Dustin Kelley: Good afternoon. My name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is Thursday, July 8, 2021. I have the privilege of speaking with Thao Nguyen via Zoom. Thao, welcome to your oral history interview. It is so great to be speaking with you today.
Thao Nguyen: Hi, I am glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
DK: Could you begin by stating your name and telling us a little bit about yourself?
TN: My name is Thao Nguyen, I was born [Hoàng Phương Thảo?] in 1980 in Saigon, Vietnam. I moved to Portland in 1986. After I married my husband, I changed my last name to Nguyen.
DK: How long have you lived in the city of Portland?
TN: I have lived here since September of 1986. It has been quite a while.
DK: How did you come to live in Portland in the first place?
TN: When we immigrated from Vietnam, they asked if we had any relatives in the United States. Fortunately, I had an uncle, who is my dad's younger brother, who came over to the US by boat and established a life over here already so we listed him as a sponsor and they allowed us to move to the US and selected Portland as our destination.
DK: How long has your uncle and his family been in Portland?
TN: He has been here since 1982. He is still here. [Laughs] We like Portland. We like the rain.
DK: What were your first impressions of the city when you arrived in 1986?
TN: I was six years old at that time, so I do not have much to compare. It has changed a lot since then. Looking back at the pictures, the city was beautiful during the time I came over. There are pictures of downtown Portland and I can see the Tom McCall Waterfront Park still there. It was a really beautiful city.
DK: What are some of the neighborhoods in Portland that you have lived in?
TN: We lived in Tigard. We lived in an apartment complex that is near PCC Sylvania campus. I still see it when I drive by on the freeway now. After that, we moved to Northeast, like Madison High School area. I lived there from high school until college. Now I am in Happy Valley.
DK: Can you describe what your home, space, and neighbors were like?
TN: After living with my uncle in Tigard—at that apartment near PCC—we moved to Gresham. We lived in a housing complex, it was where I went to school, pretty much third grade to eighth grade, out on Stark and 217th down by Greshman. After that, we moved to the Northeast Halsey and 82nd area. We always had to be near the Asian grocery stores. That is where my parents always wanted to stay, near Asian grocery stores and near Buddhist temples. My grandparents were a big part of my life and they lived in the Parkrose area, so also near Asian grocery stores. After that, we just moved to Happy Valley. That is where I settled down after meeting my husband.
DK: What was it like for you and your family to adjust to life in the United States? I know you mentioned you were very young.
TN: For me, it was easy. For my parents, I know my dad had to have two or three jobs while going through school. I know it was very difficult for them because they are trying to learn English and a whole new way of living while raising their kids at the same time. It became a struggle as I grew up because the things I was taught in school were different from what my parents were taught when they were growing up. Their parenting style just does not match with what the school is trying to teach us. Like in the American culture, I think we value a lot of independence—we try to raise kids to be independent, have our own dreams and goals. Whereas in the Vietnamese culture, my parents always wanted to teach us discipline, to obey your parents and what your parents want you to do. There is a clash of culture. I do not think it was easy growing up compared to what I see my friends going through. But now that I am older, I can see that everybody has their challenges, every culture has its differences. None are better than the other, we just take the cards that we are dealt with and make the best of it.
DK: Can you tell us a little bit more about your family?
TN: Yeah, so I came over as an only child and then my parents had my brother when I was eight. He was born at OHSU. He was like the first American-born member of our family. My parents had a hard time raising kids because they were still going to school so we would just get dropped off at daycare a lot. We are all good now.
DK: You mentioned your parents were going to school. Where did they attend and what did they study?
TN: My mom came over when she was probably twenty-six. She went to school at PCC and studied accounting. She graduated in two years, I still see her graduation picture with my grandpa holding her certificate. After my family came over in '86, my mom sponsored my grandparents who have eight children all together. My grandparents and the whole entire family, of like eight aunts and uncles, all came over together. We are very close to them. I heard, after talking with my dad and uncle, that it is a very rare situation where that large of a family gets to immigrate to the US as refugees. Nobody was left behind, we all got to go together, in-laws included.
DK: Wow, that is pretty significant.
TN: Yeah, I was asking my dad, how did this happen? My uncle and my dad have different recollections on how this whole thing happened. A lot of it was due to my grandpa and his effort in applying for a visa for each member of the family when we were in Vietnam. It took a lot of work, going into the US embassy in Vietnam to be interviewed for the process. It just involved a lot of work. In the end, because my dad was a prisoner-of-war, that was why they let my parent's family [come to the US]. My dad, my mom, and me were the first to leave Vietnam and come to the US. Plus, he also has a brother who lives in Oregon. All the connections and the prisoner-of-war status allowed us to expedite the process as refugees. Then we came over here, stopping at the Philippines to learn English for six months at a refugee camp. Then finally arriving in the US. After living here for two years, my mom was able to sponsor everybody else, like my grandparents came. My grandparents did not have to stay in the Philippines to learn English, they just came to the US. But all the aunts and uncles, eight of them, had to go to the Philippines for six months, learn English, then come over here. So now we are all here. [Laughs] Every time we have family gatherings, it is a huge group of people, a big family.
DK: So almost everyone has stayed in the Portland area?
TN: Everyone is here in the Portland area. Well, two married and moved to San Francisco and one in Southern California. But, for the most part, everyone is still here.
DK: Wow, that is pretty amazing.
TN: Grandpa was the one who got all of this started. He got connections, he applied, he worked hard. That was his dream, to get the family to America safely. He passed away last January. We mentioned that at his funeral—that his dream had come true. Everybody is here. Everybody is living their dream here in America. Nobody is left behind. All his effort paid off.
DK: That is pretty amazing. What was it like for you to grow up here in Portland with so many cousins and relatives all nearby?
TN: I love it. It is so fun, especially since I do not have a lot of siblings. My grandparents had like five daughters so they are my aunts, but since I grew up with them, we are as close as sisters. Three uncles who would always take me out hiking and go to the beach. As they are growing up, I get to see how they adjust to life here in the US. Some of them went to school, some went to work, and now I see the ones who went to school are able to adapt more to the American culture than the ones who went to work. They still have their traditional ways. But, they are all open-minded to the culture. Now we see people who are new to the states, we remember how hard it was for us to adjust. We just tell them that you have to have an open mind and do not hold onto things. Like my uncle, he still raised his kids according to the Vietnamese ways of doing things. And my grandpa is telling him, "No, you cannot expect the kids to do what you were doing back then anymore! This is a whole new way of living now. You do not have to stay up late to finish your chores and wake up early to work anymore. You just have to adapt to the relaxed lifestyle of Portlandia here."
DK: What are some of the schools you have attended in Portland?
TN: I went to Jason Lee for first and second grade. North Gresham grade school from about third grade to eighth grade. Then Benson High School. Then OSU.
DK: Oh wow.
TN: [Laughs] Yeah, lots of schooling.
DK: What was your experience like with Portland Public Schools?
TN: I am very thankful to the Portland Public School program. I had a lot of support. My teachers always gave me recognition. I always had achievements of excellence awards. I was always top of my class, graduated valedictorian of Benson. I had a lot of scholarships. I went to Portland State with their presidential scholarship and it covered all my tuition. It was all thanks to Portland Public Schools. I think as long as you try hard and do what you are supposed to do, I think the system is set up for kids to succeed as long as they have support from their parents and listen to their teachers and do what they are supposed to do. I think the system works. There is always peer pressure. You just have to be strong and not fall into bad things. Stay away from drugs and alcohol and I think you will be fine. But, it is different nowadays. I am scared. I have two girls and I am trying to raise them to be the same, but I still talk to my cousin. I am like, "Hey, what is it like nowadays? Do kids date each other in sixth grade? What grade do they start getting into all that stuff?" It is different now. Now you have to deal with social media, which we did not have back then, internet, technology, so I do not know.
DK: When you were a kid, did you participate in any organization or extracurricular activities?
TN: Music not so much. My parents did not have the means to have music lessons so I do not have much of a music background, which I wish I did. Art, no. Sports, no. I was a part of the National Honor Society. We did a lot of volunteer work for the community, such as the Multnomah County Women, Infants, and Children program. Sometimes we volunteered for schools with underprivileged kids, tutoring them during the summer programs. Most of it is just community service.
DK: You mentioned the temple earlier. Was there a temple that your family attended?
TN: There were several. My mom knows all the Vietnamese temples in the community; she goes to every single one. Tịnh Xá Ngọc Châu[?] is currently where she goes. Chùa Linh Sơn, she goes there a lot. There is Chùa Nam Quang on Sandy. She goes to all of them, especially during Chinese New Year.
DK: So you mentioned going to college at PSU and then later at OSU, is that correct?
TN: Yes, I got my bachelor's in biochemistry at PSU and then I got my PharmD at OSU.
DK: What was your experience like at PSU?
TN: PSU was nice. I was a part of the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA). At Benson, I did not interact with a lot of Vietnamese students until I got to PSU. We collaborated and hosted the Tet show, the annual New Year's festival. We put on a show and a concert for the community. That was really fun. I really got in touch with my Vietnamese side through arts, music, dance, culture and food, things like that.
DK: What are some of the events that were especially important to you when you were a part of the VSA?
TN: Mostly, it is planning for the annual Tet show during New Year's when we put on a performance for our community. We wear the traditional Vietnamese áo dài and we do all the dances. It makes people happy because they do not see a lot of that over here. That is the one event where it connects them to their country back in Vietnam. Coming to a new land is a scary thing and if you do not have something that makes you remember your home, you can really feel homesick. But if you have that show and we also incorporate new western culture elements in there, so that helps them open up more and accept the new culture so it is not just a sudden shock. I think those events are really important.
DK: Can you describe a little bit more detail about the festival and your performances?
TN: Have you ever been to one? You have like a dragon dance. We sing the national anthem in Vietnamese and English. We usually sing some of the traditional Vietnamese New Year's songs, like spring festival songs. That allows the kids over here to see it and learn some of those. We have a fashion show where we wear all the áo dài. We also do hat dances with the Vietnamese cone hats. It is really fun. At the end, there is usually a dance at night, like a concert where we invite a famous Vietnamese singer to come and perform. There is a band set-up. Everyone just goes out and dances.
DK: Thank you for all the details, I really appreciate it.
TN: Yeah, no problem.
DK: So you mentioned studying pharmacy—what led you to selecting that occupation?
TN: Yeah, I am big into science and math. It has always been my strong point. Now I am into history and English more. But back then when I was growing up, my parents were not too involved in my education so it was just me learning what my teachers taught in school. Math and science were always the easier subjects for me because there is always a right or wrong answer. So I went to study biochemistry because it was my interest and it was something I was good at. After that, I decided I wanted to work more with people rather than being in a lab. I tried to do biochemistry research for my last year. Then I decided I think I should go into pharmacy. I applied and got in. Now I am a pharmacist. Now looking back, I really enjoyed learning history and English. I tried to teach my kids—we have more dialogue. I am trying to see what they are learning, what I am learning. To see what I know and come together in the middle. I did not have that as much with my parents. Everything my dad taught was in Vietnamese. He taught me a lot about history, but it was in Vietnamese, so I did not know how to translate it into English so I could never really communicate the two. I knew in the back of my head somewhere. I was learning US history and history through my high school teacher's way. I could not make the connection, it was hard for me to do that.
DK: I would like to transition a little bit to the community at large, if that is okay.
TN: Yeah, sure.
DK: Do you currently feel a connection to Portland's Vietnamese-American community?
TN: Yes, I do. Every year, not during COVID anymore, there are two major events in the community. I will take my daughters to the Chinese New Year event and the Mid-Autumn Festival event. Now there is a Vietnamese float during the Rose Festival parade. I try to take my kids to the Rose Festival because I want them to see what it is like and parades are fun, kids like it. I do feel like there is a big presence of Vietnamese in the community here.
DK: You mentioned a few special events that you want to introduce your heritage to your children through those events, are there other aspects of Vietnamese culture or tradition that you are trying to impart on your children?
TN: Yes, like food for example. We finally went out to a Vietnamese restaurant. Since all the COVID pandemic happened we have not been going out, just ordering food then bringing it food. My daughter came out and she had the most surprised look on her face. She just did not know how we order at a Vietnamese restaurant, sitting at the table, eating a family-style dinner. I did not realize that we have never had this experience, I thought this was something we were all used to. She is six years old and it was like an adventure for her to go out like that. That is something I want them to learn how to do, is not to be estranged when they go into a Vietnamese restaurant and know how to order food and which food they like. I also want them to develop a palette for Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese people cannot eat cheese, cheese is a very hard food for them to get used to on their palette. A lot of my American friends cannot eat fish sauce. I want my daughters to be able to eat everything. So food is definitely one thing. Music is another thing because there are so many emotions in the Vietnamese songs. When I am raising my kid, I have to teach them Vietnamese songs because they show you how to love and respect your parents. I can not find a lot of English songs that have the same meaning. The Vietnamese children's songs are really deep, they convey love for your mom and dad. If I were to translate one song: "Momma loves you because you look like your dad. Daddy loves you because you look like your mom. The whole family is happy. When we are apart, we are sad. We are happy when we are together." That is a popular children's song. But over here in English, I teach them "Twinkle Little Star'' and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." I want them to be able to learn some of the Vietnamese songs as well.
DK: Is language also something that you are also engaging with your children in?
TN: Yes, we tried to do one parent, one language. My husband speaks to them in English and I speak to them in Vietnamese. Luckily, we also have my parents and his mom so the grandparents will talk to them in Vietnamese. They are speaking both.
DK: I am curious, when have you felt most at home in Portland, and what you like most about your city and community? You spoke a little bit about that and I realize this is a big question.
TN: The more I travel to other areas, the more I start liking Portland. I did not get a chance to travel much until after I graduated, got a job, and started making some money. Then my husband and I were able to travel more. We went to Europe and Asian countries. We have been around a lot. The more we go and the more people I meet, people keep saying, "Wow, you are from Portland, it is beautiful over there." They love the weather and climate. There is a sense of community here. Now I hear more and more people are moving into Portland. In my job when I talk to them and ask, "Why do they want to come to Portland?" A lot of them will tell me that there is so much to do here. There is a good diversity. Lots of nice food carts. There are a lot of different ethnic foods around. And there is a sense of culture. When I hear that, I love Portland more. Although it is getting kind of expensive. There are some bad things that are happening in the area. This year we have seen so much. There is the homeless population and extreme weather, the heat and icy storm. Overall, I think I like the city. I do not think I want to live anywhere else. Maybe Seattle, but who knows?
DK: Conversely, have you experienced any challenges in Portland? For instance, have you encountered any racism or discrimination?
TN: No, during the time when there was all that Asian hate going on and I saw all the protests, personally, I had people opening doors for me. [Laughs] Guys would open doors for me when they see me going into a place. I think all of that media stuff that was happening made people a little bit more conscious about Asian hate and some people became nicer. I did not have to face any of the stuff that I saw that was happening on TV or social media.
DK: In your mind, what role does being Vietnamese-American play in your life?
TN: It is a very important part of who I am. When I was a kid, I was one of three Asian kids in my school and I did not like being Asian. My daughter now tells me she wants blonde hair. She wishes she could be like a Disney princess. I feel that being Vietnamese is very important to who I am. Now that I am older I have come to appreciate it more because I have a lot more I can offer to my community when I am different. I can share my interests, hobbies, perspective on life, my passion for food, baking, and cooking with them. But if I was the same as everybody else, I do not think I could contribute as much. I tried to teach that to my daughters, for them to embrace their differences and be able to share more, to contribute to the community. If everyone is different, it makes the community more fun.
DK: I am curious, what are some differences that you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans?
TN: The older Americans––they know how to value hard work. Sometimes I get burnt out in my job and I thought about quitting, taking the easy in life, becoming a minimalist. Then I talked to my ninety-three year old grandma and she was telling me about how she came to America when she was fifty-five and worked for a sewing company. She got her first paycheck and it was like three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour. But she was so happy when she got that first paycheck coming from Vietnam when you do not even have work. You cannot even find jobs over there and now she just earned her first paycheck! She said that was one of the happiest moments in her life: "Wow, I earned money!" When I heard about that, I said, "Oh my gosh, that is so true." I should be grateful that I have a job and I can afford to pay for my own living expenses and raise my family. The younger generation, like my cousins or some of my younger friends with siblings, do not see things the same way because for them, work is not about money. Work is not about earning a salary. It is about finding work that is fulfilling to you, finding a sense of purpose, because that is how we are raised. They do not need to find a job, they just have to find their sense of purpose in life. They are fine scraping by, like living at home or on a bus. They are happy with that so it is okay. The older generation does not understand what the younger generation is thinking. I find myself in the middle, I see both sides. I can empathize with both.
DK: You alluded to this a couple of minutes ago in discussing this last year and that there have been a lot of unprecedented events with the pandemic and protests for racial justice. I am curious if you can describe your profession in light of the pandemic, and what changes your family experienced over the course of the last fifteen, sixteen months?
TN: Yeah, that was really hard. One of the toughest times I have ever seen. I am a pharmacist so we vaccinate people with the COVID vaccine. We are frontline healthcare workers. We try to promote the vaccine and we want everyone to get vaccinated. It has been hard in the family, getting everybody on the same page. It has been stressful at work too because trying to vaccinate everybody in your community with limited resources and learning something new because it is a new vaccine that we have to learn how to handle at different temperatures. It has been a real challenge. I have never seen the family or the country be so split and divided in the past sixteen months with politics and this pandemic, it is so crazy. Everybody has their own opinion and views on things. Nobody believes the other person. We can not agree on one thing. I just do not know. As a healthcare professional, I do respect people's opinions because I understand people have their own healthcare decisions. We just have to respect that. It is tough. I am just there to offer information that I know and if they want to take it, I am happy to help, and if they do not, there is not much I can do.
DK: Early in the pandemic, how was your normal day-to-day routine impacted? In terms of being a parent and a professional with the shortage of PPE.
TN: My husband had to work at home. My daughter just started kindergarten, we were so excited to send her to school, let her meet her teacher. Then all of a sudden it is just at home now. At first, we thought it sucked, but we adapted and are now seeing the benefits to both. I have my husband at home and I get to see him more often. I still go to work. In the beginning it was much nicer because not a lot of people were coming in so we were sending medications home to them instead. It was not as risky as in the hospitals. I work out in the retail setting. We all wear personal protection equipment and keep our six feet distance from each other. We all just go by what the CDC recommended and follow state regulations and protocols. It was tough because every day you have to turn on the news and look at your local and federal news and company news. It was so much—I just wanted to take a break away from all this virus news. But now we adjusted and things are getting better. My husband still works at home. We are finding ways to make it work. I think we all learned something new from this experience.
DK: I think I have come to the end of questions that I had written down. Do you have anything you hoped would come up that has not or any stories you would like to share? I would like to give you the floor for as much time as you would like to share anything else.
TN: I do not have anything in particular. There is so much I want to learn more about. I want to learn more about other people's experiences in the community. I just really hope that they all feel the same as me, that they are proud to be a Vietnamese-American and proud to embrace their differences so that they can contribute whatever they can to make the community a better place. I feel if they do not, it would be such a waste because I think the Vietnamese people—as I am learning about history—are a very unique group. You know how the Romans are known for their ferocious strength and fighting skills to make their empire successful through all the years, the Vietnamese people are known for their language skills. They are poetic. They do not win wars by fighting. The reason why their culture has lasted through the years is through their words, their intellectual ability to use their language as a weapon instead of using physical force. That is one of the things I am proud about being Vietnamese. They are a nice, peaceful group of people.
DK: Thank you so much for speaking with me. Again, this is Dustin Kelley, signing off July 8, 2021.