E.J. Carter: This is E.J. Carter and Hannah Crummé. We’re here with Minh Tran at Reed College on October 24, 2018. Thank you for meeting with us. Could you start, maybe, by telling us where and when you were born and a little bit about your life here in Portland?
Minh Tran: I was born in Saigon, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City. That was in 1964, when I was born. It’s in the midst of the war. What was the question again? [Laughs]
EC: If you could just give us a quick overview of your life here in Portland …
MT: I came here in 1980 as a political refugee. My sponsor happened to be in Portland. And that is why I came to Portland. I still remember when we first were in the refugee camp. [ … ] We escaped with our cousins as well. After six months in the camp and we both got called for an interview, our parties got interviewed. I escaped with my brothers and my cousin escaped with his sisters. So there’s four of us on this side and two of us. We walked into the building for interview, there are two agents, interviewers. They ended up going to Germany and we ended up going to Portland, Oregon. Even that, I was like, “Portland, Oregon? I thought I was going to go to America!” [Laughs] Nobody had ever heard of Portland, Oregon. I settled in Milwaukie because that was the cheap rent back then. Not a word of English, because I was studying French. I was ripped out of school, I didn’t even know anything about it. It was interesting, when they were sponsoring, you just write that you are entering into a junior level in high school. What we will do is just move back your birth year so that you will have more schooling. Because you are too young, you don't need to get to work. So literally, they changed my birthday to two years later. So even today there is no way I can petition, [Laughs] so I am stuck with my wrong birthday year. So when you enter into the US you can basically reinvent yourself, change your name, change your birthday. They just take you at face value. Because I actually came in with empty hands, literally empty hands.
EC: And you were living with your brothers?
MT: [Yes.] I thought okay what does that mean? So back then, if you remember, there was a huge wave of boat people because that was right after the war. So people from those regions chose churches, temples can just say okay I can just sign on the dotted line and I can sponsor people. So basically you would be the host. So you be like the coordinator, and introduce people into their new life. So this gentlemen he was nice enough, and actually we didn't know him at all. He wanted the group with the lowest maintenance. So I guess boys only, and entering right into the productive class. Meaning he doesn't want any babies. High school was okay and into work force is okay, but no retirees. So we just happened to be in that group. They just matched us with the criteria. So we went in, and we literally only stayed there overnight at his house. His house was a really small house, and I still remember its over on Halsey and 57th. We went and we just slept on the couch. Then the next day he said, "Okay let's go find an apartment." [Laughs] So we went to Milwaukee to get us cheap rent. At the time, I remember, we had to sign free loan for the airline ticket, one way ticket, from Thailand. Because, our refugee camp was in Thailand. So one ticket to San Francisco, and we stayed in Presidio for forty-five days for quarantine. That was what used to be, I assume it was an army camp, and it was defunct so they just turned it into a transition for refugees. For forty five days after that you passed through the health exams. Every week there was another group of nurses coming in and doing it. So after forty five days they said, "Okay now you can go meet your sponsor." It was super cold I actually still remember it was September 18, 1980. It was so cold and I went in with a pair of flip flops, and I think an oversized jacket that people just handed to you. It was so cold and not a word of English, and they just threw me right into high school. [Laughs] There we go, that's how my life was started in Milwaukee. It was a two bedroom apartment for four of us.
EC: Did your brothers go to school as well?
MT: Yes, I am the youngest one in the family. So me and my brother went to high school. The other brothers, one was actually the only one studying English out of the whole family. He was, I think, around twenty-two years old. So he got hired right away by the welfare social office as a translator. Because at the time there was so much influx of incoming boat people, and they didn't have interpreter for social workers. So he got hired instantly for that. My other brother got hired as just a grocery stocker at Freddy's. Even me, I wanted to get to work right away, because we didn't have any money. We had three months of welfare. They said, "Now after ninety days you're on your own. So whatever you need to do, this is for your starter fund." So we knew that our money was going to run out soon. Thank god school was free, even lunch was free because I was under welfare for that time. They said, "We can't really find you any jobs if your English is not that good." So actually, I was a custodian at school. So back then I was 14, and I thought okay this is least minimum contact with people, and so you can just work with one supervisor. You are always with this person, and just clean toilets and stuff. So my other friends got to go to sport slubs after schools, and I scrubbed toilets.
EC: Did you learn English quickly?
MT: I think, amazingly, after three months I was able to pick up conversations. It is hard to even imagine, how does one learn it? I think when you are young you can pick it up quite fast, and also your survival skill kicks in. I remember fondly, the only person I could understand was Mr. Rogers. When school ended at 3:10 I had to rush home because the apartment was pretty close. I didn't have to take a bus, so I ran back because his show was at 3pm and I would always miss the opening song [Laughs]. I was so mad, he was the only one I could understand back then. Because he would speak so slow, and he would introduce other words in each series. I learned a lot more from Mr. Rogers than the English teacher. There was no ESL then, we were sent to the vice principal secretary. She was wonderful, just click, click, clack, clack on her typewriter. I remember my fondest memory was, it was almost like a detention time. I went down there for, I think there was a social studies class and I couldn't get it. So they said, "Why don't you go down there to do more tutorials." I think there was another class that I got sent down, there were two periods that I got sent down. I thought, “Oh time to hang out with my best friend.” [Laughs].
Hannah Crumme: Did you met with her by yourself or were there other kids who also met with her during that time?
MT: It was with my brother. Actually, my brother and I were the only two Asians, not even Vietnamese, the only two Asians in Milwaukee High then. We can get into that, I have read some of your questions. We were the talk of the school. Oh, they are refugees, they are those boat people, and yeah.
HC: What was that like?
Mt: It was strange. It was overwhelming. There were stigmas that come with it. But I didn't understand back then either, I knew I was different definitely [Laughs]. Even the forty five days at the Presidio, they actually tell you, "Don't look people straight in the eyes until you really need some help. So don't ever engage with anyone. Because if you look people in the eyes, you want to engage in some conversation, and right now you are not in that capacity yet. So until you understand them don't look at them." So literally, I just kept looking down everywhere I go. I just didn't look at people, and then people thought, "Is he okay? Is he just shy?" But it's fine because I was overwhelmed with all of this. It was like fire, rapid fire just coming at me. Even schooling system is very different. Because in Vietnam teachers switch classes, and here we would have to go. I wouldn't know where I was going, and they just handed me this class schedule and I had no idea. So the counselor took me to the first period. It took me a while, I would say a half an hour to get settled. Then boom [snaps] 15 minutes later after that everybody just disappeared. It was like where did everybody go? I come down to the counselor’s office again, and he took me to another class. Of course, I was always late for the first week of class. Because I didn't remember the classroom’s location because it was so big. I think the adjustment was way too rough for me, and with no English at all. I just felt like where am I going now? So it took me a while, I never could remember where he took me, because high school for me was not that big before. Now it is way too big for me. Because you know, we were living in a camp. I actually stayed in a very nice house in Saigon where I grew up. But, within eighteen months of traveling and escaping. Staying in a little hut, a little house, a little boat and then finally in a refugee camp. Literally, four of us staying in half the size of this office, for eight months. So anything bigger than ten by ten square feet is huge! So I was really lost at school, it was just way too much going on. The only thing I was most comfortable with, interestingly, was the math class. [ … ] I was only in the eleventh grade in high school, in Saigon, when I escaped. I have to tell you, I didn't get introduced to calculus until when I went to college here. Because I had As through high school, without a word of English, you know. I would just sit there and of course, people would say, "Who the hell just did this?" Because you know the grades might curve, and they said "Who threw the curve out there?” [Laughs] “Talk to that guy over there who doesn't speak English sitting in the corner." So you know, you don't really need to understand language to do the math. So I just felt right at home in my math class.
EC: Had you already studied dance at this point, as well?
MT: Yes, it was interesting because my parents escaped from the North to the South. This is back in 1954 when the Geneva Accord was signed. So Vietnam was literally now divided into north and south. The French left and they were reintroducing the Americans to come in. That was the beginning of the war. We call it the American war, and the Vietnam war. My parents escaped because they were already labeled as a capitalist. My parents ran a business in Hanoi as a tailor shop. So even though the tailor shop was not a big shop or anything, still they were labeled as capitalist. So they left and took all the kids with them. So four of the kids left overnight, jump on the bus, and off they went to the south. They stayed outside of Saigon for the longest time. The interesting thing is they survived in a little old shack with more kids coming in. So seven kids, and then he won the lottery. So that is when he bought a plot in Saigon city and that is when I was born.
So of eight kids, I was the only one to get introduced to art. Because art is an expensive commodity. In a third world country, only the elite would actually go to art museums, to live concerts. None of my brother and sisters experienced that in their adolescence. I was the only [one.] I was showered with, let's go to the concert here, let's go to the concert there, let's go to the museum here, and opening galas and things like that, because their lifestyle changed completely. He opened his own shop again. Before he was just transporting fabric he couldn't even have his own shop. Finally, now he has his own shops, all of my brothers and sisters became fashion designers for the store. So they were more into the arts in that sense, you know architects and stuff. I was the only one in the performing arts. My dad is a true practitioner. I would say he is the only in my family who would become a monk. So he practices Buddhism quite a bit, and he reads all of the Confucius stories. So my bedtime stories were all Confucius work. Then he took me to the opera. So I grew up actually during the Chinese revolutions. All of the masters from the Peking opera escaped. They would be executed if they had not. They can't go to the north. The south was the only place they could go. So they wanted to find a pupil, and so my dad took me to all of these performances that were performed by the masters from China. That is how I was introduced. I thought wow all these bedtime stories come to life, with costumes, lighting, and actions. So I really wanted to be on stage with those people. So my dad said, "Tran go!" So he sent me to those schools. So in addition to those regular academic classes, in the afternoon rather than go to all those sports things, I went to the training school to become a Vietnamese opera performer. So that is how I was introduced to being a performing artist. So not just dance. So as an opera performer you actually have to practice in all four disciplines: acting, dancing, acrobats, and singing. So that is how I was trained when I was five.
HC: Were you able to maintain anything in Portland?
MT: No well, it's a long roundabout story. Because I was more into musicals more than anything else. Musicality was actually more in my trades. I was more into singing and dancing more-so than acting. Until I was in middle school, then I just liked to dance because you would get more action [laughs]. So then my reading music notes was not quite up there. I would just skip that and go right straight to the studio. I was trained more so in the dance department more so than the singing and acting departments. When the communists took over, we switched all the way to propaganda dancing. I was still dancing then, but not as much because it was not exactly what I was hoping for. I sort of drifted out of it, and just be a communist party member in the club. Like the red handkerchief, maybe you are aware of those. If you are young and you are a part of the communist party then you wear those red handkerchiefs. So I was part of it, until when I went to school here and when I escaped. So there were two years of no dancing when I escaped. I went here and they said, "Oh boys don't dance in high school." It was a good thing that my art teacher also happened to be the dancing coach. She said, "Oh well you can show up and watch us rehearse if you want." She was actually taking classes at Portland State University, she said, "Once you graduate, go to Portland State because they have a really good dance company there and they have great dance teachers there." This is back in the eighties when they had a -- now defunct -- contemporary dance company. She said, "Go there and you will love it. Right now just for four years just watch us." [Laughs] So that's what I did so I didn't get to dance at all. I danced in the basement, yes, but that is pretty much it until I got to college.
HC: Where did you go to college?
MT: Portland State. I had a scholarship for Clackamas Community College and also Portland State University. So five years later my parents came. So it took us five years to reunite the whole family. My sister came two years into high school. I believe I was a junior when my sister came. Finally, my parents came. I still remember they just arrived, and then a month after that I graduated. They didn't recognize me, I mean they walked right past me [laughs] and they overlooked me. Because you know you change a lot during your adolescence age, your voice changes, your appearance change, and size changes. I left exactly during the adolescence time and so my parents kept looking and looking [laughs] I was right in front of them. I had a scholarship in business, I was still taking dance classes as electives. But the reason I went was because I got a four-year scholarship in the accounting department. Because I took accounting in high school, AP courses. So I passed the test then I apply, and I looked at my profile and I got the scholarship. I wouldn't even dream of going anywhere else because I had to stay closer to the family. So Portland State seemed okay and we could afford that and we used the scholarship, so I went there.
EC: Did you consider going into business or did you know...
MT: No I knew I wasn't considering business because part of that scholarship was for you to stay and get a degree in business. So I just took dance as an elective course. But I think when I went at the beginning, I still remember the first year, the person to take then was Nancy Matschek, she is Nancy Martino now, and she has moved and is retired now. She was the head of the dance department. She was teaching advance ballet she didn't even teach beginning, just advanced. I took beginning contemporary dance, the class started at 8' o'clock. Oh my god. And you needed to take a bus from Milwaukee to downtown that would mean I would have to leave at six o’clock to make it to class. Of course, all the dance classes there was no tardiness because after five minutes [snaps] that's it your credit is gone. You wouldn't be counted as there anymore. But I loved it, I couldn't wait to get to class. I still remember, we still dance together, but Terre Mathern was my first dance teacher. She said, "You don't belong here you should go to advanced level." I said, "No I am comfortable with this." Because I didn't even know what people wear in class. I don't know the culture of what contemporary dance classes are like. So I just went in with P.E. shorts and a tank top, and everybody else was in t-shirts and sweatpants. So I thought okay I guess I am in the wrong place. After the first or second week all of the dance faculty started watching me at the end of class. Because that is when we were really dancing. I said, "Why are people coming in at the end of class and are watching me all the time?" Finally, Nancy, the head of the dance, said, "Can I talk to you after class?" I said sure. But I had to go to the accounting class because otherwise, I would be late. So then she arranged it, and then the next time she came up to me she said, "I want to talk to you, like serious talk." I said, "I have to go to class. I only have ten minutes to get to class." She said, "Don't worry because your accounting teacher is my best friend. I already excused you today to talk." Basically, she asked me to take her advanced ballet class. I said, "I have never taken a ballet class in my entire life. I don't even know how to go get into it." She said, "Don't worry I will get you the slippers and you need to get through the class with this." Here in the advanced class were taught by the advanced teachers and those where the dance company members. Because back then they had a dance company called, "The Company We Keep." So I was sandwiched in between two of my teachers and it was like you would turn around and somebody is always in front of you.
I still remember I didn't even know how to go across the floor, I fell all the time. But she said, "Just stay in there." After the first year -- so by that time I was a sophomore -- they were looking for a male dancer for the company. I didn't even audition. I said, "Who am I to audition for it?" So I didn't audition, and the audition was a failed search because they didn't like anyone who came in. They came to me and said, "Would you like to be in the company? Because I know you have been looking for work all the time." Because even back then I had three jobs. I worked at the bank at night from six p.m. to two a.m. Then I worked at a box office and a parking office. I worked where ever I could work because I needed the money. There was nobody else who would give me any money. I mean my parents can't give me any money. So finally, I could stop working one of those jobs and you can dance where you work and you get paid. I was actually surprised that they hired me at the age of nineteen to be in a professional company. So in the morning, they were my teachers and in the afternoon they were my colleagues. We rehearsed with them. So that is how the dance just took off from there.
By junior year they say, "Even the company is just not enough for you." So she really took me in as a second son in a sense. So Nancy then said, "You don't know who you are until you go to New York. You can't stay here." I said, "Oh no my parents would kill me!" You know because we risked our lives to come here and I am working on my business degree. I am not really technically on a dance track at all. She just said, "Don't worry." I still remember, she took me to my academic advisor which was my accounting teacher. She also happened to be a dance lover. I still remember what she told me in the office she said, "You can become an account when you are forty, but you can't become a dancer when you are forty. So this is your time. GO!" So I took an absence, then I left. [Pause of silence] Sorry [crying] Didn't have any money. I was really scared because even then my English was still broken English. We are just talking about six years, and I have never been anywhere else outside of Oregon. They all chipped in money and gave it to me. She asked all the professors she said, "If you really believe in him, give him the money." [Muffled crying]
Anyway Stephen Petronio, he is right there, he came to Portland because back then instead of White Bird, which is what we have now, we had PSU Contemporary Dance Seasons. Nancy was actually the creator of that program and the artistic director of that series. She did that on top of running the dance program. She presented Petronio Dance Company, which was back in 1985. I took the workshop from him because they usually have to teach a master class and he blew me away with what he did. Those ninety minutes just totally changed my life. I just fell in love with the aesthetic that he has. So I told Nancy that I said, "I can only go if you could actually hook me up with Stephen." She said, "Alright I can try to do that."
So I think what she did was, she cut a deal with Stephen. Actually, I didn't know that until much later. So she told Stephen, "I have this boy he is a little fragile, but if you are willing to take him under your care in New York, I will present you again in Portland." I was like wow, I didn't know that back then. I thought how did I get in so fast? Because, in New York there are thousands and thousands of dancers trying to get into this company. Even in the eighties it was this golden time of contemporary dance in New York. It was like the epicenter of the world. If you wanted to work in the contemporary dance field you had to be in New York. All of the famous choreographers -- they live all over the world now-- they lived in New York at the time. So I could have handpicked any of them, but I really wanted to work with Petronio. So Petronio picked me, and so I just went there. I already lined up with some of the dancers here who has a studio there. Back then there was a lot of cheap loft studio that you can actually live in and you can dance in your own space. Back then Chinatown was really cheap. I lived over a bagel and cream cheese shop and worked with them for a year. Then the problem was the whole company was invited to go to Belgium, because Petronio was hired as the guest artistic director. But I can’t go with the company because I was not even a citizen yet. Because it takes seven years to become a citizen. I still only had a green card, and so I can’t even leave the country at all. So he said, "Then I can't take you." So back then I still remember, should I go home back to Oregon and finish my degree or should I just live here and try to get into another company. Which I don't know if I could get. It was almost written out for me. I had to come home. So I did. I came home and finished both of my degrees. Back then there was no dance degree at Portland State. So the closest I could get was a certificate of dance. I took so many dance classes already they said, "You might as well, we will actually hire you if you just graduate." So it was sort of a given that I would. I graduated with both degrees, business administration and a dance certificate. I still remember, I did my practicum performance work and I got all the press from the Willamette Week. Back then it was big and it was downtown. All of the critics came and they wrote about me. I thought this was just a school project it's not even professional, but yet they were already writing that he is the one, up and coming. So the pressure was on, in a sense. I was still working in an accounting office for a manufacturing company and I was still working at the bank. After I graduated I got a job as a Budget Analyst at Multnomah County. I still had to do that because I really had to survive by myself. My parents, they were still only on welfare. I had the company at night, working through the night.
EC: Had you already founded your own company?
MT: Yeah I founded it in 1997. I kept producing work and producing work. Because usually there were about three dancers carry on to the next project. They said, "Hey just do your own company." So by 1997, I founded my own company, but then by that time I was really sick and tired of working for the County. I thought I would be making a difference, but with accounting, you can't really do much with it. I was working at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services as a Program Development Specialist with the focus in accounting. I processed all of the bills that were from the kids that were committed to the hospital, for whatever reason. I kept reading all of the depressing reports and I thought I can't do this anymore. Then I got involved, and I wasn't even making a difference. I was just trying to balance the budget and I would give favors and then they would give me this line item. It just gets to a point where it all about if I help this public official this way then we would get another line item. This is just so dirty business, and I am not helping kids anywhere in a sense. I just thought I need to go back to school. By that time, none of my family members ever got a master degree, usually just undergrad but that is it. I just wanted to go to school just to have a graduate degree just for my parents to be proud of me. I was actually considering going back in Law. I took the LSAT and I took an orientation event, at Lewis and Clark. I had my partner then already and he just said, "Why [Laughs]? You hate politics, you think you’ll go into law? Why not go into something you really love." Yeah but what are they going to teach me in dance? What have I not done? I mean I have my own company already. He said, "Well then you can get to teach at university level." So instead of teaching at Conduit, at community dance place. So I thought well okay if it's just for a piece of paper. So okay I will take this opportunity. So I applied only on the west coast because I wanted to stay close to my parents. So I applied to the University of Washington and Hawaii. Even before my package got to Hawaii the UW people already called me and said, "Stop applying. If you stop applying we will give you the whole fellow. We will actually hire you to teach." I had actually never met a single person in the department. I only sent in my package and I did all the requirements. I wrote the essays and submitted the videotapes. So I actually didn't talk to a single person. I just did this cold. So they said, "Who is this person that was sent us this video?" But by that time I had already been presented by Seattle's performing art scene. I came back there every year so I guess UW must have heard of me. They said, "Why don't you show up, take one class, and let's have an interview. But stop applying. Just stop sending out your packages." [Laughs] So I did. So even before I went into the meeting, my partner was with me and he had already started looking for apartments. He said, "I think you're going to go in.” [Laughs] It was just the closest and most sensible because it is only three hours away from Portland. That is how I got accepted into UW graduate program.
EJ: You were up there for two years?
MT: For two years, technically it was a two year program. But, then she (the director) really wanted to keep me. Part of the curriculum at our graduate was to develop a course that no one else could teach, within the advanced field. I still remember, going into the advising board they said, "How about choreography?” Nope. Everybody can teach choreography. You have to come up with something better than that. I was so upset I was like [Exasperated] Man, I could never get out of this school. So actually, I got introduced in the summer when I am not into grad school. I was sent to UCLA because they were offering a program called Asian Pacific Performer Exchange Program (APPEX). Because school is not in session during summer, so they opened the fraternity place and they host all the artists. So there were forty artists selected, but only five were from the United States. The other thirty-five were from all over Asia, they were masters of their own form in music, dance, theater, and even themed design. So forty of us stay in a frat house together. We took over one building, four floors. These artists are serious masters. I got to work eight weeks with them. Twenty-four-seven. We eat, we sleep, we work together, we did that. I was lucky enough to get chosen two years in a row. So in the summer, I was gone in those eight weeks you totally drop out of earth. Nobody knows what you are doing, because you are just working seriously with these people for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But because of that, it helped me form a network. And so I begin to [discover] my true identity. I have to admit it was not until then that I finally looked at myself as an Asian. I worked so hard to be part of America for so long. It was like okay I have to be with this community, I have to be with this community. So back in earlier work I always wanted to be the western look, there is just nothing Asian flavor in there at all. Until 1996 to 1998 was my first work about Asia.
HC: So during the eighties and early nineties were you engaged at all with the Vietnamese community in Portland?
MT: Not that much. My parents, of course, would go to the temple. I go to the temple with them only New Years and the eighth full moon (harvest moon). If there is a big holiday I will go. But other than that, I stayed really far away from the Vietnamese community. I wanted to be an American as much as I could. You know? I just never got that Asian identity at all. Not until my advisor at UW finally said, "You really need to look at who you are. And this is your chance." To live with all of these Asian people, because actually, they were all Asians, the only people who were American or white people were the staff. They don't stay in the house there. So finally, this is what it is really like. You know even though I live with my parents until the eighties. I am just always like, why is that I am searching to be an American? It was not until I was in my thirties that I really looked at my own identity.
EJ: How did your work change after that?
MT: It was actually 1994 when Clinton lifted the embargo with Vietnam to have a “normal relationship.” We came in and I became a citizen in 1987, with a condition. Because you were naturalized from a political refugee status, and because we don't have a normal relationship with Vietnam (then), you can't go back to Vietnam ever. Even though I am a US citizen, just because we don't have relationship with Vietnam back then. So not until 1993 --I think -- the embargo was lifted. Then Vietnamese expats can go home. So fourteen years when I left, and forty years since my parents left their hometown in the north. So I took my dad home, and that was actually an awakening experience. Just to be able to come home. It shook me up quite a bit, because I left when I was in adolescence. So all of these memories are still in the back of my brain, and it was not woken up until then. I was so jealous of my dad that he left his hometown forty years and he came back, and he still remembers the roads -- which were exactly the same. His old house -- is the same. His friends are still there and they are much older but he still recognizes. I only left my hometown -- which is in Saigon -- for fourteen years. The streets changed, the name of the streets changed -- because it is in the city. So that is telling me in rural versus in the city, life changed much faster in a cosmopolitan area and in the rural nothing changed, and it doesn't matter how long it is. So he reclaimed all of his memories, I mean ninety-nine percent. I reclaimed probably five percent of my memories and none of them I can claim at all. So that sort of shook me up quite a bit. I worked on a show, and I called it The Road Home. Trying to find a resolution of where is home and take on the inception. It took me two years to do that work, it had four hundred slides of Vietnam. It recounted my journey back, and also the journey of finding my true home.
EC: What is like to go back and perform in Vietnam now?
MT: It is still tough. I was selected as one of the fellows to work with the Rockefeller Foundation. It's called the Mekong Project as they search for artists who are actively working here in the contemporary field, in dance. Not just in dance, but in theater and even in textiles, basically everything in the contemporary arts field. They did a study back in 2002, and it said if there were no intervention from first world countries into Vietnam -- or into the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos -- there won't be any more contemporary arts coming out from this region at all. Because everybody there is going into the high tech industry nowaday, and no one has their kids study in the arts. So they had to have some intervention, and so they were looking for artists who could come home, go back to their roots, and do residencies. I was selected as one of them and I worked for two years for that. Lots of traveling and lots of residencies in Vietnam. The state actually paid me some money to do that, in collaboration with the Rockefellers. The problem was it was a communist country, so the expectation of art and culture is still in the branch of the government control. Because that is their message to the people, it is not free speech as we say it here. So when I came back I wanted to make new work. Well, what kind of new work? They said, "Can I see your script?" I said, "Well I don't have a script." Well then you are hiding something. No, I’m not hiding something. This is my process. It is a new work. “Well who are you casting?” Well again, I don't know who I am casting. I am going to work with a company this is the list of the people. But they wanted a story, and they wanted to know who was in the starring roles, and very traditional ways of thinking. So they won't give me the permit to do the work unless I answered all of these questions. All of my answers were none apply [Laughs] not applicable. Because of that, it was hard. I was able to teach a lot, to do residencies, and to teach students there how contemporary arts work. But I was not able to perform nor to produce work for them -- not even with them. Because I think it is in the nature of my work that I don't have a story to give to them. The government said, “Well there is no permit.” And if you have no permit you can't sell your tickets.
HC: Did engaging with Vietnamese themes and Vietnam itself change the way you interact with the community here?
MT: Yes. To get back to your question, here and there is like day and night. Like my work here is well received, but I cannot show that work in Vietnam at all. Because actually some of my work has a picture of Ho Chi Minh in it. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad and it doesn't even have a message in it. It just happened because I took the slides of Vietnam and, of course, you cannot take the slides of Vietnam without a single of Ho Chi Minh in it. So they said, "Oh you have Ho Chi Minh featured in it, you can't have it showing him." Because it would imply something else different. But yet here it is different. So the Vietnamese community here I struggle with it still, of my work. Because it's so far out there, it's so abstract. The younger generations respond to it much better as they can relate to it much better than people from my own generation. My niece and nephew love my work. My parents -- they just passed away -- but even the piece about The Road Home, they said, "Why are you putting pictures of our family up there?" [Laughs] They are very private in a sense. That is the most literal piece that I could ever ask them to approve of my work. That is the only piece that they can fifty percent approve, the rest they just thought it was over the top. I kept giving my family tickets and they would give it to their friends. Their friends would say, "Oh yes my kids would love to get tickets!” [Laughs] But yet none of my uncles and aunts would like to come. But their kids were just dying to come. It's a younger generation, that can get it much more.
EC: Does dance have a kind of spiritual meaning in the Vietnamese community?
MT: It's more than just spiritual, but I think it is more about the lessons too. It always has to have a message for them, and I think that is why an emotional response is just not enough. What is the storyline? What is the punchline? Unless I go out there with a message for them, I am not going to get it. In a sense, so if the work is so abstract if it is about the relationship then they still probably quote on quote “approve” or get it.
EC: What about sort of everyday dances and not professional dances, is dance an important component of Vietnamese American culture?
MT: That's an interesting question because you know in festivals and things you can still see dances. But then, yes those are more like folk dance, like about harvesting. The reason you are doing it is because you're celebrating your harvest seasons. It’s so funny because they always do it in fashions shows [laughs]. They kept asking me to choreography a fashion show, and I don't do fashions shows. [Laughs] But they always include fashion shows in the harvest festival. So part of the entertainment is still fashion shows and folk dances and things. It's interesting because now I look at Southeast Asia as a region. Vietnam is still trying to adapt to this form of dance, and they try to get onto it and they having a hard time adapting to it. Because they just want to stay with the traditional sense of like ballet, the stories, there are the stars, and there is the corps in the back. So unless you had that structure you couldn't call it dance. Just having a dance where nobody is the star and there isn't a storyline then that's not a dance for them. Even in Vietnam now, when you go to see the Vietnamese Opera ballet company and the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet, I have worked with both of them, all of their work is all Giselle, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and things like that. They just love to cling onto that. Only the dissident -- we call them dissident artists, the ones that are not approved -- they are producing their work at the embassy because it is the only safe place without a permit and is open to the public still. Because only the public can come in, but you can't arrest these artists. Because they are still on the embassy grounds. So embassy ground actually is where all the arts thrive. [Laughs] That's the secret to go to Vietnam for that.
EC: Are there religious elements in your work?
MT: Nowadays yes, it's quite a bit now. I did a work called Nocturnal Path, which was the one that the company toured the most. That's another trip that I took my dad back to Vietnam. He just wanted to do the temple tour, because he is a very practitioner Buddhist. To be with him, alone, for so long in hotels and places like that. Because yes, of course, I can pick up a book that will talk about the philosophies of Buddhism, but I want a personal point of view. I am fascinated with a third person looking back into it, to see what it is like. I really want to look at it from that angle. Not from an academic lense, not from a research lense, but from a personal connection. I like that point. What is it that is fascinating to me about religions? Why do people worship in certain traditions? So I guess it's sort of religious in a sense, that's a definition. So yes my work is in that form.
I am working right now because my parents have passed away. I have been researching funeral rites in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam as well, and also with Egyptians. I am trying to get a response from it, from a personal point of you. I say, "Huh this is actually quite interesting." I try to pick out something that is interesting from these religions about the traditional aspects of it. How do we do grieve? But also, how do we say goodbye to someone we love in a traditional way, in a ceremonial way? The new work is again, some people will say, "Oh yeah that has a religious factor." I am really looking at it in a traditional sense.
EC: It was interesting to hear you talk earlier about your experience as a refugee, and being confined to these small spaces for many years. It seems like dance is kind of an exploration of space. I am wondering how those years influenced you as a dancer?
MT: You know that is interesting that you brought that up. I have never thought about that. When I did The Road Home, part of that was about my experience being a refugee. I did a whole major work called Forgotten Memories, about the Cambodian genocide. Because of being a refugees that escaped, I was more into that part more so than the genocides and stuff. It is just the casualties of any war regardless is what I am interested in. I was creating all of those dances in a confined space. Forgotten Memories was created in an installation format. I rented a ballroom, and in there, there were five different installations. So it was in a confined space. It was not like an open presentation for audiences to see. So they have to gather over to certain area of ten by ten, and so they have to move around in it. I never thought of that was because of my own personal experience in that sense. But yeah, every time that I talk about being a political refugee I am in a confined space. I never thought of that so thanks for pointing it out [all laughs].
HC: Anything else we should have asked that we haven't that you think we have missed?
MT: I would say overall when I look at the Vietnamese community, I think we are at a generational gap now. I am looking at my nephew and my niece and I look at their kids, so my great nephew and great niece, they have become so Americanized. There are two camps that I see. One camp is in search of their identities so bad that they want to go back to Vietnam, they want to know who we are. They want to know why they are speaking Vietnamese at home. There's the other camp that is completely so Americanized that they have no interest. They love to travel, but not to go back to Vietnam. I couldn't even get through to them. Why don't you want to go to Vietnam? Why don't you take your kids to Vietnam? They said, "What do you mean? I risked my life to get away from it. Why would I want to bring my kids back there?" So there is a camp of that, and this is within my family almost. Now I get involved, because you know going through the grieving and ceremonial for my parents, I interact with the Vietnamese community quite a bit in the temple on 82nd. It's interesting to meet with them too because they are having the same problems with their kids or their grandkids. Either they are really into all of it or they are into none of it. Nothing is in between. It is either they search for that identity roots or they just completely detached from that identity root. I thought that was fascinating, that generational gap is getting even clearer in that sense. Like you are in it or you are not in it.
HC: So is the generation gap, that community that escaped? Is it the first generation wants to be more American or does the first generation want to maintain their traditions?
MT: The first generation wants to maintain their traditions.
HC: Then the second generation is just so American.
MT: Yeah, yeah and they are having a hard time.
HC: Is there anything people are doing to overcome that?
MT: I don't know if there is actually a formal organization doing that yet.
HC: Are people themselves doing something? Like within their homes are they trying to maintain food?
MT: The parents are actually sending their kids to a Sunday school for language. Again it's only if parents decide to do that. So again that is up to the parents. It's all-volunteer teaching. It is not a formal thing that is required. So they just skip it or they try and give up. I think it is fascinating to look at it right now, because there is no formal structure to bring these people. Might say, "Yeah talk to me when I am thirty." Because I was exactly in that mode as well.
HC: What do you think the future of the Vietnamese community is in Portland?
MT: They are getting so Americanized, Oh my god. They are getting so Americanized. Matter of fact they would rather speak English with me, even when we get the family together. With the first generation, we speak Vietnamese and the second generation they speak English. Two of my siblings is married into an American family, and so they don't speak Vietnamese at all. Not that they don't try, and you know they tried their hardest but they couldn't. So then they say, "You guys just can't speak Vietnamese in front of us, speak English." So even with family gatherings, there is sort of dilemma too. It's interesting because they still follow the traditions. Like every New Year, we get together. All of the funeral processions brought us closer together as well. No one even complained, they were actually gung-ho about it. None of them were like, "Why are we doing all of these stupid tradition things." No there is not even a question about it. So it's interesting to see the young ones who want to be Americanized, but yet when it comes to ceremony and traditions, like to go to the temple. [Snaps] they just go right back in, there is not even a question, not even a qualm they just do it.
HC: Do you think Buddhism brings people together?
MT: In a sense yes, and I wish I could have discovered this like to hang out. Now I have sort of unraveled quite a bit so parts of my dance cycle unraveled as well too [ … ]. Every Sunday dad would just disappear. I would visit my parents on Sunday and I would say, "Where is dad?" He spent his entire Sunday at the temple, because that was his home. That was more his home than his own home. Now actually I have discovered that in a sense.
HC: Did he have a community there?
MT: Yes because he could speak the language. The first generation speaks Vietnamese, and that's the only language they could speak. My parents came here when they were in their late fifties. They tried as much as they could to study English, but they couldn't. So that was their community, that was their home, in a sense. They can be free around that temple ground and not have to worry about anything. It is a true sense of community. I didn't realize that until now because I go there every week. To hear the stories about my dad -- I didn't even know that side of my dad.
HC: Which temple is it?
MT: It is called Ngoc Son it's on 82nd and Harney. Ngoc Son Buddhist Temple. It's fascinating, because of my collaboration with a lot of artists who, of course, are all Americans. Nobody in this production was a Vietnamese but me. So trying to tell them about the traditions of these funerals and these ceremonies that I am answering about now. So I invited them to the temple and for them, it was just fascinating. They said,"Oh my God, we didn't know it was the same sense of community--a true community sense." I said, "I know right! This is new for me too." They open it up to anybody when they come in. Then there is a praying time for about two hours, and then after that, there is lunch. Oh my gosh it is free lunch for everybody. I even felt bad and even my company members said they kept going for the free lunch. Well, you can just donate whatever; they don't ask for anything. There's the donation basket and you can give it whatever you want, but nobody asks for anything. So there is a true sense of community. Every four weeks or so there is a big celebration. There are guest artists coming in. One time they asked me if I would like to perform. Of course, I said yes but by the time I show up, I said that's not how I perform it. They gave me a space no bigger than this table, and that's not enough room for me. Because again everything about singing and again fashion show, so there is no room for anything else [laughs]. I said that is not how I do it.
HC: Why do you think fashion is so important to the community?
MT: It's an entertainment value.
HC: What do they find entertaining? I mean, it is entertaining. But, why is fashion so important to them?
MT: To them, it's about beauty. Of course, in fashion shows, there is no man up there doing fashion. It's all the ladies up there with different dresses and things. So there's a very traditional sense too.
HC: Is it traditional dress?
MT: Yes, yes.
HC: Is it maybe about also maintaining the culture?
MT: No. It is a way of crossing the cultures. Because those dresses, they go from very traditional and then the next one they got away from it and then the next one they will even break away from the aesthetic or even the look. Like the collars are different, the prints are different, or the combinations of the dress or the robe. It's like woah, nobody has ever put together that combo together. So yeah they are doing that but overall it is still a tradition.
HC: That's fascinating. Anything else we should have asked that we have not?
MT: I don't know if there is anything else.
EC: During the years you were trying to be as American as possible, where you still deeply involved with your siblings?
MT: Yes, I think of course for my parents more than anything. We just come to visit my parents on the weekend. Because, knowing that they are really lonely. We worked during the week and so we barely get any free hours and they went to bed early too. So by the time I got out of work and then had dinner they would have already gone to bed. So the only time to catch them is Saturday or Sunday, and Sunday they're gone because they always go to the temple. So on Saturdays, we would usually get together with my siblings. There was always drama because it is a big family. So somebody would avoid someone else. It is almost like the weekend is like Thanksgiving. But every weekend, so that's a lot.
EC: Well thank you very much for speaking with us. We have been talking to Minh Tran at Reed College on October 24, 2018.
EC & HC: Thank you.
MT: My pleasure and thank you for coming.