Azen Jaffe: Alright, my name is Azen Jaffe. I'm here with Lucy Hamill, and...
Tommy Ngo: And Tommy Ngo.
AJ: Today is June 27th, we’re at Watzek Library. First of all, thanks for being with us.
TN: Yeah, definitely.
AJ: Could you start out by just telling us a little bit about yourself.
TN: I'm twenty years old, I go to PSU, Portland State University. I was born in Oregon, and I've lived here my whole life.
AJ: Where in Oregon do you live, or have you lived in the same neighborhood?
TN: Yeah, I've actually lived in the same house my whole life, and it's in Hillsboro. It's kind of on the border of Beaverton and Hillsboro.
Lucy Hamill: Did you attend Portland Public Schools? What schools did you go to when you were younger?
TN: Elementary school, I went to Rock Creek. And then middle school I went to Stoller, Stoller Middle School. Then for high school I went to Westview High School. They were all public schools.
AJ: How was your experience there?
TN: I would say growing up… So in elementary school, I never really thought of, or considered myself different in the way of being a Vietnamese-American. Because at my elementary school it was not as diverse, thinking back now. I had a lot of non-Asian, or non-Vietnamese friends, and I never thought that to be weird growing up as a kid. They were great friends, in elementary school I never really experienced racism. I never really even thought of how I was different in that sense. Everyone was really welcoming, everyone was really friendly. Growing up, in middle school I guess I saw more of it. And culturally, I started to see the difference between the way I grew up versus the way a typical American might grow up. I started to meet people that had my cultural upbringing, and it was easier to connect to them in that sense of just talking about how we grew up, or any nostalgic stuff like the food, or events that would happen that are cultural toward the Vietnamese community. I think I started to see the connection of that. Again, growing up I really didn't experience much racism, or discrimination and it felt like we were all -- especially at school -- we were all just here to learn, or to make friends.
LH: What was your neighborhood like, were there other Vietnamese families?
TN: My neighborhood was -- not trying to be mean -- but my neighborhood was a bunch of old people. Basically, these people they are parents, or if their kids have moved out already, or their kids are much older than I was. They saw me when I was born, and they've seen me grow up since then, and I'm still in the same neighborhood, and I still know them. They're probably like sixties and seventies now. None of them were Vietnamese, but they were all really friendly. I didn't talk to them that much, or I didn't really hang out with them, because they didn't have kids my age. But, whenever I would see them, I would say hi or they would say hi to me and ask how are you doing.
LH: How did your family end up making a connection to the Vietnamese community that was in Portland?
TN: I'm not super certain, but I believe my parents had, or they met friends through work and just whatever work they could find they would meet other immigrants, or Vietnamese immigrants and then kind of be friends through that. In the Vietnamese Portland community, it seemed that news kind of travels fast. Yeah, news travels fast. If there are events going on, or if there is something that opens up, or some Vietnamese part of the community, most people hear about it. Even sometimes more personal information about families can spread. Even though my parents don't talk to people in the Vietnamese community that often, they do hear a lot of news and stuff. There are news channels, newspapers, and even online.
AJ: You mentioned that as you got a little older and met more Vietnamese kids your age, you noticed that maybe your upbringing was different than the stereotypical American. In what ways do you think it was different?
TN: I mean I can't be super certain, right, because I don't know how they grew up. But, when I would mention, or when I would talk about small things like for example, my mom's cooking is very Vietnamese in the sense that it is Vietnamese dishes and stuff, and when I describe it to my American friends, or some other culture it would be hard for them to understand unless they've had it. If I explain it to my friends who are Vietnamese, they would get it right away, and they would know what that would taste like or how it's made. Just small stuff like that, and it's not even just the food but with phrases that my parents say in Vietnamese, they would know or we would say it jokingly. They kind of picked up on it, because that's the same culture, or background that they grew up with. I guess I started to notice that, and I was like oh yeah I never thought about this.
AZ: Did you grow up celebrating holidays, Vietnamese holidays like Tet?
TN: The Vietnamese holidays, yeah. Tet, I would celebrate that every year, because it's like a new year for Vietnamese people. I would go to the convention for Tet too, and stuff like that as a kid growing up. Besides that, not really any other holidays. The other thing that we did kind of celebrate I guess was… So both of my grandparents on both sides are dead. My parents have a room in my house, in our house, where there is a shrine for them. They have a picture for them, and every time there is, let's say there is Tet, or even if it would have been their birthday if they were still alive, my mom would make food and then she would -- so this is a cultural thing, but it's also kind of religious I believe -- my mom would make food, and before we would eat the food, we would put it on the plate, and then put it on the shrine and leave it there for a bit. Then we would pray to it I guess, with like a candle. Then we would wait a few hours, or even an hour and then after that we would bring the food back down and eat it. That kind of just stuck out in my memory, because it happened whenever anything special was happening. My birthday, my brother's birthday, Tet or stuff like that. I think it stuck out, because at first growing up I didn't really realize why they were doing that. As a kid you don't really question it, right. Now that I'm growing up -- and I'm not religious myself -- but the practice itself seems pretty cool in the sense that even if it's not for your grandparents or even if you don't believe in afterlife stuff, it's an easy way, or its a simple thing you can do to remember them. They lived in Vietnam, so I didn’t know them super well, and they kind of died when I was younger, but for my parents it's like their parents. It was one thing that I really liked, even though I might not see it the religious way that my parents see it. Just the practice and stuff seemed really cool.
AJ: Were your parents born in Vietnam?
TN: Yeah, and then they came over here I'm not sure around what age, but after they got married.
AJ: Did you go to Vietnamese schools on the weekend?
TN: [Laughs] Yeah, that was definitely one thing that a lot of Vietnamese American kids can agree with, or know about. Personally I know a lot of kids who liked it, personally I hated it. It would be every Saturday, and it would be kind of early in the morning. Not super early. Around twelve or something. But it's like, every Saturday I felt like I just want to stay home, watch my Saturday cartoons. Yu-Gi-oH, stuff like that. But, I had to go to Vietnamese school, and I felt it was unfair because other people, like my American friends, didn't have to do that. I also didn't like it, because I was pretty bad at it. At the school itself, you take classes and then one thing that you do in the class, you get a prompt or something and you have to read it out loud. And it's all in Vietnamese. I would suck at that, like I was completely terrible at that. It would take me much longer than other kids to just read it. I went to Vietnamese school for like eight years, and growing up I didn't like it at all, but looking back now I really appreciated going, because I see myself -- and even though my Vietnamese ability of reading and riding is very basic -- when I see other people that are unable to even speak Vietnamese to their own parents it makes me grateful that I went because I can communicate -- even though it might not be to the fullest extent -- I can communicate to my parents in their language. Yeah, Vietnamese school was an interesting experience. There are parts that I liked about it -- like break -- and then there are parts that I didn't -- which is like the rest. But, there is fun stuff to. There would be events where there would be line dancing, or Vietnamese fan… I don't know what it's called. Traditional dancing I guess. It was always fun to go to those events, and those happened pretty often.
AJ: What was the name of the school?
TN: I went to Lac Hong, it's still going on, it's still a thing, but it's at PCC Rock Creek. Which is all the way up in Hillsboro.
AJ: Was that important to your parents?
TN: I would say they didn't show it. They didn’t tell me that often that this is super important, or this is something that you need to learn, or need to know. But, I could tell by the way that they wanted me to go, and they wanted me to learn Vietnamese. I think, yeah, even though they didn't show it, it was really important to them. I think they really, because a part of that is not only learning how to speak, read, and write in Vietnamese, but also learning the culture or even the history of Vietnam. So my parents think it's really, really important to keep that aspect of culture. Even though I didn't grow up how they grew up at all, I agree with them in the sense that it is part of my identity. I'm glad to know about that part.
LH: Did they speak Vietnamese with you at home, or English mostly?
TN: They speak Vietnamese to me, and I speak Vietnamese to them now. Sometimes from me it would be half-Vietnamese, half-English. In the sense of if I didn’t know certain words I just switch back over to English. Mostly we speak Vietnamese, but there's sometimes, especially as they’re getting older where some Vietnamese words it takes them longer to think of, or they’ll just say the English one of it. It would probably be a side effect of them living here for so long. I would say we mainly communicate in Vietnamese.
LH: Did you know the other people that were at the Vietnamese school with you? Did they live near you, were you friends with them?
TN: I was friends with a few of them that were in my class, and in my grade. And every year you kind of just move up a grade, so I had kind of the same classmates every year. I would say most of them, I am acquaintances of them. I follow them on Instagram, or I know if they're at OSU or stuff like that. Most of them are acquaintances, I know them but I don’t hang out with them weekly or something like that. But there is one friend that I met recently at PSU. We both went to Lac Hong, the Vietnamese school. We’re friends now, and I just recently met this guy. I didn’t even know he went to Vietnamese school. It was a weird coincidence I guess, because we ended up talking about growing up, and the Vietnamese school thing. I didn’t even know he went to Vietnamese school, and then we started talking about commonalities, and I realized we went to the same school. He was a few grades lower, but I didn’t know until recently. Pretty interesting.
AJ: This segways well into talking about PSU. What year are you right now at PSU?
TN: I just finished off my sophomore year, and going back in I’ll be a junior at PSU.
AJ: What informed that decision to go there?
TN: PSU, for me, was kind of the obvious choice. I’m not as academic I feel like as a lot of people. So for me, right out of high school I knew I was probably going to go to PSU, and I was pretty lazy, so I literally only applied to PSU. I got in, thankfully, I don’t even know what my plan-b was. My decision was that it’s cheaper than OSU -- I compared it to other schools in Oregon like OSU and stuff -- and it’s cheaper than OSU in the sense that I can live at home, and commute to school. I liked that it was Portland, and I like that I can go downton, I can explore downtown more and enjoy that scenery, but also be able to come home and kind of relax at home instead of having to live in a dorm. I guess a big part of it was financial, but also the convenience of it. My brother also went to PSU, and he also did computer science, which is my major. He liked the program at PSU, and he said the teachers were able to teach, or smart enough, or they know what they're talking about. So that informed my decision as well.
AJ: Did you want to go?
TN: When people ask me this, this is kind of my response all the time. My major of computer science, it’s not something like when I grow up I want to be a computer scientist, or how people might be super passionate about let’s say film or they like drawing. I never had that passion for computer science. Basically my decision to decide to go to college and to do computer science as my major was just kind of like my parents would be happy seeing me to go to college, but also it’s kind of the smart decision. I’ve never had that passion that I want to chase, and that sounds kind of sad. I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s kind of just like computer science is a good field. I like it. I like it for what it is. It’s not something that I’m super crazy about, but it’s a good field. There’s a lot of opportunity in it, and there’s a lot of places I can take it to. A lot of chances, you know, even working for Lewis and Clark and stuff like that. I’m glad that I chose this field. Yeah, I don’t know.
LH: Could you talk a little bit more about what it's like to live… because you lived at home even during the school year. Could you talk a little bit more about what that's like for your college experience?
TN: I think Portland State University is unique in the sense that they have a lot of students that don't live on campus. I know schools like OSU, people that go there, most of them live on campus because it's in the middle of nowhere and it's far away from home. For me, it didn't feel that strange to kind of head home every day after class. It didn't feel that weird for me, because I know a lot of other students that did the same thing, or even got off the same stop on the MAX that I did. It didn't feel weird, it didn't feel like I was the only one, or was the few that went home instead of lived on campus. I think that's unique to Portland State. There could be other colleges like that too. I think there's an abnormal percentage of students that don't even live on campus. I did feel like I had less time in my day in the sense where from my house to get to Portland State it takes me an hour. That includes the time to drive to the MAX stop, and then take the MAX down to school. There's an hour there, and then an hour back, so every day I have class basically I'm -- not wasting -- but I'm using these two hours to go to and from school. It felt like I had less time to stay on campus, or kind of do extra activities like clubs and stuff like that. After getting used to it, it wasn't that bad. So what happens usually now is say I go to school, and after class I just go to the gym and rock climb and stuff like that. I end up being home by like eight or nine P.M. and then just going to sleep. You know, and then waking up the next day and stuff like that, which is kind of the sacrifices you have to make. I know friends that I go rock climbing with, and then after they just walk two minutes and they'll be home at a dorm or apartment or stuff like that. But, I would say I don't regret living in a home. I like living in a home. I'm kind of a hermit in that sense. I think it's still financially convenient.
LH: Was it important to you parents that you stayed close to home?
TN: No, not particularly. My parents, I feel like they don't fit the typical strict Asian parents in the sense where my parents, they weren't really -- I mean obviously they wanted me to go to college and stuff like that -- but they weren't pushing me or forcing me saying oh you have to go to college. They just kind of let me do my own thing. So for them I don't think they would have strongly disagreed if I -- let's say -- moved out and went to some other college, maybe even in a different state. I don't think they would disagree. They might be kind of sad, because my parents like that they get to see me so often. I don't think they were strict in the sense that they wanted me to do a certain thing, or be in a certain field, or graduate college with a certain degree. I think they are really lenient, and kind of let me do my own thing, which I think is super, super awesome.
AJ: You don't have to answer this question, because it's kind of far-off, but do you have any plans for after you graduate? Do you know what you'd like to do?
TN: Um, yeah, so that's a big question [laughs.]
AJ: You don't… Like I didn't know until a couple of months ago.
TN: I kind of take the chance to ask people that have graduated, kind of to see their perspective, because it's so weird to think about after this. Because growing up you go to elementary school, and then next is middle school, and then next is high school, and then next is college right? And then now that I'm in college it's like once I graduate, in that sense I am kind of a full fledged adult. I'm expected to contribute to society now instead of just leeching and hanging out. This is a big reason that I chose computer science. The field of computer science, it's so large and kind of getting my four year education at PSU is almost just like a start, and my brother told me this too. He said that PSU, or just computer science, taking four years of it, they're not going to teach you how to get a job. Comparing it to being a doctor, once you graduate from school with a doctor's degree you can go to work and you're prepared for all that. But, with computer science, once you graduate you're not going to know how to do one specific job. Once you graduate you can't just from there, automatically work as a web developer or like an AI or data storage and stuff like that. You kind of choose yourself what you want to learn, and what you want to specialize in, and what the computer science degree does for you is it gives you the tools to pick up those possibilities. The tools to learn those things, how to do those things. Not super certain what I want to do after college, but I kind of want to take the time I have in college to kind of learn about as many fields as I can. Part of that is, you know, web development stuff and see if I like it. Maybe try AI stuff, and see how that is. Or data storage, and back-end code. I would say I don't have a plan yet, but I know there's a lot of opportunities once I graduate.
AJ: Sounds like a good plan to me. You mentioned climbing, do you participate in any other clubs? Find time for extracurriculars?
TN: I rock climb. I've been rock climbing for a while now. I also help out with VSA, which is the Vietnamese Student Association for a while. Besides that, I would say on the day-to-day basis, I don't do any other club stuff besides those two. During the summer, and like now, sometimes I play volleyball with my friends, or play ultimate frisbee. During school I kind of just focus on school and rock climbing.
LH: Did your relationship with Portland, and/or the Vietnamese community change once you went from high school to college?
TN: That's a pretty good question. I would say that for me, because I didn't really go out much, I kind of just hung out at home or hung out with friends -- during high school I would just hang out with friends. I never really went downtown, and stuff like that. I was kind of in a bubble in the sense that I never really experienced downtown until I got to college and stuff. There's nothing really surprising or different in the sense of the Vietnamese community that is downtown Portland as opposed to back in Hillsboro or Beaverton. The Vietnamese community we all kind of have that common sense or memories of just how we grew up, and how nostalgic it is, or the culture that we want to keep. Just kind of celebrating that. Not really anything that shocked me, that was super different about downtown Portland Vietnamese community versus back in Beaverton, Hillsboro.
LH: How did you get involved with the Vietnamese Student Association?
TN: My close friend Rio Le. We were friends since middle school. So his sister did the Vietnamese Student Association as well, and his sister basically expected him to be a part of that too because she did it and she really liked it. It's a great way to kind of show the Vietnamese culture, or even learn more about it, and just to be involved in it. He was very involved with it even starting the first year where he wanted to run for the board the following year as a sophomore. This year he is on the board, and next year he is planning to run as well. Because of that, and because I was kind of -- and he's also a computer science major -- so, because of that and how many classes we had together it was kind of just like, I kind of just hung out after class with him and stuff. I started to meet people that he met through VSA. That's kind of how I got involved, just helped out. Like every year there's cultural shows, and I help set up cultural shows. I volunteered, I was even in the show. It was fun to meet new people, help out.
AJ: What are these cultural shows usually?
TN: Every year, a lot of the clubs, a lot of cultural clubs would do a show to kind of not just represent their culture, but also just celebrate it. There is Vietnamese Student Association, there is CSA which is Cambodian Student Association, there's HKSA which is Hong Kong, there's a bunch of other ones like Kaibigan which is Filipino. Every year all these clubs would do a show to celebrate the culture and stuff like that and invite an official show. So they have dance and hire people. Hire people to dance, or hire people to sing. Sometimes there would be headliners like some famous singer, or some famous rapper, comedian, stuff like that. It's just kind of a celebration every year of the culture.
LH: Is your family a part of any other community groups or organizations?
TN: No, I'd say not really. It's where I get my hermit-ness from.
AJ: Do you feel like there are some major differences, or even little differences between younger generations -- folks like your age -- and maybe your parent's age generation in the community?
TN: I would say definitely. There's stuff that you hear about. For example, my parents grew up in Vietnam. They're used to going to school, coming back home, and then working on the farm. They're used to tilling… [laughs] I don't know what farmers do. And then going to the city to sell whatever they farmed, and it's just the way they grew up. For example, my parents, my dad, he went to eighth grade, and then after eighth grade he stopped school. It was because back then and over there it was not even useful to go to school. Because there were no opportunities to go to school after eighth grade in the sense that you can't be a computer scientist if you don't have a computer. There's no opportunity for greater, or not greater, but jobs where if you specialize, or if you go to college, or even high school, where there's a point in doing that. So for them middle school, and this isn't for everyone, but for my parents middle school was just you learn the basics. You know how to speak Vietnamese, write, read, and then you drop out of school. Just help on the farm, help out the family and stuff like that.
So comparing that to how different it was for my generation to grow up here, to be born here and not even know how it was like over there. I’ve heard stories, right? But it is completely different to experience it then to hear about it. I would say that is a huge difference. Not all Vietnamese parents are like this. They might have went to school or even college. But for my parents, it was very different/ They wanted me to stay in school and stuff like that. That was kind of the reason they came over. Because they know there is opportunity here for college and graduate school. Even though they don’t pressure me -- I see it in a lot of other parents and their kids -- how they get pressured. Their parents really want them to succeed, they want them to go to college even if that might not be the best path for them, they want that. That’s a big reason they came to America. I would say that is the biggest difference between that gap. It’s like immigrants and then their kids. There are some things where it is hard to see eye-to-eye. Like for me, growing up it was not worrying if there is enough food or farm or if we were going to make enough money for the month. I’m grateful for that change in my environment. For a lot of parents they see this kind of pressure to have their kid succeed because that is a big reason they came here. That is probably the biggest difference.
LH: Do your parents talk about their lives in Vietnam or tell you stories about their history?
TN: Not super often. But if I would ask, they would tell me. For them, they’ve lived like twenty plus years here now so it is all memories from when they were twenty years younger, which is a while ago. I ask them sometimes and the stories they tell I like hearing. It is always a different perspective, which is something that I like hearing -- how different it was compared to the way that I grew up.
AJ: What do your parents do now?
TN: They are both, I think it is called blue collar, right? My mom works at Goodwill and my dad works at a packaging company. They do blue collar work.
AJ: Are you at all interested in traveling to Vietnam?
TN: Yeah. I’ve been to Vietnam my whole life. I’ve been to Vietnam three times, I believe. Once when I was really young, at like five. So I don’t really remember that. And then another time when I was twelve-ish and then seventeen or sixteen, I believe. I do see myself going back maybe once I graduate. I have made plans with my friends to see if they would want to go back too. I do want to go back just because there is a lot of family on both my parent’s sides that live in Vietnam and still do. Even though it is not nearly the same as when my parents grew up there, I like seeing how different it is. And even just hanging out with family, even though I don’t talk to them on a day-to-day basis, it is always fun and awesome to see my family that I haven’t seen in four or five years.
AJ: Is there anything else you want to ask Lucy?
LH: No, I think you’ve answered all the questions I have.
AJ: Is there anything else you think we should talk about or we should ask?
TN: I think this was a great interview. A lot of good questions. I can’t really think of any other questions. You can ask anything.
AJ: I think we’re good then. Thank you so much.
TN: Thank you!
AJ: Again, today was June 27th