E.J. Carter: This is E.J. Carter and Tad Kumasaka we are here with Vananh Vuong on June 16th, 2019. We're at the Portland Community College southeast campus, thank you first of all for joining us.
Vananh Vuong: Thank you, it's an honor to be here.
EC: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and how you found yourself in Portland at age 16, I think you told us.
VV: I was born and raised in Vietnam. Saigon, so South Vietnam specifically. I moved here, technically, I moved to California first with my parents when I was 16, and I lived there for a year before moving to Portland in 2004. Do you want me to talk about my childhood in Vietnam?
EC: Maybe you could talk a little bit about why your parents left Vietnam?
VV: That's a long story. My parents were part of the, what I learned later on, the Boat People generation. During the Vietnam War they and my other relatives were actively trying to flee the communist party after the fall of Saigon. But unfortunately for my parents and many of my family members, they did not succeed. They were turned back in Thailand, so they got caught and came back to Vietnam, because the Thai government refused to take them. They turned back, and my dad because he was educated in the U.S.--they had a scholarship back then with the U.S.A.--so he had his Bachelor degree with the University of Iowa. When he came back he was flagged as one of the dangerous ones, because he was foreign educated, and he was put in a re-education camp. “Re-education,” quotation mark. He spent his time there for a couple of years or so, and the first sentence that my mom told me when he got out of that camp was the first chance he could get, he would get out of this country. And he made good of his promise and took me and my mom to the U.S.. The one who sponsored our family was my aunt, my dad's youngest sister who was able to get out of the country during that time. Her family sponsored my family, that's why we moved to California first.
EC: She lives in California?
VV: She lives in California, yeah.
EC: What made them move to Portland?
VV: They did not, but we moved because we have another family that I grew up with, so backtrack a little bit. I grew up in a house of twenty people. Four or five different families stayed together in one house. The house belonged to my grandfather on my mom's side, so I grew up with everyone on my mom's side, and my dad. We moved to Portland, because we think there are probably better job opportunities for my parents. My parents in California were working, each of them were working two jobs. My mom was three at that point.
EC: What kind of work did they do?
VV: Oh, how many. Right now, or before?
EC: What did they do in Vietnam?
VV: In Vietnam my mom was a health administrator in one of the districts [unclear 00:4:17]. That's what it's called, and she was in charge of licensing of all the doctors, pharmacists, nurses basically in the whole district area, and also something with pharmacy related too. My dad worked for Toyota. He was a vice president for Toyota in Ho Chi Minh City for marketing. They left all that. They could have stayed, and they were pretty established, but they left all that because they think there will be more and better opportunities for me specifically. We had to leave my brother, my older brother in Vietnam, so he's still in Vietnam. Because of the age limit when we moved.
EC: So when they came to Portland they had to work multiple jobs, and harder jobs I assume?
VV: At one point my dad worked for Goodwill. I think he tried a short stint with the car dealers here, but the operation is way too different and competitive. It's harder for a newcomer like him, even though he has years of experience in that industry. My mom worked for a dentist as an assistant at one point. She also worked for a to-go food place, and nail salon at some point too.
EC: What part of Portland did you settle in when you first arrived?
VV: In southeast, so we haven't moved away from the area. We moved one house, but it's always been in the southeast area.
EC: Around 82nd avenue, or further out?
VV: Further down, so the first one was near Foster area. Foster and 120ish. 92nd actually. The current one is in like 148th and Division.
EC: What were your first impressions of Portland when you arrived here?
VV: It's so green! Because we were in California, and the first impression was… As the plane was, I remember when it was descending you see one side was a snow covered mountain that I later on know is Mt. Hood, and everything else was green. So, my very first impression was everything was so green. It was beautiful actually.
EC: Did that remind you of Vietnam?
VV: Somewhat, because even though I grew up in a very urban city, Ho Chi Minh City, there's a lot of green around me especially if I go see my grandmother’s house. There's a lot of that, but one of the best impressions that I have of Portland was when my dad was walking me to this office to get, I don't remember what, but like a permit to get me to go to school. When we were walking by several neighbors were probably doing yard work, or something outside, and they would just say “hello.” We were like, “Why are they talking to us? I don't know you.” We had that instinct of like stranger danger I don't know when instilled to us, but probably from my parents to me from what they experienced. Also, we did not get that experience in California. When we lived in California they don't exactly talk to you, or say hello to you in that way. We were very impressed. They are really really nice, people are very kind here. There's many more instances like that too, so we thought that Portland people were super nice.
EC: Did you have very many Vietnamese neighbors in that neighborhood?
VV: No, in that neighborhood we did not know anyone who was Vietnamese or even Asian actually at the time when we first moved there. There's a few more we noticed later on, but we didn't know anyone who was Vietnamese at all. Now that demographic kind of changed now in that area.
EC: Was that hard for your parents, or did they have other places where they could meet other Vietnamese people and talk to them?
VV: I think every single Vietnamese person that my parents met and knew of at that time was our relatives. That's not big, but they are just one way or another related to us. The only later on that we found out about was my dad made some friends from work, and my mom made some friends from her work and we got to talk to the other Vietnamese people.
EC: So you did have other family members in Portland, not just California?
VV: That's part of the reason that we came, because they own some business here, so they thought we could help them with that. My aunt is still currently who they are living with and still working with them to this day so it's been a long time.
EC: What kind of business does your aunt have?
VV: Not my aunt, my relative has a nail salon downtown, so they work for them. My mom also worked for them for ten years before she moved on.
EC: Did you go to Portland Public Schools when you moved here?
VV: I did. I went to a school that no longer exists which is kind of sad, which is John Marshall High School. It got shut down a couple years back. My year was the first year that they split the whole school into four different smaller schools. I attended the Linus Pauling academy, the one that specialized in science and literature, something like that. I gotta say I enjoyed Portland Public School a lot more than the one in California.
EC: Why is that?
VV: Part of it was because I did not have very fond memories in California in the school system where they did not get you into classes based on your ability, but rather on what average new immigrants would be. Even though I should have been in a higher math class, the counselor refused to, because “You're new, your English is probably not good enough.” But how much English do you need for math? They also made me give away one of the scholarships for someone else even though I had higher grades.
EC: What part of California were you in?
VV: It was in Westminster, so Little Saigon area. But over here immediately, as soon as I got here in the school, they tested me, they immediately got me into the classes that were fit with my ability. They even accommodated me very well so that I could graduate high school. Because if I stayed in California I would probably have to get a GED, because that's what they explicitly said that I won't be able to graduate high school.
EC: Because you were starting too late?
VV: Because I was starting as a junior in high school.
EC: Had you studied English in Vietnam, or were you learning mostly from scratch?
VV: I did. It's mandatory in Vietnam, grades six to twelve. You always have to, there's always English class. My speaking is a lot better when I came here, more when I came to Portland, and not so much in California.
EC: Did the schools do anything? Did you have to take extra English classes through the schools?
VV: I did. I was the only senior in the school to take four English classes, because the teacher made it so to make sure I would graduate with all the credits I need and with the scholarship I would want to qualify for. They would create independent study English classes. Extra after school classes to make sure I would get in. They did not give up on me. Part of it is I had an English teacher that was really inspiring, so I think it really helped with my English ability overall.
EC: That was at John Marshall as well?
VV: Yeah that was at John Marshall, and that English teacher was Mr. Weaver. John Weaver, I still remember him. I had a lot of better memories in high school in Portland Public Schools than in California as a result.
EC: How did you decide to go to Oregon State?
VV: I think I've always had an interest in science to begin with, so Oregon has the strongest science base. My mom wanted me to go to Portland State, because it's closer so I wouldn't have to move away. My dad always wanted me to go to the University of Oregon, because it's more famous I guess. It’s a richer school. But, I guess I kind of defied them both. I never regretted it. I loved the school, beautiful state, and I made life-long friends who later became my maid of honor even.
EC: Do you remember when you first got interested in science?
VV: When I first got interested in science… I feel like for as long as I can remember I've always liked it. I remember when I was maybe eight or nine, eight to ten I asked Santa Claus every single year for a soccer ball or a telescope. I got one at eight, and maybe by ten I got the other one. I've always been a little bit of a science nerd I guess.
EC: Did your mother encourage you to go into the health sciences specifically since that was her…
VV: No. Well, yes and no. Not in the field that I'm in right now, but because I had so many friends who were in pharmacy, she's always wanted me to be in pharmacy. My parents were kind of what we would call them street pharmacists here. Back during right after the war, because that was the only way they could make money, because they were able to get medicine from my uncle in France who fled and resided in France. My uncle in France would send all the medication here, they educated themselves, and in turn they educated the people. There were shortened supplies everywhere.
EC: What kind of medications would he send?
VV: I think a lot of them were just over the counter things, but as a result both of my parents are quite well versed in medications even to this day. They’re very good. They wanted me to be a pharmacist, but I did not have an interest in chemistry especially. I think I've always been more in the human sciences as well. I worked in a lab for three years, a cancer lab in Oregon State. Two years and a half. But, I realized that my second research with social science and part public health as well was a lot more interesting. That's why I went with public health as my field of choice. To this day.
EC: So you thought that could have more of an impact affecting actual populations of people rather than working in a lab?
VV: Yes, than working in a lab that I don't have much of a human interaction. You can say that you impact people, but you don't really see that impact at all. For public health you are able to really see the changes, see being able to influence its policies. I can say that I had some hand in helping the community. That's the aspect I like about public health.
EC: Was there a Vietnamese Student Association at Oregon State?
VV: Yes, that was the first club that I joined when I went to OSU, that was the very first club beside the APASU, the Asian Pacific Association Student Union.
EC: What kinds of activities would those groups do?
VV: I think the main activity that they had was during the cultural festival in Spring or...I'm starting to lose my memory, but they had the Vietnamese night where they student hosts traditional Vietnamese food that they cook, and performances, and stories, and inviting guests over, fashion show. It was pretty fun, but it's just a place for Vietnamese, or even non-Vietnamese but interested in the culture, to get together and hang out.
EC: Were there differences between people who had lived in Vietnam like yourself, and people who had been born here, and grown up in Vietnamese culture, but in America? Could you tell differences?
VV: Yes, I could definitely see some differences, but once you get together it's just the line is kind of blurred. Usually at the beginning we can generally tell the one who is born here and the one who has come here, like myself, as a teenager. Definitely the longer you stay, the easier the lines blur. If the students who were born here has been somewhat involved in the Vietnamese community, I see that they are quite passionate about it. More, I would say a little bit, passionate about it, than someone… maybe it's just a personal experience with some of the people I have met as well. I think it's a part of the difficulties of trying to fit in. Sometimes you won't think about like, “What can I do to help my other people?” it's more like “I need to survive first.” Even though VSA was the first club that I joined at OSU, I did not stay several years after.
EC: Oh really?
VV: No, I did not stay, because in part I found other organizations that probably fit with my… it's more multicultural, that’s one part of it, and it's more with my interests in my career.
EC: So what kinds of organizations were those?
VV: The one that I stayed the longest, and I'm still somewhat involved in is the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Science. The part ‘related science’ is basically everything else. We even have a fashion designer major there. You know, cause art science. It's a club where students who are minorities, who are coming from all different backgrounds, and life experience come together. I enjoy that one a lot, because I learn a lot of professionalism from them. I learned how to make my resume, CV. I was able to teach undergraduate students later on with resumes and CVs as well. It's a great place for connection.
EC: After you graduated what was your first job?
VV: My first official full job was with the Asian Health and Service Center here in Portland. I worked for them for three years. I worked as the project and grant coordinator, and they were the organization that I used to volunteer for over the summer when they have a health fair, and they need an interpreter. I would come back from Corvallis and help them with interpreting during that time. I like what they do, so I joined, and I stayed until before I moved to Seattle actually.
EC: What kinds of projects were they involved in? Or you were helping to write grants, what kinds of grants were they?
VV: Oh a lot. We do a lot of… ranging from private foundation, to county, to city, to state grants. Asian Health Service Center is an out-patient… It's one of the only two out-patient mental health service providers specifically for Asian communities in Oregon. A part of that, there's a branch of communities in health and public health where… we have one program, it's a senior program, where they come weekly to, not just to exercise, but to learn about… everything. Learn how to prevent their falls when in the winter, or learn how to avoid identity theft here. A lot of new major things where that population is kind of forgotten at times by the government whenever they have new policies, new changes, new announcements we would gather that information, and let them know as well. Part of that is also a meal program, so they can come in and get free lunch provided by the county and the caterer for them is the local Asian restaurant in the Portland area. The public health education component was big in there as well, that's why it has a division. The projects that I was involved with that also partnered with APANO as well was a multi-year from Kaiser Permanente where we were trying to transform this one Lents neighborhood to be a greener, more bike and walk accessible place. That's where the new building for Asian Health and Service Center moved to in Foster. We used to be in Powell, so we moved to that neighborhood. The AHSC wants to see the impact with not just a move, but also when the city comes out with new policies. They're trying to transform and build more parks, or greeneries, and how will that impact the community there.
EC: So is that in the Lents neighborhood?
VV: Yes, that's in the Lents neighborhood.
EC: Is that project still underway? New green spaces are being created, or is that project…
VV: It should be in the final stage now. It's in the third year already, so it should be in the final stage I believe.
EC: I see.
VV: Lents was where I first stayed in Portland, Lents neighborhood. I just remembered.
EC: You were writing grants both for mental health programs, and programs associated with seniors, and then also more environmental types of programs.
VV: But also one of the big projects I was involved with was, let me get the name right, Asian Cancer Resource Centers. That was to help pilot a program to help the AHSC to build a navigation program for cancer survivors, Asian cancer survivors and family members. We partnered with American Cancer Society and I think OHSU at some point to gather all the resources in different languages as well, and build a connection with some providers and others to help the family to navigate during these difficult times for their families. That was a great… that was a research project actually with OHSU.
EC: In terms of the mental health resources that, I’m sorry what was the name of the organization you…
VV: Asian Health and Service Center, so AHSC.
EC: Okay. Obviously all older people have certain challenges that they face like loneliness, but it must be especially hard for some Vietnamese immigrants who have experienced trauma during the war. Are there specific programs that address those kinds of issues?
VV: I wouldn't say there is a specific program, but all of our mental health counselors at AHSC are I think unique because we provide services in language. It's extremely difficult and not effective at all if, let's say you see a mental health provider, you try to tell them what are some of the things that you think of that might be taboo culturally, or being very much hidden away, so all of our counselors provide in language services, so if it's a Vietnamese family then the counselor will be Vietnamese for sure. There's no interpreter around. That's one of the ways of avoiding what leads to misinterpretation, especially in mental health. There are many languages, at least I can speak for some Vietnamese, that mental health work doesn't exist at all. It's a very challenging field. There's no specific program, but I will say that the clients that we see could be not just the older adults, but we also have a child psychology service as well, so that's a new way. Maybe the kids have some behavioral problems because they moved here when they were maybe ten, or something, and they have a difficult time in school, or just behavioral wise.
EC: Are the therapists volunteers, or are they employed by the…
VV: Oh no, they're employed.
EC: What are some of the differences you see between different generations in terms of some of those other public health issues that people face?
VV: Are you talking about mental health and then public health separately?
EC: Yeah, or either of them.
VV: I think part of the, well, it's hard for me to speak specifically on the mental health part even though that's part of the reason I joined AHSC because of my interest in mental health. The issue remains there is a similarity where things are not being voiced, things are not being heard, that… what people experience is not being heard at all. Or, within the community they are being considered as a taboo even if someone in your family has a mental health issue, that family might hide that for the rest of their lives. There are some instances where they even hide that person away. It's like a dark mark on the family in the extreme way. There are a lot of education components in that. That's very much similar to any other public health issue I would say. I would say in part because of the education piece, but also because sometimes what they are trying to express, or trying to tell you, might not be what a conventional provider or professional would think it should be. I'm just going to give you an example okay. Make it easier. So, if you go to a doctor, and a doctor say, “Hey you have diabetes, you can not eat rice anymore. You should only eat brown rice, or quinoa.” In some provinces in Vietnam, brown rices are reserved for pigs, so can you imagine when you first come to a country being told something like that. You should only eat something for pigs. That's a big misunderstanding right there. That patient will not come back to that provider at all. That's some of the extreme examples, but I think it's very much relevant, and we have many more stories in a similar way. AHSC exists to be a place where people can trust the place. People can go to any service with a question and say “Hey they told us to do this, but is it what it's supposed to be that way?”
EC: How would a case like that be handled differently by the clinicians at AHSC? Would they be able to convince someone to eat brown rice in that situation? Or would they find another change in their diet that they could recommend?
VV: Well there's always you know if you just straight up tell people “You have to do this and not that, what you're used to for years.” It's hard to change someone's habit like that. But, it's not impossible if you're giving a sound reason, and it's coming from someone who you trust. That's I think the whole thing about AHSC both have a clinical component, they have primary care providers now as a clinic in partner with, I think, I forgot the name. It happened after I moved. They have a primary care physician who understands the cultural barriers when they work with the Asian communities.
EC: What led you to move to Seattle?
VV: I moved because my husband had a job. It's as simple as that. He has a job, and probably a better opportunity to grow.
EC: Did he grow up in Portland too?
VV: No, his story is different. He grew up in Vietnam. He's actually my parent's friend's son. Through the US aid program that my dad attended in America. I think we probably met when we were very young, but he's educated in Thailand, worked in Australia, and Singapore before moving to Portland with me. He lived in Portland for a short time before going to Seattle.
EC: So you re-met in Portland after not seeing each other for many years.
VV: Ten years, fifteen years. Yeah something like that.
EC: Are you working in… you have a similar job in Seattle as the one you had here?
VV: I have a very different job in Seattle than the one I was working here. I work as a data coordinator in Seattle with the Seattle Indian Health Board under the Urban Indian Health Institute as one of the twelve tribal epidemiology centers in the country. Urban Indian Health Institute is the only center that provides assistance for the whole country rather than the other eleven do regional specific. I work there as a data coordinator for that.
EC: What do you see as the major economic, or maybe specifically public health issues facing the Vietnamese community in particular in a place like Portland?
VV: In a place like Portland.
EC: I know you've touched on some already, but are there any others that seem significant? Unaddressed questions? Or not thoroughly addressed?
VV: As a data person, I will say that missing data is the biggest thing. Because, in most of the research that we've seen that see the impact of say the environmental health, or the impact of health when there's in policy, for example, that comes out they are missing this aggregated data for a specific community. They would clump all of the Asians together, and sometimes with Pacific Islander in their research. That is extremely dangerous of missing… not addressing the issues, the challenges that a specific community like say the Vietnamese community or the Cambodian community might be facing rather than saying just Asians have such good health outcomes or good incomes so they don't have any issues, we don't have to worry about them. The slot of the money that is already being split away will not ever come into a community. The API group are good, they don't have any issues, so we don't have to worry about them. This aggregated data is one of the big…
EC: And that lumping is done by researchers, or hospitals, or government agencies, or all of them?
VV: I think it would be institutional, so it would be all of them. There are some changes with this aggregated data movement. It's part of what the organization that I'm with, the APIC, is doing. There are some changes when researchers are doing work in the community. Especially community participatory research, that are being a little bit more aware when they design their researches. That should have the input from the communities leader and organization. I can see a little bit of the shift that way, but there's still much much to do.
EC: In some cases you work closely with academic researchers?
VV: Yes, at AHSC I worked with… there was research between OHSU, PSU, and us to pilot a program to encourage Vietnamese-American immigrant women to get mammograms. It was a whole education program specifically, so we had participants recruited by AHSC, and hosted at AHSC. We had researchers who were providing the Vietnamese language education program there. I was able to present that research at the American public health association as well.
EC: Is that an association you're active in as well?
VV: Yeah, so American Public Health Association is the oldest public health organization in the country, and they are vast. I'm mainly involved in the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus right now as a communication director, but before I was a treasurer. So like I mentioned earlier, this aggregation data is something that we really push forward nationally.
EC: Are there any other issues that you see facing the community that don't get enough attention? Or immigrants more generally? Or refugees more generally?
VV: This might also be part of my personal bias as well, but I think there is a general fear of new refugees and immigrants by the current immigrants. In part of how the general American public might be fearful that they will take away their jobs. Of course there's a big sector that is really trying to help refugees and immigrants to integrate when they move to the country, but there's also a sector that I've met that's kind of against that in a way. Especially when I'm talking about immigrants I mean what the media refers to as illegal immigrants, but I don't believe that any person is illegal. They should be called undocumented immigrants. In that part, I think that's the challenge that hasn't been really addressed at all. There's some tension I will say, because when people who had to wait for years to come here, what they say legally, the right way, and then they have a resentment against some of the undocumented immigrants who are here, many of them not really by choice, many of them came here as a child. I see some of that tension right now, but that's not just coming from immigrants obviously, but if you ask specifically on that, I don't think that's ever been addressed in a general way.
EC: Do you have any questions?
TK: I don't think so. I think we're okay.
EC: Is there anything that we haven't asked about, that you'd like to mention or talk about?
VV: No, I'm good. I'm actually really glad that you guys are doing this to document the experience of the people living in Oregon, because I don't think there's been anything done like that before.
EC: Thank you again for meeting with us. We've been speaking with Vananh Nguyen here at PCC's Southeast campus on June 16th, 2019. Thank you again for being with us today.
VV: Can I have a little request?
VV: If this ever is published, can you make it as Vananh Nguyen Vuong. Nguyen is my maiden name, Vuong is my current name.
VV: V-u-o-n-g. I decided to keep my Nguyen, my last name. I used to resent that a lot.
EC: Thank you again.