E.J. Carter: This is EJ Carter and Lucy Hamill. We're interviewing Stephen Nghiem on May 29, 2019 at Lewis & Clark College. Thank you, first of all, for being with us today.
Stephen Nghiem: Thank you. You're very welcome.
EC: Could you start by giving us an overview of your life here in Portland?
SN: Yeah, I spent nine months in a refugee camp in Malaysia after I escaped from Vietnam in 1978. The church who sponsored me was [from] a Methodist church in Illinois. So I went to a very small town in Illinois. At that time I wanted to go back to school, but that was kind of a small town and it is far from everywhere. So I got a cousin who lives in Milwaukie at the time. I talked to him and he said, "Just come to Portland." Because they have some programs, at the time, not just for the refugee people but also for the [people with] low income. At the time they had some program to get some kind of training. My background was that in Vietnam I graduated from college and I got a bachelor degree in economic laws. I know that it is hard to get anything related to my degree, so I wanted to start all over again. However, when I came to Portland the problem was that I don't have any job so I don't have money. I did not have anything so I got to work and went back to school at the same time. I stayed in Portland since 1979. Until now I have been in the Northwest area because I moved up to Camas in the last twenty years. My life in Portland has been forty years now.
EC: How old were you when you left Vietnam?
SN: I was twenty-seven at the time. So I am very old now. I'm sixty-seven [laughs.]
EC: Where in Vietnam did you live?
SN: I was born in Hanoi, but when I was three years old, my parents decided to move down south because they did not want to stay with the communists up north. We moved down south when I was three in 1954. I lived in Saigon from 1954 to when I left in 1978. Twenty-two, twenty-three years.
EC: Had you been working in economics, you said you were...
SN: Actually, yeah. I worked at a company that was making cement. They were supported by the French government to expand their area. I was a statistician but in a very short time. In 1975, right before the communists took over South Vietnam I was in a masters program in economics, but then... I was in the first year.
EC: What made you decide to leave in 1978?
SN: It was so hard at the time. There are a couple of reasons. Number one is that the communists do not like anyone who worked for the South Vietnamese government before. My dad worked for the French. He spoke fluent French. He worked in Hanoi and he knew that if he stayed he would be in trouble. So he moved the whole family to the South and he worked for the South Vietnamese government. Most of my brothers were in the South Vietnamese army. We would be on the blacklist. The only reason they kept me to work for the cement factory was that I was not related to anything government or military. I kept my job for a while, but it was just about time when they got trained and everything and they would take us out. I did not see any bright future there. So I had to escape.
EC: Did you leave together with your brothers or by yourself?
SN: Well, I left Vietnam with one of my brothers and his wife, and they're still staying in Illinois right now. But my parents and my other brothers came later after they were released from prison, which they called "re-education" camp.
EC: Did you leave by boat then?
SN: Yeah, I was one of the boat people at the time.
EC: What was that like?
SN: The boat was four yards by twelve yards, two stories. We got 112 people in there. So we were just like sardines. I was one of the young people, so I just stayed on top of the boat which is very risky because of the waves and everything, but at least we got some air. We did meet with some pirates. Thailand. They just took everything we had and then they broke the compass and then they showed us the way out to the sea with the intention that we would die out at sea. But we did not die. After three days and three nights, our boat was just floating and then we got to Malaysia.
EC: How long were you in the camp in Malaysia?
SN: Nine months.
EC: Could you describe that experience?
SN: It was hard. We never had enough food or anything and the water was really, really bad. However, we were very happy. It was so hard to live in Vietnam at the time. I am not talking about food or anything. I am talking about mentally. Number one, I grew up in a Baptist church. So I have a background in religion. They didn't like it so they closed down all the churches. So spiritually, I felt like we lost a lot. And mentally we did not know how long we would stay in Saigon, because they wanted to take people like us. Especially the people who were originally from the north and had moved down south. They would take us to places that they would call the "New Economic Zone," which is basically just wildlife. Just the jungle. We knew that sooner or later we would have to do that and we would not be able to escape if we had to move to the new economic zone like they said.
EC: Were there a lot of Baptists in Vietnam?
SN: Not really. Baptists came to Vietnam in 1959. I came to the Baptist church about fourteen, fifteen years [old] and then I just grew up in a Baptist church. Up to the time the communists took over.
EC: Your parents were members too?
SN: My parents were not members of that Baptist church until later when they came to the States.
EC: Did you have a sponsor that brought you to Illinois?
SN: Yeah. At that time, because of the wave of boat people that left Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia. I heard that all the churches here in the States got some kind of a message or information about us. They asked them if they could sponsor somebody because at the time I was in the refugee camp. The camp where where I lived was in Pulau Bidong in Malaysia. We had forty thousand people on that tiny island. They asked if people could be able to do so. The church who sponsored me was in the countryside. They had some kind of a condition, some kind of qualification. They wanted somebody who had at least some kind of education background, at least spoke some English. Then they found my brother's file and my file and they decided to sponsor us. So I came to that church. We flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Japan, and Japan to San Francisco. I came to the Davis Camp in San Francisco. I spent a couple of nights there and then they flew us to where the sponsor was.
EC: And that was a Methodist church, you said?
SN: Yeah, it was United Methodist.
EC: Okay. What were your first impressions of Portland when you arrived here?
SN: Rain. [Laughs]. I came to Portland, it was in the evening from Chicago, from O'Hare. It was raining really badly and my cousin picked me up from the airport. The next day I said that I would start my new life by going to some of the areas to do some paperwork -- to fill out some forms, to look for a school. But actually, I could not go anywhere because it was non-stop raining in one week. So I said, "Oh no, I've got to go again. I can't stay here." [Laughs]. But then, you know, I just gave it a try. I went to PCC to sign up for some skill training.
EC: What part of the city were you living in at that time?
EC: In Milwaukie, okay. What were your first impressions of Milwaukie?
SN: Quiet. Small town. To be honest, I grew up in Saigon. At the time that I was there, there were like three, four million people. So I am kind of a city boy. Now at first, I went to Illinois which is a tiny -- I wouldn't call it a town. I would call it a village, or a hamlet.
EC: What was the name of it?
SN: It was Shannon. The night before I left San Francisco, they used one of the Holiday Inns. They took the whole hotel at the time and gave us a place to stay for one or two nights. They got a big, huge U.S. map on the wall. Huge! The night before I came down I tried to find Shannon and I couldn't find it anywhere [Laughs.] So when they flew us to O'Hare, that's the busiest airport in the world. Then from O'Hare, my sponsor took me from freeway to highway, to road, to tiny road then to village. It was at night and I did not see anything but cornfields. It was sad [Laughs.] But they treated me really, really well there. We were the first refugees to come to town. I still have some contacts there.
EC: Were there many Vietnamese refugees in Milwaukie when you arrived?
SN: Not a whole lot. At the time I came, it was pretty early. There were a few families in Milwaukie and in Portland a few thousand people at the time.
EC: Did you make contact with them pretty quickly?
SN: Yeah. Most of the newcomers, we would meet at PCC. PCC is the place for everyone. Mostly everyone would go there for ESL classes.
EC: Okay. Which PCC? Which campus?
SN: Sylvania, at the time. I don't think they had anything else yet.
EC: That was the only one at that time?
SN: Yeah, at that time, because we lived in Milwaukie I got to go to CCC, Clackamas Community College. But then, because I wanted to go for -- well, at the time, they did not have computer yet, they called it data processing program -- they did not have it at Clackamas so they transferred me to Sylvania.
EC: That was your primary interest at first? Getting computer skills?
SN: Yeah. I did take some classes, but then, because of work-study and some programs that they have, there was not enough money for me to survive here. So, a few months later I took a job at Wacker Siltronic. They opened like a year before. Before I worked there, there was a contract between the city of Portland and Wacker Siltronic to take people from Multnomah County only. To work for them, to get some training through PCC. Because I lived in Clackamas I could not apply for that. However, about six months or a year later when the contract was done between the two parties, they started taking applications from our side of Multnomah County. There was an office by the Ross Island Bridge at the time. They had some kind of organization to look for a job for the Indo-Chinese refugee people. When I came there was a stack of applications, but the thing is, the person who worked for the project said that they got a call from Wacker saying that they were looking for somebody from our side of Multnomah County to work because they wanted to expand the area. He looked through the whole stack of applications and I happened to be the one who was a little more advanced in education. So, he sent me there with the intention that if I knew some English, if I was able to do a good job then they would reply more, they would send more people there.
I was kind of the first one from our side of that contract to come in. I worked as an assembler and I just moved up from there. Then I went to school. For the first two years, we had a rotation shift. Two weeks day shift, two weeks swing shift and two weeks night shift. I was not able to go to school. I just kept working there until we got a fixed shift. I volunteered to work weekends only, like Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and night shift so I could be able to go to school from Monday to either Wednesday or Thursday. I was single at the time, so I had no problem with that. Working the night shift and the weekend. I started going back to PCC, then I went to PSU for a while. I never finished anything at PSU but at the time, at Wacker Siltronic they had some programs like in-house program to help me as a person who got a degree. I sent my degree to get an evaluation from Long Beach College. I got an evaluation from that school and they gave me a stack of papers to tell me how many classes that I got through that would be accepted in the U.S. I turned that in to Wacker and they said that in that case, they would send me to get some technician slash engineering courses to work for them in that way. So I dropped PSU and I went to that program. So I moved up from an assembler to be a workcell leader and then to a supervisor, and then I transferred to be a technician. Then I was promoted to be an engineer after I finished the program. I worked there like twenty-six years.
EC: Oh, wow!
SN: Yeah. And then I was Engineer II. Level two, at the time when I retired. So I moved up from the bottom, all the way up.
EC: That program that they had that was hiring Vietnamese refugees, was that a city or a county program, specifically?
SN: I believe that was a city, City of Portland. At the time, they called it CETA, C-E-T-A program. That program, basically, they don't pay for your tuition at university, just college. Just two-year college. But they encourage you to take classes like drafting, accounting, something like that. I myself took the class data processing like I said before. That program tried to give low-income people in the Portland area, just in Multnomah County. Because I lived on the other side -- I lived in Milwaukie -- I had to have some kind of special referral. Then they paid me for that, but I studied at Clackamas Community College instead of PCC.
That's for general education, for ESL. Some general education. And when I was done with that, they referred me to Sylvania. Then I dropped that program because I did not have enough money to survive. So I just quit that program and went to work full time. That program was really, really helpful for people like us at that time. I believe that it was a city program and that it was sponsored by a lot of companies like Tektronix and Wacker, some other companies around the area.
EC: Did it exist for a long time or just for a little?
SN: I'm not quite sure how long, but I would say just two or three years because a lot of people from working with me at Wacker came from that program.
EC: Okay, so not too long. It didn't go on very long.
SN: No it didn't last very long. I could be wrong, but it was like two or three years. It's been so long and I was just jumping in the middle of the program. Anyways...
EC: What kinds of products did you make?
SN: The Wacker Siltronic headquarters was in Germany. That's a German company. They made silicon wafers for computer chips. So their customers are like Intel, IBM, Motorola. I got so lucky because when I transferred to be a technician, I had a chance to travel a lot to Europe and Asia. They had a headquarters in Munich and also another branch in Singapore. So they have Munich, Portland, and Singapore. I worked with my colleagues in the same field, in the same area. We met once a year. One year in Munich, one year in Portland and one year in Singapore. We rotated it. So I had the chance to travel to both areas and some years I got to host -- to take them to Portland. So I had the chance to travel a lot to Portland. I miss those days actually.
EC: Did you enjoy that work?
SN: Yeah, up to a point. I got a call to be a church pastor for a long time since I was in high school, but then one thing leads to another and could not be able to do that. I always wanted to serve, so when I was working with Wacker I took classes at some seminary bible college. After that I got a masters degree in divinity. At that time I worked two jobs. My main job was to support my family with Wacker and my weekend job was to be a pastor at one of the churches in Portland. Then the church grew a lot and the congregation came to me asking me that now that the church is so big that I could not [be able to] handle it if I had to work forty hours a week outside the church in a secular job. So they asked me to either find someone to replace me to take up the church full time, or I myself would quit my secular job to be a full-time pastor. My wife and I talked about it. Actually, she is a nurse. She works at Portland Adventist. So, at that time I had worked for twenty-six years. They said that if I was fifty-five and I worked over twenty-five years, I had a little bit of a pension plan. So I said, "Okay, I'll take that." I became a full-time pastor since 2006. That's thirteen years.
EC: Oh, wow. So that's the church you currently...
SN: Yeah, because at the time -- this is kind of a verbal rule -- if you want to be a pastor for an American church over one hundred members, you should have a bachelor degree in theology or a masters degree in divinity. I had the masters degree. So, the headquarters church in Oregon district from Salem, they moved me to this church. Because my church is a pretty large church in minority groups. We have about two-hundred members. With that kind of church, I was not able to handle it [because weekend only is] not enough.
EC: What caused it to grow so rapidly?
SN: Well, there are a few reasons. Number one is that the ex-pastor, the late pastor, he founded the church. He sponsored a lot of people from the refugee camps from the '80s, and then just verbal introductions. They introduced their friends to come to the church. When I took over it seemed like they said that they had a younger pastor came. I am kind of an active person. So they kind of like it. When the late pastor -- he was old at the time -- he wanted to retire. They invited me to come to preach. When they felt like I was okay with them they voted to accept me and I applied through the Oregon district. So they moved me to this church. I quit my job and I became the church [pastor] in the last fifteen years.
EC: Was it your preaching style that they liked? Or did you institute new programs?
SN: Yeah, I got a lot of programs. I especially tried to bring up the group we called Young Couples. A lot of churches focus on youth groups, but for me, that is secondary because they were in grade school and high school and come to the church with their parents, but when they are in college they are gone. If you just focus on that generation, ninety percent are gone. They get a job somewhere and they go to some other states for college, so I focus on young couples who are already done with school. They have a young family with children. They want to find a home church. They have work, they have money. [ … ] They are -- for me -- the group that I need to focus by supplying what they need. For that group. Then I just build it up. So more and more people came.
EC: And what attracts them to your church as opposed to, say, the Catholic church?
SN: No, the Catholic church here in Portland is a huge community. They have four or five thousand members. They have one of the largest Vietnamese Catholic communities in the States. I think they are just behind the group down in Louisiana. I had some very good relationships with some Catholic priests here, Vietnamese priests here.
EC: I'm sorry, could you say the name of your church again?
SN: Vietnamese Christian Community Church.
EC: Is it affiliated with Baptism?
SN: No, we affiliate with the Assemblies of God. I was ordained by the Assemblies of God in the USA.
EC: Okay. What are some of the differences between it and, say, the Catholic Church?
SN: Quite a bit. Quite a bit different. For organization and for the doctrine. However, we have more in common with them than some other Protestant groups. Just like us or the Baptists, or the CMA, or any other Evangelical churches, we believe in the Trinity, just like the Catholics. We believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, just like the Catholics. So the main point is that we have a lot in common, but then the organization is different and some other doctrines. We also believe in the Virgin Mary, but we do not worship her. The Catholics themselves, they don't worship Mary, but in reality they do. But anyways, for me, I am not focusing on the differences. I try to focus on the similarities. I am the pastor of Assemblies of God church here in Portland but I preach a lot in the other Vietnamese denominations in Portland. I preach quite often at the Baptist churches.
EC: Oh really?
EC: So most of the younger people joining your church are coming from other Protestant denominations and not necessarily from the Catholic...
SN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have got a couple of families, I call them "Hundred Year Old Believers" because they believed in Jesus when they were in Vietnam a hundred years ago. Their whole generation. They are very, very conservative. But when they came here, some families came to their own churches and they found it comfortable so they stayed. I have got a few families who have had four generations in the church. The thing is, for the older Vietnamese people, right now they feel pretty lonely. They don't speak the language. They do not understand the kids much. My kids do not speak Vietnamese much. Their children have work all day long. So basically, they just stay home. They are pretty alone and lonely by themselves. They wanted to look for something common in the family to be together, which is the church. So, they look forward to Sunday morning every week so they are able to come to the Vietnamese community. They communicate with some friends and they have a chance to see the whole big family. The kids, their children, their grand-kids, all in one church. And that is what they want. So that is what it is. They are not like American pe0ople who could socialize with some older folks, some other groups, communities around here in town. Vietnamese older folks cannot do that. They cannot drive so they cannot get together. Just like my parents. Well, I will show you. My dad is pretty good. He is fluently French. He spoke pretty good English, but then he came here a few years [ago] and he passed away because of a stroke. My mom was so lonely and she wanted to go back to Vietnam even though she knew that she would have some hardships. But, you know. She's old. She passed away when she was ninety-one, so she went back to Vietnam in her mid-eighties. We supported her. We hired a younger lady to stay with her at her home all the time. She was happy there. Even though she was so far away from her children, she felt much [more] comfortable there rather than here where she could not do anything. The time that they came to stay with me was pretty bad because I worked the night shift. In daytime, I slept. They slept at night, and they worked in the daytime and they would not want to make any noise because they were afraid that I would wake up. They felt pretty miserable. So I had to send them to Illinois with my brother, but at least in Portland, there is a Vietnamese community, which once in a while I was able to take them [to]. Living in Illinois, which is a very small town, my brother's family was the only Vietnamese in the whole area. [Laughs]. It is getting worse. I am not talking just for my parents, I am talking about all older folks.
EC: But your parents came back to Portland after you had a difficult time?
SN: No, after that I had another brother who came to the U.S., but he decided to stay in California. More Vietnamese people down there and it is easier to get a job, so he took my parents down. However, when my parents moved down there for a year, my dad had a stroke and he died.
EC: So none of your family lives in Portland except for you?
SN: No, they all came here and they all left me. It was terrible. They couldn't stand me and so they left. [Laughs]. No, actually, me and my brother were both going to Illinois, but he decided to stay in Illinois and I decided to move to Portland. But then when I sponsored some of my parents and some brothers to come to Portland, it was not easy to find jobs in Portland. At the time it was about the mid-eighties. During that time, lots of people had problems. You know the economics went down pretty bad. The eighties all the way to the nineties. So they just got some friends somewhere else and they decided to get jobs somewhere else rather than stay in Portland.
EC: Was it hard to be separated from them?
SN: Not really. I mean, you know, the communication is much better now. We have cell phones, we have video. Everything. So it is alright. Of course, I want my brothers to live close to me, or they want me to stay close to them. But basically, my wife's big family is here. Mostly, eighty percent live here and in Vancouver. I have lots of brothers and sister in-laws. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. [Laughs]
EC: Where did you meet your wife?
SN: At church. My wife's family is Buddhist. Basically, my wife got a fiance in Vietnam when she was in Vietnam, but then her sister sponsored her family here. Her family used to be very, very, very rich. Filthy rich in Vietnam before the Communists took over, but after that, the communists took everything they had. So, they became not really poor, but compared to the past they were like nothing. So when they had the chance to come here, they decided to come. My wife got a fiance there and she thought that it would be so easy for her to come here and then sponsor him to come, but it is not that easy. So after a couple of years and they knew that they would not be able to do anything, we met at church. And then we got married. The guy, her ex-boyfriend also got married and he moved to Australia. He came here to visit a couple of times. Anyways, that's how it works. We met at the church. She came here and she was desperate and she knew that she could not just sponsor him to come here. Not like that. So she was kind of desperate. One of her friends invited her to come to church. So she came to church and then she accepted Christ sometime before she met me. Well actually, she went to an American church. Her English at the time was not good enough to understand the sermon. I think that her niece told her that there was a Vietnamese church here if she wanted to come. She came and I was a member of that church before that. So we met there before I became a pastor.
EC: Which one was it?
SN: What we call the Vietnamese Evangelical Church of Portland.
EC: Was her family upset that she...
SN: No, no. Her family was kind of okay with [it]. This was her dad's philosophy: She is a girl. When she gets married she could be able to believe whatever her husband believes. That Asian way. That normally after the girl gets married she belongs to the husbands family more. That is the old way in Vietnam. So that is what he thought. He said, "Well, it doesn't matter if she believes in Christ or if she believes in Buddha. [Her future husband would be the one who] helps her to build up the faith. So we met at church and we got married in the church. Her family came to the church to celebrate our wedding. I did not have any problem with my wife's family in that sense.
EC: So are there any other issues or challenges that the members of your church face, either socially, politically or economically?
SN: Yeah, the generation I am talking about. The mid-thirties, the forties, they are okay. Somehow they can get a job one way or the other. Here, mostly they got double incomes. Both husbands and wives work. So even if they do not make a lot of money they are pretty wealthy. A lot of them are college graduates, so they have got pretty great jobs. The only problem, it seems to me are people over sixities, seventies and eighties. They cannot adjust to the life here. The worst case [is] when you are around mid-fifties, mid-sixties. You are not eligible for social security yet. You are not eligible for any Medicaid or anything yet, but then you cannot find a job because you cannot speak English, you do not have skills and you are not strong enough, you are not healthy enough to do some labor work. So those are the ones [who really struggle.] The older folks. Just like I said earlier, the seventies, the eighties, they have some kind of communication problems with their grandkids. Their kids can speak English well, but their grandkids -- just like in my case, I have two children. One is twenty-four now and one is twenty-one. They were born here, they grew up here. I tried to speak Vietnamese when they were younger. They [had] pretty good Vietnamese, but when they started school their Vietnamese gone. Right now they could be able to understand some. I try to encourage them to listen and speak some Vietnamese, but you know, their Vietnamese is not so good. There was some Vietnamese schools here for kids like that, but the way their brain works, they think in English and when they try to translate to Vietnamese it reverts to adult, they think Vietnamese and trying to translate. So, that kind of thing creates some problems with the kids and the parents, and the kids and the grandparents.
EC: Does that bother you? That your children seem distant from Vietnamese culture?
SN: Actually, it does not. This is the thing in my experience. When my daughter reached high school she started looking back. She started asking me a lot of questions about Vietnam and Vietnamese. Then, when she was in college, she was in Seattle and she tried to learn some. So her Vietnamese, by picking here and there, is okay. My son is a little bit different. This is another one. This could be a problem too, I don't know how much time I have, but this could be a problem too. Because of the school system, Washington is much better than Portland, so when my wife got pregnant the second time, my daughter was still in pre-school. We decided to move up to Washington, to Camas, because Camas School District is one of the best in Washington. We happened to move into a majority white neighborhood. So that is where my son was born and grew up with. One day, when he was a second-grader or third-grader, we were watching TV on Saturday. We watched football. We watched the team that was an all-black team. He looked at me and he said, "Dad, I love football and if I play football in the future, I would be the only white on this team." I looked at him and I said, "No, you are not white." So he looked at me and he said, "So what am I?" So I explained it to him, "Yeah, you are Vietnamese." He never thought about that. All of his friends were white. He thought of himself as white. So, I came to his class. I talked to the teacher. I said, "What happened? How can you help him so he can't have any kind of thing like, 'Oh it's bad that I'm not white.'" The teacher was so understanding. She said [that] she would ask him to stand in front of the class and tell them where I came from. He came home and he said, "Hey, I got an assignment that [was] [laughs] where did you come from!" So, I told him a little bit about history. I said, "We are Asian. We came here as refugees, but now you are a U.S. citizen because you were born here. That is the way the constitution [works]." I explained a little bit more to him. He came back to his class and he said, "I am so proud that my dad came from Vietnam and he was one of the Boat People." Then he started thinking more about his roots. Even now, even though his Vietnamese is really, really bad, he is more willing to accept the fact that he is Asian.
EC: Are they interested in Vietnam?
SN: My daughter went back with me to Vietnam last year. She loved it. She really loved it. My son is a little bit different. My son has all kinds of problems. He is allergic to peanuts and he is allergic to any kind of preservative food. Tofu, he can not eat tofu. He can not eat peanuts. He's got eczema. The problem in Vietnam is that a lot of food right now is processed food with lots of preservatives and we do not know which one is which. Then he got allergic to peanuts, as I said. When he was a kid I took him to the emergency room like three times because he had some peanut cookies. When he ate peanuts he turned red. Just like a lobster from head to toe. When he was about two years old I did not know that he was allergic. We had to learn that. We sat across the table [from one another] and I ate some peanuts and he looked at me and said, "Dad, what did you eat? It is so -- what is the word he used -- spicy!" How can he smell peanuts from across the table? He said, "It's so spicy!" So I said, "There's something wrong with this boy." So I called his doctor. He said, "Yeah, he's allergic to peanuts, be careful. They can smell peanuts."
So the gap between the younger generation... Well, this is my definition. I wrote something about the Vietnamese generation here in the U.S. In my mind, the first generation is the first group of Vietnamese people to come to the U.S. They could speak some English. They have to, they have no choice but to try to adjust their lives [to] the American way because they have no choice. They came here, they left Vietnam, they came here. I call them the first generation, and they came here, maybe when they were a little bit old, maybe their thirties or forties. I call the second generation as one and a half-generation, which is like me, who lived in Vietnam long enough to get the education from Vietnam. Then I came here young enough to get an education in the U.S. So I am kind of a bilingual person. I have got a degree from Vietnam and I have got a degree here. I am one of the group, I call myself one and a half, not quite two. Then the second generation was born here, or they came when they were very young. Infants or toddlers, which is that they catch more English than Vietnamese and they are more like Americans than Vietnamese. That's the second generation. Now we have lived here long enough, after like forty years, that we have the third generation. The children of those toddlers and kids. The children of the kids who were born here. There could be the fourth generation and so on. I am not counting first, second, third, but I am counting first, one and a half, then second and third. And that one and a half is the gap between the first and the second generation. When the first generation dies out -- they are old, mid-seventies, eighties now -- then all that is left is me to replace them. Then when my generation is gone, they will be more American than Vietnamese. For the third or the fourth generation will be just like Americans. I think that is the same as some other groups. Like the Chinese group. They have been here forever. Before everybody else. They still have that struggle, with the generation gap. And Koreans. And some of the Mexicans, Ukrainians and Russians. We are all in the same situation, that the gap is sometimes so wide, so big that they can not understand each other.
Lucy Hamill: What is your impression of how the Vietnamese community has changed in Portland as these different generations go?
SN: Big change. Very big change. The Vietnamese people adjusted quite well. They adjusted their lives very, very fast and they are very successful. They are one of the groups that... If we look into the Asian groups, we have Japanese and Korean and Vietnamese and Chinese. Vietnamese, even [though] we came here after those groups, much later -- the Korean people have been here since the fifties after the Korean war. The Japanese people were always here and the Chinese were here forever. The Filipinos speak English in their own country. We have a lot of weaknesses as a Vietnamese to come to this country. They are adjusted very quickly. I am not talking about the older generation. They cannot adjust their lives. They do not have the chance to do that because they cannot work. If you want to be more socialized to the society, at least you have to work, to mingle with the native people. You start to make friends with them. You start speaking with them and talking with them. Learning the customs and learning the things. [The] older generation does not have that. They never had that chance, but right now, I've got to say that there [are] Vietnamese people who are very successful. You know that in California there is Little Saigon. It is one of the most successful Vietnamese community in the country here. It is after forty years [that] they could be able to establish the good foundation.
EC: Do you have any other questions? Besides your regular church services, are there any other techniques that you use for alleviating this loneliness of older people?
SN: Yeah, basically we don't have a lot of time to do this, but at least a couple of times a year, just for -- besides [having] a picnic, [having] something, something else -- two times a year I have the children -- like their children and their grandkids who come to church -- their children will cook and the grandkids would serve. So we spend half a day, we invite them to come to have tea time together to talk to each other. Then we have something, something to talk to. I would have some presentation, something that they need to know. For example the funeral system here, or the social security here. You know, some medicare system stuff that they need to know, but after that when we have dinner time, they just sit there and their grandkids would serve them. And their kids would cook. I try to make them feel like this is a family. They have friends and they have kids. They are all together. I do that a couple of times a year just for them. Besides that, we have a potluck after church that they would stay [for]. During, say, late spring, summer or early fall we could have some outdoor activities. Of course, there are getting less and less of them because they are getting older and older. But, I try to keep someway, somehow so that they could feel like they are not very isolated and I myself would come and visit them. That is a big plus for a generation like mine, 1.5 generation. I could be able to communicate with them about history, about the past, about anything in Vietnam and I myself right now have some ministry in Vietnam as well. So with them, I could be able to relay it for the younger generation who [would] become a pastor like me. They do not have that. That is my privilege. To have that kind of thing. I could be able to communicate with the younger generation. I could be able to help them with school, applications for college, or go to look for a job. Anything like that, I could be a reference. I could help them a great deal. I also could help the older generation to make them feel better. Right now, because of that -- just to make a long story short -- [over the] last ten years I have been volunteering to work for a group we call Mission Vietnam. The core group is Vietnam veterans who used to fight in Vietnam. When they came to the States they were abandoned. They felt really, really bad when they came back. After all of those years, some of them became drug-addicted, alcoholic, homeless, but some of them became the pastors. Some of them became religious people. They formed a group they called Mission Vietnam twenty-something years ago with the intention of taking those people back to Vietnam to visit the place that they used to fight. After so many years they did that. They started making some foundation there and they established some humanitarian groups to work there. Then they expanded and I came and I helped. I became one of the members of the executive group. I came back to Vietnam once a year with them. They hired somebody there to do translation and all kinds of stuff, but because people who lived in Vietnam did not have freedom, so sometimes during the meeting, there were a lot of things that, when they discuss, the translator translated [it] a different way. With my case, I just said to them, "Listen, something is not right." And I would come back to the States to tell them, "Hey, we have got to do this, we have got to do that." I have been helping them, but when I am helping them to go back to Vietnam I create some of my own ministries there. Right now I help the blind community there. A small group of thirty-five blind people lives together there. They are struggling on a daily basis. I help them financially. Also, the South Vietnamese handicapped soldiers. Wounded soldiers. I help about twenty-seven people there. When they [have] lost a limb, or legs or arms, I am able to raise funds here to buy them wheelchairs. To give them food or money to bypass every day.
But, it is interesting, I could say this to conclude: There are a few American Viet-Vet who came back to Vietnam. They were about my age. So I asked a guy, I said, "Why? I mean, you are mid-seventies now. All of your life you are living in the U.S. You were born here. You were raised here. You grew up here and now you are going to die here. Then you have only one year to two years in Vietnam. How come you want to go back to Vietnam every year? What is the reason?" The way that he answered me was very profound. I [had] never thought about this before. I said, because of their generation, before the Vietnam War, when they got involved in Vietnam between '64 and '65 to about '74 and '75, about twelve years. They were drafted right out of high school. Eighteen or nineteen years old. They got drafted and they were sent to Vietnam. After two years they were faced with death, with all kinds of problems. They buried their friends in Vietnam. So, after two years they came back to the States. They were not welcome here. So they said [that] the Vietnam War was the place -- Vietnam especially was the place -- that they changed from boy to man. They came home when they were twenty, twenty-one years old. So they said, "That's the reason." Only one to two years in Vietnam, but they never forget Vietnam. So they wanted to go back. Some of them go back every single year. They want to find the past. They want to find the place that they used to fight. They have friends there that they used to fight. They have friends there, they visit. And the places that their friends died, they visit the places [where they were]. They are religiously coming back to Vietnam. That is very profound. I never thought about that. I said, "I mean, two years out of seventy years!" But they said they have to do that. So a lot of them go back to Vietnam. The group that I work [with] now, they are called Mission Vietnam. Some guys that I work with right now, they go back to Vietnam a lot more than I do. They know more about Vietnam than I do because I have not been a lot in forty years. The first thirty years I never came back until the thirtieth year I came back for the first time. I came back with them. They have been back to Vietnam twenty or thirty times or more. That is the reason. I don't think that anybody thought about that. So I just shared it with you know to see your older generation has all kinds of problems when they came back. We can see that on the internet, in the documents and everything, but this is what for me... Staying with them, sleeping with them, eating with them, we share all kinds of struggling. Me, as a Vietnamese refugee and them, as American soldiers.
EC: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us. Again I am EJ Carter with Lucy Hamill and we have been speaking with Stephen Nghiem on May 29, 2019. Thank you so much.
SN: Alright, you are very welcome.