywhere. For me, if you want to work together, I'll have an open door and I'll listen to you. My style of leadership is to listen because I am here to bring the will of the people down to Salem and I want to help make educated evidence-based policy making that will help improve all Oregon lives.
ZM: I'll go ahead and close us out and then after if you have any questions or we can talk. Thank you so much. Again this has been Zoë Maughan speaking with Hai Pham via Zoom on September 27th, 2022.
HP: Thank you Zoë. It was nice meeting you today, take care.