[The interview takes place under a covered patio in the backyard of Húng Si Vuong's parents house. It is raining slightly. Inside the house, the Vuong family are preparing to celebrate Húng's daughter's twenty-seventh birthday.]
Azen Jaffe: Today is July 9, 2019. My name is Azen Jaffe and I am here with E.J. Carter. We are talking to Húng Vuong in Portland. Thank you for being with us. Could you start by giving us an overview or summary of your life briefly?
Húng Vuong: My name is Húng Vuong and I came to the U.S. in February 15, 1990. I left my country in December 28, 1988 by boat because of the communist regime. We cannot stay with them. I escaped.
E.J. Carter: Can you describe the boat journey?
HV: The boat is fourteen yards. A fishing boat. We had seventy-one people on that boat. Took us five days to get to the first islands in Indonesia. And we really don't know what it was. Only had a light house and it had a couple soldiers up in a boat. The name of the island is called Projek Pulaumangkai. We stayed over there overnight and -- they are called the UNHCR -- they came over and picked it up at about 12:30 to 14:30 we go to a different island of Indonesia. The first island, we had the name Kuku. So the UNHCR is no longer over there, only soldiers. And they gave us only three days of food. So each of us had three hundred grams of rice per day. I lived there for ten days but they gave us only three days of food.
AJ: That was in 1988?
HV: January 5th, 1989.
EC: You were traveling with your father and your brothers?
HV: No. It was by myself. Because the brother next to me, he escaped to Malaysia three months before me; then my turn. I went. So we head for Malaysia, but somehow with a storm -- we got a big storm -- pushing us down to Indonesia. So instead of a three day journey -- that was the food they prepared for -- it took us like seven days.
EC: What made you all decide to leave?
HV: Communist regime. As you know, my father was working for the US government. He was with the US embassy for fifteen years -- you already know the story. We don’t get educations in Vietnam under the communists. We don’t like it. We have to go. Whatever the cost.
AJ: How old were you then?
HV: Twenty-four years, I believe.
EC: Had you been able to go to school in Vietnam?
HV: In Vietnam? Yes we were able to, but between the children of the communism and the children of [those] working for the US government, they treat us completely different. I don’t like the education. More like brainwashing, to go with their stuff. We really don’t like it.
EC: What kind of work had you done? Did you go to work after being in school in Vietnam?
HV: In Vietnam, yes. I helped my mom. I do all kinds of work. When we were in the middle of Vietnam, in Kontum -- when my father was in prison by communists -- my uncle from my mother’s side took us back home to where they live in a small city in the province of Kontum. I was eight years old when Saigon fell to the communist government. Very little. But, 3:00am in the morning I had to wake up, because we don’t have anything to cook. They give us petroleum. Carry my brother on my back. Eight, nine years old, I had to wake up early in the morning to get in line to get petroleum for the family to be able to cook.
AJ: And so you were in Indonesia for two years?
HV: I was actually in Indonesia for five months and twenty-two days, I believe. I got all the documents from my father, that way we can go faster. From Indonesia, we transferred to the Philippines, Bataan Refugee Camp. We learned about American culture. I lived there for six months, waiting for the plane. And then I came over here.
EC: Your father was already in Portland at that point?
HV: Not yet. They were still in Vietnam. Only two of us were in America. The other two, I don’t know if they received my letter or not because the refugee camp had closed -- they don’t want to accept anymore refugees. Somehow two of my brothers escaped, they went to Malaysia and they had to stay over there for like four or five years.
AJ: So you weren’t together. You were by yourself all the way to the United States?
AJ: And you had one brother in the US when you came?
HV: Yes. So he was in the United States -- just only for three months -- and I came. Because we met in the Philippines. He went first; then my turn.
AJ: And where did you first fly to in the US?
HV: Portland, Oregon.
AJ: Straight to Portland?
HV: Yes, straight to Portland. Because one of my father’s students in Vietnam, he was teaching English [my father], He just made the paperwork for us to come to Portland, Oregon.
EC: So that was your sponsor? Your father’s student?
HV: We were sponsored actually from the Protestant church, I believe. That was just signing the paperwork to let us live with them. I lived with them for like one and a half months, and then got out.
EC: That was Lutheran World Services that was the sponsor?
EC: How was that first year?
HV: My first year, we don’t have anybody here except the both of us. No relatives. A little bit difficult, but hey, you have freedom. It was freedom for us. My first impression when I came to America? From the plane, look down, it is so beautiful. When the sponsor took me home -- this was February 15th, 1990. I saw all the white stuff on the streets. Didn’t know what it was. It’s snow. Beautiful. First year in America, I worked several jobs for temporary -- when they needed me for a few months. I would work, then they laid me off, like several companies until a got the job [I have] right now -- for over twenty-two years.
AJ: What were some of the other challenges you faced when you first moved to Portland?
HV: Transportation. I took the bus for two years, trying to save money. And language. It is my second language. Even if I learned from my father, learned from refugee camps, still have a hard time understanding. And because of my Vietnamese accent, sometimes people have difficulty understanding me. A lot of misunderstanding back then -- even now.
EC: What part of Portland did you live in when you first arrived?
HV: On Southeast Powell Boulevard. The first one on 55th. I lived there for one and a half months, then moved down the street to 58th and Powell Boulevard.
EC: You lived with your brother?
HV: Yes I did. I lived with my brother and then my parents came in 1993 and we moved again to Northeast Portland.
EC: Where in Northeast Portland?
HV: In Stafford. 611 Stafford. My father chose to rent a house.
EC: How did you go about looking for a job when you first arrived?
HV: First arrived, IRCO found a job for me. I had no idea where to find. So they helped me out on where to find a job. Very first job. From that point, if I got laid off I do it by myself. So I’m asking them where to go [ … ]
EC: What was that first job?
HV: The first job, I worked at Nike for three months. And then they had no work, they laid me off. The second job, I worked for a company spun off from Textronix. They were doing a transformer wire. The third one -- this one -- it is working out right now.
AJ: What are you doing right now?
HV: I am doing the circuit board. They build the circuit board for a lot of companies.
EC: What is your role in the process? What kind of work do you do on the circuit boards?
HV: It is a lot for me. I have two parts. I’m doing drill rework, scaling the program. I can run it in the machine, drilling the hole in the circuit board with the machine. [CNC ] I created a program for the drill machine to drill the center.
EC: Has the company changed in the twenty two years that you’ve been there?
HV: Yes. When they spun off, first they named it Merix and then several years later, another company jumped in and bought it, called ViaSystems Technologies. Now it is TTM Technologies.
EC: Have the products changed as well?
HV: A little bit, not very much. The only thing is they upgraded with the newer equipment.
EC: Are there other Vietnamese refugees who work there?
HV: Yes. A lot of Vietnamese refugees work there. But not on my shift [laughs.] Most of them work the day, not the graveyard shift. Very few. My department, only two or three Vietnamese people.
EC: But the company as a whole employs a large number?
HV: Yes, a lot. They got like three companies over in China and a couple in California and one over here.
AJ: When you first moved to Portland did you live near other Vietnamese Americans?
HV: Not quite. In 1990, not very much Vietnamese around. Except if you go to church, the one who sponsored me. I went over there only a couple times. That’s it.
AJ: To the church?
HV: To the church. I am not Catholic. I just go.
AJ: Why did you go?
HV: They wanted me to. The person who made the sponsorship, they asked me to go. I said, “Ok, I’ll go.” Not of my heart, but I’ll go [laughs.]
EC: To meet people?
HV: Yes, to meet people.
EC: Did you keep going?
HV: No. I did not.
AJ: Are you in any other religious organizations? Do you go to Buddhist temple?
HV: Yes. I went to Buddhist temple.
AJ: And still?
HV: Still, yes. Back then, there seemed to be only one or two in 1990. One on 138th and Sandy Boulevard the other one I went. And when I moved to Beaverton, another one on 160th between Farmington and Canyon Road
EC: What were those named? What was the one on Sandy?
HV: The one on Sandy was Nam Quang Temple and the one in Beaverton was Phat Quang Temple. Actually, for now I went a lot. They’re asking me, they need help.
EC: Do you still attend the one in Beaverton?
HV: Sometimes. I go to the one right now where my parent’s go. On Division and 174th. Far away from here.
AJ: And you take photos too?
AJ: How long have you been doing that.
HV: Since 1994, I believe. When my family came over we tried several professional businesses and I don’t like the way they do. I just go out bought my camera and did it myself. Back then only film. And I did not go to any photography school at all.
AJ: But your photos are really nice, I’ve seen many of them.
HV: Thank you.
EC: What kinds of things would you shoot initially?
HV: Right now, it’s just for home. Portraits. For the community, I went to a lot of events. Not only Vietnamese community, but in November for the last two years I went to American veterans. I met a lot of people and thanked them so much for protecting our country. They are all retired, but they are still working. Like Mr. Russell C. Davis he is still working for the Pentagon. He is the Lieutenant General, I think. Russell C. Davis. Still working for the Pentagon. He was eighty years old last November. I do that for the last two years, very new.
EC: How often do you take photographs at an event?
HV: Whenever the Vietnamese Community of Oregon needs it, then I go. Sometimes, the Vietnamese veterans they do an event. They asked me, and I went.
EC: Do they hire you or do you volunteer?
HV: For the veterans? Regardless of any country, I do it for free of charge. I never take any money from them. Not at all. I want to thank them. No charge.
AJ: That’s nice. How long have you been involved with the VNCO, the Vietnamese Community of Oregon?
HV: Since 2016.
AJ: What sort of stuff do they do? What do you do with them?
HV: They try to keep the Vietnamese customs, like Vietnamese Lunar New Year, for the children. They help the community during tax time, they do it for free. The community, they have a lot of Vietnamese, like the one on 82nd, they’re teaching our language for the next generation.
EC: What’s the most interesting event that you’ve photographed?
HV: Most of the it is for the Vietnamese community. It’s the Vietnamese New Year and the children’s New Year. Children’s New Year is very fun to go [laughs.] You can see all the little ones dancing. It’s coming I think, next month.
AJ: Do you have children?
HV: Yes I do. The first one, today she is turning twenty-seven.
AJ: Happy birthday!
HV: Yes, thank you. And my son is twenty-five. One girl and one boy.
EC: And you met your wife after you moved here?
HV: No. I met my wife in the Philippines. Every other refugee camp -- like Thailand, Malaysia -- they had to go to the Philippines to learn about American culture before they can come here. So that’s why I met my wife over there. She went to Virginia after I went to Portland.
EC: The first time you met her, what were you doing?
HV: In Bataan, I was the intake worker. In the morning I translate for the teacher, over there they called me “assistant teacher” for the little ones, the Vietnamese children. The Philippines teachers were teaching English, but they don’t know Vietnamese. I had to translate for them -- the best I can. Thank you to my father [laughs.] And then in the afternoon, I worked side by side with psychiatrist for people who have mental illness. They come to the office, they want treatment. I fill out the paperwork and give it to the worker.
EC: Was your wife also a teacher in the camp?
HV: She was not. She doesn’t know English very much so she had to go to school.
EC: So how did you meet her?
HV: They sent them by the father of the Catholic church from the refugee camp. They put them up in a barrack. A whole barrack. That’s like ten or twelve units. And the one, my wife was already in it. I did not know. I came home from work from the office, I saw like four different ladies in my unit. That’s how I met her.
EC: Were you from the same part of Vietnam or did you have anything else in common that you knew of?
HV: Yeah, she came from Saigon. I was living in Saigon too. I was born in Kontum, in the middle of Vietnam, but I wasn’t living there my whole life. We both from the same city.
EC: So when she went to Virginia and you were here, how did you keep in touch?
HV: By phone. And then finally I get her over here and marry her. Phone back then very expensive. Very expensive for long distance.
AJ: And you were married in Portland?
EC: How much later was that? How long were you here before she came?
HV: I came in February 15, 1990. In 1991 I get her over here. As soon as I can. I am bad boy [laughs.] My first child was born this day in 1992.
AJ: Did your children go to Vietnamese language school when they were growing up in Portland?
HV: Unfortunately, I really didn’t have the time to give them that chance at all. They learned it at home and for themselves. Unlike now, the Catholic Church, the community has a lot of Vietnamese language classes open.
AJ: There are a lot of classes?
HV: Yes. Not back then.
EC: Do they speak good Vietnamese, your children?
HV: Yes the first one is ok. The second one, not quite yet.
AJ: Is it important to you to be able to speak Vietnamese with your children?
HV: Yes, it is very important. We are speaking Vietnamese language at home. We would like to keep that language. It is very important for us.
EC: Are there other ways that you keep Vietnamese culture alive in your home?
HV: I don’t know how many Vietnamese families are still doing it, but our family -- every year -- we celebrate Vietnamese New Year exactly that day. So if it is on the work day, the whole family takes that day off. At least two days. We try to keep that tradition for our own family.
EC: Is Vietnamese music important? Or books?
HV: Yes. For us, Vietnamese music before 1975, not after 1975. Children born over here, it is different. The environment surrounding them when they go to school, it is completely different. My daughter, she listens to some Vietnamese music and knows some of the Vietnmaese singers. My son, no not quite.
EC: Did your children attend Portland Public Schools?
HV: Yes. Both of them.
EC: How was their experience in the school system?
HV: I think they really liked it.
EC: Is that when they learned English?
HV: Yes. Both of my children went to Beaver Acres Elementary school in Beaverton and then Five Oaks for middle school, and high school in Aloha High. Then they went to college, PCC and Portland State University. My first child, she went to several PCCs. PCC Rock Creek and PCC Sylvania and then Portland State University in downtown Portland.
EC: How was the process of learning English for them in the schools?
HV: I think it was just natural. Because they were born here just like other American families. Nothing different. The only thing different is Vietnamese food and language.
AJ: What sort of food do you like making at home?
HV: Right now she is making a very spicy one. I don’t know how to say it. That is the food she wanted for her birthday, so we bought yesterday and now we are cooking it [laughs.]
EC: Is food as important to you as it is to your parents?
HV: Yes it is. Every family is different, the Vietnamese food, even if it is the same kind of food, the same dishes. Families differ. The flavor and the taste is completely different.
AJ: I think we might be getting to the bottom of our questions. Do you have anything more you want to ask?
EC: No, I don’t think so.
HV: Very fast.
AJ: It was fast. Are there more things that you want to talk about? Or that you think we should ask?
HV: Anything. I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Hopefully you are satisfied with it.
AJ: Yes, it was great. Thank you so much. Again, my name is Azen Jaffe. I’m with E.J. Carter and Húng Vuong. Today is July 9th, 2019.
HV: Thank you so much! Thank you for coming.
EC: Thank you.