Dustin Kelley: My name is Dustin Kelley and I am with Garland Joseph, and we work at Lewis & Clark College’s Watzek Library. Today we are talking with Tim Tran via Zoom. Today is November 13th, 2020. A quick introduction: a 1974 alumnus of Pacific University and Forest Grove, Tim, you and your wife Cathy returned to Vietnam in 1974, when Communist forces gained full control of the country in 1975, life became very challenging. So in 1979, you decided to leave by boat, and return to Portland via being refugees later becoming naturalized citizens in 1986. You utilized your Master's of Business Administration degree, working in financial administration at Johnstone Supply in Portland until 2003. Earlier this year, your book American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America, was published by Pacific University Press. Mr. Tran, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today.
Tim Tran: Thank you.
DK: Well, let's go ahead and start at the beginning. Could you tell us about your childhood in Vietnam? For instance, what part of Vietnam was your family originally from?
TT: I was born in 1950 in a North Vietnam province just on the coast of North Vietnam called Thai Binh—translation wise, Thai Binh means “peaceful.” We grew up in a mostly farm area and my grandparents on my father's side and my grandparents on my mother's side, they were both farmers. They were [living] the [normal] peaceful and quiet [life]. [Vietnam was] a colony of France. Then in 1954, the French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The superpowers—the Soviet Union, the Americans, the French, and the [British]—conveyed a peace talk at Geneva [that resulted in the] Geneva Accord. That divided Vietnam into two parts. North of the 17th Parallel belonged to the Communists, and south of the 17th Parallel belonged to the Nationalists. My father was a [guerrilla] fighter in the Communist forces for a number of years. After he realized that the Communists [were] using the nationalist movement to fight the French, while at the same time hiding their communist ideology, he left the Communist forces and returned to Hanoi. When the Communist victory in Dien Bien Phu resulted in the Geneva Accord dividing Vietnam into two parts, my father realized that he cannot stay. So he decided to leave for the South. He sent words to my mother who still lived in Thai Binh to bring me. I was the only child at the time. So she followed his instructions, she carried me from Thai Binh to Haiphong, and we both got on an American landing craft [going south]. Now you would probably imagine that the landing craft is a pretty flat vessel with an open ramp for sailors or marines to storm the coast. Anyway, I want to tell you some kind of anecdote here—both sides engaged in propaganda to either deter the people from leaving or encourage people from leaving. The communist propaganda was, “Look at that open mouth boat.” That [was] a literal translation for a landing craft that has an open ramp, so they called it an open mouth boat. “If you get on that boat, the Americans will [take all your belongings, open the mouth] and push you [into] the ocean.” That [had] to scare people off. Then the French had propaganda saying that, “Christ has gone south so if you want to follow Christ, you better go south.” That was what happened. Anyway, they had some success. My dad went to the South anyway. So that is the first part of my childhood, the first four years [of my life.]
DK: So what were some of your earliest memories? You discuss this in the book a little bit.
TT: Yeah, my earliest memory was standing on a flat bottom boat, that I was really sick. Now you got to remember that these flat [bottom] boats going out to the open sea with a lot of waves and the motion is terrible. So I got sick, real sick, seasick, and instead of staying [on] the boat to go [all the way] to Saigon, my dad couldn't stand having a kid crying and [very uncomfortable], so he decided to leave the boat and [got off] in Nha Trang. That was my very first memory.
DK: So in the South, where did you end up living?
TT: We went to Nha Trang and after a few years, my dad got a very good job in Tây Ninh, near the Cambodian border in the South. He got a job working for the South Vietnamese Department of the Treasury. Then after a few years, he got a better job in Saigon working for the Joint Chief of Staff. We moved to Saigon and then we lived in Saigon until we left Vietnam.
DK: So the majority of your childhood was spent in Saigon then?
TT: That is correct, since 1958, yes.
DK: So during your time in Saigon, what was your neighborhood like? What were some of the sights and sounds? Maybe even describe what a typical day was like.
TT: Sure—the neighborhood was, in effect, a [mixed] working-class neighborhood. We had some very high ranking people in the neighborhood. But we [also] had some labor workers. My family was kind of right in the middle. At the time, one of our neighbors was the Chief of South Vietnamese Forensic Police. That was a pretty high ranking person. Another person in the neighborhood was a second lieutenant in the military and later promoted to lieutenant in the South Vietnamese military. We had some business people. We had some laborers. We had some very good people who run their business. So it was a mix. A typical day was in the morning people just go to work except for the [wives] and the children. Most of the time the [wives] stayed home and took care of the children, took care of the [housework]. The children [went] to school just like [in] a normal neighborhood.
DK: What did school look like for you? What was a school day like?
TT: Oh, I will tell you something, you will be surprised. In America, if the number of students in a classroom is about forty or above, parents start complaining about the overcrowded classrooms. Our classroom, the average classroom, [had] about seventy students. In America, you have class time at say nine and end at about three. Is that correct? It is about six hours of classrooms? Minus time for lunch.
DK: Eight to three, kind of.
TT: Oh, eight to three, OK. In Vietnam, we [had] four sessions. The first session start[ed] from six [a.m.] to nine, only three hours. The second one [was] from nine to noon, the third one was noon to three, and the last one was [from] three to six. The reason we [had] four sessions was because there were so many students and not enough schools. So every [school could] condense the teaching time [for each class] to three hours a day. Another thing [was] if you don't have a fan or air conditioning [in American classrooms], everybody complains. Over in [Vietnam] it was ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity and the only ceiling fan that the entire school had [was] in the principal's office. So we sat real close together in the heat and in the humidity, and we learned. We did not know anything better. Nobody complained, we thought that [was] the way it [was]. Until I come to America and think, "How wonderful the situation you have here!” And I still hear complaints, but that’s the way it is.
DK: I think complaining is a human condition at times.
TT: That is right—only if you knew! If you knew, then you complain, if you do not know, you just say, "Hey, that is normal."
DK: So which sections were you typically in, or which sections you might be in?
TT: My dad enrolled me in the early session from six [a.m.] to nine to avoid the heat, and it [was] easier to walk to school and walk back home [early in the morning.] Then I [had] the whole day to do homework and more homework assignments from my dad.
DK: Did you study other languages in school?
TT: Yes, only from the sixth grade I studied English. From the tenth grade, there was a second language requirement and I studied German.
DK: Fascinating. I realized I missed one of my intended questions. I was curious if you could tell me some about your family. What were your parents like and did you have any other siblings?
TT: Yes, OK. My dad was very quiet. He [didn’t] say much and he never exhibited emotional openness. My mom was more of a loving person. She [had] great people skills, she related to people. She used the loving way of teaching us, while my dad used discipline. So it just kind of balanced out. One was a spoiler, and the other one a disciplin[arian]. My mom was very good in running her own business when she needed to. My dad was the type who was always looking for advancement. I am better from both teachings. As far as siblings [were] concerned, I [was] the oldest and I have five [siblings]. I have two brothers and three sisters. So in our family, there are three boys and three girls.
DK: So you spent your childhood in Saigon, and then you entered collegiate studies in the United States. What prompted you to cross the Pacific Ocean?
TT: Well you know, in Vietnam if you [were] lucky you [could] go to college in Vietnam. If you [were] extremely lucky, I mean very extremely lucky, then you [had] the opportunity to study abroad. In my case, I received a scholarship from AID, that [was] the Agency for International Development, to go to college in the U.S. I got to go through a very competitive selection process. The entire country has only thirty students receiving scholarships. I was lucky to be one of them. That [was] how I got the opportunity to go to America for a college education.
DK: Were you able to select which college in America you attended?
TT: No, not at all. As a matter of fact if they asked, I do not know many universities in America. I don't know if [these universities] would accept me because at the time, my English was pretty limited. Some of the transcripts that I [had] may not [have met] American University admission standards. Anyway, AID decided that they wanted to send me and another person in the group to Pacific University. I [had] never heard of Pacific University, and to me, it was just another adventure.
DK: In the book, you mentioned you spent some time at Georgetown University in D.C. before arriving at Pacific. Is that correct?
TT: That is correct, because as I mentioned my English was OK, but limited at the time. I [needed] to improve my English so I [could] get [admitted] into an American University and not have too difficult of a time. So they sent me to Washington, D.C., attending Georgetown University for about three months. After three months they said, “Oh, you are ready. So now you can go to college,” and they sent me to Pacific.
DK: So Washington, D.C., was your introduction to the United States.
TT: Yes. Well actually, more than that. Before [D.C.], I spent ten days at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, at the East-West Center—that [was] called the orientation to America at [an] American University.
DK: So within just a matter of months you spent time in Hawaii, in Washington, D.C., and then in Oregon. So wow, [those are] very different versions of America to experience. What were some of your first impressions of the country as a whole, and then later of Oregon?
TT: OK, I can tell you some of my first impressions of the first place I visited, in Honolulu—that [was] the first place I landed in America. We got into a bus, and I was so impressed [with] the ride from the airport to East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. I was impressed with the wide avenues, I was impressed [with] the nice houses, two-car garage, nice driveway, very clean, and it looked like everybody was having a very high standard of living. And that’s true. I went to the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center, and [that] was a very beautiful campus full of flowers [and], a lot of open spaces. The thing that most impressed me was the nice, clean, and healthy lawn where students [could] come out, sit down, [read] a book, study, or take a nap. What a wonderful life.
Then I went to Georgetown University and I didn’t know at the time, [until] I realized, Georgetown was kind of like the expensive neighborhood in Washington, D.C. We walked from Dupont Circle to Georgetown University and sometimes we passed by a really nice house which [once] belonged to President Kennedy. Some of my friends pointed out that used to be the house of President Kennedy. I was so in love with Washington, D.C., every weekend on my own or with some friends I visit[ed] the memorials of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the museums, and many other sightseeing places in Washington, D.C. It [was] a big city in my book, and there [was] not enough time to see everything.
Then I was sent to Oregon. Here is the difference from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon or Forest Grove—I went from a really big city to a very quiet farm life community. At the time Forest Grove, Oregon had 7,800 residents so it was very small. You could walk from one end of the town to the other end. Everybody was very friendly. They always [said] hi and they always smiled. They usually asked where you were from, and when I said I am from Vietnam and they certainly got curious. “How is the war over there? Were you in the war?” And so on and so forth.
DK: Describe some of your favorite experiences in your time at Pacific University.
TT: Yes, Pacific University was, in my opinion, a very fine small liberal arts university with a very friendly faculty. The ratio of faculty to students is very [good]. For every faculty member, there [were] probably about a couple hundred students. They were very friendly, they wanted to teach, they tried to do their best, and they helped [students] to succeed. Another thing at Pacific University [was] since we had only [about] two thousand students—so if I lived on campus, I almost [saw] everybody almost every day. We developed a very close friendship because we [went] to class together, we [had] lunch and dinner together, and then over the weekend, we [had] trips together. Another thing about Pacific [was] that they [had] very good fraternities or sororities, so I joined one. I tried to blend in and I tried to assimilate into the [American] society. The best way to get [assimilated] into the American culture, the American dream, [the] American system, [was] to belong to one of those fraternities.
DK: Well another important thing happened to you during your time at Pacific—is that right? Is that where you meet your wife, Cathy?
TT: Yes. The two of us were sent—we [did] not have any input—the folks at AID just picked two and said, "Send these two to Pacific University." Then we were the two Vietnamese students going to Pacific University. Of course, we communicat[ed], we talk[ed], and then later on, that turned into love and marriage.
DK: So you were the only two Vietnamese students at Pacific.
TT: Yes, when we were sent there, yeah.
DK: Do you have any other favorite moments of your early relationship with your wife that you want to share?
DK: Since you have a very typical college romance, it sounds like.
TT: Exactly, you are right. Typical college romance. She [was] more studious, I [was] more of a [sociable], friendly, and fun-loving person. Besides studying, I spent most of my time at Pacific University to learn about American culture with my fraternity brothers and my college dorm friends, what do you call it?
DK: Your dorm room or your…
TT: My dorm mates.
DK: Okay, your roommate, yes.
TT: Yeah, yeah, lots of rooms so I had a lot of friends there. So not just my roommate, but my dorm mates. [There was] about a hundred rooms, [and] I tried to make a point to know everybody, to remember their names and understand their specialties so they [could] help me with a lot of things that [were] new to me, like basketball. The thing that I knew nothing about was American football and they sat me down and they taught me the rules, and later on they quizzed me on that. Also the language. I [spoke] English by the book—meaning all the nice, clean words. They said that my English was just too clean. So they taught me some of the swear words and some slang. Before [one of] my fraternity brothers signed my pledge, they quizzed me on that too. So as you read the book, sometimes you feel that, “Oh, this is so funny.”
DK: You had a lot of quizzing.
TT: A lot of quizzing—[at least I had ten brothers signing my pledge.] So everybody got some kind of quiz. Luckily I passed them all.
DK: Sounds like your fraternity experience was about the most positive it possibly could have been. That’s wonderful.
TT: You are right. Until this day, I [re]call meetings and having fun with my fraternity brothers, that developed [into] a lifelong friendship. They got together and helped me when I [came] back here as a refugee. I cannot [speak] good enough about what they did for me or how they helped me.
DK: Now you finished your undergraduate studies at a different institution, is that correct?
TT: That is correct. The reason is, at Pacific, once I mastered the language, it was a little bit easy for me. I didn’t have to do very hard work to get A’s and B’s. Life became more of a party than really an educational [experience]. I never lived my life through an easier period than that. So I decided to find a more challenging university. I went to my accounting professor and asked him which university [was] the best in business administration. He gave me the name of Berkeley, undergraduate [UC] Berkeley. So I made an application for Berkeley and asked AID to approve it. They said, "If you get accepted, we will approve it, [and] you can transfer." A few weeks later I received the letter of acceptance. So I sent it to AID and they approved my transfer. I moved to Berkeley and it was [different like] night and day. Nobody at Berkeley was sitting around watching TV or football. They all studied very hard. Everybody compet[ed] against one another so they [could] get the Rhodes Scholarships, that was the top one. Or they [could] get [into] great graduate schools like Stanford, Berkeley, or Harvard business school. A lot of them studied biology or chemistry. They wanted to get into the top medical schools. So it was very competitive and I [was] glad I did that. I started studying a little bit harder and I had to study real hard just to keep up with my classmates.
DK: Outside of the studious atmosphere at Berkeley what other cultural points were there?
TT: There [were] anti-war demonstrations every day at the Sprout Plaza, that [was] the gateway, the front entrance of the University. You [saw] the tiger cage depicting the South Vietnamese prison system. You had demonstrations against Nixon. You had demonstrations against the war. You had women’s lib. It was funny at the time: women took off their bra right in the plaza and burned them. So we called it a bra-burning demonstration. [We saw] a lot of demonstrations and [I told] my friends, "It’s pretty weird." My friend said, "No, this is America where we have the freedom of speech and these people did nothing wrong by exercising their freedom of speech." And I learn a little bit about America that way.
DK: Thank you for that. So what year did you graduate from Berkeley?
TT: I graduated in June 1974.
DK: Did you return to Vietnam immediately after graduating?
TT: No, I had a job teaching for Upward Bound at Pacific University. I was [hired as] a math teacher, and that was my third year teaching [math] for Upward Bound. So I drove back to Pacific, taught for about two months, and then [was] ready to return home. But returning home was not easy. Most of my friends always [told] me, "Don’t return. We do not want you to get killed in the war," and so on and so forth. They tried their best to convince me to stay and even offered me a ride to Canada. But in my case, I thought I got a really good deal from the U.S. government and the South Vietnamese government. I signed a contract that [stated] once I received one degree, it [was] time to return to Vietnam and rebuild my country. So I did, and I returned to Vietnam in September 1974.
DK: So when you returned to Vietnam, did you go back to Saigon?
TT: Yes, I went back to Saigon.
DK: What was the country like when you returned? How had it changed since you left?
TT: It changed a lot. When I returned to Vietnam, the entire Tan Son Nhat airport, the international airport, was turned into a military base. We [had] soldiers with M16s walk[ing] around, there were a lot of sandbags and barbed wires. There [were] a lot of security personnel. It [was] worse than when I left four years before that. The second thing was the war [had] intensified and every night we heard the bombs dropped from a far distance. Sometimes there was some kind of explosion in the city.
DK: So you were there as Saigon fell, is that correct?
TT: Yes, that is correct.
DK: What was the Fall of Saigon like?
TT: It was chaotic. Everybody tried to get out because we had heard about the bloodbath in Cambodia. Everyone was afraid that once the Communists took over, they would have some [sort] of reprisals against the citizens of Saigon, against the people who supported the Thieu government. So everybody tried to get out and it [was] not easy to get out. I tried many times and I failed many times. Finally on the last day, April 30th, 1975, we [made] one [final] escape attempt. We were lucky to get on an American bus who [took] people [near] the American embassy to Tan Son Nhat airport to be airlifted out. Halfway, the bus stopped, and I asked, "What is going on?" And the driver said, "The airport is under bombardment." So he [had] to turn back and that [was] our last chance. When we got off the bus, we could hear the rumbles of Communist tanks rolling into Saigon and headed to the Independence Palace—that was the Presidential Palace. So the war was over. Saigon fell into the Communist hands.
DK: In your book, you describe many of the challenges that you faced after the Communists took over South Vietnam. I was wondering if you could talk about some of those challenges here with us.
TT: Yes, absolutely. Well, the first thing [was] I got a number of strikes against me. Number one, I got a college education in America. But the communist [did] not look at it that way. They suspect[ed] that if I spent some time in America I could be working for America, like the CIA or [becoming] an agent. Secondly, I was a citizen of South Vietnam, a citizen of a regime that was the enemy of the Communists. Number three, my family [and I] fled Communist North Vietnam in 1954. So I was certainly not a part of their core supporters. They looked at me in a sense that, “We better watch out for this guy. We don't have a solid reason to arrest him, yet. We have other, more pressing groups of people to keep an eye on. So let's watch this guy.” We can talk about political discrimination, social discrimination, and questionable persons.
DK: In 1979, you were able to successfully leave the country.
DK: Can you describe what that was like? How you went into planning that, and go into some detail about leaving.
TT: Absolutely. Before we got to 1979, I failed about four times in my attempt to escape. I was lucky not to be arrested or [spent time] in prison. But I lost money and in one of the attempts to escape, my father was murdered. At that time, I was low on money and low on spirit. You could say I that had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after the murder of my father, but I still wanted to go. So my mother came to the rescue. She, during her business days, was good friends [with] a few Chinese merchants, and [the] Chinese in Vietnam were treated worse than me [by the Communists]. Because at that time Vietnam and China had a shooting war in the North. Communist Vietnam suspected the Chinese [were] spies for Communist China. So they wanted to get rid of the Chinese by allowing them to build boats and pay per person in gold. The ongoing price at that time was fifteen ounces of gold for one person. You can imagine the Chinese had big families, say a ten-member family wanted to get out of Vietnam, they had to pay 150 ounces of gold. [They were not allowed] to sell their house or their automobile. The local communist officials will take over that nice house and nice belongings. And that did not escape Vietnamese like me, and we pretended to be Chinese too. So we paid fifteen ounces of gold and [got] on the boat. We had some paper with our name spelled like Chinese and we made the trip secretly from Saigon all the way to the port of Rach Gia [on the Gulf of Thailand,] and stayed there and waited until the boat [was] ready to leave. One evening, they called and said, “Now the boat is ready for leaving. OK, stand in line.” So we went there and [got] on.
DK: May I interrupt real quick—when you say we, who all are you referring to?
TT: That was me and my two brothers and one sister. For us to leave, we cannot take the entire family. Here is the problem: if we got arrested and the plan failed, our house in Saigon would [have] been taken over by the Communists and we would become homeless. So we decided that my mom and my sisters were going to stay and keep the house. Just in case we were arrested, imprisoned, and [later] released, we still had a home to return to.
DK: Please continue on with your story. I know it doesn't end there.
TT: OK. We were always in constant fear that the Communists [might] terminate the program anytime. So the sooner we got on the boat, the better. So we were lucky, one night they called and said, "OK let's get on [the boat]." We stood in line to try to board the boat and surprisingly there were a lot of people that were brought over to stand in line by the local Communist police. What it turned out to be was that these people did not pay the fifteen ounces of gold to the organizer, but paid it directly to the police. And the police demanded that they [were allowed to] get on the boat as well. So the boat was overloaded. If that boat was inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard, they would have allowed fifty people maximum. On the boat, there were about 350 people. We were packed like sardines up on the top and also at the bottom where they were supposed to keep the fish and the ice. Anyways, nobody complained, we were allowed to leave so we just kept quiet and hoped to be leaving. About midnight, the boat was allowed to go out and I sat at the bottom compartment of the boat, I [could] feel the waves against the hull. Then I [knew] that we were out to the ocean.
DK: Where did the boat take you?
TT: It is supposed to take us from the port of Rach Gia to anywhere on the coast of Malaysia. The quickest route will take about three days. But [when] we were out for two days, the boat was attacked by Thai pirates. These folks, these pirates [were] fishermen and they were robbing passengers on a refugee boat, and robbed anything that they took with them. When you [left] Vietnam, you wanted to take with you anything that you [could]. I don't mean clothing, but valuables that you [could] carry, say money, currency, watches, gold, and so on and so forth. The pirates had knives and guns and they looked like a very mean group. So they just board[ed] our boat, [carrying] guns, [knives, machetes and plastic buckets]. When they robbed the passengers, they put [the valuables] in the buckets and [returned] to the boat. We were robbed seven different times by seven different groups of pirates. [Each group] waited in line [for their turn] to get [on our boat.]
DK: Did they rob anything from you?
TT: Yes. I [had] some U.S. currency in my pocket. They asked me to pull my pockets out and the money fell out and they took it. The worst of all seven groups of pirates was the seventh one. [By the time this seventh group of pirates boarded our boat], everything [of value] was almost taken. So they had to settle for anything that they could resell in the black market in Bangkok. [When one pirate noticed I wore] Levi jeans, he used a knife and motioned to me to take it off and so I did. As I handed the Levi jeans to him, he reached [out with his other hand] and took my glasses. I guessed there was a huge prescription glasses market in Bangkok. That were the two last things I lost.
DK: Wow, that is tough. So it took longer by boat than you imagined. Did you still end up going to Malaysia?
TT: Yes. The worst thing [was when] the last few groups [of pirates boarded our boat]—let's say the fifth, sixth, and the seventh—[most of the valuable things like the] gold rings, diamonds, foreign currency (U.S. dollars, Euro, or the French franc) was taken. [Since the last few groups of pirates] could not find anything, they went to the engine compartment and they tried to see if anything was hidden in there and [in the process], they [destroyed the plastic bottles holding the drinking water]. They also sabotaged one of the two engines. We [had] only one engine working. Once they left, no other group of pirates bothered us anymore because they knew the other group has taken everything. So we kind of went slowly toward the coast of Malaysia. At the time [I thought], “This is not how I am supposed to die.” At that time, we didn't have any hope that we would survive. Luckily, we were close enough [to Malaysia] and somebody saw the mountains and the land of Malaysia [and yelled out “I see mountains. I see land.” Nearly everyone was urging the pilot to get to land quickly. But I had some reservations:] from the BBC broadcast, I heard that the Malaysian police or navy [would tow] the refugee boats out to the open sea, they did not want any refugees to land on their soil. [I convinced the pilot] to wait until nightfall [then] just [rushed] in, slammed the boat against the rock. We jumped out and tried to destroy and sink the boat so they [could not tow] it out, then we headed on to high land.
DK: In your book, you talk quite a bit about Pulau Bidong. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
TT: Yeah, Pulau Bidong, very good pronunciation.
DK: Well, thank you. Can you describe what that was like being there?
TT: Pulau Bidong—originally before the refugees arrived [was] an uninhabited island, quite a few miles off the coast of Malaysia. Some people who go to Pulau Bidong as tourists, and they go there for scuba diving. All of it was a tropical forest. When the refugees arrived, there was no structure on the island and the refugees started to build their own huts, they cut trees from the island to build their structures. They covered that with blue plastic tarps and made the best out of the situation. Most of the island [was] mountainous but the area close to the beach [was] habitable so most of the [refugees] stayed there. The later[-arrived] groups, just like ourselves, got to go [higher and farther] to build our own hut. But it was OK, we survived the trip, and now we said, “This is only a temporary living condition,” we believed that we [would] be able to settle in a third country.
DK: How long were you there and about how many people were on the island with you?
TT: At the time of my arrival, there were thirty thousand inhabitants on the [island]. I stayed there for six months thanks to the effort of some very big shots that I know or my friends know. For example, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield wrote a letter [advocating my acceptance into the United States,] Oregon Senator Bob Packwood [also] wrote a letter, [so did] Congressman Les AuCoin. Some other people, my friends, just wrote letters to the American Ambassador to Malaysia pledging their support for me [and] to sponsor my family. For that reason, I was easily approved to settle in the United States. The second thing that I did was I [volunteered] as an interpreter for the American Delegation when they interviewed refugees. I also served as a press secretary for the refugee camp and met the U.S. Congressman [Stephen] Solarz from New York, who visited the island to have a look at the refugee situation. I took him on a tour and I explained to him the situation. He was pretty pleased with my report and I think he might have, I am not sure, he might have had something to do with my being accepted to the United States.
GJ: How was it that you were able to return back to Oregon and settle in Portland?
TT: Sure. When a refugee arrived at Pulau Bidong, they got to go through all kinds of [interviewing and answering many questions]. One of the [questions] was which country do you wish to settle? You [could provide] three choices. I listed my choices: the United States of America, Canada, and Australia. [And] the way it worked [was], you would be interviewed [by] the delegation from [the country of] your first choice. My first choice was America so I was interviewed by the American Delegation. If I was accepted, that was it. If I was not accepted, then I would be interviewed by the Delegation of Canada. If they rejected me, then I would be interviewed by [the] Australian [Delegation] and so on and so forth. If all three [countries] rejected a person, then that [person] got to wait until there were some [new] openings and the wait could be two or three years. As I wrote in my book, there was a neighbor [of mine] called Big Fat Eight—he [and his family] were declined by three [different] countries. Finally, there was an opening [to go to] Holland, I encouraged him to apply, he applied and he was accepted [to resettle in Holland.]
GJ: So earlier you mentioned that your fraternity brothers [and friends] helped you settle when you arrived in Oregon. How did they help you? Also were there any other people or organizations that helped you settle when you arrived in Portland?
TT: Well, this is something still emotional for me. We arrived, and may I tell you that we did not have any money, we only had the clothes on our back. No jeans, no glasses. My friends from Pacific University and my fraternity brothers got together, and they kind of [organized] a welcoming home [party] for Cathy and I. What they really [did] was [they raided] their families’ kitchens and attics [to retrieve] any used dishes, blankets, towels, and anything that a person would need. Just very basic stuff, things that you [could] buy at Goodwill or [the]Salvation Army. They got [them] from their parents, [brought them] to the party, and they gave [those] to us. The only thing they had to buy, they went to the Chinese Market grocery store and bought two pairs of chopsticks, one for Cathy and one for me. With that we [could] start our new life here.
My professor at Pacific University [got] me a free eye exam at the School of Optometry at Pacific. Then through his Lion Club [Lions Clubs International], [he] also [gave] me the new prescription [glasses]. A lot of old [friends and] professors just [wrote] a check for fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, and so on and so forth. I was not ready to accept that but they gave it to us anyway. [What] I did was if anybody gave me the money, I [wrote] it down and I pledged to pay them back when I have a job and some savings, and pay [them] back with interest. Sometimes I did not [even] know [exactly who gave us the money!] [One time] we visited a [group of] friends in Vernonia. When we got home, Cathy opened her purse and there was a hundred-dollar bill. I just put it down and said [that the host] gave me the money, so we would pay it back later. He said, “No, I didn't give it to you.” I understood that he did not want me to pay back the money because it was like a gift.
So to answer your question, many people help us in many ways. Oh, here is another thing—this was embarrassing but I am going to describe it anyway. I [was] look[ing] for an apartment and, you know, they had the forms that you [had to] fill out [showing] your history where you lived and worked. But [as] a refugee from Vietnam, none of [my] information was verifiable so the manager told me, “I cannot rent the apartment to you.” But he [also] said, “If you get somebody with a job who can cosign the contract, then I can [rent] it to you.” I called my friend and he accepted readily, "OK I [will] cosign the contract." So we got the apartment. Another embarrassing thing was the rent at that time was about $225 [a month,] [or] something like that. I [had] $225 in my pocket, [ready to pay the rent]. But the manager said, "I need the first month, last month, and the security deposit." I was [thinking], “Wow, how can I do that?” My friend who was cosigning the contract said, "I have it,” and pulled out his check and wrote a check. And I am forever in debt to my friends who were [very] helpful [to me] at the time of need. A real, real need at the time.
DK: What a blessing.
TT: Thank you, it is. Until today, they are still my friends. I was lucky to pay off all of my debt. But [they] did not expect that.
GJ: So it sounds like you and your wife came at the same time, but did you have any extended family that ended up joining you? Did they also choose to settle in Portland?
TT: Sure, yeah. Accompanying me on the trip was my wife, two brothers, and one sister. [My siblings] got accepted to [study at] Portland Community College, and they started their education. After about two years, they transferred to Oregon State University. My sister graduated as a chemical engineer. My brother graduated as an electrical engineer, and the other [brother] dropped out and joined the U.S. Navy. That is fine [with] me, not everybody will be a scholar. They got to accept that. There is a different route for different folks. They all have good jobs now and they all rebuild their lives and we are very thankful that we found a place called the opportunity land.
GJ: When you first came to Portland, what neighborhood did you settle in? Also was there a Vietnamese community in that area?
TT: Yes, we first settled in Northeast Portland. Then after a few years, my boss who lived in a very nice place in Beaverton told me, “This area is very nice so you might want to look at a house here.” So we moved to an area called Cedar Hills. Then, later on, I moved to Camas, Washington to be close to work because [my company was] at Airport Way. That’s a typical American story. You graduate, you get hired for a job, you buy a house that you can afford. As you advance in [your career,] you [earn] more money, you save more [so] you can move to a nicer, better house. That [has been called] the American Dream.
GJ: When you first arrived, were there events that brought the Vietnamese American community together or particular places such as restaurants, shops, or religious celebrations that you guys participated in?
TT: Yes, the Vietnamese have a tradition called the New Year, Lunar New Year. Americans call it Tet, T-E-T, because in 1968 during the Tet, the Communists attacked the entire country, it was called the Tet Offensive. Here in Portland, there was a Catholic church on Sandy [Boulevard], that was the Vietnamese Catholic community. They have a Tet celebration every year. That is the one time that the entire community gathered to celebrate the [Lunar] New Year. We also have a few [other] activities like the Mid-Autumn Festival, and also we had a day to commemorate the fall of Saigon, on April 30th. So those are times the Vietnamese community got together to share the sorrows and celebrate the good times.
GJ: When you first moved to Portland was it hard for you to adjust to life in America? Did you face any challenges? In your book, you talk about the advantages of being underestimated, and I am wondering if you can expand on that a little bit.
TT: Sure, absolutely. Well, we had some challenges. The first thing was, I was five years behind when I applied for a job in America. I graduated from Berkeley in 1974, but all of my work experience in Vietnam [did] not count, at least to the corporate [hiring managers] of big American [companies]. So I have got to start from the ground up, in an entry position. The second problem I had was my name—my Vietnamese name is Khiem, K-H-I-E-M, and I used it in my resume. I sent it to [six] different companies and what I received was rejection letters from all [six], calling me Mrs. Tran, Ms. Tran, or Miss Tran. So there was a common theme that they thought I [wa]s a female. So I changed my name. Instead of Khiem Tran, I am now Timothy Tran. Tim and Khiem sound pretty close. Also nobody can mistake [Timothy] for a female person. Anyway, I sent the same resume with the new name to the same [six] companies and I got invitation[s] to come for an interview. One of those [companies] made me an offer but I did not accept it right away, I still had other companies waiting for interviews. Finally, I was offered a position at Johnstone Supply, and I accepted that as my starting [job]. At the time I was [making] thirteen hundred dollars a month, whereas my friends from Pacific and from Berkeley were making five thousand a month because they were managers or VP. But I [ believed] if I worked hard, I would catch up with them professionally and hopefully financially, and I did.
GJ: Could you tell me about your work with Johnstone Supply? For instance, what was your typical workday, and what were some of your responsibilities with this job?
TT: Well,[in] my very first year, my title was accountant, so I [kept] track of the book and I [kept] track of the financial statements, financial reporting. Then my boss looks at me and says, “You have a lot of free time so I am going to give you more work here.” The work wasn’t difficult. At Shell I did a lot of that work so this was easy. I knew the ins and outs and I worked hard. I came in[to] the office Saturdays and Sundays to get the work done, so he gave me more work. [Then] I took care of investments. I took care of auditing. I took care of disbursements and collections, asset management and so on and so forth. Later on, [in the third year] I was promoted to controller. [In] [my fifth year] [the company president] made me a [corporate] officer with the title VP (Vice President) of Finance. I took care of everything in the finance department. I was the Chief Financial Officer and I stayed at that position for [eighteen] years before I decided, due to a health condition, [to retire] and teach college.
GJ: Where did you go to teach at college? Also, what were some of the classes that you taught?
TT: Okay. First I taught at the University of Phoenix—that’s a for-profit university. Then through some kind of word spreading around, I was asked to teach at Marylhurst University. Later on I was also [teaching] at Concordia University. My title was usually adjunct professor because I [was] not a full-time faculty member. I [taught] finance, financial management, corporate finance, federal taxation, and individual taxation.
GJ: Then it sounds like you are a very passionate alum for Pacific University. I was wondering how you [have] stayed connected with the University and that community over the years.
TT: Well, Pacific University had a very good alumni relations department. The people there always [tried] to stay in touch with alumni. They invited me to the annual homecoming, and of course they also asked for donations—they have to—and I always made some kind of donation. Until a couple of years ago—as I wrote in the book—that as I got a little bit older, like sixty-five, sixty-seven, sixty-nine, I attended a lot of funerals, and I never [saw] a U-Haul truck following the hearse to the cemetery. In other words, you can’t take it with you. No matter how wealthy, how much money [you have], or how big your portfolio is, you cannot take those with you. So I discussed with Cathy, and we decided to leave a big part of our estate to Pacific University. They named the library after us. Now it is called the Tim and Cathy Tran Library. If you see a U-Haul truck or a few U-Haul trucks following the hearse to the cemetery, take a picture and send it to me to prove me I am wrong.
GJ: OK, I will [laughs].
TT: OK [laughs].
GJ: And then Pacific University is also the company that published your book. I’m interested [in] if we could talk a little bit about your writing experience with that. For instance, what prompted you to write your story? Also, what was the writing experience like for you?
TT: OK, good, OK. Probably if you read part of the book or the entire book you probably agree that I have [had] an eventful life. A lot of my friends and colleagues [who] knew a little bit about my story encouraged me to write my memoir. I thought about that and this was difficult because you have to write [the story], find a publisher and so on and so forth. But Pacific University already had a publishing arm called Pacific University Press. I talked to the President of Pacific University, Doctor [Leslie] Hallick, and she said, "If you write [your memoir], we will try to publish it for you." So I spent four years [as an author] putting the whole story in writing using Microsoft Word software, then Pacific found a [ghostwriter], somebody who read the manuscript, [edited] it, reconstructed it and made it into [an interesting] story. I tell you, that is a big part. Well, [I wrote] my story [in a linear time fashion], [starting] from year one, year two, year three, all the way through year twenty. The ghostwriter changed it around to start with the [escape-by-boat] trip [across the Gulf of Thailand]. It started with that first, then [went] back to my trip [as a 4-year-old refugee] going from North Vietnam to the South and then tell my [whole] story—what a brilliant idea! A lot of people who read the book said they read the first chapter and [couldn’t put the book] down. I got to give the ghostwriter a lot of credit for that. However, there is some costs [to] pay. My [original] manuscript [was] twice as lengthy as the current book, and they cut [out] a lot [of material.] What they said [was] it was just like in any movie, there’s a lot that they cut and leave on the floor. I got to accept that, when [the comment was], “You are not writing War and Peace.”
DK: Well, and that is the same with this interview. We are even getting a shorter version than your book so I hope our listeners will be able to engage with your story in the longer-form book as well.
TT: You’re right.
DK: So now we are going to transition to asking some about the Vietnamese community at large within Portland. I am curious, this is something we like to ask everyone we interview: What local or political issues do you think are most important to the Vietnamese community here in Portland?
TT: Well, there are two different takes from that. The Vietnamese community [here] are mostly conservative and they are anti-communist. They suffer a lot to make it over here and they support mostly the anti-communist, pro-American issues. Locally, they are not very much involved [in local politics] because most of them always try to work hard, [take care of] their family, and [devote] a lot of money and time for their children's education. If you ask what is a common thread among Vietnamese families, the education of their children is paramount, most important. They sacrifice everything for their children's education. You probably know [that] Vietnamese students are usually doing very well in education either at the high school level or at the college level. I am very proud of that. I am a first generation [Vietnamese immigrant] but I believe the second or the third generation Vietnamese would have more [involvement] [with] political and social issues.
DK: That is great, thank you. I am wondering are there specific organizations or groups that you and your wife have relied on within the Vietnamese American community?
TT: We do not belong to any particular group, but we always try to get together when we have a celebration, say at the Vietnamese Catholic church. We are not Catholic but we usually go there for the Tet Celebration and so on and so forth. What we try to avoid really is [not getting involved] with some of our Vietnamese group who take extreme positions in some political issues. Personally I don’t want to do that. To me, extremism is not my cup of tea.
DK: I hear you. Now lastly, we are nearing the end of our interview time together. I want to see if you have anything on your list that hasn’t come up that you think we should discuss. It could be back to your earlier childhood or whenever. Is there anything that we missed that you would like to spend time on?
TT: Well you do not miss, but I do have something that I would like to add to the content of this interview. Is that OK?
TT: Okay let me get the book. [goes to find American Dreamer] What I will be referring to [is] on page 355 of the book. [flips to page]
DK: I am going there right now as well.
TT: OK yeah, I will wait for you.
DK: I am with you.
TT: I would like to read, with your permission, the last two paragraphs of the story.
TT: Page 355, [begins to read from American Dreamer] “I hope people will remember me as an American, a naturalized citizen of the United States of America who, through hard work and determination, overcame most of the difficulties and hardship that was thrown my way, who attained some modest success and had the opportunity to give back. I will be forever grateful to the country that I adopted and that adopted me, and to all of the people who helped me along the way including my professors, college friends, my mentors, and my business associates. Fate has truly blessed me.” That is what I want to add.
DK: Thank you for that. Alright, again this has been Dustin Kelley and Garland Joseph and we’ve been interviewing Tim Tran. Today is November 13th, 2020. Mr. Tran, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
TT: Thank you very much, I appreciate you spending the time with me, and good luck with your project.
DK: Thank you, this concludes our interview.