Zoë Maughan: This is Zoë Maughan and it is June 30, 2023. I'm meeting with Olyvia [Chac] at Watzek Library. Thank you for joining me and I'm wondering if you could start by stating your name and then just telling me a little bit about yourself.
Olyvia Chac-Nguyen: Sure. My name is Olyvia Chac and just really quickly before we start, I just want to say that the work you're doing with Lewis & Clark Library, like I told you last time, is such a brilliant byproduct of allyship and the goal in preserving Vietnamese history in the city is just really special and I am super excited to be here. Yeah, just moving forward… a little bit about myself. So I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon through and through the southeast area. And my parents, my dad came in the eighties and then my mom and my grandma, my mom's mom, came in… gosh, the late eighties, early nineties. And then, my dad, he actually is part Chinese as well. So my family, my dad immigrated his family from China to Vietnam during the eighties and seventies. Then he left on the boats and then my mom was a sponsored individual. Yeah, she was under the Amerasian baby law that Reagan signed in like 1980 and she couldn't come until like the nineties. So yeah.
ZM: Cool. You dove into this a little bit already, but I wonder if you could just tell me a little bit more about your family, your parents, and if you know what their experiences were like coming to the U.S.?
OC: Yeah, sure, buckle up! So my dad, like I mentioned to you, he was on the boats. He came in 1983. So every single time I go to the store and it says 1983, like the cost of my… I think like, “Oh, my dad came in 1983!” And his family was huge. I mean, he has seven sisters and then the three brothers, and then my grandparents. And then, at the time, some of my dad's sisters were married, so their partners came so it was a total of like twelve to fourteen people and their kids. And they went on the boats, but to be smart, they kind of split up. My dad went with some of his sisters and one of his parents and they split my grandma and grandpa up. Because, you know, a lot of folks… what happened was the previous people that went before us, they didn't make it because the whole family died and there were no surviving people. So they did it in waves and also you just can't travel with a really big family, you know, you can’t pay it off. So he came in the eighties, he ended up first in like Minnesota or Wisconsin, in the Midwest area.
Then my mom, when she came in the eighties, like I said earlier, she is actually half white half Vietnamese, so my grandma was able to go with her on the Amerasian baby law. I don’t know exactly what it's called, but they had a call out to sponsor all of the children of U.S. military G.I. So we had, you know, half white, half Black, we had half French. There were so many, and my grandma was telling me that when they left, they started off in a Philippine refugee camp first. So there was a holding area and then how my mom and dad met actually was his oldest sister, the oldest of the house, my Cô Hai, she actually did an arranged marriage because she was living in the Philippines in the same refugee camp with my grandma and my mom. And she said, you know, “I have a brother. He's like thirty-one,” considered very late to get married at thirty-one, “And, you know, if you're interested, we can make a deal.” So my dad was in Minnesota and then he made his way to Fresno, California, which is completely opposite temperature changes. Mom and Grandma went straight to Dallas. There was like a sponsor missionary there and they were in Dallas for about a year. My dad came over, met my mom for the first time, and it was game over. They got married in 1990 and I soon along came in 1992. It was great. And then they ended up in Portland just because some of the folks, they said that Portland was like, you know, the Oregon Trail, new gold, new money and opportunity because California at the time was very saturated and the Midwest was the first big area where a lot of Vietnamese folks were congregated when they came over, and then the furthest from us was like Seattle. Seattle, Washington was the first city and state to host Vietnamese refugees from the war. So they didn’t end up there, they ended up in Portland instead.
ZM: Great. Do you know where in Vietnam they were from?
OC: Yeah. My dad actually lived in Chợ Lớn, which is like a Chinatown area of Saigon and then my mom and my grandma's family they live in being from Biên Hòa Đồng Nai area, which is a little bit outside of the city. It's not too far. So yeah, they were in the southern area for a very long time. Yeah.
ZM: Do you know if there are any organizations, family members, friends, who helped your family establish themselves in the U.S.? And then maybe more specifically also coming to Oregon?
OC: Yeah, my dad basically had his family and then you know, they all kind of split up. His sisters all went to the Midwest or they relocated because my Bà nội and Ông nội, they bought a farm in Fresno. That's why they came to Fresno. And some of them went to help, but I think between Portland and California, they had that family structure, where my mom and my grandma didn't have that. They had a sponsor, so the sponsoring community in Dallas when they got there, there [were] just other half white Amerasian babies that were actually sponsored, as well. So they all kind of lived in the same area and they were there for, gosh, I think about a year or two. But that missionary or that sponsoring organization really helped them establish themselves when they got to the States.
ZM: So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about if you know what it was like for your family to adjust to life in the U.S.
OC: Yeah. I mean, very poor, low income. Like in the ‘eighties, I think… My dad still has that stupid same haircut from the 1980s… All of his friends tell him that. When my parents got married my dad owned a small grocery store here. There's just so much that I'll just congeal it to like what I know from my time life of my existence. My dad worked odd end jobs. My mom, my grandma, actually it’s really funny and pretty sure a lot of us resonate with this, during the nineties, right before they decided to outsource all of the factory work to China, my mom and grandma actually worked in the sewing company. So there was so many of my mom's friends now that also met during the sewing company. So when we’re out in public, even now I'm like thirty, ever since I was like a kid all the way till now she's like, “Oh, yeah, I used to work in the sewing factory with [them].” And my mentor, who I met in college, one time I ran into him and my mom was like, “I used to work at the sewing company.” They used to work for Pendleton before they outsourced.
ZM: That's what I was going to ask you because I have talked to somebody else about this.
OC: They were starting to do the apparel industry first, overseas. And then my mom went to go work for Wacker Siltronic, which is a technology wafer company, something about batteries. But basically, it was a big tech, Boeing, Freightliner, and all of those companies were pretty much the same in terms of building parts. She did that and then my grandma, she tried to work in the sewing factory. And then there was an umbrella company too, there was an umbrella company back in the day… I don't know what brand it was. But my mom ended up at the sewing factory longer than my grandma did it there and then she went to the umbrella company part time and then she, my grandma, stopped working after me and my sister came.
ZM: Great. A lot of the time in these interviews we will also talk about language and how folks adapted to learning English coming here. I'm curious if you have any specific stories or memories about how your family navigated that?
OC: Yeah. I mean, I'll start back in history, due to colonization, the French, they kind of changed our alphabet system into a Romanization and my grandma was actually a young teen when the French were still there because Indochina, the French occupation, ended in the fifties. Grandma was born in like ‘45. So she saw some of the influence, and she was at the tail end of the colonization, so there was a lot more of the benefits than seeing war and seeing actual pillaging of stuff. And so she said, you know, they left a lot of French influences. Pho, for example, has a lot of French influence, cheese and all this other cuisine. So when they came to learn English, it was easier for them because of the phonetics and then some additional letters, because Vietnamese has a lot of omitted words like W, no Z.
But I think they learned… it was a big thing in my family to have cable and watching channel two. So it was a really big thing for them to watch reruns of shows. I remember my grandma learned English through watching Golden Girls, and R.I.P. Alex Trebek, Jeopardy! Another nice white man on the TV! And so the Golden Girls because my grandma was aging and she didn't see... She thought this was like the end of, you know, you start taking care of the grandkids and you don't have like a life of your own, and she came by herself because my grandfather, which I'll get into later, he went back to the U.S. to sign another contract but in 1972 they pulled the troops. And that was the year my grandmother gave birth to my mother and he couldn’t come back. Yeah, so that's a headline. And then, newspapers and just learning and there was a lot of them… there was these books, they were like these books that everyone got for vocabulary, they’re basic and they were like cartoon… I can’t remember the brand, but we had tons of them at the house and there were just like stacks of them.
And, you know, I think during the time in the nineties, there was a lot of movies that were getting pushed out about the Vietnam War. Again R.I.P. Robin Williams, Good Morning Vietnam. I couldn't go three days without hearing “Good morning Vietnam!” Right? That scene. They just watched a lot of movies and I think through having us they learned a lot of English too, because during that time remember at Disney, before the vault happened, right? The VHS tapes and the movies and the kids books, I think helped them learn English even further. And then just us going through school. My parents, because they didn't know English, they didn't put my sister and I in ESL classes. So yay we weren't in ESL, but like all the stuff that they got, I just think was media really, TV and like trends at the time, like having the kids. I think one of the things about my parents that really push[ed] them forward is like making us not feel other or less than when we were in school. So they try their hardest to really work and get like those really cool velcro shoes at the time, you know, the Toy Story ones. Barbie. Again Barbie is making a comeback now but Barbie was a big thing in the nineties. So I think it was just watching cartoons and watching alongside us really helped them learn English.
ZM: Yeah, that makes sense. A lot of folks have also commented on the climate coming to Portland, like physically, like the weather. I'm curious if you have heard from your family at all, like I know some families that came in the winter and it was very shocking. [OC: Yeah!] But also I know having some of the natural areas and the rain and stuff has also been something that folks like. I'm just curious if you know any thoughts about that.
OC: My dad, because he lived in the Midwest, he says,”You don't know cold.” We all know Minnesota’s nickname is Minnesnowta. He's like, “You don't know what snow up to your waistline is.” He got the cold down. My mom and my dad both came to Portland in the summer but she came from Dallas, Texas, it's really hot down there all the time. Or you know when it is, summer is brutal. And so, they first went to California in Fresno because my parents farm first. And then they had their ceremony there, so they kind of acclimated their bodies. And my mom is just so warm-blooded that she breaks a sweat when it's over sixty-five. I’m the same way. So she actually likes the rain. So does my dad. My dad's like, “You really don't know cold. You will never know cold, hot you also will never know.” So you know it's been like a very good change for them. I feel like my grandma took it the hardest because she's tiny, so she was very cold-blooded, so she loved it hot. And when she came, she's like, “It's too cold here.” Way too cold because going from Vietnam to Dallas is pretty much the same. So yeah, she's always the one that’s like, “Take your jacket, it's cold out.” Relax, it’s sixty-five degrees. It’s going to be hot.
ZM: You alluded to this a little, but if you could share a little more about how your parents met. [OC: My parents!] But also even going further back if we want, if you want to talk about your grandma and how she met your grandpa.
OC: Yeah, so my dad first. I don't really know too much. I think there is a part of growing up that your parents have these, not secrets, but like you know, when you're mature, you understand why people hold certain things. And with the boat people, I never really asked my dad about that process because you know, there was times where he would openly have a Freudian slip and I would get it because I had other friends' parents tell me that they also asked their parents and it didn’t end up very well. So I like the Freudian slips. And then, you know, obviously when I get in trouble when I hear the lectures that are like, “I used to walk five miles every day with no shoes.” And my mom, though, and my grandma, going back, actually she was a maid on the U.S. military base in Long Bình. So she would take a little tuk tuk, I don't even know what to call it in English, it's like a little shuttle thing. This thing didn't have any doors, it's why I don't call it a shuttle because shuttles actually have doors, and she would take it to the base every day. And she was a maid and she was, I mean, she's the cleanest woman I know. But she made it up in the ranks, if you want to say, so she was doing the squadrons first, she actually made up to a lieutenant and there was Westmoreland, he was a big sergeant. She went up to that rank.
So it was one of those situations and my grandfather, his name is Gary, this is all I know because his last name, my grandma couldn’t remember, it was Vis but it's actually Weissman which is German. And because of the W, she missed the other half of his name because if you really think about it, when anyone in the military has their name displayed on their uniforms, but when you crinkle the uniform or you’re moving, half the name gets, you know, [concealed]. And this is a very traumatic story for her because she raised my mom and she navigated this whole entire immigration thing and just life by herself, that there are things that are just cut out. But he was a lower rank and my grandma was up in one of the sergeant's cabins one day cleaning and stripping the linens and stuff and he, Grandpa Gary, decided to tease my grandmother by not letting her through or pass one of the places. And he thought it would be cute to tease her and it was really funny because when she told me, she got so upset that she started crying and she went downstairs and reported to the sergeant and he was pissed. So he went back upstairs and was like, “Why is she crying? Why are you messing with my maids?” And because he was a lower rank… when you get in trouble in the military from my understanding, you get in trouble. So, you know, the sergeant was very unhappy. She told me these other stories of him trying to court her or wait for her, because back then we didn't have cell phones, obviously, and it was just by other people seeing. So her other maid friends would be like, “Hey, you know Gary's looking for you.” Like, “He’s looking for you,” and my grandma was like, “No, I don't have time for that.”
And fast forwarding, they got together, but I think I mentioned to you this before, Zoë, that my grandma… my sister and I have asked her all our lives, “Do you want to find Grandpa Gary?” And she was like, “No, I don't want to have anything to do with him.” And I was like, “Alright, we're not gonna push.” You know, it was very hard for her and so in 2017, she had this bout of rebound hypertension. And for those who don't know, when we have rebound hypertension or high blood pressure that is basically rebounding off the normal range, it mimics large symptoms of heart attack and it makes it very hard for you to breathe and if you don't get medical attention right away, it's not very good. So she thought she was dying and, you know, old Vietnamese women and grandparents, they love to do this, but she thought she was dying. So what she did was she gave me a wad of cash from her mattress that I have no idea how she collected in cash and told me, “Use this to find Grandpa” or just find it, like I'm gonna die soon, find him.
So we start, my sister and I start, and we use the power of social media. We don't get anything for months, weeks. We make my mom spit in these tubes like Ancestry.com [and] 23andMe. My poor mother, she's just spitting in these random tubes and we're just sending off to the lab. We don't get any hits. And so, you know, because the Genome Project and DNA testing was a really big thing the last decade that just exploded, right? For people's personal benefit, but also to find people like this, right? This has been a really big help. She was like, “Find him.” So my sister and I go into these Facebook alumni groups of these veterans that are still alive. We go to the Long Bình one, but the Long Bình one has so many different segments, there's like 185th, 146th, so that made it even harder because I don't know shit about the military. My friends and I tried to help with Google and stuff, we couldn't find grandpa yet, but we actually found my grandma's first boyfriend. And he's just like, a sweet old Jewish man living in Philadelphia. My sister thought it was a scam, like this old man is trying to scam her. And so she's like, “Send me proof.” And he actually had this film photo of him and my grandma. Him back in the day with his cute little mustache and his glasses and my grandma, just her in her twenties. And I was like, “This is not a joke,” because I have a box of my grandma's photos, right? And I was like, “This is real.” My sister's like, “Oh, my God.” And so my sister is talking to my grandma about it and she's like, “Do you remember him?” And my grandma, she was kind of like, “Oh no. They found him.” Like the first one. And then my grandma was like, “Yeah,” and then she starts retelling all these stories she's told me since I was like, old enough to remember anything, and she omitted him out of stories. Like I've heard this before and you totally did not tell us that he was there. And it just was crazy and even till now you know, he's a couple years younger than my grandma, but we found the first one on our journey to find our actual grandpa. We actually found out earlier last year, or in 2021, that he actually died in 2017. So the year she started looking for him, he actually passed away but he is who would be presumed to be him. So I'm sitting there like, “This is not real. Because we've been searching and we keep getting let down, right?” Keep getting let down and I'm like, “What is his name? Please for the love of everything that is holy, please remember his name.” We're telling her to go back into her brain fifty-five years ago and she's like, “His last name is Gary Vis.” And I looked at my sister and she’s like, “It's not, it was Gary Weissman.” And I took German in college and in high school, I was like, “No, it's Gary Weissman [pronounces the name with a W sound] but it's Gary Weissman [pronounces the name with a V sound]. W makes a V sound, right?” And my sister is like, “How did you know that?” I was like, “I took German for fun, but the word got me.” It helped out!
When that happened, and we presumed that it was him, and he was survived by his sister and he had like three wives and he had a bunch of boys. My mom was the only female. [ZM: Oh, wow.] And I remember my grandma telling me that, “Your grandpa really wanted a girl and there was only one.” So he didn't look for her, he didn't look for them. We know a lot of stories and even in like those movies, they dramatize [that] people just forget, they want to forget or you know, they don't live long enough to see… there were some vets that did not make it to their fifties because they drank themselves to death. So there was just a lot of that but yeah, that's a wild story. I can go on and on about that because there's so many weird things that my grandma just—not even Freudian slips in there—but [that] she casually slips in those conversations, I’m like, “He was there. Your first boyfriend was there, what about Grandpa?” And she would just retell the stories and I’m like, “This. Is. Wild.” The year her first boyfriend got married, 1972, was the year that my grandma gave birth to my mom. My mom was born the first of January 1972. The New Year in the American calendar. So it's really symbolic. I believe in like, I'm not superstitious, but like the great Michael Scott says, I’m stitious, right? So I like those full circle moments and I told my grandma you know, “It's OK that we didn't find him, now you know,” and my grandma is a devout Buddhist. And also Vietnamese culture is very ancestral so now that she knows the day that he died and he passed… we found that out on the app. I kept telling my mom to spit in these tubes and then we reached out to this woman who matched like eight percent, through the app. Eight percent is like, you know, half of the half of a slice of a pizza. New York pizza, and that's too many halves. And so she's like, “Well, now we have a twelve percent chance of connection with this other woman,” who was his sister, my grandpa's sister. And so this woman says that she's British, she's English. And I was like, “Oh, Mom's British. Tea time!”And the woman reached out… because the woman actually said there was an eight percent chance back in like, 2018, right? But she says we're not related. Then she gets back on the app and she says, “Hey, there's a twelve percent chance with this other, I just want to update you.” It’s been years now. [ZM: Because there are new connections.] Yeah, and unfortunately, I tried reaching out to the sister to pay for genetic testing, pay and send these to you and to UPS and she refused. From my understanding they lived in northern or southern Carolina. I'll leave it at that. They are welcome to some communities of people and some not. So the sister, she just was like, “No, my brother never had any children out of wedlock,” and it was sad because I was the one that messaged her first… crickets, and my mom, the poor woman, she just messaged herself, and was really aggressive with the woman. And I told my mom, I was like, “You can't be doing that.” And when the woman messaged back, because Mom was not the best [at] English but the tension was there, and so the woman ended up messaging my mom back instead and I was like, really that was a moment where I wish that she didn't do that, [that] she would have listened to me. Of all things that you could have done when I told you no, that was probably the one where I was like, “Don't do it.” And, you know, that's how they like to play up there. And you know, that's the fate and the woman got back to her and was like, “No, he never had…” And I was like, “What can I do?” This is this is information where you're like, not destroying people's lives, but disturbing them.
And that was the thing that I was so anxious about, like this woman, what if she says no? My poor mother—I have a dad!—and it's really hard when you watch someone else who doesn't have a dad, like my mom, not to have one or be this close and get denied. She knew that though, the moment she did that and she—I’m not the parent—went against what I advised and did that and it just sucks because she died earlier this year, in 2022, the sister died. So we never knew and I think it's one of those moments where it is what it is and sometimes it be like that and you just have to live with that as the truth. My grandma got really sick in 2021 and she also was going to pass but then when we found him and all this extra stuff I was just like, “Well, you have the answer. It’s not the one you're looking for, but it's an answer. There's concreteness.” So now every year, the last two years that we found out she passed, she put some food on the altar for him and like prays and stuff. So it was there. It's weird. It's a novel. It's a nonfiction novel waiting to happen, right? And not another like Saving Private Ryan, right? Like, you know, Vietnamese movies but a very small segment of what it looked like because, there's a lot of racism that happened towards Amerasian babies, especially the difference between the segregation between the white half babies and the half Black babies. My mom was able to go to school and write in Vietnamese, but her friend who was half Black, can't read or write Vietnamese. She can speak Vietnamese, she just can’t read or write. Yeah, we can go on and on about it! But that's Grandpa Gary’s story.
ZM: So I wonder now if we can go back to the question I asked first, which is about how your parents met. Just some general info about that, whatever you want to share.
OC: Yeah. From what I remember is my dad's older sister made that arrangement and then my grandma was asking like, “Are you sure? You want to marry this man?” My grandma has always been, and she still is, like, “I'm gonna let you do that. And then you could tell me what you feel like because I'm gonna tell you this right now—it's not because I'm right—but these are my thoughts and concerns and some questions, right?” And she was like, if you are sure you want to meet this man and after that he came over and put his game on and gave my mom food—my mom’s a big foodie and that’s why I am too—he spoke to her through her stomach and spent a week out there and really sucked up to my grandma. My mom's like, “Aight. I'll marry you.” Right? And so my grandma was like, “Are you sure? This is your life. You've got to live with it. Just remember that whatever you put yourself through, you’re going to put me through because I'm not leaving you. There's nowhere I’m going to go.” At that point, in Portland, my grandparents—my dad's parents were in California—so there was no way that they could do childcare back then. Plus like back in the nineties, even if I have a grandma, I would be at the neighbor's house. Like one neighbor looks out for all the kids, gets paid under the table. So that's how my parents met and then they had a wedding at Legin Restaurant, which now doesn't exist anymore because PCC took it over. But I can guarantee you if other guests in the pod, their parents, most likely, or their friends got married back at Legin Restaurant back in the day too. It was a big, big deal.
ZM: So now talking about you a little bit. This is such a broad question, so take it where you will but can you talk a little bit about your childhood and maybe the neighborhood or neighborhoods depending on where you grew up and childhood generally, but also, reflections on Portland and that space?
OC: Yeah, I won't dox myself but I will say I live and have lived and still live in the Lents Neighborhood and that area, if you know other guests in the pod they'll probably say I also lived in the area. It's a very low income neighborhood area, still is. In the Lents Neighborhood, that goes all the way to Flavel and then down towards the Powell-Holgate-Division area. And there's other streets in between there too, but those are the major streets. I grew up in the nineties, it was pretty eclectic. I wouldn't say it's as diverse as like LA and stuff, right? Because Portland is still a very white city, but when I was a kid, there [were] other Vietnamese families across the street, and then there was a Latino family across the street and a Mexican family. And then, you know, I've only moved like a couple blocks away from where I lived, and so one block was where all the Vietnamese people live, and we had some Chinese neighbors, we had some Taiwanese neighbors, and then you know, in between the other really nice like, white families that live there too. And so I've lived my whole life in this area and in the nineties, especially in the schools, it's very eclectic, we had a lot of… there was a Russian population and there was a, little bit halfway through middle school, there also was like a Somalian and African population that started to immigrate too, and we had plenty of diversity. So I would say the diversity that happened among us was diversity in class and socioeconomic. So you know, it's just the poor kids grow up together, right? And then you just go to school with the same kids or once you get to high school you split up but I lived in an area where there was still a ton of… Vietnamese culture was not too far. Let's just say that.
So one of the examples I remember is growing up, my grandma would let us watch Tom and Jerry, but then she would like… she was scared when I was like four or five, she's like, “You're going to forget Vietnamese.” And so she would go to these torrented VHS stores back in the day right and you'd come in and it was walls of VHS tapes and then the owner would just be like, “Oh, this is the latest Hong Kong drama dubbed in Vietnamese, take it home.” And it would be like, I'm talking bags of just VHS tapes, right? They weren’t like DVDs where they were slim or anything, or Paris By Night, but I remember as a kid I watched a lot of Bé Xuân Mai. I don't know if any other guests mentioned that. But she, so Xuân Mai—she has to be at least like in her 30s now—but she was, at that point, a five year old who was just very adorable, very cute and she sung a lot of Vietnamese childhood songs, like what we call nursery rhymes. She would teach, she would dance, she would sing. My sister and I would watch and sing along. And, you know, when you're in kindergarten, you have half days. I went in the morning and my sister went in the afternoon. So my grandma would turn it on intermittently and let us watch and make us sing along. Sandy Boulevard was a really big area where a lot of Vietnamese restaurants were and grocery stores. Now it's a little bit different. But yeah, just remembering not going too far. And I grew up Buddhist, so temples and stuff were very close to us. Let's just say I live in a very central area, even now like Fubonn and other places are very close.
ZM: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experiences going to school. You don't have to share where you went, but if you want to share where you went, I know that that's a lot with going from elementary to middle to high school. But whatever you want to share, just some experiences of being a student of Portland.
OC: Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I call it, I feel like I have this—knock on wood [knocks on table]— this scholarly curse. So like my sister and I, we went to elementary school. Well, I did—because her high school still exists—so I went to an elementary school, middle school, and high school that either changed their name, rebranded, or closed. So I went to Clark Elementary and they changed to Creative Science School. Binnsmead, the Bulldogs, was the most glamorous of my school years, they changed to Harrison Park, a K–8. And then Marshall High School, obviously, I was like the second to last cohort before they closed and now that area is just a big holding ground for PPS schools as they go through all the remodeling. So like when Madison closed for remodeling, they moved back to that campus and then with Benson. So that's what the building is used for. But yeah, I went there and then you know, went off to college. Want me to talk about college?
ZM: If you have any experiences you want to share about prior to that, but the next section is a dive into college so we have time for that, too.
OC: When I was going through the elementary school system, we had a lot of kids and a lot of my friends went through ESL. And so there was a really big need for English as a second language because at that time, grew up in the nineties, there were so many people still immigrating from Vietnam because of the war. And that's like twenty years in already from when the mass exodus of the Diaspora started. Every single race and country, there's more and more refugees. And so when I was growing up, I didn't feel that I was very lonely in my identity. I had outlets of like, you know, even if I couldn't pick up Vietnamese or Vietnamese friends, I had like Latino friends that would listen to like Enrique Iglesias, it was really great. And Walmart… that's another reason why I was very culturally connected. Walmart and other other places that just existed, had resources and the library, the public library, so Multnomah County Library, that was really big.
I was a library kid. I live in Multnomah County and so the Holgate Library was the closest library to me. And I remember doing the summer reading program and then I started volunteering and I started just like reading all the books and like from there, too. I had this big stack of like…my sister and I would go, and my mom thought it was, my sweet mother thought it was, safe babysitting, which it is because they have their reference librarians in the kids section and they were wonderful people. And we just read books that were in English that talked about Vietnamese folklore or myths and stuff. So we didn't have concrete resources in Vietnamese at that point. So it was a very backwards and forwards experience of getting into culture, like retaining it, because now you see there's so many resources and so many books that have been brought over from other countries in the native language. And now even in the school system in PPS, we have Vietnamese immersion programs and Japanese immersion programs. I was like, “Where was that when I was a kid?” I would love to do that, right? Because you go even further into culture, but you also get to share it with all the other students who are learning. And they don't look like you. And you realize, they actually—that the parents also support them learning Vietnamese as a second language. Yeah, so it was a wild experience.
ZM: Yeah, I think those programs are so great, having that community built in. Because I feel like I have talked to so many people who are like, “I'm fluent,” or “I speak some Vietnamese but I don't have anyone to speak with.” [OC: Yeah!] Having that community, it's a really great program. So you have spoken to this a little bit, but growing up in Portland, did you feel connected to the Vietnamese community here and why or why not?
OC: Yeah, so aside from going to school… My grandma lived with my family: my sister, my mother, my dad, and I until I was about eighteen years old. Then she moved out on her own to this cute little retirement community. And now I sometimes live with her. But she said that—there was this famous movie back in the day, don't know if you remember it, you can Google it, but Dennis the Menace. Do you remember? [ZM: Mhmm.] He literally is a menace, a pain in the ass. So my grandma, because she was learning English, we watched those like Mr. Magoo and the Pink Panther. [ZM: Yeah.] She says, “You are just as bad as Dennis the Menace. We need to put you somewhere. Right? And so she went to temple, like every single weekend. And it was a local temple, not too far from us, like ten minutes. So she's like, “You're going to Sunday school. You're no longer watching Sunday morning cartoons. We're putting you and your sister into Sunday school.” And then my sister would be like, “Why do I have to go? I'm not bad!” And it's like, if she goes, you go. It'll be good for everybody.
And I would say that having a community of anhs and chịs, older brothers and sisters, and people my age or younger, there was a very good foundation of community and learning how to be an adult and learning how to be not a menace, I think really helped. Every week it would be culture classes, like learning about Buddhist philosophy classes, and then it'd be Vietnamese classes. I didn't go up far in the ranks because, you know, we had so many kids joining and not enough teachers, so I was in second grade for like, God, five years. But nonetheless, during that time, I feel like I can't go on life without saying that it really changed my perspective on how to be a good individual. And if you know anything about Buddhism, it's not about devotion, but it's a way of life and how to reduce suffering in your life in certain aspects and ways. So there's many rules and it's kind of strict, if you let it be strict. So, you know, not everything I do or want to do is inherently bad, there's just consequences to your actions. I had a good time and community there, I grew up with a lot of them. When you get older, you just grow apart from people, right? And then the older anhs and chis that looked after you, they also get older and they have other priorities.
So I went from when I was like about seven all the way to like [my] twenties, like twelve years. I can't do math right now. Twelve, thirteen years, and then you know…it’s so hard to just keep in touch with everyone. My sister did too, she went for twelve years. And through there actually and then starting to volunteer at the library like I mentioned earlier, I kind of was able to just learn culture and go to things like when they started doing the Tết or the Lunar New Year at the Convention Center. We would go and we'd hang out and meet other kids and I never felt that I was too far from culture because of that inherent Buddhist Vietnamese community and it's different… if you have other guests talk about the church community because they do something similar but they're a little bit more rigid on like class time and stuff. They really treat it like class, like they graduate with their age group where like, in my sense, like the Vietnamese classes, because there's a second grade, I remember being fifteen at that point and some of the other kids were like eight or nine. So you don't grow with your classmates or with your rank, you pass the classes. I never felt that I couldn't learn anything or was, you know, culture wasn't there. So I felt like I could connect in some way like if it was through speaking Vietnamese with my other friends, or it was through showing up to temple on Sunday, or if it was like going out to this outreach event, or just like at the library telling people about these resources. Because year after year, when I graduated they started getting Korean dramas that were dubbed in Vietnamese and people were renting them. I was checking them out for my grandma. And then books and more books and more books.
ZM: So we've already touched on this, but my question was do you participate in any religious or community organizations, particularly in your childhood, and if you could talk about experiences. So I don't know if there's anything else you want to share about the temple or if there are other community groups?
OC: Yeah, this particular one I was in was called Gia đình Phật Tử and it's like a really big Buddhist community and it started originally in Vietnam. So when it came to the U.S. and Canada and France, for example, because when we grew up, a lot of us were a part of the social media era, so we connect with people but they have groups and chapters and regions across the U.S. The one that I went to, unfortunately does not exist anymore because there just wasn't enough hands and feet to upkeep and facilitators and leaders and stuff. There's also like, when you move up ranks and stuff to become from a kid all the way to a teenager and then you go into being a leader, a Huynh Trưởng you actually have to go to training. So those are camps that you go through and you earn your badges. So we actually had to wear a uniform, it was navy blue pants, and then it would be a gray áo lam. So the reason why we wore those was because in Buddhism, we believe that or, the philosophy of the Gia đình Phật Tử and the áo lam is that all the colors of the world mixed together come out as that gray color, the áo lam color, and there is no one above or beneath you, when you have that on. We're all equal. So that's why some of the anhs and chis who technically should have called chú or cô, we didn't call them that. We called them Anh and Chị. So it was very much like, we're all level, we're all equal. That also expanded into all the other regions or when we would go have meet ups. We had a northwest meet up because there was a huge community of Gia đình Phật Tử in Seattle, they have multiple chapters, where here in the city, there was about two, one or two, we were the biggest and then there was another temple that had it. I don't know too much about them, but they were local. Yeah, twelve years of my life. I can say that. Started when I was a kid.
ZM: So is there any equivalent that you or your family participate in today now that that is no longer in existence?
OC: No, my mom and my dad are not super religious but they’ll go because we have my grandma's parents and my great-grandparents and my grandpa and grandma. They have their ashes or their pictures at a temple so we go and we pay our dues and stuff. And we lay incense and stuff but not to that scale. Yeah, I was it. Couldn't really find something like that after I started college. It was different, it transitioned into something else.
ZM: That makes sense. This is another one where we've touched on it a lot already, but I'll ask it just in case it elicits anything else. As a child did anyone encourage you to learn about Vietnamese language, culture, and tradition? Sounds like yes. And if so, how were you encouraged to do that?
OC: This all kind of ties into your other—this is a good question, by the way— because it ties into what you asked earlier about how did my parents and my grandma learn English. They learned it but not fast enough to have these high level conversations of like, when you get older, like even when I was like fourteen or fifteen, the conversations I would have with my teachers and my peers, they were a little bit more complicated and complex, right? Because when you're fifteen, you're like at a ninth grade reading level now. And so my dad, I remember, he still does this to this day—I love him to death—like when I was a kid, I would ask my dad to explain things and he would explain in English first, and I don't understand what he’s saying. I cannot understand his English, right? I was like, can you just explain in Vietnamese? And so that aspect was very comical, like I cannot for the life of you, understand your English but I understand your Vietnamese perfectly. Can you like at least—not even code switch—just switch over and explain it, right?
And I think that's how my sister and I really understood… like this was the other week I was trying to explain taxes or like something like buying a house and I was like, Dad, what the hell are you talking about? Can you just explain a mortgage in Vietnamese because that's like, in my brain, that's the language I hear first. Like even if I'm reading I sometimes translate it in my head. And so I'm like, I feel like my brain is going to explode trying to understand his English but it's also mixed with a lot of Vietnamese references. So when I was a kid that happened a lot and then my grandma, she’s like, “No, I'm gonna explain it to you like this,” and I think that she only schooled me on was navigating the bus process, the Trimet system, because she used to go to her appointments on her own at OHSU on the hill by herself. She’s like, “Take the seventeen to the eight to the nine—” and I’m like, “Where do you start?” “On Sixth street,” And I’m like, “But that doesn't make sense because we live on like, bigger number streets like why is six turned into ten? What southwest, northwest?” She would like, “Take this, take this, take this,” and I was like, “Wow.” And she would be explaining things, like Macadam or Terwilliger and all these big names and I don’t understand—never seen before. But yeah, that to me always centers it back and I think food is a big connection, too. And maybe the other guests have told you too, across the city someone's like, “Oh, what's the best place to get Bánh hỏi? What's the best place to get Bò lá lốt?” And it's like, this lady at this number at this house. It's never this place, this establishment with the food license, right, or like a visible establishment, right? To be honest, because of the pandemic, it really screwed a lot of them over. The Bun Hue lady, to my understanding, at this time, in 2023, she doesn't have anyone helping her make the bun hue anymore because a lot of the workers went back to Vietnam. So she started off doing fish sauce, like selling bottles, like we made fish sauce, right, and some other like byproducts of the flour that doesn't require her to use a sheet tray because she's eighty years old and she's still sitting in her little factory making it and so, unfortunately, like earlier this year, my mom asked her, like, “Can I order some stuff?” She’s like, “No, I’m done.” So now we just go to Bui’s Tofu, you know?
Food, culture, music. Music was never a limitation. Like Paris By Night, are you kidding me? And at one time Tinh Productions Vân Sơn he was a comedian back in the day, he had his own entertainment company and then our parents just like… Right now, it's quiet. I did not grow up in quiet. I grew up in, you know, turned up speaker of music blasting all the time. If you know any of the artists, like Minh Tuyet for example, she's really famous. Johnny Dũng, like these people just sing on these major publications all the time, on Paris by Night. So it was never a moment of absolute peace. Even now, like at my grandma's house, she'll be listening to soap operas so there was never a dull moment for me to hear something and if you know anything about language learning, auditory is like, massive. And you'll hear a lot of people say that like, I cannot form a sentence but if I hear it I can tell you exactly what it is in English. So that aspect for me really helped me just soak it up and that's actually how a lot of my other friends learned Vietnamese culture, too. Just by picking up the food and asking like, what is this? It's like rice flour, and rice noodles, in six different ways. [whispers] Twelve. [laughs].
ZM: Great. So shifting a little bit to more college and career. I’m wondering if you could talk about how you decided to go to OSU and what that was like, what you studied. [OC: Yeah.] And a big question that's kind of lingering, or looming over this, is also I'm curious what your experience was like moving away from Portland for the first time, what that was like. First, we can just start with how did you decide to go to OSU?
OC: Yeah, when I was in high school, I honestly didn't think I was gonna go to college because everyone and their mothers were like, “It’s expensive, you’re not going to make it.” Bless my counselor back in the day, her name was Erin Hale. I don't know if she's still working as a school counselor, but bless her soul. She was like, “You're going to college. There's no way you're wasting your talent and your smarts. And there are scholarships, there’s money. And if not, borrow from the government.” She was the first one that sold me on FAFSA, you know, like back in the day and I didn't understand any of this and I told my dad I'm like, “I’m not going to college.” And he’s like, “You're going.” And I wanted to pursue art at first, but I was like, “No, that's not the right way.” Because obviously, and everyone that is listening to this, the model minority myth was still a really big thing. And for me, my parents never forced me. Very fortunate because my parents are a little bit younger. I feel like when I told my journey, a lot of my friends are like, “Your parents are younger, on the younger side, so they're not super, super Vietnamese.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” But they made a point. They are younger. And they were like, “We’re not going to force you to study, but if you want to, this is a safe route.”
So I forced myself to study medicine at OSU. They have a lot of science programs, a big vet school. They have a really big connection with OHSU and pharmacy, and then like pre-med, everyone that was going to do pre-med went to OSU instead of University of Oregon, they were more liberal because that's how they were marketed back in the day. And so I thought it'd be cool to be a Beaver and then I got on a bus one day during a college tour. Again, my counselor, bless her soul, organized one. [I] went to campus and fell in love with it. Fall time in Corvallis is beautiful. It's like everything that you've seen in a movie about winter or like pre-winter autumn. The colors, that's Corvallis, Oregon for you. It was far enough away where I could still go home and hitch a ride home and it wasn't… At that time I also did this pre-college program called Minds Matter and thinking back on it, these other other students who are going through these programs, they were actually going to like Wellesley College or going to like Columbia. We had folks that went to NYU, big schools, but I was like, “I want to be big too, I want to be a dreamer, but like I’ll miss my family too much.” You know? So I decided to go to Oregon State and then another friend of mine was going to Oregon State at the time, and so I was like, it'd be great just to hang out all the time. But when I got there, my high school was very small because Marshall actually got split up into different consortium schools, two. I was in the art school. Long story short, I studied medicine but I still wanted arts as an expression, a release, anyway. So when I got there, I only knew three people in my class that went to college, but also to Oregon State, versus my other friends, they went to Central Catholic and half their class went to went to OSU with them so they had people they knew. So I kind of went alone because those other two girls that went, they lived off campus, very far. And they were all still trying to figure out their stuff too. Just because you're eighteen and you don't really know anything.
For me, it was different because I just moved alone, I didn’t really… Yeah, and I remember my first week I was like this close to moving home because I couldn't find anything on campus, didn't know where anything was, and I was at the middle of campus and this bike almost hit me. I’m not kidding you, this dude had the biggest mountain bike and he almost ran me over and I remember going to my dorm room and crying, like “I’m going home.” And then I cried myself to sleep, woke up the next morning, and I’m like, “I’m not going anywhere,” and I got invited to my first VSA meeting, Vietnamese Student Association meeting. And I went and I felt like home. I felt like I was home again at Sunday school, but it was a Wednesday, middle of the week and I went to this retreat because I skipped, I was like, “Nah, this is too many people. This is not for me. It’s too many people.” So I skipped for two weeks and they were like, “Well, why don't you just come to retreat? Come on this beach retreat. We’ll be gone for a weekend, we’ll take you.” And then we'll see if you want to keep going. I went on the retreat. The next seventy-two hours was probably… I made so many new friends. I had no idea like and after that, I just kind of like, I kind of just stuck around with them.
My college experience is very weird. Like I lived in the dorms for three years, because my sister didn't come to Oregon State, she was still contemplating coming to Oregon State, so I didn't know if I was gonna get an apartment or not, but it was easier living on campus. I lived on campus for three years and I changed my major seven times, and when I finally decided on it, it was public health. I never did any Public Health-specific things to build my career, I just did a lot of VSA stuff and student events and activities because that was my outlet and that was my community, right? We know you can find communities in other ways but yeah, that was my experience at OSU. And I can go on and on about more but that's kind of how I remember OSU and later in life I went somewhere else that was controversial, scandalous [laughs]. There was a chant back then: I bleed black and orange. I’m a Beaver, I’m a baby Beaver through and through. If someone's like, who's your alma mater? OSU. One hundred percent.
ZM: I wonder if you could share a little bit about your professional trajectory and what it looked like from there until your next educational milestone. Just kind of, what have you been doing?
OC: Well, I pretended I was the life of the party and I took five years at Oregon State instead. Everyone was doing that, that was the era of when five was the new four. Because [what] I heard from a lot of alumni was, “Don't rush. Take your time. There's nothing out here but bills and more bills and paying off student debt or you’re having fun in college.” So I left OSU, I graduated in 2015 and then I went to work for OHSU. Yeah, I went to work for OHSU, started in 2015 as well. And then I was there for four years, worked in family medicine, and halfway through, I started to get very bored, and the people around me weren't thinking the same way I was. It wasn't their fault, it was just I knew that I was different and I didn't understand how different I was. At that point, I'd studied medicine for twelve years already and I did, aside from all the stuff I mentioned already, other supplemental programs that were health-based and I would sacrifice my summers for them. Really just anything medicine or anything that had to do with health care, I did.
And I started to rethink… I was turning twenty-five sooner at the time. And what is it, a quarter life crisis? Quarter life crisis started at like twenty-three and it's still going. I’m thirty now. But I started to think about what I actually wanted to do and at the time, I was volunteering for another nonprofit organization called UNAVSA and I was trained by a business development strategist and a web designer. And so they're like, “You're pretty good at writing, you [could] actually do this thing.” And I was like, “What is it called?” Copywriting with a W, not an R, right? Because lawyers copyright and underwriters copyright and so I didn’t know that I could make money, like good money, writing. Being a writer, at that time, I thought it was like writing novels and textbooks and stuff and I didn’t understand that this was a smaller segment of it. So I started digging into that and in 2018, I was committed to just flipping my life and changing around and going in to different industry, but I really didn't like gung ho stick to it until 2020 when it was like, gosh, three months into the pandemic and everyone was having that “What the F am I doing with my life?” moment and they said, “Well, we're gonna either get COVID and pass anyway, so let's just live to the fullest.” So I don't know if you were following but a lot of people quit their jobs [or] got laid off, and they started to make their own business. Coffee shops, bakeries…[ZM: Sourdough.] Yes, sourdough!
My friend Kathy, who needs to come to this podcast, was like, “Oh, I’ve started a mother.” And I’m like, “What the hell are you talking about?” She’s like, “The Mother!” “The Mother to who?! You’re Teddy’s mom, your dog, but like mother?” She's like, “The sourdough starter!” And I was like, “I don't know any of this bread stuff.” [laughs] And you know, she telling me like, “Oh, this takes like eighteen hours to rise.” I was like, “Oh, I would love a jalapeno sourdough loaf.” She's like, “Oh, well then I’ll have to start the mother on Tuesday.” I’m like, “It's fucking Saturday. What do I need to like…? What is it?” And she’s like, “It takes eighteen hours to rise.” “Are you serious? How long does it take to bake?” “Oh, thirty minutes.” I’m like, “All that?!” And again, I love her to death and sourdough, yes.
But people were doing that. They were literally saying I’m no longer going to be a CPA, I’m no longer going to med school, I'm dropping out of med school. And they went into these industries and so I was like, “You know what, I'll do it too.” Because at this point in this time, you're pushing everyone to the test as a society, right? And so if people are going to prevail, and they're going to find a cure, which in the end, science did prevail, that’s why we’re all here. I’m going to say that right now, that’s the stance I’m in. I quit and then I started to… at the time I also was going to University of Oregon to get my Master’s of Strategic Communications really pushed me to just commit to it because I always wanted to get a master’s but if I can double dip and kind of teach myself this new industry and how to get get my foot in the door, or my whole body, then that’s what I did and I decided to be a copywriter because I always loved writing, as kid especially. I’m left-handed so I remember this story about my neighbor. She used to live across the street, and my grandma, again, everyone kind of gets raised with the neighbors. She had this big thing about not being left-handed. Her daughters were right-handed and I was left-handed. So she saw me one day and she smacked my hand when I was coloring, obviously that’s very alarming to other people, that’s how we grew up in the nineties. So I remember going to her house and not feeling comfortable coloring and at one point I used both hands like this, like a magic wand [gestures], like a witch’s brew and coloring because she would be so adamant. And for those of you listening, the reason why it's like a non-auspicious, bad omen in Asian culture is left hand is not considered good because in other cultures, you use your left hand to signal war. So if you use your left hand to shake hands or you know, you use it as a like… that's because people don’t all speak the same language, but body language, big thing. So left hand symbolizes war or in other cultures, you use your left hand to bathe yourself or wipe yourself clean, cleanse yourself.
So yeah, I went into that and I started just to freelance here and there. I was an intern up until the time I was like twenty-eight years old. And I was like, you know the movie The Intern like, you know, thirty-year-old intern. Yeah, and then, University of Oregon is a rival of the Beavers, I know that. I decided to go there because it’s actually the program [is] in Portland, down the hill from us. [ZM: So the program is here in Portland?] The program is here, they are actually moving. So the University of Oregon Portland campus was at the White Stag building, which is the giant Portland, Oregon sign with the stag and now they're moving actually onto Concordia’s campus. [ZM: I remember you telling me about that now.] So they're gonna be UOPDX Northeast Campus. Yeah, so kind of similar to this… I think it’s a little cuter here. Blessed.
ZM: Can you tell me a bit more about your work with UNAVSA? How that came about, just a little bit about that?
OC: Yeah. So I felt like ever since undergrad, and even since I was a kid, you've asked this question… you've touched on this theme multiple times already. And it kind of follow me where like, for me, I've been very fortunate and blessed to have the community around Vietnamese culture in some capacity or like some way or some organization and for me when I was in college OSU I had VSA and then we know that VSA has regionals and I was part of Northwest VSA, and the Northwest VSA sits under a UNAVSA which stands for Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations. And so North America: U.S. and Canada. And when I was in college, my fourth year I went to one of their conferences in SoCal, Orange County, Anaheim, California. That's like the Vietnamese of the Vietnamese area. [ZM: The heart.] And Disneyland! We stayed at the—I still remember—Crowne Plaza. Take a shuttle to Disneyland, it was great. But I went there for my first conference. And I was like, “This is amazing.” This is the biggest organization I've ever seen with the amount of young professional Vietnamese Americans who are as passionate and culturally passionate as I was and so I was like, “This is great.”
My mentor in college at the time, he was a really big leader in that sense. He’s actually Chinese American, which is funny. But he loved it. He shared the love of Vietnamese culture and the community aspect. I can tell you that a lot of VSA members, if you look at it now, even back then, a lot of them don’t identify as Vietnamese, they’re just either some sort of other Asian American or we had a lot of American folks join us, too. So it was a really big community, and that's the power of VSA. It was like you don’t have to be Vietnamese to be here. We just want you to have a fun time and have a good feeling and a good sense of community.
So UNAVSA, I was in there for about four or five years and I've had so many great relationships and friends and part of the program in the organization is developing young professionals in this community and at that time, a byproduct of doing that was their annual conference. So the conference was in a different city every year but the city is reflective of a large Vietnamese community there. So obviously the SoCal one was lit. Little Saigon is the pinnacle, the mecca, our version, their version. And, you know, it moved… it was actually in Portland in like 2007, if you didn’t know. It rotated every year and I remember going to Boston, to New Orleans, which I had no idea there was a big Vietnamese community there because during Hurricane Katrina, they only focused on the Black folks and the white folks. So I had no idea that there was a big Vietnamese community there. I had a great time learning about Vietnamese Creole culture, right? And the mix and the blend of that and like the parishes and god, crawfish. And then Atlanta, Georgia, another good one and there are really a lot of Vietnamese people living in Atlanta and so I just miss the whole south. So it led me to a lot of good relationships and learning about myself. Basically, like puberty part two, puberty bootcamp. I was figuring out who I was, what type of people I want to surround myself with, and my culture at the forefront, right? It was apparent that we loved Vietnamese culture and we shared common ground on that. I ended up doing some leadership stuff, planning conferences, I was marketing director one year for New Orleans. The creative stuff, chief editor, editor in chief one year. I felt like it was really a place where I learned how to do a lot of life things and learned where not to do a lot of life things. It taught me the stuff that you should definitely be proud to do and some stuff it's like, oh this is a learning lesson. I had a good run and then I retired in 2018… 2019, I think.
ZM: So the next few things on my list are a few things you have worked on that I want to talk about, but also feel free to jump in with any other professional things that maybe I don’t know about. So I'm wondering first if you could share a little bit about the work you've done with Woke PDX. Curious to hear about that.
OC: Yeah, Woke PDX. I think at one point, it was shortly after my time with UNAVSA, 2018 at that point. I was starting to think about how community was shifting, so this is in 2018, this is prior to the horrific murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives movement, right? And I was thinking of how community is in this city. At that time, when I was in UNAVSA, I had this big inkling to be a part of a community that was wider across the nation. And I was like, “That's great. But what am I doing here? Home.” And also at that time, traveling, basically living out of suitcases, I started realizing what home was and home was here. Portland. Not in Atlanta, not in New Orleans, not in Boston, Boston!, not in New York, not Seattle even, right? They’re just up there. A couple of friends who actually worked at OHSU in family medicine, but they were at the main campus, they, Faith Wilson, she was the one that started Woke PDX and got us involved and through their learning about community, I was learning about myself, especially when I was transitioning from medicine to the creative industry, I realized a lot of my creative ideas to help impact not only capitalism, but the community. And so when I started in 2018, we did this—before the pandemic, too—we had a lot of events that were just focused on racial inequality and equity and getting people together, bringing them in, and creating a brave space. Not a safe space because we couldn’t guarantee that. Really forcing and pushing people to really be in their face about learning about this, especially in a city that as white as Portland. And then the pandemic hit us really hard, but we were able to come back, and still with that energy. Even after, like really tipping off the energy of Black Lives Matter, BLM, and really being like, “Look this is much bigger than us.” BLM is not only about the Black community, it’s about all communities coming together and really unifying and amplifying everyone's voice.
So for Woke PDX, Faith, the creative director and founder, she has these wild ideas at three AM. Wild, wild, wild. I love her for that. She’s usually like, “Hey, I have this idea. What do you think?” And it’s always me going, “Mmm, I don’t know! I don’t got time for that!” [laughs] As an influencer, she roped me in and we would have these really, really big dreams. So for example, we had a couple events before the pandemic and they were really great. We were building so much momentum. Our organization was getting a lot of press basically, visibility. And then when the pandemic happened, we're like, “OK, the rest of everyone else, we’re on pause, we’re still doing these small things, but we’re on pause.”
So post-pandemic, last summer, 2022 and at that same time Sneaker Week, we had folks that we always wanted to plan an event with and it’s like, how do we mesh the two together? We knew it was a reach because with a creative idea there's one vision, one goal, but I'm like, “No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. That's great for advertising and media projects, but for us this is community programming, this is community development, and urban planning. This is something completely different.” So we decided to have a block party co-partnered with Sneaker Week PDX and Woke PDX. And then we also brought along fifteen community members and partners, like Matta PDX for example, Baon Kainan, Deadstock, Concourse. And then we also had other folks come along with us, the list is really long, but basically we wanted a block party that just brought the community of Portland together and food, culture, sneakers. That's all we cared about. Over three hundred people showed up that day, and if you remember anything about that day, I'll tell you, it was 102 degrees, people still showed up. My calves are still not the same color. [laughs] The energy and the momentum of being gone so long and coming back and making an event like that was just amazing.
And in July we actually did our second comeback event too, which was Dear Black People and that focused on the discussion of mental health. Specifically among the Black community, but we had so many community partners that we invited and folks in general because this conversation is not for the Black community only, it’s for everyone because mental health affects every community, right? And this idea, again Faith had another three AM idea—I feel like the muses come to her late at night—and it was really streamlined off of the whole passing of tWitch from the Ellen Show. And so we're like, this has to stop, you saw tWitch every week and he lit up the room. And so, what do we need to understand about mental health and the stigma around getting help in every community, right? And you know, we just focused on the Black community because a lot of attention and a lot of media has focused around that. However, we thought it would be more of a big focus for us to just brand it as that because we want to invite people. We don't want people to say, “Oh, this is for Black people, it's not for me.” I was part of the committee and I made up the 8% of non-Black creatives on there. So, you know, that body of work was amazing. We had Dr. Joyce Debreu, she was a professor for twenty-five to thirty years at PSU and her work on critical race theory, mental health… she’s wonderful. We had about 150 people show up and we had just an amazing time. We had panelists and you know, with mental health and people of color, we—especially the Asian community—we don’t take the time to talk about it. We kind of shove it down and deal with it, right? Similar to what our parents did. And it's not different from how the Black community does it either, where they just shove it down, like therapy is for the weak or therapy is for white people. There was this wonderful show that just came out on Netflix. One of the lines from Beef is, “Western therapy doesn't work on the Eastern mind.” It was powerful, very powerful. So yeah, that body of work just happened and I’m cooling the jets, I’m slowing down. So we don't know what is next for Woke PDX but maybe Faith will text me after this.
ZM: I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about the Silk Rise project. How that came to be, what it is. Just share about that a little bit.
OC: Yeah, so Silk Rise is… so, my creative mentor, Vĩ Sơn Trinh, who is an absolutely fantastic photographer, storyteller, creative, just person in general. He was here for nursing school at Linfield actually, and I saw him on the internet. So the one thing about me is I will slide into DMs. I will reach out to you. If you're cool and I want to collab or meet you for coffee, I will. So [I] met him for coffee and we started talking about things and I started to dig into his work. He's an accomplished—-and now he's a big award-winning and accomplished—photographer, film photographer at that. And we just started talking about our Vietnamese-ness and our heritage and how we grew up. He is a Bay Area Asian, I am a Pacific Northwest Asian. The flavor and the eclectic-ness is very different. He was talking about how his mom has this giant closet of old áo dàis. And the conversation just went off and he was like, “Well, what if we combined áo dàis and streetwear?” And I was like, “Ah, sure.” And then I was like, “What if the idea is bigger than that?” So we decided to focus on streetwear first, and he had a friend at the time who was also a model. And then I invited my friends who were females—who had no modeling experience—come and do it as well. The name Silk Rise came when we were just like, “What about áo dàis are amazing?” They’re made out of silk. “What should we do for our name? We should add movement to it.” And so Silk Rise the name came and then I designed it on Canva because that's what we had at the time, Canva Pro. And then, this is way back in 2019, we didn’t even know what 2020 had in store for us.
So the original idea was let’s showcase the Vietnamese diaspora, the new generation, of what they're actually like. Because if you look at any old photos of like some of the other guests that they share of their parents, when they are wearing áo dàis, they are not very happy. They are very stoic. They are not smiling, there is no feel. It’s just snap the photo and go, right? Like a DMV photo. And we’re like, “No, this is different.” We want to combine art, we want to combine moderness, we want to combine tenderness. So we just started shooting stuff, film and digital, and I was a copywriter so I did copywriting in Vietnamese and English, which was very hard. English is easier. And then we just started to invite friends to do it, like, “Do you have an áo dài? Do you want to come?” And for the guys, I had a younger VSA member who made an áo dài, every year he went back to Vietnam without fail. He went back to Vietnam every year. So he has this giant collection of male áo dàis, because they were harder to find. They were hard to find because you don't really, you know, and so we had a very stereotypical red one and blue one. And then we asked our friends like, “Hey, do you want to throw this on? Does this fit? Let’s shoot some stuff.”
And so halfway through anh Vĩ and I were like, “Yo, this needs to be bigger. Let's have people bring mementos of things that reflect them. So we had one model come with a rugby ball, she played rugby in college. We just had little things that just reminded us of how we grew up, like jade. There was lots of jade, there was lots of 24-karat [and] 18-karat gold, there were some pearls and there was just a lot of combination of things that were like, “Wow this is completely different.” Obviously now there's other folks that have come up with bigger áo dài projects, like Chiron. Chiron Duong, just absolutely fantastic renditions of that. But with Silk Rise, it was actually a thirty day project. So at that point, Vĩ and I had talked that summer, all year, over six months and we were like, “Let's actually do this, now.” So during that summer I was getting ready to go to graduate school, and I was moving towards my journey of leaving medicine to go pursue creative, and Vĩ actually came from journalism and storytelling and then he went to nursing school. He graduated and he was going to move back to Oakland. So we're like, “We have the next thirty days together, let’s see if we can squeeze this out.” Because the next two years of my life were going to be miserable. The first two years of his young nursing career were going to be difficult because all young nurses start out real, real hard. So we did it, thirty days, seventeen models, across twelve photo shoots. We were talking every single day. So yeah, that is how it was born and this was a one time project. We were trying to figure out how to get a gallery started but you know, this is something for the people and we never meant to sell or distribute anything. So we're trying to still figure out a way to share this with the greater community and turn it into something that people actually get to see because some folks are still… I mean [at] the project launch people were like, “This is freaking amazing. Can I see more?” And it was like, “Sure, give me a second.” And then the pandemic happened. We had to take a pause. The project since then, we have generated some really good press and Vĩ too, his work has gotten him into more publications and just that mindset, so yeah.
ZM: Cool. I'm wondering if there are any other projects that you're currently working on that you want to share about.
OC: Yeah, aside from this one, this current one, this amazing by the way. I feel like my best friend Thomas says this like, “What are you doing this year? Or what are you doing now?” And I'm like, “Oh, I’m doing this.” And he’s like, “It changes every six months.” And I'm like, “Yes, but there's a rhyme and rhythm to it in the chaos.” This next organization that I've stumbled upon myself… and I really learned from college is get involved in things that you really want to get involved in, that are aligned with your passions and goals. Obviously, that's what all people should do, but I'm a free spirit.
So now I'm a part of Asians in Advertising, and they're a group that started in an online group that started in 2021, co-founded by Bernice Chao, who is my mentor, and also Jessalin Lam. They both are senior-level, director-level creatives who saw and sought the need of building community in the advertising space for Asians and Asian Americans. So we have people from London, we have people from Asia. And it's an online community that turned from five people to three thousand. And this is our second year having a Breaking Barriers Summit. The whole point of Summit is to figure out ways to have community and conversations about how to navigate these aspects of life, right? So if it's from C Suites or if it's from creativity or getting your next getting your next salary band or getting your next salary that you want or applying to the job that you want. And I'm on the creative board as a copywriter and what I'm doing is similar to what you are doing, Zoë, mining for stories and curating stuff. Writing blogs, of course. And we're moving towards the momentum of having something really big and upcoming, I can’t really talk about it, NDA-bound, like most of the stuff I do in this industry. I think it's a wonderful community in the creative industry, especially in advertising. It's still very white, male and white-dominated field and so when we can band together and support community from junior level all the way to even CEO or co-founder of something it's just truly amazing. Yeah.
ZM: Cool. I'm wondering how pursuing work as a copywriter has helped you to make community connections in Portland. But in some ways, it also seems like maybe you form those connections and then the work kind of follows. Kind of goes both ways, maybe.
OC: Yeah, as a copywriter I really haven't run into or had an opportunity aside from Silk Rise to really get into culture yet because I haven't built something that is like combining the two passions, but I think it's a passion of storytelling that really brings it together. And at the [Mai American] screening, I came with two other individuals… I’m doing so many things that I forget about it, but I’m working towards writing another film, writing a film together with the other production studio. So it’s kind of like that. We're conquering screenwriting and storytelling mixed together. I feel like as a writer, and as a copywriter, I have never been able to just solely write one hundred percent. I’m always thinking about something and there's like story or strategy or another voice in my head. Whereas, from what I can see, other designers are able to design something and it's like one path, one way, one vision, or one execution. But as a writer, there's so many things that I have to consider or choosing the right words, right? Not letting my anxiety take over or using ChatGPT or whatever to get my brain started, but you know, I really haven’t yet, and I think it's because, for me, it's the story first. Even when I met up with the other production studio, it’s the story first and then the words kind of follow, right? The vision. I have to be able to see something before I sit down and write. And that's the other side of… my designer who has the vision already and then me as a writer, I also have to have that vision but have to execute [with] words.
ZM: Can you tell me a little bit more about this film project?
OC: Yes. So it's about a perspective of a young child who is figuring out their identity as a biracial, Vietnamese kid and their sexuality and growing up with, not their parents, but being raised by their grandparents. That's all I will say right now because we're so in the infancy stage that maybe part two, I’ll tell you a little bit more but that’s the gist of it.
ZM: Great. So another question I have here, but that we've talked about a lot, is what's next for you? What's coming up for you professionally?
OC: I think what's next for me is I really want to direct a commercial or write a script for a commercial. I also want to do what we just talked about earlier is, I don't know if you have seen this, but there are these two social films out, one that is called Call it COVID and the other one is called The Myth. They were both produced by Asian-identifying creatives at Wieden + Kennedy. The first one is Call it COVID and [is about] the backlash of Asian hate and stuff and the second film is about the model minority myth. The whole film doesn't have any talking, it has the lead actress just going through the feels and just feeling that suffocating feeling of having to just be and be an Asian individual and just perceive so much external pressure. And so it builds a lot of tension and I want to build something like that. For me, it's very easy for me to make someone laugh with me, I think it’s easy to make anyone laugh but to feel and get to that level of vulnerability and openness and tenderness, it’s hard. I have told people that my next venture in this decade or my next decade of life or my next couple years as a writer, is to really make people cry with me. My mentor in college, when we used to have culture shows for VSA, and there was a script. And he would say, basically, “What's the point of writing a script if you don’t move people emotionally?” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, basically, “What’s the point of doing this if we don’t make anyone cry?” So when we would write the script, we would go back in and be like, “We need to put more feels in this.” We want to put all of ourselves in it, we want to put the moments where we cry ourselves into it, just the emotion and being there. So I think that's the next step. So it's not necessarily a thing, maybe like a sentiment or a vibe.
ZM: A direction. So the last one in this section is what does a day in the life look like for you? However you want to interpret that.
OC: Yeah, I'll tell you about like a realistic day. Or like, I'll tell you about a realistic day and then I’ll tell you about what it really is [laughs]. For me, waking up, answering a bunch of emails and then going and grabbing a coffee. Going somewhere in the city, usually Portland Ca Phe Roasters or Never Coffee, two favorites. Grabbing a coffee and then just checking more emails and doom scrolling on LinkedIn and writing a bunch of stuff, updating my portfolio. That’s what I’ve been doing lately because it's summer. And then, I like water, so going outside. I like water but I can’t swim [laughs]. So I like staring at the water and so I take walks along the water because I feel like the ocean is a very deep connection with me, especially my family and my dad being part of the boat people. And I just use that time to take a walk and think and really reflect on things and then try to also gauge my athletic ability, like, “Can I make this hill?” So that’s been fun and I think for me too, like a realistic day as well is just like, being able to think about creative things and the story and the tenderness and people watching and feeling and getting very inspired by people.
I remember during May, it was Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and I was walking on the Tilikum Bridge, and this couple was biking on a tandem bike and they had outlapped me. They biked and they stopped, they had biked up that slow burn hill and they parked over. And this guy, he was like six foot three, definitely Asian American, had a sleeve tattoo. And he was leading the biking in the front and then his—presumably—his girlfriend in the back and she was just trying to keep up and he was like, “We can do it, we can do it” It was really cute. So cute. So they had stopped and I walked past them and they were smiling and they were doing that little shuffle trying to ask me to take a picture. So I said, “Hey, do you want me to take a picture for you?” And he’s like, “Yes! Oh my god, it’s my first time biking on this thing!” And it was just so adorable and the girl was so happy and I took a picture for them and I was like, “Hey, double check it to see if it works and he was like, “This is awesome!” He was so excited and it's like a core memory for him, and I was really happy to be a part of it, so I immediately got on my phone in my Apple notes, writing this whole description of what they looked like and I was like,”This needs to be used in a music video or somewhere,” right? [ZM: This has somewhere to go.] It's like one of those tender moments of young love. The dude had to be my age, like in his thirties, but it was like he was a little kid again, like in high school. [ZM: That giddiness.] The giddiness, right. Some of the things I do is I get really inspired by just people and so my biggest love right now is 88rising and all the new Asian American music coming up. And so that just reminded me of a music video, like a future music video or something I would direct that features this Asian couple, right? So, yeah, those are the things I do. I don't get to do that a lot.
And then in a realistic day, I'll tell you. Right like that was like a good day and a realistic day is like, Fridays… Fridays are laundry day at Grandma’s. If you don’t know, I take care of my grandma; full-time creative, full-time caregiver. And it's laundry day, you know how older people get, they want to do things too, they don’t want to just sit in one spot. So she’ll follow me to the laundry room, she’s got her little walker, and she’ll go over and she’ll help me do her laundry. And then I let her push the coins in and then we go back and then wait for it to dry and then we have lunch and then I clean up the house, take out the trash because the trash chute is kind of far it's like 50 feet away and she has back issues. And then put her laundry away and help her move her laundry basket and then make sure that she has everything and then I leave after I throw away the trash. And then it's Friday so you know, doing cool things like again, this podcast, and really just unwinding from the week and probably grabbing that third coffee of the day. And that's a good Friday but also just again, being able to think about the things that I want to do. Because as a creative, you have so many creative ideas, but figuring out what you want to pursue and really expand on is the hardest and so Fridays are usually my day where I just like to unwind and really think about like, “Damn, what do I want to do next?” Right? Obviously after work, you just write a bunch and social media. I was a social media manager for the first half of the year and it's just like making sure that I have everything done before I take on another week.
ZM: Great. Do you currently feel a connection to the Vietnamese American community here in Portland? And then if you can share a bit about how maybe you have seen the community change over time. Whether that is seeing the community change over time or your connection change over time, or however you want to interpret that.
OC: Yeah, like I mentioned before, I lived out of my suitcase for a couple of years, like between 2016 to 2018, a little bit of 2019, too. I was fortunate enough to travel across the U.S. and when I went to New York, especially for a little bit, and then also Boston and L.A. and Oakland, especially the Bay Area, a lot of people when they say they feel community, they feel it everywhere they go in that particular city. Take New York for example, I have a lot of friends and creatives and mentors who are from New York and they’re like, “Oh, that is just so New York, like I feel it.” Right? From the bagels, from the bodegas, every single community and every single neighborhood they go to they feel it, right? And when you get transplants that have moved here, they’re like, “I don’t feel that.” And I was like, “It’s different, Portland’s different.” Whatever you want to do, you go to those communities and feel it for a moment and then you're able to go back to your space.
Let's just say I live in the Parkrose area, I'm able to go to the southeast area, do my stuff that makes me feel innately connected, go to Temple, and then go back to my house. I don’t have to feel it all the time, I can go where I want to feel that vibe, right? Especially if I want to learn Bachata, for example. I'll go to a Bachata studio down Northwest or I’ll go to a pole dancing class—I don’t do that—but for example, it’s down there. Then I'll come back to my own space and it’s like this is my area, right? It's hard for people who have lived in big cities like New York to feel that way. And so because someone else was like, “What do you guys do for fun here?” And it’s like, well in comparison, this is the reality of it, you have to go in pockets everywhere. Even the jiu-jitsu community right now is really big, a lot of my friends do jiu-jitsu. There’s a community for that and there’s an area for that. But at the end of the day you go back to your area. So for me, I feel the same way of if I want to feel connect to my culture, I take my grandma to Temple, she doesn't get out often so I'll take her, or I'll go to my friend's house and we'll karaoke all these really OG Vietnamese songs. If we want Korean food, for example, we have got to go to Beaverton, that’s where the good Korean food is. I don't care what you say, Beaverton has the best Korean food, right? We’ll go to 1st Street Pocha, Nak Won, all those places, and then we’ll come back. Or if we want boba, you know there are boba shops everywhere, but this specific one, if we are going to get boba there, let’s also go to H Mart. Or if we go to Belmont, let’s go to H Mart. Or if we go to Beaverton, we’ll go to H Mart. So for me, I feel like that is such a blessing to be able to do that, to go to all these places and not have to feel like I have to live it all the time or be it all the time. I can just come back and be what I want to. Like if I go to Hawthorne, or if I go to the Pearl Area, I feel like I have my space to do what I like to do, the western culture stuff, right? The white people stuff, for lack of better words [laughs]. I’ll drink a kombucha off of Hawthorne or I’ll go to Harlow or I’ll pick up a new Timbuk2 bag in the Pearl. You know? Stuff like that.
It's eclecticism, right? That's a word that someone said to me one time. I had not idea what it was…Electrobuzz? Pokémon? Electrocution? No, eclecticism. You don’t have to be one thing. You don’t have to be a boxer, or you could be a boxer, and a bookworm and a ballerina. You can have all those flavors. I feel like that’s what Portland is to me and I’ve been able to be in my culture that way. And I don't even have to like go to restaurants and stuff, I can just be at home and have it.
ZM: That’s really cool. On a more broad scale, I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you have seen the city in general change over time, whether that's from your childhood or some reflections on Portland, really.
OC: Yeah, I would say… I’m going to talk about pre-pandemic because this is what people remember. This current era right now, post-pandemic is hard to pinpoint but what I can say before is that people were very, so much celebrating or programming or being open to doing these types of things. I’m talking about community development because it was just something to do. And I feel like post-pandemic, you're doing it with real authenticity. The first part, before the pandemic, is a lot of people just doing for cultural exposure, really. And you know, it's just, let's just celebrate, let's just get together, let’s have a kick back. But now, the strategy after is like let’s have a kickback—two birds, one stone—let’s talk about the history of migrant workers, let's talk about the history of Vietnamese Americans, let's talk about the model minority myth, we’ll go grab boba afterwards. There's a rhyme and reason rhythm today that people are really doubling down on things that are very, very important to pushing the needle forward. And I would say Portland in general because I only know my segment of work.
Vietnamese culture is expanding on every level because of social media, TikTok. If we did a podcast about the vitality of social media and digital space, TikTok would be at the top in just how other folks are able to connect with Vietnamese culture on a bigger level and be open. I think it goes back to food culture as well. Before, in the nineties, people did not love fish sauce. People were like, “This is smelly. This stinks.” And durian? “Ew, yuck!” And now they’re like, “Oh my god, it’s so cool!” And that culture vulture… food is a very sensitive topic so I won’t go into it very much, but I think it’s [an] example of things that were not cool are now cool. The paradigm shift after the pandemic, too, is like these things are cool because of these people who have worked this hard to do this, right? And people are appreciating culture more instead of appropriating it, right? Because food is probably the first thing that people pick up on trends, versus fashion. Fashion is a little bit more, in my opinion, controlled and secluded and exclusive, whereas food is a little bit more open and people are able to have a part of it. Like, I don't know, I've never had or owned a piece from Prada or Bodega, but I've definitely had like six different types of bánh mìs that cost me $3.50, $9.50 and I can taste the difference. It’s the paté. So I would say that, overall the city is putting their thoughts and efforts where they should be and can still be better. Because, again, Portland is still one of the whitest cities in America, I don’t care what anyone says. The census can tell me otherwise [laughs].
ZM: I’m going to lump these [questions] together because we’ve already spoken to them as well, but I’m wondering if you could share if there are any specific organizations or events that you see bringing people together in community?
OC: Yeah, I'm going to say from what I know is like, there's so many… so pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I can tell you on the hands of my fingers and toes. Now I can’t, this movement is no longer gatekept. And I really like that because I don't like when people gatekeep and there's reasons why things are gatekept, because of quality and some start out really small or budgeting, funding, right? It's small, but I think that if anyone has the opportunity to learn something new, they should be able to. After the pandemic, some organizations that I’ll put you on to, Woke PDX is one I’ve been involved with for a very long time, and they're moving up there. I’m a little biased because I’m the creative director of brand experiences and partnerships, but that's neither here nor there. I think when it comes to stuff like this and organizations, picking the one that aligns with your values the most is going to be very, very important. And that means that you can only count it on three fingers on your hands, instead of all your fingers and toes, right? Like being intentional. So with Vietnamese culture, too, I think my journey right now is moving towards… away from that but just community building in general. I think it depends what industries you're in too. I can't even tell you health care organizations because I've been out of them for so long.
ZM: I'm wondering if you could share when you have felt most at home in Portland, and that can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, but what about Portland feels like home to you?
OC: Yeah, I think people who come to visit Portland, they love it because they—for us, it’s not weird—but people, their definition of weird is subjective. So they’re like, “This is so weird. I love it.” And for me, I feel like I’m most at home when I can be like, “Oh yeah, that is super Portland.” And I think that the show Portlandia was probably the most accurate descriptive of a city, right? Because people build all these types of narratives about like L.A. women—it’s not far-fetched but—like L.A. moms or Escondido moms… Anyways, I think for me, I feel most at home when I can just be like, “This is Portland because everything is anything.” It can be anything. Like the unicycle-juggler, the bagpipe guy. [ZM: All the elements!] [laughing] All the weird stuff combined together: he’s juggling, he’s wearing Darth Vader, he has fire, bagpipes. Literally that! [ZM: Having things that are weird but you don’t have to call them weird because they just exist.] Yeah! They just exist, and they are harmless. They are just there. For example, the white stag sign. When they changed that and I was like, “Oh, OK.” It was “Made in Oregon” to “Portland, Oregon.” Like, oh! It makes so much sense, right? I never felt offended that they changed it because it’s Portland, Oregon. When I see iconic things, it’s like it’s there for a reason. “Keep Portland Weird”? That!
And I feel most at home when I see my parents, my grandma or people and things that we do that other people can't do. Like hey, let’s go to Trillium Lake. Have you ever been to Trillium Lake? [ZM: Yeah.] Let’s go out there for a day, brew a pot of coffee… or let's go to Tillamook Cheese Factory. That's completely different vibes, it’s on the beach and it smells less like cow manure, more like cheese, because they remodeled, if you didn’t know that. [ZM: Yes.] And so it's just like little things that I get to do and I’m like, “I’m home.” And I think it just ties together when it’s like… the trees, right? And I think another thing that people will say too, is OHSU’s tram, the aerial tram. The gondola in the sky. Right? Because when you see it, you’re like, “Ah, I’m here.” Yeah, home.
And the bridges! Portland is the city of bridges, right? So when I see a bridge, I’m like, “Oh, that’s the Marquam, that’s the oldest one. It’s gonna crumble!” Or St. John’s, things that are like… I don’t know, anything that pokes out of a tree [laughs]. Again, the bagpipe guy, he’s going over the bridge but there’s a fat tree behind him! And then my studio space, there are strawberry bushes on the damn building. It’s cool, it’s just weird. [ZM: I love that.] Cotton candy, electric blue strawberry bushes. Genetically-modified, weird strawberry bushes that bloom at the beginning of spring, end of winter. Weird but not weird.
ZM: I'm wondering if you can share—you have—but are there any places in particular that are especially meaningful to you in Portland?
OC: Yeah, I mean, the temple that I grew up in, it’s one of the bigger ones. My first couple years, we were in a really small monastery and a couple years after that, there was a grand opening of the new temple that's literally across the street from it and it’s huge. I basically grew up there, so it brings back a lot of childhood memories and stuff. Growing up, all your friends mom's and stuff and then you share the general dread of being there when you want to go home and then just making up games and stuff. I feel like it’s also smell, too. Like when I smell Stumptown or something like that, coffee, mmm that’s home. The Portland Airport, that’s one of my favorite places. I’ve had a lot of fun stories. I was a camp counselor at one point in college and then I worked at the the International Living Learning Center, so I was there a lot. Airport break up story, I’ll save that for a different podcast [laughs]. Core memories, very dramatic, very Korean drama-like, but I had one of those, unfortunately.
Just like I don’t know, the Portland Airport, and the Multnomah Falls because my dad used to take us up there once a year when I was like between five to seven. I have a lot of film photos showing photos of me and my sister up there. I guess I would say downtown Portland, the sounds of them playing, the street performers and the food carts. That was probably one of the iconic things I remember growing up, was going downtown and seeing all the food carts and the street performers. But I can’t really pinpoint exact favorite places. I would also say like if I’m in the area, then I’m like, “Oh, this is really cool.” Like Sellwood area? It’s beautiful. Or what’s really close to here? The South Waterfront, like the Center of Health and Healing. I love that area, too. Just like my eclecticism earlier, when I’m in the area, I feel like if it's familiar enough and I have a lot of good memories or fun memories.
ZM: Do you have any experiences of racism or discrimination that you want to share, having lived in Portland?
OC: A couple of days ago I was walking the South Waterfront. It’s usually safe there, you know. These three white kids who, presumably they were out on summer break. I was walking on one side—and they're like thirteen or twelve, they’re tiny, they all look alike, Justin Bieber hair, blowout, they wear their pants too short and they just look like their mom put them in SAT practice and they skipped. Basically, rich, grungy white kids. And they approached me on the other side. I was walking on one side and they moved over intentionally. And I was like, “These kids are not going to come up to me.” And they did and they were like, “Hi.” They all repeated the same… like remember the Toy Story aliens? Like, “Hi. Would you like to come over tomorrow? Blah blah blah.” And it was really weird because I had headphones in and I was like, “Uh, no?” And then three of them left and one kid was like, “You’re a maggot!” And I was like, “What? Did you just disguise the F slur on me?” And so I was just like, “What the…” and I walked away, and I remember I recorded the tail end of them walking away and one of the other kids jumping to the other side because they got a phone call. But I was like, these kids definitely are the future of America. And I literally was like, this is toxic male masculinity. And also your mom is waiting for you at home. All your moms are friends. You all have somewhere to be and you are going back to a warm house and a warm home. Versus like how I grew up which a lot of us didn’t go home to warm homes and moms that loved us. My mom did, though. Just want to put that out there. And that was really freaking weird. It wasn’t racism as much as it was, this is three, four males stalking other females, right? And right after I had left and went on the other side and I was like, “What the hell is that?” They had tried to stop another girl who was rollerblading. Another Black girl who was rollerblading and I hung around because I'm like, I'm going to come find you. I'm going to make you stop because you can't be doing that stuff. And so I drove around campus actually, I was in hot pursuit trying to find them, to see where they ended up. But that campus, that area is just too many pockets. It's supposed to be walkable.
It's infamous, the passive aggressiveness. I think one thing people will say about Portland people is we are very polite and passive. Like I've been asked like, “Where are you from?” before at a bar on Northeast Portland and Alberta—I was with anh Vĩ, actually. And he had been drinking and he came up and he was like, “So where are you from? I love that you're like… where are you actually from?” And then he was engaging with him and I wasn’t having it, I was like, “You need to leave.” I was so pissed the whole time because he just kept pressing us to ask us where we're from and then he had noticed that I was staring him down and he was like, “Oh, she looks mad.” And I was like, “You need to leave!” and he left. And it was really creepy because he was sitting with his other friend on the other end of the bar and he looked like an old military vet because he had that little Vietnam flag, I’m like, “You need to leave. This is gross.” So after he went back over there, after I told him to freaking leave, we got up and walked each other to our cars and stuff. And so there are pockets of off setting moments and racism in this city and I just told you that it comes from fourteen years old to seventy-four-year-olds, right? And it's anywhere in between and I think the problem is that people are just not understanding that they're getting brainwashed, basically, by our current political climate. I can go on and on about that. But yeah, it's a strange city to be in, because that's not entirely Portland, right? But if you live in the southeast area especially, it's not not uncommon, but it’s not at the forefront. For myself. I've gotten plenty in other cities too, but most of it has happened here. [ZM: Interesting.] Yeah, and a lot of people are… by the sound of my voice, too, a lot of people don't really like to engage with me because I have a deeper voice and deeper voices usually have a sense of authority. And I think sometimes I do look mixed or mixed enough that I dont white-pass, though. So it's like, people are kind of unsure, it’s ambiguous. So they don’t really like to go into the ambiguity [laughs], you know what I mean?
ZM: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m wondering if you could just talk briefly about what kind of role being Vietnamese plays in your life, but also, you have Chinese heritage as well as that, right? [OC: Yeah.] So if you could talk a little bit about the same, what role that plays in your life. It’s a broad thing, but just however you want to interpret that.
OC: Yeah, I felt like as a kid in my household, it was very—again—the word, the theme of eclecticism. My dad tried to teach my sister and I Chinese, she picked up a little bit more, but I didn't. I refused to learn. But my dad even taught my mom Cantonese and she picked it up. It was kind of cute: young, newlywed, talking in a different language. Yuck. I never picked it up. My godfather, he is actually Laotian, so he spoke Thai in Laos growing up. He's totally different. I saw him like every other weekend, I still do—once a month. There was no shortage of learning languages in our house. For me, English and Vietnamese was enough because of my grandma too, she lived with us. I didn’t really get to practice Chinese at all and I would hide the fact that I am because it was just easier to explain. It's like opening a pizza box and you're just like, “What the hell? I ordered a margarita pizza, why are these other…?” You know? But I think for me, culturally and ethnically, I grew up mostly Vietnamese—and another curveball in the pizza!—I’m a quarter white because my mom is half white. So if you guys didn’t catch that in the beginning, and that has played a huge role in the way I look. I look like my dad but I have my mom’s skin tone. [laughs] I sparkle in the sun! Not like Edward Cullen, but, you know…So I think that had a lot to play with when I was growing up, it's just like the eclecticism of not really feeling limited, but having a lot more options of experiencing things.
ZM: We've made it to the last question, which is a big one again. I'm wondering if you could talk about what differences or similarities you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans.
OC: Yeah, I think when I was younger there was an absolute theme. So it's either for me absolutely Vietnamese because I meet these checkbox markers, right? I speak the language, I can read a little bit, I can eat the food, my parents speak it, I grew up in a religious-affiliated, Vietnamese whatever, right? And my other friends, they’re like, “I don't know… I’m not really… I’m pretty much white, dude. I don’t speak Vietnamese…” Similar to what Kevin had said, like, “I don’t identify as Asian.” And it’s like, in this new generation, they’re like, “I don’t care. If I don’t speak Vietnamese, that’s OK, I’m still Vietnamese.” There’s no absolutely in or out. There’s no black or white. It's more well-rounded now. Because—I say this to a lot my friends, too, who didn’t identify or don’t really feel connected to the culture—you're still Vietnamese, I don’t care what you say. If someone walks up to you and they ask you, what are you going to say? You're not gonna say—well, you can say white, but then you'd be giving in to like part of the Get Out movie and like the national caucus, right? Don’t do that!
So there is no absolute when it comes to culture. And everything exists on a spectrum, I don't care what you say: light, gender, OK? I’m gonna say it, sexuality, right? And culture, right? Because what about actual kids who have four cultures, they’re mixed or they’re triple mixed, right? My mentor, he's half Filipino, half white, but he was raised predominantly Vietnamese. So it's like, how do you make an absolute because again, 50% of the pizza is 50%. It's your absolute yes or no, but even then fifty? That's fifty-fifty, you can't be absolute. So this new generation, they're no longer clinging to the fact of these checkbox markers or these things, it's the concept of it is like: I was born Vietnamese. Right? Like you were born as a female, but you can gender express as male or male-like things. You don’t have to be an absolute anymore. And that's just the trend of what people are doing now. Because if you're married, for example, you don’t have to absolutely be married, you can be in a polyamorous marriage or open marriage, right? Exactly, so that's my take on it and the younger generation of Vietnamese, the Gen Z and soon-to-be Gen Alpha—can you believe that? I’m a millennial. We’re millennials, right? And at one point, we’re like, “Gen Zers? Ew. Baby Boomers? Ew.” And then now we’re like, “Oh god, we’re the ews.” [laughs] And the internet. Whatever you are able to feel connected to, you take that as a part of your identity. We could talk about it all day, but intersectionality as well. Our friends who are Vietnamese but they’re also queer, and when you ask them, “What are you?” They’re like, “I’m a queer Vietnamese American,” not “I’m a queer” or “I am queer.” You can’t be absolute. [ZM: All those facets.] And this isn’t even a pizza, it’s not even a salad… it’s like melted cheese? You can’t undo it, right? [ZM: Like a smoothie?] Like a smoothie, something you can’t undo. Like a skewer, you would take it apart and put it back together… Anyways, things are not on a scale anymore. They’re on the spectrum, right? Color, vision, sight, anything, your credit score! It’s technically on a spectrum.
ZM: OK, so my last thing is just is there anything that we haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about, in our very limited time? [laughs]
OC: Oh, thirty seconds to the clock. I would say that history is truth and history is anything that you say it is as your truth. And anyone who is looking to explore their identity even more or talk about it, it's OK to have feelings that are not positive. And I think again, a spectrum, right? Thinking about, where are you on that? And just being Vietnamese American in this city era, there are a lot of limitations and a lot of positive things in the city. But I would say that, anyone listening, if you want to explore, explore. Never stop exploring. And you never know what you're going to discover about yourself. It might lead you down a path of discovering something beyond culturally. Yeah, and eat a lot of Viet food and don’t forget to not overuse fish sauce. That’s important. [laughs]
ZM: Great, thank you. So this has been Zoë Maughan talking with Olyvia Chac. It is June 30, 2023. Thank you.
OC: Thanks for having me.