E.J. Carter: This is E.J. Carter and I am interviewing Jacques Nguyen at Lewis and Clark College on August 24, 2018. Thanks for being with us. Could you start by telling us where and when you were born and a little bit about your life here in Portland?
Jacques Nguyen: I was born in Saigon, Vietnam a year before who had a revolution, in 1974. We came here in 1992 through the H.O. Program, for the members of the South Vietnam military that had helped the US. My father went to prison camp for eight years so we were qualified for the H.O. Program. That’s why we went to the US with that program. We struggled a couple years -- early -- trying to learn English, even though right now my English is not very good [Laughs.] I came here when I was eighteen years old. So my accent… I went to high school here and college and started working right after I got the degree.
EC: When you were a child your father was in the prison camp?
JN: Yes. He was in the prison camp for eight years. I was one year old when he left and then he came back. During the prison camp, my mom normally took me to visit him a couple times. Only when they allowed visits. So we only visited him a couple times during his eight years in the prison.
EC: How did the family survive while he was gone?
JN: We had five siblings and with my mom. She did all that she need to do to take care of our family. My bigger sister and brother, they had to work on the street, selling everything, cigarettes, selling cooking after school. My mom, she had worked very hard to keep us in school. All my brothers and sisters, we have high school diplomas in Vietnam. But that is the highest education they could have for our situation. I think they didn’t let any members of the South army side to have higher educations. They failed everybody that tried to get to college. We had survived during those hard time.
I think my mom was more relieved when my father came home, an extra hand to help. However, we still struggled because he could not apply for any jobs. He was a hawker, selling different merchandise on the street.
EC: Do you remember the day he came home?
JN: Yes. We didn’t know when he came home. In the neighborhood, the small street, people reacted [with surprise.] My name is Liem in Vietnamese. [Surprised] “Liem’s father is home!” Suong is my mom. “Suong’s husband comes home!” They shouted. It was joyful at that time.
EC: But he wasn’t able to work at all?
JN: First couple years, he tried to help out my mom in any way he could. No office jobs for him because he doesn’t have any experience except a soldier in the army. I think his rank was a major. I think he had the skills too, but it was just political. I think he got home by the time he was around thirty-four.
EC: Did you work as well when you were young or did you just go to school?
JN: No. My mom tried to keep me away from working because I am the youngest son. Only the older siblings, she tried to not let me work just because it is very dangerous on the street. I think my mom tried to keep me to stay away from trouble. I am thankful for that.
EC: She wanted to protect you. So you didn’t study English in school?
JN: Not until high school. When we went to high school you had to learn one language. Only non-south soldier’s children, and good record students can learn Russian, Spanish, languages from communist countries, Spanish, like Cubans. We were special because of my father’s status, so we were asked to go to English classes. All the best students and non-south soldier’s families, they can go good classes at that time, so they may have chances traveling to Russia for studying higher education.
EC: Did the whole family decide to migrate to the U.S. as a whole? Or did your siblings come first? Was that your parents decision?
JN: We tried. But it is very hard at that time to migrate to US. After a couple years from when my father came home, we were still struggling. When we heard of the H.O. Program, we tried to apply because we thought it helped us to get out the bottom of the society. I think he hoped that everybody could go with him. But the Program had the policy that if any children got married they had to stay home. So my two older sisters, they got married before we got approved. So 1992, we came here with three siblings, my brothers, my sister, and myself. Right now, all of my sisters and brother are here in Portland. After my father got citizenship, he applied to sponsor my older sisters to come here.
EC: The older sisters eventually came as well?
JN: Yes, they eventually came in 2000.
EC: So all five of you are here now?
JN: So yes, all five siblings, brothers and sisters, they are here now. They are all in Portland. My mom and my father tried to keep them near. So they are all in the surrounding Portland area.
EC: And how did you end up in Portland?
JN: We are Catholic. My father, when he was in high school he was a servant in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer Church. In Northeast Portland, Our Lady of La Vang Parish, they had a USCC charity office. I think that USCC belonged to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. My father, he had a godfather from the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer’s Society, he recommended us to USCC. At that time, we just applied to get out of Vietnam -- anywhere in the US. We didn’t know anything [or a place to live.] [Laughs.]
EC: So the church sponsored you?
JN: Yes, USCC actually. But the USCC worked under the Portland Archdiocese, Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer Church. So we went here without knowing the place.
EC: What were you first impressions of Portland?
JN: It rained. In Vietnam we have one region, city similar to Portland, Da Lat city. In the middle region of Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam I visited Da Lat one time. The weather is the same Autumn here, it has light rain. I came here in November, so it is the Fall, the weather is exactly like Da Lat. And Da Lat is a place where everybody should go to vacation because of the nice weather. It is exactly like the weather here. That was my first impression. You go a street with all the Fall yellow leaves. It is beautiful.
EC: Where did you first settle in the city?
JN: We lived near USCC, Halsey Apartments. They are on 68th and Halsey, we call it Halsey Square. It is all immigrants. Vietnamese immigrants went there for the first time. I remember the room: room number 77. We went there for two years and then we rented out a home in NE Prescott area. All my life we lived in Northeast Portland.
EC: What was your experience in the apartments like? Did you meet a lot of people?
JN: Yes, because they are all Vietnamese. The neighborhood is all Vietnamese. They are all immigrants. The church, USCC, maybe they had a contract with Halsey Square apartments or something [Laughs.] Every newcomer they recommended to go there unless you have family here. 90% don’t have family here. So all immigrants go to Halsey Square. The neighborhood is just like a Vietnamese village [Laughs.] That was good because we had each other at that time. Whoever came first, they help us out. They helped each other, “You want to go bus, go on this bus, go there.” That was very nice.
EC: Would you encounter lots of people from Saigon or were they from all over Vietnam?
JN: Not many, they were from all over the place. From Saigon, I don’t remember exactly, but my father told all of his friends who were still in Vietnam about USCC’s sponsorship. We came here in ‘92 but I think the first people of the HO Program came here about ‘89 or ‘90. So we came like three years after the program started and it continued until about ‘98. Whoever came after ‘92, my father mostly recommends his friends to still apply and move to Portland. Couple of my father’s friends from Saigon, they came through USCC and to Halsey Square. People who lived in Halsey Square apartments came from everywhere from Vietnam mostly from the South Vietnam. They were in South army, the other side of Communist army.
EC: Were you all in one apartment?
JN: We rented one apartment. The first month, I think the USCC paid the first month rent after that we had to pay the rent. Five people are in two rooms, I remember that. My sister, she had to stay on the couch outside. One room for my father and mom and one room for both brothers and my sister had to have the couch.
EC: Would you interact often with the neighbors? Did people cook for each other and congregate together?
JN: Sometimes on Sundays we would share. When we had a party -- like on birthdays or some event like big Mass -- we would invite people to come and share. I remember we had a picnic too. We shared our food. At that time, nobody had much money, not rich enough to host a picnic or a party [Laughs.] Mostly we shared, potluck, you know?
EC: Did you become involved with the church right away?
JN: Yes. As soon as I landed in Portland I was involved with the church. I remember one of the church members helped ride home, picked us up at the airport, did paperwork for us. The church mainly helped out at the beginning. They did everything, helped out with anything. They gave direction, where to go. You need a ride? They will arrange.
EC: You said the house that you moved into after two years was on Prescott?
EC: Did you stay there long?
JN: We stayed there for three years. We finally got some money for deposit so we bought a house, on Prescott too, but on 69th. Right now my parents still live there. We call it the “host/ancestral house.” In the family, you should have the ancestral house that you have all the memories. In the ancestral house, all children and grandchildren come to visit for every event.
EC: Did you go to school right away or did you start working?
JN: Yeah. I came in November so a week later I got rushed to Grant High School. Because Grant High School at that time had a program for ESL. Only Grant High School had that program. They had a Vietnamese teacher to help out the newcomer. After the ESL program, a couple terms, they would transfer you to your neighborhood. So mostly, all my friends went back to Madison to continue study after the ESL program. Halsey is a neighborhood near Madison. But I stayed in Grant High School. It is a little bit farther than Madison, but I would rather stayed in Grant until I graduated.
EC: You hadn’t finished high school in Vietnam?
JN: I did finish high school. I have a diploma. Because I went here when I was eighteen, I still qualified to register for high school here, so I was able to get into high school. When I got into high school, they transferred all my credits from Vietnam’s high school diploma.
EC: At Grant?
JN: Yes at Grant because they transferred all my credit. So when I stayed there I mostly learned English and government, social study and history courses, the ones that I didn’t study in Vietnam. I studied there for two more years.
EC: And then you graduated?
JN: Yes, I graduated.
EC: How was that experience? Did you enjoy Grant High School?
JN: Yeah, it is totally different culturally for classes. At that time I couldn’t [communicate] very well. I did all sign language with my hand [Laughs] because I couldn’t understand very well and try to talk for other understands. It was a struggle there for me. Sometimes I told my mom, “I would love to go out and work.” My brother started working. She was like, “Nope. You have to stay in school.” At that time I was like [exasperated], “Mom I cannot.” She said, “Nope. You have to stay and go to school. For work and money, Dad and Mom will take care. We will try to work hard to take care of you but you have to stay in school.” So I got used to it and my listening became better.
EC: Were there a lot of other Vietnamese students there?
JN: Yes, like I told you, Grant High School they have the only ESL program there. So all the Vietnamese who want to learn ESL, sixteen or seventeen years old, they had to go to Grant High School. They are all Vietnamese there. After like two terms or when they were better at English and ESL, they went back to the neighborhood school.
EC: Were there a lot of people from Halsey Square?
JN: Yes. Every morning we had a gang, we took a bus. I remember, Bus 72 on Halsey. It took about twenty minutes to get to Grant High School.
EC: And after you finished high school you went on to college immediately?
JN: Yes. I went to community college, PCC, for two year credits. They say that is the best way to save money. For first two years. I did have to plan very well. I did not want to have extra credits that I did not need for four year degrees. I remember I went to UP and PSU, I asked counselors how many credits I needed to transfer if I went to engineering program. I sat down with them and then I took all the classes that are required to transfer from PCC. After two years, actually I think three years because when I was in college at PCC my English and my writing was still not very good so they required me to take all the ESL classes again. They call it ENL or something, English Native Language or something. I took that class, a writing class, reading, before I could take the actual major classes. It took one year for this. That’s why I was at PCC for 3 years. I went to the UP [University of Portland], a Catholic school, and they had an engineering program. So, I went there for two years.
EC: For electrical engineering?
JN: Yes, an electrical and computer engineering program. They combine the two.
EC: And how did you like that?
JN: When you finish high school and go to PCC, there’s a big difference, it’s a big step. And then from PCC to University that’s another big step [laughs]. University is more fun, because the levels are different now. Because that’s a Catholic school, you have to study theology and philosophy too. They require that you take the two courses. At PSU they don’t ask you that. Even though I’m Catholic, my theology is messy [laughs].
EC: That was hard?
JN: Yeah that was hard. All the reading, writing, essays, that part I wasn’t as good. [Laughs]
EC: Have you always enjoyed math?
JN: Yeah, we normally, Asian people, in Vietnam we memorized and studied a lot of math, along with physics. Math, physics, and chemistry, is my strong end. That’s the reason I chose the engineering program.
EC: Why did you choose electrical engineering in particular?
JN: I didn’t know, it related to math, I thought it was something that was easy for me to pass. In Vietnam, we have no idea or how to “spell” engineer. We didn’t know anything. I asked people first about that program, and they said go be an engineer. And so I said which kind of engineer? We would discuss and [think about] what kind of engineer. Civil, electrical, or chemistry, there are a lot of different kinds of engineers. At that time, I think a friend of mine went to civil but I think at that time I didn’t like the civil side, so I said let’s do electrical, to tell you the truth. I got to love and find electrical engineering really interesting. That’s helped me to stay with the program.
EC: When you finished at University at Portland did you then immediately start looking for jobs?
JN: Yeah, I started looking for jobs right away. I went back to Vietnam for a visit. When I was in Vietnam I got an email that one of my interviews from before I went to Vietnam was accepted. So I said yeah! After I graduated I went on this vacation and now I got a job when I get back. At that time, when you apply for a job there is nothing for sure you will get the job, so I applied for the masters program at PSU. I got a scholarship there too, not a full scholarship but got some money. I did apply for a master degree and I also got a job. I went to PSU for my masters during my time working. I think that was ‘98. I was going to school and working at the same time. I took only two courses [per quarter]. I was done in two years. I chose PSU because it was cheaper. UP was too expensive. I didn’t have any scholarship arranged for master degrees there.
EC: What kind of firm were you working for?
JN: I worked for Credence Corp, they are in Hillsboro. Right now it has new name after another company bought my company so they renamed to LTX-Credence I worked there for ten years, until 2010. They laid off 15 workers, but I was the last person working on the campus site. They closed the site and moved to Beaverton. So, I got laid off in 2010 and stayed unemployed for a year.
EC: What kind of projects did you work on there? Or what kind of products did they make?
JN: At that time, they built a test machine. They test all the wafers, they test all the Intel chips, they test electronic chips. We built a tester. The customer is mostly the test house in Taiwan, China, they do all the testing. So Intel, they do wafer and chips. We have to do a test before they pack the wafer into the CPU. The chip size is just like a finger, very small. So we have to test it. We wrote a program, I was an application engineer. I validated the tester to do all kinds of stuff. I travel a lot when I worked in Credence
EC: To Asia?
JN: Yes to Asia, and the headquarters in San Jose, to do support. I worked there for ten years.
EC: And then you moved into database management?
JN: I got laid off and I went into a special program for education for those company moved the manufacturing. I got unemployment and also got funds to go to school. I took one year program. I went to school for mechanical engineering. I already had a four year degree, I needed like two years because I already had the requirements, the low level courses. I only needed two years. If I went through that, I would get mechanical engineer degree. I went to ITT Tech, they were in Clackamas. They had program called renewable engineering, but mostly it was just mechanical engineering with renewable field. We studied solar panels, wind power. Mostly it is just like mechanical, you learn about energy. I went to that program for a year, and then I got a job. So I decided back to work. Even though I am an electrical engineer, I also learned to do programming languages. After I got laid off, I applied for some software engineering jobs. They accepted me as a software engineer. I started writing code. What I learned in the electrical field [laughs] I don’t remember anymore!
EC: So you’ve reinvented yourself?
JN: Yeah, through a job. I think one thing that helped me out, not about the software that I was working on, but just the project where I worked for my church. I’ve been involved with church since I came to US. I wrote the database languages, I set up a database for school in my church, so I know a little bit about working with databases. Since I knew a little bit about working with databases, a friend of mine said, “I know of this open job, that’s a better offer…” something like that. So I said, “Okay, why not?” I moved to this new job about four years ago working with a database, not the programming anymore.
EC: I see. What’s that company called?
JN: Right now, we are the subcontract for the government. The company I work for is Lidos but the real customer is the Army Corps of Engineers.
EC: The Army Corps of Engineers?
EC: What kind of projects would you do for the church? Do the databases keep track of all the children at the school?
JN: We have Sunday school, for religion and Vietnamese language. When I first came here, I started with the Vietnamese teacher. Then they knew that I had a little bit of [experience] with IT and I moved up to IT volunteer. I do IT, I do teaching Vietnamese language, I do network, some administrative work right now.
EC: When they built the new building were you involved in any of the new technology? Was that 2000?
JN: Yes. 1998. At that time I was still young, so it was running by mostly the elders. I just graduated at that time. I recently got more involved in the past five years. Before I was just a teacher and working on the network.
EC: What kinds of things do you do now?
JN: I’m a vice chairman of the Parish Council. We have a Parish council. I take care of internal issues. I report to the pastors, I work with them. We have a chairman and two vice chairman. One vice chairman handles the public and I handle the internal work.
EC: What kind of issues would you deal with then?
JN: A lot. We have an old building, almost one hundred years old. Mainly it’s the maintenance, and then yearly events. When the newcomer comes,we are one of the only Vietnamese churches in the town. We have the missionary in Beaverton too. But whoever stays in Portland, they normally go to our church. So, we have 10 mass on Sunday. That’s a lot. A lot of maintenance. One thing that we have trouble with right now is space, and the noise. We have more than we can handle. So the neighbors are a little upset. We have the committee, and we work with neighbors a lot, we try to resolve any issues. We have to calm them down, everything they request, we try to do our best.
EC: How do you resolve those issues?
JN: We have a meeting. We try as best as we can. We work with the city, the city of Portland. We work with the associated neighborhoods. So we bring all the issues to the city and ask for help. They need to learn about parking, where is the right place to park. You can’t block their driveway or something. That’s something we cannot control, that’s something about individuals. But, everything in our hands we try to solve. Our pastors, in every mass they tell all the parishioners to follow rules, be nice to neighbors, we try all the things we can think of, to keep the neighborhood happy.
EC: Did you say that the building was one hundred years old?
JN: One of the buildings, the school building is one hundred years old. The new building, the church was built in 1998. The school building is one hundred years old now. Right now, the fire escape is not up to code and it is too expensive. We don’t have the money, but they require me to do it so we started fundraising.
EC: Besides the church are there other central gathering spots that you encounter in the Vietnamese community? Or are there other key institutions that you really rely on?
JN: Yes they have a Vietnamese Community in Portland, Oregon. I know the president. We work with them a lot. We are from a church and they are like bigger community.
EC: This is the VNCO?
JN: Yes. Mr. Thao is the president right now. We work with them a lot and we try to help them out. I’m not a member of that organization, I just go to their events.
EC: So you go to the Tet festival and mid Autumn festival?
JN: The mid Autumn we celebrate ourselves too, because our school has that event too. But, the VNCO they have a big event too so it just depends. Normally we try to plan so that it’s not on the same day, so that people can go to two different places.
EC: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Vietnamese community in Portland?
JN: I think, in my opinion, for newcomers, for the language they need to know where to go. Mostly, this is second wave, third wave. The first wave was 1975, the “boat people” that came. The second wave was the H.O. program around 1992. The third is like my father, who became a citizen and then sponsored others, brought his brother and sister. Recently, Vietnam opened visas and education. So that is the third wave. At my church, we see a lot of new faces and newcomers. When I first came to the US, how we adapted to the environment. The mentality at that time for me, and the boat people who were the first and second wave had nothing to lose, so it was easy to adapt to that environment. Now, 40 years later, some newcomers who are well establish in Vietnam, they are rich compared to us when we were at Vietnam. The newcomers who come here now, they may lose something when they left Vietnam. Before we didn’t lose anything because we had nothing to lose. The mentality now is that they gave up something in Vietnam, trade offs. Emotionally, it's different, the feelings are different. That feeling doesn’t help them a lot. They don’t want to learn a new thing, since they traded off and lost a lot, when they came to US. [They think] “What do I get when I come here?” That’s the biggest challenge for the newcomers that I see. They are not willing to work hard. They are not willing to work hard because they were not used to it in Vietnam.
EC: Are they tempted to go back?
JN: Yeah. A lot of people. The one thing that still keeps them here is the freedom. The politics. But, for the living side, for the economy side, I think they don’t need much. They are rich in Vietnam, they can live in Vietnam, but the freedom is different. Depending on what they expect, over here they have everything, but about language, about adapting to new environments, it’s a challenge for newcomers. For people like us, from the first or second wave, I think we are more stable now. The challenge for us is our children. How to give our children, how to make sure they keep our culture and the language. That’s our challenge. How our children adapt the American culture, which they adapt right away since they were born here. But, [also] how they keep the Vietnamese culture along with the American, the mixing [of the cultures]. My mentality is to hope that they can mix the best of our culture, and mix together so that they become the best, one that is useful in society.
EC: Is that succeeding do you think? Is that happening with younger people, are they retaining an interest in Vietnamese culture?
JN: Yeah, they can. We depend on the family. I think that’s based on the family. Right now, if the parents don’t enforce their children to keep their culture, the young people would rather go to the culture they were born in. For example they at home speak English. They don’t want to speak Vietnamese. If the parents don’t enforce them to keep the culture they won’t keep it. It’s just the nature of the person. If something is easy, why learn something that is difficult? But, another thing that I see is that when my children get older, in college, they start to see others benefit from having two cultures or two languages. At that time, when they turn around, it’s a little bit late but I hope they can turn around. Learning language is easier when you are young so when you learn a new language in college, it’s very difficult.
EC: How old are your children?
JN: My oldest is sixteen now, and my youngest is eight. I have three. The middle child is fourteen.
EC: Do you speak Vietnamese with them?
JN: Yeah, I try. When I want them to do something fast for me I have to use English [laughs]. So that they can follow directions correctly.
EC: I think that’s all the questions I have. Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss that we didn’t talk about?
JN: No I think that we covered a lot.
EC: Thank you very much for speaking with us. I’ve been talking to Jacques Nguyen, here at Lewis & Clark College. Thanks again.