E.J. Carter: This is E.J. Carter and Hannah Crummé, we’re with Margret Vu on July 19, 2018 in Gresham. Thank you for meeting with us and agreeing to be interviewed.
Margret Vu: It is nice meeting you and thank you for the project.
EC: Could you start by telling us where and when you were born and a little bit about your life here in Portland?
MV: Yes. I was born in Vietnam. A little difference is that I was born in Hanoi and my first immigration was from the North of Viet-Nam to the South when I was a little baby. I lived in Vietnam until I finished high school. I left Viet-Nam in 1972. When I came to Portland in 1996 I had been living in the United States, in many other places before. But Portland was a home for me because the beauty of nature here. It reminds me a lot of the city I grew up in.
MV: No. Hanoi was where I was born. But I moved away when I was one. I grew up in Da-Lat, which is a small city about 200 miles north of the Southern Capital, [Saigon.] Da Lat has a lot of [greens,] a lot of trees, mountains, hills, and rain. For a long time, [after I had lived in the US for some time ] I was dreaming of Oregon but did not have the opportunity to move until I found that I had a relative here. From that, I moved to Portland.
EC: Why did your parents leave Hanoi?
MV: 1954. It was a long story. It is always a war story. 1954 was when the Vietnamese ended almost one hundred years of colonization by the French. For some reason, there was a connection with the Cold War at that time. With China, Russia, America, the British, something like that. It happened that [after WW II and after Viet-Minh successfully fought against the French Colonization at the Dien-Bien-Phu battle, ending the 100 year of French colonization] certainly, [The Geneva Conference in April 1945 among China, Russia, French, the U.S, United Kingdom, and Ho-Chi-Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese Nationalists, marking the beginning of the involvement of the U.S. in Viet-Nam. The Agreement was signed; the French agreed to withdraw troops from Viet-Nam and Ho-Chi-Minh of the Vietnamese Nationalists agreed that the country would be temporary divided into two regions at the 17th parallel pending national elections in two years to reunite. Emperor of Vietnam was abdicated and became Chief of State of South Viet-Nam.] So it was decided that after the French left. Of course, the Vietnamese [Emperor Bao-Dai] also left with the French [was urged by the America Advisors to appoint Ngo-Dinh-Diem, an American-backed Christian who intensely anti-communist, as Prime Minister of South Viet-Nam in 1954]. The U.S. did not comply with the Geneva Agreement. According to the terms, Viet-Nam was supposedly to reunited in two years pending a national election but, the U.S. was afraid that their side would not win the election. People were given three months to decide if they want to switch locations to either moving North or moving South of the 17th parallel. The sentiment at that time, my mother later told me, there were rumors that the communists, the Viet Minh, would kill all the (Christian) Catholic [religious people, landowners and the educated; at the same time, witnessing the Korean political situation where the people of North and South of Korea had never been unified after years divided]My family had family members (my mother’s younger sisters were working at the Institute Pasteur of Research in the South), my family was Catholic and my father was an Educator so they were scared of being retaliation and punishment. Along with about Within three months they had to plan to move South with about other on million Northerners including 200,000 French citizens. My mother said, when they arrived in Saigon our family was given 2 loaves of bread and $700 Vietnamese Dong to restart our lives. People had to made arrangement in advance with Southern family members, relatives or friends for temporary stay while trying to settle in.
EC: What kind of work did your parents do?
MV: My father was a [High School] English teacher, [considering a public worker at that time] and my mother was staying at home mom [of two very young kids. My father was able to find the same teaching work in the South.] He could choose the location. So he chose to settle in Da- Lat city where I grew up.
EC: What was your life like in Da-Lat growing up?
MV: It was a highland. So the temperature was very mild and very fresh. [During Colonization Dalat was the land reserved for Vietnamese Royalty and French Governors and other High rankings. They made the beautiful city a quiet resort for vacation, not busy crowded, beautiful, natural landscape. We were the producers of all the vegetables and all the flowers for the whole nation. From my window, I could see lots of vegetable fields. My childhood was peaceful and close to nature. We all walked to schools and to most places. Before the war got worse, at twelve year old I could take my brother and younger cousins on a long walk to the streams or water fall to play. It was a child’s pride going to a public school because we had to pass Region exams to enter 6th grade, passing national exam to continue to 9th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade. The Government nurtured good and bright students. Not passing the grading exams students would have to go to private schools and pay tuition.]
EC: Were your lives affected by the war dramatically
MV: Where I lived was not in the heart of the warzone. [The war got worse after our President Ngo-Dinh-Diem was assassinated by the CIA on November 2, 1963, the same month the U.S. President JFK was assassinated in America (November 22, 1963). From time to time I could hear canons and see night fire up in the sky from far away. We had curfew but at late night, sometimes there were people quietly running by or around my house. We had open front yard and backyard. The war got worse as I was getting older; knowing the loss of a neighbor, a cousin, a family friend; a bomb set off in a theater when a neighbor mom cried out on the street condemning “terrorist” whom we had no idea. Male students at eleventh and twelfth grades even at ninth grade disappeared from time to time after failing the national exams because any young male at eighteen and up without an educational diploma or currently in school to get it, would be enlisted. I had a neighbor friend whose parents paid for his fake record so to have his age reduced. Another neighbor hid in the attic for years to avoid going into war. My uncle, a doctor, was abducted in the middle of the night by the Nationalists, and led into a jungle, eye covered, to treat an injured high ranking leader of the team. The next afternoon he was returned at his home safely. Then there was the 1968 Tet Offensive. In my city, we heard gunshots and cannons all night of no sleep to find out the next early morning that the city was taken in the night. Two communities situated at four miles and seven miles away from my house were bombed. People tried to escape with bare hands. Thousands of people at any ages passed by my home to get to a school turned shelter down the street. Bomb carriers flew over the roof of my house, so close that I picked up empty cartridges after being shot out from the airplane. Tet Offensive took only three days. On the last day I saw shooting on the vegetable fields across the street from my house. My mom called me to close the window and hid inside so I did not know what happened afterward. During that time my mother opened our home to welcome two refugee families. One family stayed with us one week and the other one month. At the same time a puppy ran to my home and it became our dog for a long time. It could not bark for many months that we thought it was mute but it actually was too shocked to make noise. We did not lose our home, but my classmate’s house turned into a pile of dirt by an enormous bomb hole. War is dramatic. Not talking about losing electricity, water, under curfew, being in confusion, fear, anger. The experience of war was daily. The effect of war was dramatic and long term.]
EC: Did your father teach you English at an early age?
MV: No. Actually, [in general, we only began knowing English since the war. We were more familiar with French due to a hundred of year of colonization. The presence of the American Army in the war did not have a positive impact due to killings and culture change. We did not like to learn English. Because of the French influence, many of the kids went to French school. Our family was the same at first.] I started in French school. But later on my dad said, “No, we are Vietnamese. Why do we go to French school?” So he pulled me out to go to a Vietnamese public school. Although my father taught English, no one in my family learned English because we started to see the negative influence of the West. We didn’t feel good about it. If we didn’t have to, then we didn’t learn English. That’s why [I learned English in High School beginning at tenth grade as second foreign language. French was my fist foreign language to learn starting at sixth grade.]
EC: And you left Vietnam in 1972? Did you go to college then?
MV: Yes. At that time, it was very difficult to leave the country because of the mess near the end of the war. It was very tough [at that time. Only the spouses of the American Service men and foreigners could leave Viet-Nam. The only Visa issued for Vietnamese to leave the country was to go to study abroad. We had to pass the national exams at twelfth grade; passed the Language and Culture exams certified by the Embassy of the Country we wanted to go to study besides the proof of Acceptance from a qualified school abroad.] Not like here, we have national exam after eleventh grade and then national exam after twelfth grade. All of the boys, if they did not pass, they would be drafted for war. I have a younger brother; he was just one year younger than me. He worked really hard because he didn’t want to go to war. That’s the only way. We passed both the exams. Then we passed other qualifications to get a Visa to go abroad to study. It was very competitive and we were very lucky.
EC: To which university?
MV: I applied for the University Laval [in Quebec City, Canada because my first foreign language studied was French.] I studied -- no one studied that -- but I studied Theology at that school. In the middle of my studying, the war ended. We, [America backed South] lost the war to the North. [I became a refugee and the Government of Canada, Quebec Province automatically took me in as an immigrant.] But at that time, they gave us immigrant [status] right away because they knew that we could not go back. I stayed in Canada for a few years then moved to the U.S. to be with my family.
HC: Where did you go in the US?
MV: First was New York because my mother came to New York with my aunt [and] my grandma. First I moved to New York City. We lived in Brooklyn for about a year. I moved to different places. I moved a lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I’m older, I’ve realized that maybe I was searching for a place. None of the places I lived before, more than five years. Like three years, then go to some other place. [ … ]
EC: So where were some of the other places that you lived?
MV: Virginia, Florida, California, Wisconsin.
EC: Wow. Were your siblings here as well and your father or your mother?
MV: My brother, yes. In Texas. We [are] rarely nearby. We take care of our own life and family. My father passed away when I was young. My mother passed away here in Gresham about twelve years ago.
EC: When you moved to these places did you mother come with you or did she stay in New York?
MV: [She always came with me wherever I went.] After I left Vietnam, she could not come with me. I left her [back]alone by herself. She had to sell our house to prepare for us to leave. So she stayed with friends and relatives with hope that we would reunite someday. But luckily, she did apply for a passport. But the [Vietnamese] government refused. They did not give passports to anyone because they did not want people to leave the country [during the Paris Peace Talk and the Tan-Son-Nhat Peace Talk between the U.S. and the North Viet-Nam to determine the fate of the losing war. When America began to withdraw every service member out of Viet-Nam, my mother’s situation was reviewed] Then somehow she got her passport. She applied for a visa to go to New York because her mom, my grandmother was there too. So it was a long story for her trip because near the end of the war there were lots of political issues in it. But after all, [unexpectedly] she was given an immigrant visa to enter the US [to live] because there was no one left with her in Vietnam. Also, probably the US government knew that that’s the end. They told her that: “If you go this time, you will never come back. Would you want to do that?” And she said, “Yeah.” Because her family was already here. They gave her the visitor entry. But then when she got to Hawaii, they called her back and they gave her immigrant visa to enter the U.S.
When I move [my mother most likely move with me] it is part of the culture. [I live in between two cultures. Sometimes there was rejection some time there was acceptance. It is hard to live in between cultures like that. That happened because I was here younger than my family, than my mother.] Sometimes I couldn’t take certain things, the cultural expectations from the family. I actually tried to stay away from family for a while. That was really a serious issue with my family. I did that for about two years. And then I let my mother back with me and since then she was with me to the end. When I moved to Portland we moved together. I was already old, I already had two kids when I moved here, very young. I was a single mom when I came to Portland.
EC: What kind of work were you doing in those years?
MV: In those years, I did office work, selling like in department stores. Most likely office work. At the same time, I always tried to finish school because I could never finish school after the three years in Canada. I moved with family and since my family is older women [grandmother/mother/now aunt] who don’t speak English. I became the head of household. So I’m always working and trying to take classes. It’s always like that. I worked here and there, wherever. [Hunter College and babysitting in New York. My mother worked sweatshop. Back to Quebec: Concordia University and Department Store Pascal. My mother worked sweatshop. Los Angeles City College and Teacher Assistant, Art Craft Painter, Account Management for Balboa Swimwear (real job). My mother retired. She could not keep up with sweatshop in Los Angeles. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin and PreSchool Teacher (Degreed from Los Angeles City College). Virginia: Accounting Assistant for Boat US Insurance (real job). Florida: Assistant Manager for same company at boating retail store. Oregon: Portland State University, worked for IRS then Accounting for School District. Because of bad treatment, I resigned after three years. Then Multnomah County Health Department.]
EC: Did you finish your degree?
MV: [I received an Associate Degree in Los Angeles, an Accounting Certificate in Virginia. And finally] I finished my four year degree after all, about nine, eight years ago. After a long time!
EC: Ok, so in Portland?
MV: In Portland. Yes.
HC: When you moved to all these places, were you living within Vietnamese communities or were you living outside of them?
MV: Because of my situation, it’s different than most of other Vietnamese immigrants or refugees. Because I left earlier, I did not go through [the tragic of] the end of the war situations. I most likely not involved with the Vietnamese communities until very recent years when I’m older.
HC: In Portland specifically?
MV: In Portland specifically, yes.
HC: So Portland was the first Vietnamese community in the US that you became involved in?
HC: What about the Portland Vietnamese community brought you in?
MV: [Comparing to California and Virginia, Oregon only have a fairly population of Vietnamese] First, they have a very large Catholic community in Portland. [We went to church. My children took Vietnamese and religious classes with organization.] We were involved with the communities for a while, religiously. But at a time, I feel that religion doesn’t feed my [spiritual] needs anymore. But I just went because of my mom. She needed it, so I took her there. After she passed I stopped. And for my children, I don’t enforce their beliefs.
HC: Was she involved at Our Lady of La Vang Church or a different church?
MV: Yes, it was Our Lady of La Vang [Roman Catholic] Church. Lots of events. Masses daily. [My mother also go to other Vietnamese Christian Masses with our family friends.]
HC: Did your children go to the Vietnamese school?
MV: At first, yes. The first two years we lived in Portland. I took them to the Vietnamese classes at the church. But since I left the [Vietnamese] community when I was 18, it was hard for me to live again in the same community. It is different besides that. After I left Vietnam, I didn’t have community anymore. I lived individually. Wandered by myself. [More of a New Age Yoga Meditation type]
EC: Was that difficult?
MV: It was very difficult. It is hard to become involved with a group that you are not familiar with. That’s very hard. The Vietnamese group, Lavang, was the first group I tried to go back to. After we moved out of Portland to Gresham we stopped going to church here.
HC: Where did you live when you were in Portland?
MV: I lived in northeast Portland, around Broadway. Kind of near the church because my relatives lived there.
EC: Was it a Vietnamese neighborhood or were there other Vietnamese people living nearby?
MV: Yes. in that area there were a lot of Vietnamese. Not really into a community but very close by. Like if I drove two streets out I found two Vietnamese houses, something like that.
EC: What drew you to Portland in the first place? Did someone tell you it was a nice place to live?
MV: Actually, first of all, [I heard about the landscape of Oregon since I was living in Los Angeles. I loved to live in a place with lots of trees and Oregon had that] before I moved I already loved to live in Oregon, in general. [They said Oregon was very beautiful and laid-back. They said it wasn’t as crowded as New York or Los Angeles, those big cities I lived before] Then I found that my uncle lived in northeast Portland. So I took that chance to move.
HC: The neighborhood that you originally lived in, do you still go back to it very often?
MV: In Portland? I went back from time to time, long time ago, when my relatives were still there. But they are already out of that community. Two of them moved to Clackamas and all of the others moved to California.
HC: Why did they move to California?
MV: For Vietnamese communities. Here is not enough for them so they moved to California. It is really, really close knit.
HC: Do you think the neighborhood is changing? Do you think the neighborhood you originally lived in or the Vietnamese neighborhoods are changing?
MV: Since I did not go back and live there, I don’t really know how it has changed. But, passing by from time to time, it changed physically. The buildings changed. But people, I don’t know. [Adding to that, I could see that Vietnamese foods are now welcome in the mainstream food course like “Phở”. There is a large Vietnamese School in Portland that teach children and adults at all levels. It ‘s called Văn Lang School]
HC: What led you to move to Gresham?
HC: What do you do out here?
MV: I moved to Gresham to work for Centennial School District just across the street from here
HC: That is very convenient.
MV: Yes. I thought I should move near where I work.
HC: What do you do for them?
MV: Accounting [in their small Accounting Office]
HC: That’s nice.
MV: I worked for three years in their accounting office, but then things didn’t turn out well. [very bad, unreasonable treatment] Portland is very nice. [But personally my first working experience here gave me a different view about a certain type of people, it seems harder to really get along]. I had worked before at other places -- Los Angeles, Florida, Wisconsin, even Virginia. But never before that I faced difficulty as I’ve worked with the district here.
HC: What kind of difficulty did you face?
MV: The first time, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what that was. I worked in accounting. Accounting is a different setting, specific type of records, different expectation. But my supervisor expected me to set file [the same filing system as in an office] I had to have a filing system. I told her that, “Most of the stuff is in the computer. We don’t have files.” [It’s Integrated Computerized Accounting System And the only filing I had was records, because I handled cash account receivables. It is just the records of renting. The district has some renting places and we collect money. Record of that. And records of cash we dispense to officers and stuff. It is very clear, but my supervisor was never happy with that. She told me that, “You need to go back to learn how to file.” Because filing has to be A to Z, one to whatever. But I said, “This doesn’t have that. I did file A to Z within cash, this customer that customer, this name. That’s all I have. But she made me change things to the point that the human resource lady was involved. They made me start it over, because what I was told was my work was not satisfactory. But I really didn’t know what they expected. That’s the thing. I don’t know what they expect. At first they want me to change my filing system and they gave me a book that teach how to file. And I said, “No, this book I can’t use because this is the filing system for a secretary.” Secretary has a separate system, this is not right for accounting. And then that passed. And then other things. It kept going like that. Up to a point. I said, “I am not going to prove anything anymore.” Because everything for the work that I have done, like Balance District Accounts at every month end, prepare for year end audit, records keeping of cash handling and cash Flow daily, prepare reports and balance sheet as needed for the Director -- if the auditors had requested a record or questioned data, I had the answers for them. I had no idea why she wanted me to create a filing system. When she gave me another book to read and the book title was “How to work well with your Boss” published in 1950. Everyone rolled their eyes while I knew I should quit. When I turned in my resignation letter, she gave me a very nice reference letter and she asked me, “Why do you quit?” And I said “I quit because of you.” I told her that, “the expectations you set for me are not in the scope of my work. I don’t feel that I have to continue to prove anything to you anymore. So I quit.” So she knew that it wasn’t a nice quitting. But I think, later on I knew why she treated me like that when a coworker of mine told me that “you can file a complaint, on racist issue.’ She added “This Office, this Administration Office never had a person of color working before.”]
MV: [Yes, it is] discrimination. But I said, “it takes a lot of time, effort, work. I have to move on for a living.” So I moved on. I found work with Multnomah County.
HC: What did you do for Multnomah County?
MV: The only thing is I have to completely change my profession. Because I have to live, I have to support my family. So whatever decent work offer, I will take. They offered me an office work. So lower pay than the pay I had before, but I took it. And lots of responsibilities, but low pay. No title, nothing.
HC: What is the work?
MV: It is for the health department. I was responsible for [one portion within the Environmental Health Section within the Health Department. I trained, tested and certified the food handlers in the County for work. It’s called “Food Handlers Office” I was the person in charge of everything in that office through many changes. All servers, cooks, managers of any food carts, restaurants public events with foods have to learn basic “food handling,” pass the food handlers test and hold a “Food Handlers Certificate” in order to work in a field that involves foods. We have to test the food handlers to qualify them for work because they have to have a license. So I had to test them. Help them learn to pass the test. Help them know how to take the test. Grade the test, qualify them, and issue them license. Plus anything else in relation to that office from records keeping, verifying, maintaining of the data base, update educational media, translation, working with non profit organization and high school to help prepare their students or clients for tests, even working with IT in developing the test Web Site]
HC: That’s interesting.
MV: Yes, I love the work.
HC: Do you think you’ve encountered other instances of racism in Oregon?
MV: [Compared to my experiences working in many other states, yes, Oregon seems not as open. I did encounter other instances too. For example, the County removed routine and unifying decoration and celebration of Christmas among offices. There was some reaction to that. A co worker said to our faces (a Mexican and me, Vietnamese) that she felt that the County was too considerate of us (the minority.) It wasn’t right to make people (like her) stop celebrating their normal celebration in the office because we (the non Christians) did not celebrate it. She gently added: “We” came here and settled here first, long before you so “our way” must be respected (accepted no matter?)] Much better with the County, but management is a different issue.
HC: I’m sorry what is?
HC: How so?
MV: They handle so much. So they are everywhere [due to technology upgrade and innovation.] Constantly changing methods causing unnecessary stress. The pay is very low, no title at all, it’s just office work. They let me in charge of the whole office. All my pay, clients, all the documents. Even translation into the books how to learn. Even working on the website for the food handlers. Everything. But I love it because it is challenging and they let me alone. They did not question me like the other job. So I stayed. That’s why. And I slowly, fifty cents a year raise, until now. Although I moved to a different office. But it is a similar thing.
EC: Was your degree in accounting? Is that what you studied after studying theology first?
MV: I did not have a degree in accounting. [I only got a Certificate in Accounting] I was lucky. I took an accounting class. I took credit courses beside the accounting class. So with that, a company in Virginia hired me as an accounting clerk. They trained me very well. Since then I have tried to take [more] classes in accounting. Although I did not earn a [higher] degree, my knowledge is very good to keep up with my work. I do have some credits, partially for accounting.
HC: What degree did you earn eight or nine years ago?
MV: After I worked for the health department, I became [interested and] love issues of health. Anything about health, but especially environmental health. It has opened my eyes for many things. So that is when I began to take health classes. So it is completely different. I became a public health person. I have a public health degree. But because of my age, I cannot compete anymore. So I let it go. I just do things that I like.
HC: That is my mother’s favorite degree.
MV: Yes? My favorite work.
EC: What do you think are the big public health issues facing Portland in general and the Vietnamese community in particular?
MV: I think the biggest issue in regard to health is the healthcare system. It is not the individual health issue. It all goes back to the system that doesn’t manage health. It did not work for people in general. Especially people who don’t speak the language [or don’t have money]. For years I was working to improve health with the health department. They are trying really hard. But it is tied also to federal funding, federal expectations. The move is very slow. Although the work is a lot.
[To specifically answer to the question, for Portland in general, housing and homelessness in Portland and related sanitation is one of the issues of public health, beside asthma on the rise as well as communicable diseases. For the Vietnamese community, there was research showing that Vietnamese women rated highest in cervical cancer due to cultural factors and language barrier. I was blessed to be part of this research with a Vietnamese Nursing Doctor a few years back. ]
EC: What are some of the programs that they have?
MV: The main program I worked within was in environmental health. I was taking care of the food. But we do have inspectors to inspect the food. Air, food, water. [Vectors] Those are the environmental health work. Then it tied to clinical section because it linked to asthma, lead poisoning, food poisoning, all those. I worked with them on the side on the project with the health initiative section. They tried to bring the health issue out into the public to educate people about how our system is . Why it didn’t work and how to change. It was a great project. But then, I really don’t know where it [went] after all the work. [it became the backbone, framework for bigger other projects] We even got the communities input because we went to libraries and [ … ] everywhere [ … ] probably more than thirty times to present. We used a series called, “the Unnatural Causes.” It’s a series. And we used that series to show to people. Different groups, different sections. Then asked them what they saw. What they want changed. The health initiative group, they even put together what it was. But then I didn’t know what was next. [because I transferred to work for the county Library for sometimes] That’s how the work was.
I also worked in cooperation with OHSU in toxicology department. They were working about cosmetic toxins and nail salons. The reason I was involved with it was because I was Vietnamese and nail salons were the business of the Vietnamese. So they wanted at least a Vietnamese in there so I worked with them. It went very well. I interviewed nail salons here, interviewed workers. The group, they already decided at first to change, because the business had to change. Change the product, change the settings, change the machines, lots of change. Of course, business people, they don’t want to. They did a little bit here, a little bit of there. The last thing we asked them is if they were willing to change the products. Because none of the products were safe.
HC: The nail polish?
MV: The nail polish. Cosmetics as a whole. I think we have very limited inspection or regulation for cosmetics. [the industries] It is almost free by themselves. So lots of toxins from lipsticks to nail polish. Even shampoo sometimes. So that’s the last part. They did not want to change the products, because of course the new products were not as effective [without the hard chemicals in it]. Doesn’t look as nice, doesn’t stay as long, things like that. The county even prepared to give them samples at first in exchange for the change. But they refused. So we couldn’t do anything more. We stopped there. That’s another thing. Otherwise I also work with APANO [ … ] I don’t even know, what’s the name?
HC: Asian Pacific Islander [Network Oregon … ]
MV: Asian Pacific America Network of Oregon. I was a member and a volunteer. They work hard towards health [care reform].
HC: What has it been like undertaking projects with the Vietnamese community like that? How does it feel to go in as a researcher to nail salons?
MV: Actually, very inspiring at first. Because I thought we could do something. But when we encountered the reality, I felt sad. I felt sad because the business owners did not want to change. And they are free. They can make a choice. We can’t do anything. And their workers [are] afraid to voice their [needs and problems.] So it is really hard and very sad. I realize that it is difficult to change. [Maybe time]
HC: Why are the workers afraid to voice their concerns?
MV: They knew that they got sick but they didn’t want to do anything against their manager, their boss. Even when I called and I talked to a worker, she was whispering. She said, “The boss is here I can’t talk. Maybe you should call and talk directly to him.” She didn’t even want to talk. Although, I can tell that she is eager for the change because she is sick. We explained to her that the blouse that she wore at work, when she came home with her children, if she did not take a shower or put that clothes in the washer, she spread it [toxins] everywhere in the home. They were scared too. But they make a lot of money in that field. When I talked to the boss, it is even more disappointing. He said, “You know, I go to the spa everyday. I sweat everyday. I even go to a steam sauna to sweat. So all the toxins are out. I don’t have it, I don’t get it.” But then I asked, “What about your workers? Do they do the same?” He said, “They are individuals. They can do it if they want to, by themselves.” But of course, they can’t. They have family. It is kind of sad actually.
HC: Yes. What kind of programs does APANO have?
MV: I worked with APANO in Heart Program, which is basically about healthcare [reform]. But APANO is more into political side, although they work with people too. We went even to Salem to meet with representatives, to share with them about how we think and ask them about their agenda, their points. We do that, APANO [Heart] does that for their health care reform project. We did phone bank to encourage people to vote. Phone bank, phone bank, every year. [ … ] Because Vietnamese most likely do not vote.
HC: Why do Vietnamese not vote?
MV: First of all, probably language barrier. Secondly, they couldn’t see or understand the effect. They can still see that there is nothing affecting them. They cannot read news beyond their own communities. So they don’t see broader issues. Many of them think they didn’t have to change. Many Vietnamese are very conservative. They see things differently. They don’t see that people should receive freely certain things. I think younger Vietnamese generations, they are more into voting.
One thing, when I was working I remember reading somewhere that specifically Vietnamese culture was classified as “acultural.” Meaning no culture. Vietnamese no longer maintains their own culture. We’re losing [our culture] because the older generation, they didn’t want to talk about the past. Because they lost. And they are not ready to face the future or the present, because they still think less in the present and they know nothing about the future. The younger generation it seems to me, (even myself although I am older, because I’m in a different situation, I’m the second generation here because my mother also immigrated.) They are more involved in their small communities. They hold back things like how we eat, how we say “Hi.” Vietnamese are very specific in their ways of interacting with people. How this and that, they are more into that. They could not keep up with the younger. So the younger generation, they just go out and learn from whatever they face. That’s what I’ve heard from someone I work with. That Vietnamese is acultural.
HC: Is that your experience? Do you think that’s true?
MV: Yes. As I dig into it, As I [become] involved, yes it is. Because if we want to talk about: “What is Vietnamese? How is Vietnamese?” The younger people, they don’t know anymore. And they are the ones to lead, to sustain the future. But they don’t [who, what, where, when, why about their ethnicity any more. The influence of “living” is so big. As I think about it, culture is a living thing, it changes as living changes. Losing one’s own culture seems like a sad reality but at the same time change is the only constant. So consciously choose what to keep and what to let go as well as what to adopt, adapt would be more of my concern.]
HC: Are your children involved in the Vietnamese community?
MV: [My children are not involved in the Vietnamese community, but they do have one or two Vietnamese friends. They do keep a handful of Asian close friends (Chinese, Korean, Phillippina among their friends of other races.] That’s an example. My own family, I have two children, they are adults now. I was in the middle of the past and the future. I was the sandwich. I was busy trying to please and trying to show the older that we are here, that we still maintain. But then for the newer, I was loose. I did not grasp what was needed. I’m lucky. First, I believe that keeping the language alone does not sustain the culture. There is a lot more in the culture, I believe. I did not expect my kids to learn Vietnamese. But luckily, I always had my mother. We always lived with older people so in the home we still spoke Vietnamese and they learned from that. They learned to respond from that. They know a little bit. My older one, she can carry out a [simple] conversation in Vietnamese with you. Not so deep. But she can. My younger one, she is five years younger, I could see much less. She can speak here and there a little bit and she still understands. But much less than her sister.
HC: Have they done other things to retain the culture?
MV: I know that my younger one -- they both graduated from Portland State -- after she finished school she tutored two students. She began to [become] involved with Asian communities. Not specifically Vietnamese, but Asian. Her friends were Chinese, Korean, and other Asians. She took classes, Vietnamese class, at PSU at night. She learned some basics [on her own]. One thing I know is she likes to do it. She likes to learn it, [to speak Vietnamese and very interested about Vietnamese Fine Arts and cooking Vietnamese special dish.] For email I always write in Vietnamese to them. They don’t return or [respond] in Vietnamese, but they find ways to try to understand. Whenever I am with them, I try too. Even myself, I forget [the language sometimes.] But I try to speak Vietnamese and show them things that I know so they learn. But it is getting less and less as generation goes.
HC: Are they still both in Portland?
MV: Yes. my older daughter lives in Gresham [with her husband who is Caucasian] and the other is in Portland.
HC: What are their jobs?
MV: My older one is working for Kaiser in handling insurance and members’ benefits.
HC: My husband works for Kaiser.
MV: She’s been working for Kaiser for about five or six years. She is handling insurance, that part. My younger one, she graduated I think two years ago. She works here and there. She didn’t want to settle for a job. I think that’s the younger one nowadays. She is still looking. Although the last two years she was hired by Multnomah County Health Department, but as a temp. That means working full time, but no benefits at all. So she has been working for Multnomah County. I don’t know the specific department name, but they are working on PR stuff. Marketing and PR and those. So she has been working there. She likes it and that’s her major too. But I told her that next year I won’t be able to add her to my insurance because she turns 26 near the end of next year. So she will have to be on her own. I already warned her about that. [At the time I am reviewing this interview, she is now secured a job as Program Communications Coordinator for the Multnomah County Health Department and a freelance writer consultant.]
HC: Do we have more questions?
EC: I think we’ve covered most of them. Is there anything else that we haven’t asked you that you would like to talk about?
MV: Just one thing. When we talk about communities, we often divide into different groups. We specifically, are working to help that group. I see that as we don’t need more division. Because the issue is so big now. The issues are the same for everyone, no matter what. The three big issues that I see are health care issues, education issues, and war issues. Those three affect everyone the same [maybe worse for minorities and the poor]. If I talked with the Vietnamese communities, I would tell them, we share everything. It is time to work for everyone. It is not just for our own community. That’s the one thing I would tell people. Would say to Vietnamese, because we do tend to just group ourselves into small groups and take care of ourselves. [ … ] That’s the things I would like to talk with my own community.
HC: That’s very good.
EC: Thank you for meeting with us. It has been a real pleasure. We’ve been speaking with Margret Vu on July 19, 2018. Thank you.
MV: Thank you.