Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley. Today is Friday, August 20, and I have the privilege today of speaking with Samantha Tran. Sam, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to share some of your story today.
Samantha Tran: Dustin, happy to be here. Thank you for wanting to learn more about myself.
DK: Could you start by stating your name and telling us a little bit about yourself?
ST: Yes. My name is Samantha Tran. It obviously is not my given name—I was born [Trần Mai Chanh?]. My parents gave me that name when I was born in Vietnam. When I was eighteen and became naturalized, I sat back and asked my girlfriend, "Hey, I think I should change my name. What should I change it to?" And my girlfriend was like, "I think Samantha sounds great. What do you think?" So when I was eighteen I did that mainly because, you know, I started in college, I was worried that with a name like Chanh or Trang or Truong[?] or all the different ways that children had pronounced my name, that somebody looking at my resume would think that I am unable to speak English well and that I would be discriminated against. And, it is really frustrating when you, myself, my name is such a beautiful name, but to others, when they ask you four different times, "How do you pronounce that and what does it mean?" It made me feel like it was not a beautiful name any longer. So now everyone calls me Sam. It is really interesting. People who are my family will call me by my Vietnamese name. Everyone who I knew before eighteen would know me as Chanh[?], but my professional career, soccer parents, everybody else now knows me as Samantha Tran.
DK: You mentioned being from Vietnam. When did you first arrive in the city of Portland?
ST: Backing it up just a tiny bit, I was born in 1975, a month after the fall of Saigon. When I was eighteen months old, so in November of 1976, my crazy parents decided to take my brother and I, who is a year older than I am, on a journey. In the middle of the night—and this story I will never forget, because I had always learned it from my dad's side of the story, but not my grandmother's—so this boat is a fishing boat and on that fishing boat is 112 people. Because I am an infant, everyone was so worried that I would cry when we were trying to escape Vietnam. So everyone left before I did. My dad, my brother, my mom, and my aunts and uncles, who were also on that same boat, went out to the meeting point and I was at home with my paternal grandma. I only learned about this story after she had arrived in the US, but at that time, because nobody wanted me there, she had held onto me and she said that she gave me sleeping medication so that I would not cry when I went out to meet up with my family. She did not really know how much to give me, since I was an eighteen month old child, so she lit candles—we are Catholic—and prayed. She handed me over to my uncle and said, "Okay, let's take her out there," and my grandma said, "You know, after that day, I did not know if I gave you too much or too little and it was months later before we were contacted again and I prayed all the time to make sure that you were okay."
I was eighteen months old, we were at sea—my dad estimated about seven days out at sea—I had asked him, "Which direction were we going, what were you guys thinking, and why was it only a few aunts and uncles that came along?" Being a child, it was a super innocent question, right? I was like, "Why did you not keep the whole family together?" And my dad [had] such a simple answer, but I just did not know— "Well, if you think about it, it was not okay for you to just flee Vietnam. And if our whole family went together, what if we were captured? Who would rescue us, who would take care of us, who would bring us home?" We were rescued by the coast guard and then we were brought to Malaysia. Again, this is in 1976, really early after the fall of Saigon, so no country [was] taking refugees. So the military police had said to the people on the boat that, "We can't take you. We can't accept you. We will give you food and water and you have to head back to sea because we are not taking refugees." My dad at the time was in his twenties—he was like twenty-eight. Twenty-eight years old, my mom was twenty-one years old. She had me and my brother and my dad had brought his two younger brothers, his younger sister, and one of his sister in laws, [who was] pregnant. My aunt at the time was pregnant with my cousin, and my dad was like, "She is not going to survive, how is she going to give birth out at sea?" My dad and his two younger brothers swam out to the boat, lit it on fire, swam back, the boat blew up and my dad and his siblings dried off, the military police came out and [were] trying to figure out what happened. But as a result, they had to keep us. All 112, and then eventually 113, because my cousin was born.
We stayed on the island off of Malaysia for about a year before we came to the states. We came into Portland in the fall of 1977. So I was about two and a half years old. My dad's goal was to keep the family together and there was a Christian church—my dad has given me the name but I cannot remember it at this moment—a Christian church who had sponsored our family over from Malaysia to Gresham, Oregon. That was where we started our life in Oregon, in Gresham.
DK: You mentioned that a church sponsored you— did you have any other connections to the city or any other reasons that specifically drew you here?
ST: That is such a great question—when we came, obviously the Vietnamese community was super small. A couple of my dad's cousins arrived to Portland before us. So they were related to us because it is my grandma's older sister's family. I believe they came about a year before us and it was one of those cities that were taking and supporting refugees. I think if we had been somewhere else in Seattle we likely would have come down to Portland because [there were] my dad's cousins. There were a couple families. Those were our connections as well to Portland. The majority of them still live in Portland. What is crazy, Dustin, is that on my dad's side of the family, my dad is one of nine, and my mom is one of seven. We have been so blessed. Our family was the first family here in Portland and eventually my dad and my mom were able to sponsor and bring all their siblings to the states. They escaped Vietnam similar to how we did. They were boaters, they became refugees, and we sponsored them to the states. So the crazy thing about that is I asked my dad, "How did you get contact information so that they knew where to find you?" And my dad said he literally sent his mom his driver's license. So she made a copy of that, so that every family who left by boat had my dad's contact information so that they could find him once they were out of Vietnam. That was pretty incredible.
The Vietnamese community was much smaller but I do remember—I would call it the Vietnamese Catholic church—and it was not a church, it was out of an apartment and the apartment community was called Halsey Square. I do not know if you recall, but Halsey Square was just a community of immigrants from everywhere. I think I was about three or four when I was in that community, but I remember attending mass in our apartment. It was pretty crazy. What is incredible about all of that is that is where it started and today it is full circle—today our church, Our Lady of Lavang, is literally down the street from my house. We purchased a new Catholic building, we acquired a church, and now have converted [it] to a Catholic church and the community is like thousands of Vietnamese parishioners now. We went from an apartment of a handful of parishioners to thousands of parishioners. It is bittersweet. I grew up at the church on 54th and Sandy, where it was, and went to Sunday School there, Vietnamese School there, and graduated twelfth grade from religion school there, so it is a pretty tight community and really great community that made me have a sense that I belong.
I think what is interesting is, there are different waves of Vietnamese immigrants. Our wave was in the ‘70s, and then there were waves of late refugees or boaters in the ‘80s, and then in the ‘90s there were officers and their families who were sponsored over. I think as I got older, the differences within our community became much bigger. It was a bigger community but the differences were much more pronounced. Because then I became the other because the number of Vietnamese immigrants to the US in the 90s just were huge. They knew how to read and write Vietnamese really well and could speak it perfectly and here I am, I thought I was pretty decent but my Vietnamese was probably like third-grade level. The dynamics of that [were] interesting, of feeling like I was being discriminated against within the church just because I spoke English really well but my Vietnamese was not really great. That was really interesting growing up in the community and I even think about it now, going back and seeing my friends and what that looks like—it is interesting. I guess bittersweet. There are great days and there are days where I am like, Huh, this feels really strange. I do not feel like I belong. I still feel like I did much more than... I think being in high school was really hard for me.
I am a Portlander, right? I went to many different elementary schools. My understanding was that my dad was like, "You guys were too loud, we were evicted all the time." We were moving apartments every sixth months, so I went to a lot of different elementary schools. My dad finally purchased a home back in 1987. My baby sister was just born. We bought a house off of Killingsworth and 82nd. If anyone knew that area from thirty years ago, it was a rough area. I think it is still a rough neighborhood, but that is what my dad could afford at the time. I went to middle school—elementary school, I went to fifth and sixth grade there—and then went to middle school at Whitaker Middle School. I think a lot of people who grew up in North, Northeast Portland would know, it was condemned, pulled down, destroyed, because it had mold issues. That was where I went to school for three years. A very diverse population. A lot of Black students, a lot of Asian students. I would say it was not a great school, but that is what I knew, right? That was the community I grew up with. When I think about the type of education I had, I am so proud of my children because when I think of my children today and what they have been able to accomplish, I think part of it is that they had such a strong foundation.
When I reflect upon my elementary school and middle school education, it was pretty much all Portland Public [Schools]. It just breaks my heart thinking about it, because my kids would tease me, they would be like, "Mommy, your grammar is so awful." That is what they would say to me! And I was like, "I know! I do not know... why is it so awful?" And I think about it and when I help them with their homework, they were taught the grammar. All of that was taught to them at the same level as their peers, their classmates. As you can imagine, I came in the ‘70s. So when I started kindergarten I did not know English but I had picked it up really quickly and I think the intention of Portland Public Schools was, "Let's create a program where we are helping students who don't speak English to learn English quickly." Except the problem with that was I ended up being in a classroom full of kids who did not even speak any English. I am in third grade, I knew it fluently, I was able to read and write, and I felt like I was American and was speaking English, except two hours of the day, when everyone else was learning how to read and write and spell and write papers, I was pulled out into a different classroom with kids from immigrant families and I had that from third or fourth [grade] through middle school. I thought it was cool in middle school because I had all these friends, but when I think about it, I was then the teacher to all these other kids as opposed to being taught at my level. My parents worked a lot, they did not speak a lot of English, so it was really hard at the time to think about, "You know, this does not feel right. How do I get myself out of these classrooms?" Because I felt like it was holding me back, because I excelled in math. I think because of my perseverance and my love for learning— I read on my own, I did a lot of stuff that I did not always have the resources [for] because my parents did not know—but it was because I was curious. I would go to the library or I would take my brother's books. I was also grateful because when I started in high school—I think this is another Portland Public School thing—back then, they had magnet schools. You can apply to either Benson High School and do all the science and technology, or you can apply to Cleveland High School for business school. My high school in the community would have been Madison High School. I believe they have changed their name now. At the time, Madison High School did not have a very good reputation. So I was talking to my friend, "I do not want to go to Madison, how do I get out of Madison High School?" And was like, "Hey, just apply to this magnet program." And I applied and I went to Cleveland High School, the business magnet school. I studied accounting. I went to Portland State and studied accounting and now I am a controller for a large private company here in Portland.
Despite some of the challenges I had in the educational program at Portland State, I had great teachers as well. I remember freshman year in high school, I thought I was in trouble. I had just come back from gym and it was my English class, and we were reading Romeo and Juliet. My teacher said, "Hey, you need to go to the office." And I was like, "Oh my gosh, what did I do? Am I in trouble?" I went to the office and it was just my high school counselor, and said, "Your teacher has recognized that this class is too remedial for you and you need to be in advanced English." I was like, "Oh! Wow, I did not expect that." But [I was] so grateful for the teacher to recognize that I was not in the right English class. I have [had] many moments of different teachers that really wanted to support me and support my learning and I am so grateful for them.
DK: I want to come back to a few different things you said throughout this. But I will stay with the most recent, which was your experience with Portland Public Schools. You mentioned that one teacher at the end who recognized something in you and how meaningful that was. Are there other experiences of teachers that you would like to talk about or any clubs or extracurricular activities that were important to you as a student in PPS?
ST: Oh, absolutely. So there are a couple of examples. As you can imagine growing up in an immigrant family, my parents hardly spoke much English. It was not something that they knew how to help us with and as you know, reading out loud is so important and being able to hear a word and actually say, "Oh yeah, that's right, that is how you pronounce the word." I remember my fourth grade teacher always had story time and during that half an hour, he would read to us out loud a chapter book. I was like, "This is incredible! No one reads to me." And to have a teacher sit down, and I remember being on the carpet, on the floor, it is just how memorable it was for me to hear a story read to me out loud. I know there is controversy now with the story but the book that I remember him reading to us was "Indian in the Cupboards." I was so amazed and in awe by it and I do not know if that is the reason why my husband and I read to my kids so much, but it really helped me have the confidence to read out loud in the classroom. Back then you would do that a lot, where they would go around the classroom and "Hey, somebody has to read a paragraph," and I used to be so shy because I never knew if I was reading that word correctly, because I was never really read to. I remember his name—Mr. Han. I remember when I was in high school, that he had committed suicide. I have been trying to look him up to see or know more about what happened, but back then technology was not the same as it is now, but he made such a huge impact on my life. It was in fourth grade and it was really phenomenal.
I also had a math teacher in middle school. I was always sitting in the front of the class, and this is the part that is really funny. I told my dad I needed glasses because I could not see and my dad was like, "No, you just think it is cool. That's why you want glasses." So I was like, "Well, I really can't see, so I have to sit in the front of the class." I do not know if you remember the projectors where the teacher has to write on the transparent files, so I sat right next to him and it was really great. He told me I was great at math, which is the exact opposite of what my dad would tell me. Bless his heart, I love my dad to death, but he grew up in a very patriarchal family and environment and country. So his view of boys and girls are very different. My dad thinks that boys are much smarter at math and girls should not just get an eight to five job and stay home and raise a family. Growing up, that was what I was taught, was that my brother—he is only twelve, thirteen months older than me—would always be smarter and always be better than me. It was always hard growing up because he was smarter. Every time I went to school, people would say, "Oh, you’re Dai Tran's sister! He's so smart!" And I was like, "I am just as smart!" But I think that Mr. Ross, I remember back then, he was old, I want to say that when I graduated from middle school it was his last year of teaching. But he was the teacher who told me that I was good at math. I was like, "Wow!" That was a good feeling and I remember in my yearbook he just wrote to me, "Believe in yourself. Your beautiful smile will take you anywhere." It gave me confidence, and not a lot of people recognized how building confidence in young lives has an exponential effect on a child. I think that the teachers that I just shared were definitely teachers that helped build confidence in me, so I think that was really effective.
And then, extracurricular—in high school, there was a Vietnamese Culture club. Part of that culture club [was that] we did performances. So we did the lion dance as well as the fan dance. It was a great opportunity for us to be able to highlight our culture. It gave me an opportunity to be with peers who speak my language, who understood who I [was] and my background. There [was] a woman who helped sponsor it all, and you know, I have been talking to my husband about her and for the life of me, I cannot remember her name. What I do remember, and it was such a huge impression, because we were part of that club, she had gotten to know us, and so she kind of took the team under her wing. She worked at Nike, she would help us take us to practices, and one of the things that she did that was so memorable was that she took us to the Nike campus and said, "Hey, this is where I work. This is the lunch room, go at it guys! Just pick out what you want for lunch and then I will pay for it, and then I want to show you around the campus." How powerful is that to a fourteen or fifteen year old girl? We were teenage girls. She was such a professional. She was a single woman, and yet she had her own home. She had brought us to her house and she had lived there with her parents and I just remember thinking, "This is so great!" A role model, in my mind. A Vietnamese woman, I want to say at the time she was probably in her thirties, professional, showed us a great place, Nike, and what you can aspire to be when you grow up. I think that having that club allowed us not only to share with everyone our culture but also there was recognition by young professionals at the time how something so small could be so powerful. I think those are the examples. I believe there is a picture at Cleveland High School, and it is made out of mold—a plastic mold on the wall—in the hallway of Cleveland High School. I saw it, I want to say ten years ago, so I do not know if it is still there, but I am part of that. It was the fan dance and it was a picture that they made into a small sculpture. So I have been meaning to go back and see if it is still there.
DK: That would be really cool. It is always fun to see examples of nostalgia from our past. I wanted to come back to your church community, Our Lady of Lavang. It sounds like you have been a part of it the majority of your life and seen it rise [from] you mentioned an apartment to now a very, very large church building. I am curious if you could paint us a couple of pictures that you remember experiencing there and maybe even walk us through a traditional day that you would spend there—you mentioned being there for language classes as well—and then maybe talk about what it is like today in a different building and from an adult's perspective. If you are willing to share, of course.
ST: I have fond memories of growing up at Our Lady of Lavang, and I have not so fond memories of it as well. It morphed, it changed, a lot over the years. One of the common themes is definitely the importance of preserving the language and the culture and of course, because we are Catholics, our faith and the knowledge of God. That is common, I believe, from the day I started there when I was five years old. When I started there for classes at five years old, I still remember the classroom. The classroom was a basement of the building across from the church. The windows were super high but the lighting was not poor. The classroom at the time, I thought, was fairly big—I want to say that there were twenty of us at that time. I remember my teachers until this day. I see them now and I am like, "Oh, you are not much older than I am," which is the strangest feeling, because when they were teaching me, they were literally teenagers themselves, right? I think because of the hardship and escaping Vietnam, the maturity level at that time—I was like, "I always thought these teachers were really old!" But they were eighteen, nineteen years old. Now when I see them, I see them as almost my peers, as opposed to an adult that I looked up to, not that I do not respect them now. It is the strangest feeling. So I still see them now, I still say hi to them. It was very basic Catholic religion that we learned and I remember having to memorize everything, which is so different than American school. Everything is memorization. I remember talking to my dad about that, I was like, "Why do I have to memorize everything? Can't I just learn it and not memorize it?" So we would have tests and our tests were literally, "Sit down and recite this prayer." The learning process was very different.
We always were able to buy sandwiches. Probably not when I was younger, but when I was a little older we always had either sticky rice or Vietnamese banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches. I remember the cafeteria being in the basement of a different building and down there they served pho and you could buy all kinds of snacks. What is crazy is that it really has not changed, even in a different building, you can buy pho, bun bo hue, you can buy sticky rice, [unclear], so it is pretty incredible that all of that has lasted. I think part of it is because it is a sense of community. You are able to go there, see your friends, buy a good bowl of pho, and back then I do not remember being able to buy pho to go, but you are now. Now you can purchase it to go, so that was a difference. I was baptized in Vietnam, but I received my first communion at The Grotto. We had Sunday School at Our Lady of Lavang, but each year there was a freedom mass that was celebrated at The Grotto. I believe it is always the first weekend of July. That was part of what we did every single year for the first weekend of July and I first participated by receiving communion there, every year after that I was part of the dance group. There was a group of fifty girls under the age of eighteen. I believe it was second or third grade that we received communion, so you would qualify to be part of the group after you receive your first communion. Every year for a month we would practice. The nuns would make us kneel on those really hard rock surfaces at the Grotto and we learned not to wear shorts to practice because it was really hard to kneel on the stone steps there. What great memories of fifty little young ladies being able to spend time together. I started out [in the dance group] being eight years old, and by the end of it I was one of the leaders. There would be a group of ten girls per group and each group had a little team leader and I was one of the team leaders by the time I was in high school. It was a great opportunity for us to learn more about each other, create a sense of community.
One of the great things that I had the opportunity of doing and I knew it from a lot of financial hardship from my parents, was that I was able to have that opportunity to travel to Rome for the mass back in 1988. I was able to meet John Paul II—what an incredible feeling. I think without that Vietnamese community and without that dance group that I was a part of, I do not know if I would have been able to take a picture with the Pope. I remember thinking—that time, I was thirteen years old—I was thinking, "Wow, the Pope is smaller in person than I envisioned when he was on TV!" But it was such a memorable experience to be able to meet the Pope and be able to perform what we practiced for a year. It was really great.
I think fast-forwarding it to today in the Vietnamese community, I am not as involved. I moved up to Seattle for ten years. I really ended my experience with the Vietnamese church when I was eighteen, so after I graduated from Sunday School. Being in college, I continued to go to church, but I would just go to the church down the street here in Happy Valley, called Christ the King. I stopped staying connected to Our Lady of Lavang and then I moved up to Seattle for ten years. We moved back to Portland about fifteen years ago. My husband is an attorney. We also wanted our children to be part of the community. It was a community I loved but a community I did not love either. I had such mixed feelings, but I wanted my kids to know how to read and write the Vietnamese language. I wanted the kids to experience some more of the traditional Vietnamese culture. So I made them. Thanh and I made the decision to send them to Sunday School and Vietnamese school. I was trying to be convincing, I was like, "Hey, it's great! You'll love it, you'll learn so much!" But it was hard. It was more structure than they were used to. They felt like they were more Americanized than the peers that were attending school with them. All of them attended for two years. My oldest daughter did great, she was top of her class in Vietnamese school, and she was top of her class for Sunday School. My second and third kids struggled a little bit more and did not love it, but there is a second passion that we love—we love soccer.
[Sunday School] was literally a [full] day [commitment], it has not changed much, it was like this when I was growing up. It starts at nine-o-clock in the morning—I think the order changed a little bit—but generally you start Sunday school at nine-o-clock in the morning and then you get a break and then at 10:30 in the morning you would start Vietnamese school, and then you would get a lunch break, and then after your lunch break you would attend mass. You are literally at the church from 9 am to 2 pm every Sunday. It was a full day commitment, it was not just a two or one hour commitment. I am married to a Catholic man so being able to go to mass every Sunday was something that was really important to us, but being able to have extracurricular activities was really important to the family as well. After a couple of years and after missing too many Sunday School classes, I told the kids, "Okay, I think you know enough Vietnamese to get by. We are just going to let you go to church." We would just go to mass all over, but wherever there was a soccer field nearby we would go to that mass and then go to soccer. So they were there for a couple years, they experienced what I experienced for a few years.
But what happened there also is that my husband started helping out at the church and supporting them with any legal issues that they have. I have just taken a step back. I was really involved growing up but now my husband knows more about what is going on at the church than I do. I do not attend mass, even though it is down the street from my house at the Vietnamese church. It is probably oversharing, but there is a certain level of expectation when you go to mass at a Vietnamese parish. It does not help that I am also married to the attorney that helps out at the church, so everybody knows who our family is. People can be really critical. I struggle a lot with the Vietnamese community and the reason why is that they are still very, very traditional. I love them for being traditional, but I think part of it is being a female, that makes it more difficult. I feel that I have a very successful career, I feel that as a family we are very accomplished. I have three incredible kids. My oldest has already graduated from college and I have two kids at Northwestern—my son plays for a D1 (National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1) soccer program—we have worked really hard to build a family where we are really proud of and they are just good, healthy people and I love that about them.
I think part of being at the Vietnamese church where I struggle is I am expected to be a wife and they really refer [to me as] "the attorney's wife." I do not have my own name, even though I grew up there. It is challenging because from a career perspective, I feel like I am also very accomplished. When I first joined Kindercare, which is where I worked at, I was the accounting supervisor. This was fourteen years ago when we first moved back from Seattle. Now, I am the vice president and controller for a company that has fifteen-hundred locations across the country. So it is not a small company. But you know, Dustin, when I go to the Vietnamese church, I am still the attorney's wife, and what that expectation is is that I really should not speak unless spoken to, and I need to be that pretty, dressed-up wife—the trophy wife and not really more than that—it is hard for me. It is challenging for me to feel that I have to act a certain way and I cannot be myself. I am a really casual person. I am happiest in running tights and a t-shirt and tennis shoes and having to dress up and put on heels and makeup—oh my goodness! My mom, she is like, "You are going to go to church, you gotta put makeup on." It is hard to follow and play that traditional role for an hour on Sunday, so instead I just go to an English mass down the street where no one knows who I am and there is not that set of expectations and I can wear jeans and a t-shirt and a pair of tennis shoes.
With that said though, I have been thinking a lot about the Vietnamese Catholic community because what I do not love about it, my question to myself is, "How do I change that? How do I influence the next generation so that they do not feel what I am feeling? How do I empower young Vietnamese women, how can I be a role model? What can I do to change what I do not love about it, right?" I love God and I love my faith, so I have been talking to my husband a lot about it, of what can I do to make a difference in the lives of young women who may still feel the way I feel. I do not know if it has changed all that much. So that is kind of my own challenge to myself, and I think part of it is coming from my own experiences but also because I am an empty-nester. We sent our son off to college a couple months ago—I guess he has been gone a month—so it is just Thanh and I am trying to think, how can we help the Vietnamese community grow to be the best that we can be?
DK: That is wonderful, thank you for sharing. I am wondering if there are other ways during your childhood that your family connected with the Vietnamese community at large, besides your religious community and besides different experiences at school, whether that is community organizations or different businesses you chose to shop at?
ST: I think for my parents—my dad is a welder—and the community of his peers were not... there were not any Vietnamese welders, it was pretty much my dad. But my mom worked, I believe it is called soldering, so putting together pieces, and that community definitely had more Vietnamese workers. My mom had peers in her field that she was able to connect with and during breaks, share food. My dad, not so much. But I think my dad did have friends who were not part of the Vietnamese community, where he and his friends would play dominoes and card games, so they did that more as leisure. My mom was very much a family oriented person, she really did not feel the need or the desire, probably because she had five children, to be able to spend much time away from home. My dad had his friends and I do remember some of his friends, even though they were not Catholic, they were friends that he knew from Vietnam who were also in the community. He had connections to the Vietnamese community that way.
There were a couple of Vietnamese grocery stores early in the day and I believe one of them was called [unclear], which was across the street from Madison High School. I remember my mom going there quite a bit. For me, even going to a Vietnamese grocery store, it was always on Sandy. There was a big community, or business owners, on Sandy. But most of my parents' interactions were with family—they had a huge family—and then the Vietnamese [Catholic] community which continued to grow every year. That really was their biggest connection to other Vietnamese individuals, were through those avenues—their family and the Vietnamese church.
DK: What was it like for you to grow up around so many relatives and cousins in such a close proximity?
ST: Our family is very large and even today, it is even hard for me sometimes, because I want to say we have nearly fifty cousins in the area and lots of aunts and uncles. What has been really hard is as everyone ages, people are passing. It was so much fun. I think part of that was always also hard, it was like you do not have friends because you have your cousins. But they knew who you were and what you were able to do and we were actually able to have sleepovers with my cousins since I could not have sleepovers with my friends. It also comes with a lot of responsibilities. I was a lot of my younger cousins' babysitter for many, many years. We had lots of weddings and when everyone was at wedding age we went to a lot of weddings, a lot of baptisms. Now, I think more recently, it is harder with such a big family [because] now people are passing away. I have had my boss for ten years, eight years, so I feel like I am always telling him, "Hey, I am going to take a few days off because I am going to attend my cousin or my uncle or my aunt's funeral," and I swear he probably thinks, "Are you related to everybody?" I do not know if you know this about the Vietnamese Catholic community, but it is like three or four days of prayers. There is the wake and the burial and the headscarf, the mask for passing along the headscarf, so there are so many customs that literally you are at church three days out of the week.
But now my boss knows and understands, when I am like, "Hey, I need to take a few days off." He says, "Yep, that makes sense." He already knows all the customs, and I think from that perspective, it has been really helpful. Having such a big family is a lot of fun. I would not trade it for the world, I love it that pretty much all of them live in Portland. I have one cousin in Chicago, and since my kids are in Chicago now, it is fun because I can fly in and meet my cousin for dinner. I have two cousins in Southern California, but other than that, we all live in Portland—isn't that crazy? It is pretty crazy.
DK: That is crazy, in a good way though. It is nice that you have a few people in other places where you can go visit, too.
ST: Yes, definitely. I wish I had cousins in New York and Hawaii or something, but growing up it was a lot of fun. What I will have to add is the dynamics of going to the Vietnamese church where the different influx of immigrants—although all Vietnamese experiences are so different—I am closest to the cousins who came right around the same time I did. Growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s together is very different than growing up when you are teenagers and adults, where your cousins may not speak English as well, but their Vietnamese skills are incredible. What they grew up to know as normal is very different than what I grew up knowing as normal, so there is definitely a gap and I see it. I see my cousins who came about the same time I did, we understand each other better, the hardships are different. But I am so grateful that I came over when I was two years old because I did not have to struggle to learn a second language, whereas my cousins who came over as teenagers, they had to learn the language when it is much harder to learn.
DK: Shifting gears a little bit, I am curious, when in the city of Portland you have personally felt the most at home? Clearly you have been here pretty much your entire life, but when you think about your time here in the city, what makes you feel most at home. Also, what do you like about Portland and your community?
ST: Hmm. That is a really interesting question about when do I feel most at home? I feel most at home, no matter where I am in Portland, experiencing something I enjoy doing but surrounded by a diverse group of individuals. An example would be, I would feel really at home if I went wine-tasting and I was able to look around and see a diverse group of individuals. That would include enjoying a great meal in Portland—my husband and I love doing those types of events. We go to Broadway shows. Usually when we go to Broadway shows it is typically older, white Americans. When we go wine-tasting it is typically Americans. We went to see Ali Wong in downtown Portland and I had never seen so many Asians in my life and it felt pretty incredible. They say that representation matters. I felt really at home. I did not feel like I was an "Other." I thought that maybe it was just me. Portland is a very liberal city, but it is still not a very diverse city. There is a distinction there, and I thought maybe it is just me, because I am old school traditional Vietnamese, that I feel that way, but my kids even, when we go out to eat, they look around and are like, "Mommy, we are the only Asians in here!" [laughs] I feel a little out of place and I thought maybe it was just me, but my kids feel that way as well.
I think being away at college—college campuses are much more diverse than Portland as a city. They would come back and be like, "Oh my goodness, Portland is so not diverse," and I said, "I know! You knew that." We live in Happy Valley. I think going to see Ali Wong was funny, to see comedians that are Asian and to see so many Asians in line. It was an interesting feeling. I think I was able to relax. I think that would probably be one of the events that made me feel normal.
DK: Have you had particular experiences in Portland where you have felt discriminated against or examples of racism that you have witnessed?
ST: Yeah. I have a couple of examples. When I was little, I was called a "gook" a lot. It was probably in the ‘80s and I honestly had no idea what it meant. If I had asked my parents they probably would not have told me either. I asked my brother and he shared with me and I was like, "Oh. So it is not a nice thing." I think as a child when you experience that and it is against you and it is with another child, I feel like that is much more forgiving. I work in the Holiday area of Lloyd Center and I park in a parking garage across the street from my office building. A middle-aged white man, when I was walking outside of my parking garage to go to the front door of my office building—this is probably right before COVID, because I work remotely now—he walked up to me and he told me to "Go back to your own country. This is not your country, you are ruining everything." And then he called me a gook! At first, I did not know if I should be scared or angry, at first I was just confused. And then I walked into the building, and I was thinking, how did he know I was a gook? Asians—out of any derogatory name to call me why did he call me a gook? I just became more frustrated, because I was scared, I went to my office and closed the door and I sat down for a little bit trying to figure out, How do I handle this? I have a big team at work and they are really great people and they noticed that I was pretty distraught. One of them came to me and said, "Hey Sam, are you okay? You do not seem okay today." I told them what had just happened and he goes, "You know, you need to talk to the building security." I went down and talked to the building security and I think I just got more angry—she pretty much just dismissed it and said, "Oh, he probably was not okay in the head." I think that was one of my more recent experiences.
The other one is—maybe it was worse, because he was a police officer—I was driving in Happy Valley. This was fourteen years ago. I had long hair at the time, I had my hair up in a ponytail. I got pulled over by a cop, and I had noticed that he had flashed his lights. Except, Sunnyside has three lanes so it is a pretty busy road so I was going to make a left turn and then pull over on a less busy road. But apparently I must have looked extremely evil or like a bad person—so it was a red light. He gets out of his car, walks up to me, and says "Sir, excuse me sir. What are you doing in this neighborhood?" And my car was a nice car, it was not even a janky car. I turned and looked at him and said, "I am sorry, excuse me?" And he said, "Ma'am, did you not see me turn on the sirens?" I said, "Yeah, I saw it, I was just uncomfortable pulling over and having to change three lanes over in order to be safe." To be honest, I do not know if I was being profiled, I do not know if that was discrimination, but I do know that I did not break any laws, to be pulled over by a cop, so anxious that I was not pulling over quickly enough that he had to get out of the car in the middle of Sunnyside, which is a busy road. And then he calls me a man. So that definitely made me really distrust the Clackamas police. I do feel like I was being profiled—it was fifteen years ago and the community was not a big community of color. It was disappointing.
I think the last story I am going to tell you is that my husband and I pride ourselves in speaking Vietnamese to our children. We think it is really important to know a second language. I was blessed enough to have a pediatrician who encouraged that. She was like, "Sam, you need to make sure you speak Vietnamese to the kids at home." And I said, "Yes, I will speak Vietnamese to the kids at home." So we were at the mall, speaking to our kids, minding our own business—a white man literally walked up to us and said, "You are in America. Speak American." In my head, all my husband and I could think of was, "Wow. You can't even speak proper English and you are telling me to speak American?" So I think those are a couple examples where I felt—whether it is validated or not—felt discriminated against.
DK: Thank you for sharing. I am sorry about those instances.
ST: I think it happens and this is what I tell my children, because they have their own experiences as well. My husband laughs at me every time I say this but, "We need to meet people where they are at." Not all people are bad. Many things they believe are more of a result of them not understanding or not being aware. Being as open minded as possible and trying to bring people along. Share with them why certain things are important to you and why are these traditions so critical? Because the more they understand who you are, hopefully they will be less likely to be misinformed.
DK: We have been speaking for over an hour and I do want to be sensitive of your time. I know you have thought about several stories you wanted to share and I want to give you any opportunity to share anything else that you would like to share or if a different memory might have gotten stirred up as you were telling a more recent story—just giving you the opportunity to go back and add anything you would like to add.
ST: Dustin, you were great about pulling on more information on areas you thought would be interesting, so at this moment, I feel like I have just given you my whole life story. I guess what I do want to share—and I believe that I weaved it in at different parts—but despite the challenges of living in Portland or despite the discrimination that I have faced, and despite the fact that Portland Public Schools are trying to do something right but not getting it quite right, I am so grateful for the opportunities that our family has had in Portland. We are who we are and to be able to accomplish what we have been able to accomplish—I do not know if we would have been able to have that same opportunity in another country. I think part of my challenge is just the dynamics of being Vietnamese with those sets of rules and traditions, and then the desire of being more Western and trying to figure out what is the best. I often tell my kids, "Do what is right." “Right” may look different for everybody, but we have been so blessed to have a college education, to be able to have career advancement here, and it has not been an easy journey but I do not know if we would have been able to do it anywhere else.
DK: Thank you again for taking the time out of your afternoon to talk with us and share some of your story and know that it has been very much appreciated. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley speaking with Samantha Tran on Friday, August 20, 2021.