Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley, I am one of the librarians at Lewis & Clark College. We are conducting an interview today for the Vietnamese Portland project. Today I am with Ngan and we are chatting via Zoom. We are so excited that you can be here with us today and share some of your story. I was wondering if you could begin by telling us your full name and if you go by anything besides Ngan?
Ngan Hoang: Hi! I am very happy to be here, so thank you for inviting me. My full name is Hoang Ngan. That is how you say it in Vietnamese. Pretty long! We say first name last, and last name first, not to confuse you. But anyhow, I go by Ngan.
DK: That is great, thank you for that. Can you continue by telling us a little bit about yourself?
NH: Yes! I have been in the United States since 2006, but originally I was born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam. My parents are educated professionals and I also have an older brother who was also studying in the United States and now lives in Montreal, Canada. My parents sent me here for high school when I was sixteen, seventeen. I studied twelfth grade in Tennessee and then moved on to study college in Oregon. After that, I worked a couple of years in Oregon, moved out to San Francisco, lived a couple of years in San Francisco, and back to Portland, Oregon.
DK: Wow, so you have experienced quite a few different contexts in North America. Do you have any favorites so far?
NH: Yes. I feel I am pressured to say Portland, Oregon [laughs]. Well, I would say that it is a great place to live and to raise your family since now we have a house here, we have a dog, a kid––an eighteen-month baby girl––very comfortable place to live. San Francisco is also one of my favorite places just because of the dynamics of the city––always exciting, lots of diversity, lots of opportunities, lots of Asians [laughing]. But, [it] seems like Portland is going that way as well.
DK: When you first came to the United States, was it difficult to find friends? Did organizations help or were you able to make connections quickly?
NH: Yeah, that is a good question. To be honest, I came here when I was pretty young, at seventeen years old. I came to a cultural exchange program in Bristol, Tennessee. It was a challenge at first because of the culture, as well as the language barrier––even though I studied English for years before I came––it is still tough to listen, speak, and study at school in English, so it was difficult. My host family was great. My host mom was a cultural program coordinator, so she understood the cultural differences very well. She tried to support [me] very much. Also, besides me, she hosted three other girls from Mongolia and Korea. We became really close at home and also supported one another throughout the year, so we became great friends, great sisters.
DK: So, you were there at the same time as the other exchange students?
NH: Yeah, I was. It is funny because we came in the same year. The coordinator had an expectation that they would assign us to some host families, but then she could not find an appropriate family, so she ended up hosting us. It was a different living experience from “normal” cultural exchange student, but then I had a lot of fun. I learned about not just the American culture, but also the Mongolian and Korean culture, and I loved it.
DK: Wow, that sounds invaluable. Are you still in contact with any of your “sisters” today?
NH: Yeah! A little bit. They are in different areas. Two of them are in Los Angeles and one is back in Korea, so it is a little bit hard to keep in touch, but we have one another on Facebook, and we have chatted sometimes.
DK: That is really great. That is so different from the traditional exchange student programs you hear about. What a neat opportunity for you.
NH: Thank you.
DK: I know you touched on this briefly during your introduction. Can you talk about how you came to the city of Portland specifically and remind us when that was?
NH: Sure. I came to Oregon in 2007 to attend college. It is in McMinnville, which is forty-five minutes from Portland. I came for school. I applied to college after graduating from school in Tennessee and picked Linfield because they are a private liberal arts school and that is what I wanted to pursue. Also, they offered a very good scholarship and that helped a lot too. Basically that is how I came to Oregon.
DK: I know this is jumping ahead a little bit. Maybe we should talk about your college experience a little bit. What did you study at Linfield?
NH: I studied accounting. I graduated with an accounting degree and I did a little bit of finance too.
DK: So McMinnville is out in the country, just outside of Portland. Can you talk about what that was like, as far as your day-to-day at Linfield College? Maybe discuss any groups you were involved with on campus...
NH: Sure. So, it is a very small college town, and actually I had a little bit of a cultural shock [laughing] because coming from Hanoi, Vietnam––a very big city––McMinnville seems very small. I did not drive at the time and at some point I felt a little bit stuck because I needed a car to go anywhere. But the school was great! It is a beautiful campus. The professors and students were super nice. I was involved in the international cultural group which had representation from multiple countries from Asia, Europe, and I believe even some African countries as well. I was also involved in some dance groups just because dancing was one of my hobbies. Through those groups and activities I got to meet a lot of friends and then became close with them.
DK: That is great. Do you have any favorite stories from your time in college, or favorite interactions with professors, peers?
NH: Yes. I think maybe not so much a story, but how it changed my career, basically. Originally when I came to Linfield, I wanted to pursue Environmental Studies as a major. I attended a class, and I felt a little lost in the class [laughs], but still wanted to continue to pursue it. As part of the requirement for finance––because I wanted to minor in finance––I attended the Financial Accounting class. Before that I would never have thought that I would be majoring in accounting. My mom suggested it, and I was like, ''No, no. I do not want to study accounting. It is too boring” [laughs]. I attended this class and the material, it started to make a lot of sense to me. But, I think that one of the biggest contributors was my accounting professor. He was an amazing professor. He had this way of teaching that made accounting very interesting and [it] made a lot more sense than if you [were to] read a book on accounting.
NH: He is also a Vietnamese veteran. When I attended the class, I connected with him immediately. He shared a lot of stories. He was really nice and really heard me. He understands the culture and really likes the culture there––the Vietnamese culture. So, we connected very well. He basically guided me through switching my major into accounting and even guided me to help me find a career in accounting after graduation.
DK: That is great. Are you still in that career today?
NH: Uh huh, yes. I am still in accounting.
DK: Let’s transition a little bit to what it is like for you as an adult living in the Greater Portland area. What neighbourhood are you living in today?
NH: Currently I live in Hillsboro, which is about thirty minutes from Portland.
DK: Okay. Have you been mostly in Hillsboro in your post college life?
NH: Yes. So as I mentioned before, I lived in San Francisco for two years and when I moved back, I lived in Hillsboro and have been living here since then. I used to go to Portland a lot for food and shopping but not this year, as you know [laughing].
DK: 2020 has been a challenging year, a lot of changes for all of us and I definitely want to come back to that and chat about how that has impacted your work and some of your day-to-day.
DK: I am wondering: in your time in Hillsboro, do you have a large Vietnamese community there? Do you have many Vietnamese neighbours?
NK: Yes, actually, my neighbourhood is quite diverse! Not just Vietnamese, but we have people from multiple different countries and backgrounds. We have a lot of Asian neighbourhoods––I think from Laos, Thailand, [and we have] some African American neighbors. And actually I am very happy to see it because when I moved to Portland I was a little worried, coming from San Francisco, that Portland is still not very diverse. But I was surprised to move into Hillsboro and see this kind of diversity here. I honestly feel like I am not very connected or as connected as I would like to be with the Vietnamese community. I feel like the community is much bigger in East Portland on 82nd Avenue, that area. There are some of my friends who are Vietnamese, but I am basically connected to friends from multiple countries here, I would say.
DK: What do you think it is about Hillsboro that attracts such a diverse community? Sounds like it is far more diverse than other areas in Portland, and that is great.
NH: I think it is maybe that it is still a little bit more affordable compared to let us say, the Pearl District or the Bethany area. I think that is the first thing. Second, Hillsboro is growing very fast. Intel is here, Nike is just neighbouring, in Beaverton. [There are] lots of jobs, which lead to people from different areas moving here. A lot of people I see are Indians. They are engineers working for Intel here. So I think the city is growing and they are building a lot of houses and it attracts people from other areas.
DK: What has your experience been like living in the Greater Portland Area? Have you felt welcomed, unwelcomed, have there been any challenges or unique opportunities for you having your background from Vietnam?
NH: I think for the most part, it is very welcoming. My neighbors are very nice people. I have a lot of Caucasian neighbors around here and they are super nice too. I wish I had an Asian market that is closer, but I think the closest one is about twenty minutes away, which is fine. It is close enough.
NH: Hopefully as the city is growing there will be more different ethnic shopping markets or some other shops that are not just Fred Meyer [laughs]. We always go to Fred Meyer. But for the most part, people are very nice here and I like it a lot.
DK: I am curious if you could talk a little bit about the intersectionality of Vietnamese American culture and since you have been here for a little while now. How do you think they have formulated who you are in terms of your identity?
NH: Yes, that is a… great question, and a little bit more complicated, but I think––it can be a little bit subjective, right? I consider myself to be definitely a blend of Vietnamese––I come from Vietnam and still carry a lot of Vietnamese values, but I have been here for fifteen years now, so a lot of American values are part of me now as well. I celebrate Tết, but just by eating Vietnamese food during that time. There is not a big celebration where people do tons of cooking, like how it is in Vietnam. I actually love Christmas here and Thanksgiving. Those are my favourite holidays, so those are definitely more of the American culture. My husband is not Vietnamese, so I think that is part of the reason that I am more blended with the American culture as well, and my coworkers are all Americans, basically. I feel like my day-to-day interaction with people such as my coworkers, my husband––they are all non-Vietnamese, so I feel like that makes me become non-Vietnamese, more and more as I live here. There are definitely certain parts of Vietnamese [culture] that I carry and still value to this day, such as the language. I consider Vietnamese my mother tongue, still my most fluent language, even now. I value family a lot. Not to say that Americans are more individualistic or not as attached to family, but I think Vietnamese have a very strong connection with family. Kids are their priority, and they make a lot of sacrifices for their kids. My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me and I want to do the same thing for my kids. Those values I want to keep, because I think those are important values. I hope that answers your questions...
DK: That does!
DK: I understand, that was a very layered question. It relates to another question. So, as the next generation of Vietnamese Americans are coming up, what values do you hope gets to them? You mentioned wanting to make the next generation a priority in your own home, how can that be possible even beyond your own home and instilled into the wider Vietnamese American community?
NH: Yes, so your question is: What would I hope the next generation of Vietnamese Americans can accomplish and keep valuing, right? I just want to make sure I understand.
DK: Yes, I think so, let’s go with that...
NH: So, I think Vietnamese and Asians in general are still considered, stereotyped as quiet and shy, and I think it is true––part of it––but, as the next generation born and raised here, immersed in the culture here, language is no longer a barrier. I hope they will have better presence in the community in terms of involving the community more, having more leadership roles even in politics, in the corporate world or other organizations.
NH: That is my hope for the next generation. In terms of what they keep? For my kids, I want them to have the language, to keep the language. I try my best to speak to my daughter––who is only eighteen-months old––Vietnamese everyday, basically. Hopefully when they are older they still have the value of family, it is very important to [stay] very connected to family.
DK: Are you hoping to involve your daughter to Vietnamese organizations, or language schooling or are you hoping to do that more just within your own home?
NH: Actually yes, I do want to have my daughter attend a Vietnamese school during weekends or something so she can learn not just to speak, but to write Vietnamese, which is very difficult. I hope that, but let’s see how it goes. Honestly if I had more time, I would bring her to more Vietnamese activity groups here, like even the temples. The Vietnamese temples are quite interesting to see. There are community programs that volunteer for Vietnamese here that hopefully at some point I can involve my family more [with].
DK: You know, I think we have a long list of questions and we kind of weaved our way in and out of several of them [laughing]. I am curious––one thing we have not discussed in details of your first seventeen years living in Vietnam itself and I am curious if you could talk about what your schooling was like, what some of your day-to-day memories might have been from childhood, favourite places to go? [There are] a few questions in there. Why don't you take it from here and I will ask some follow-up questions in a little bit?
NH: Sure. Let us walk back seventeen years ago [laughs]. But no, those are great questions, and actually, I appreciate it because that reminds me of my childhood. As I mentioned, I was born and raised in Hanoi. I lived my first seventeen years in Hanoi. My parents are educated professionals. My dad worked for the government, my mom worked for a foreign corporation in Vietnam and then moved on to work in non-profit organizations. So they have been involved in a lot of not just traditional Vietnamese corporations. They have been going to foreign countries, going abroad and stuff like that. Actually, from my very early childhood, my parents have always aimed for my brother and I to study abroad in college or highschool. I think the reason is because they got to study abroad and they see the value of education abroad. Vietnam was still a very early developing country back then and [the] education [you could get there] was honestly not very good. English was not taught very well there and my parents knew that English was going to be the language of business [laughs], a worldwide language. They always wanted us to get that opportunity to learn, to merge into a more developed-country’s culture and learn English. [It is] best that way. I attended basically elementary and middle school in Hanoi. In high school I was involved in a school that is actually called Hanoi Amsterdam. It is one of the schools that have kids that go study abroad a lot after, and so my mind started to be more open up about studying abroad and going to different countries.
NH: That helped me a lot when I transitioned to America. I was actually really excited to go when my parents asked me. A lot of people would be like, “You came here by yourself when you were sixteen or seventeen? Were you scared?” I actually did not think about being scared, I was just excited! My older brother actually came to America four years before me, so he kind of paved the way for me and helped me a lot when I started my life here. My childhood in Vietnam was very peaceful. I was one of the really good students in the sense that I did not drop any classes [laughing] and basically attended all my classes when some of my friends were like “No, I do not want to go to school on Tuesday, I want to stay home or go somewhere else” [laughs]. So I was a very disciplined student, I would say. I took piano lessons. That was kind of a hobby besides school. My childhood in Vietnam... my memory was... I was surrounded a lot by family. My mom's grandparents were close by, so we got to spend a lot of time with them and I got really close with them. Again, talking about family, that is a core part, right? That is just how I grew up to be, so I still want to keep that culture, that value now. Tết was my favourite holiday in Vietnam because it had the feeling that a new year is coming. Everyone is getting together, eating amazing food, visiting relatives and friends that you do not get to see throughout the year. And of course, getting lucky money, which every kid is excited about. Even though I do not get the chance to celebrate it any more, when I go back to Vietnam, that is my goal, one of the years is to go back during Tết because it is one of the holidays that you just cannot find the same way here.
DK: Can you describe it a little more detailed? What does it look like, what does it feel or sound like?
NH: Yeah! So it starts weeks before the… Tết is the Lunar New Year, so it follows the lunar calendar. It usually falls between January and February of the normal sun calendar that we follow. But weeks before that, people are already into the mindset; they start buying food like banh chung, which is the traditional Vietnamese food during Tết. We have cherry blossoms. They are a little different from the cherry blossoms in Portland. They have more branches and a little bit less flowers––they are beautiful. People start buying a lot of flowers like cherry blossom and some other flowers and bring them home. Red and yellow are colours of Tết [that] you can see on the decorations, mostly in red and yellow. People go shopping for food, decorations, flowers, new clothes, so everyone can wear them to visit relatives during Tết. Preparing for Tết is the most exciting part because you get so excited; you go shopping, you see beautiful flowers and decorations on every street that you go to. People are starting to plan, kids are probably not going to be focused on school a lot during that time, [neither] are parents. The last week is trying to prepare a lot of cooking, finalizing on the decorations of the house, finalizing your plans of who you are going to visit during Tết. And then, when Tết comes, there are basically three days of national holidays, everyone is off and all the stores are closed. Of those three days, the first day you are supposed to visit your parents; so, my parents would bring us to the grandparents'. The second day you are supposed to visit close relatives; aunts and uncles. We get to visit more and more extended family. On the third day you would get a chance to visit friends, and you also will have friends coming to visit you.
NH: It is busy all day. For those three days you will visit with people, talk with them, get updates on how you are doing throughout the year, and what your plan is for next year, and the kids would get to hang out with other kids of the other families, getting time to connect, and also getting lucky money from the adults, so we were always excited about that part! As a kid you get to save all that money in a piggy bank to spend on whatever you want throughout the year, like clothes, toys, maybe books if you are a good student [laughs]. Those three days just fly by because you get tons of good food when you go visit people and when people visit you. You can see that Vietnamese culture is very attached to food. Everywhere you go we have to eat and talk at the same time, you cannot just sit down and eat a few snacks. There are always big meals. Yeah, amazing! After three days some people have to go back to work, and life starts... the stores start to open up again, some people start going back to work again, but I think it starts lingering. Some people would take holidays and go to the beach and stuff like that for the next few days. Probably I would say that the holidays are like two weeks; one week before Tết, and a week of Tết holidays. So it is just a lot of excitement and a lot of connection with family and friends, and lots of good food. It just feels so special.
DK: Did you have any favorite meals growing up?
NH: I have a lot of Vietnamese food. I like such as spring rolls, phở––phở is a traditional food of my city, Hanoi. I honestly miss mom's cooking, just home[made] food. When my parents, my brother and I would get together, and we would talk about things, how our days were going, watch the news and just eat... I miss those parts.
DK: How often are you able to return to Vietnam and visit?
NH: When I was in school I visited almost every year in the summer, but when I started working it got a little bit harder, so I visited every two years. Then my parents started coming here in the summer to visit me, so I would still get to see them. Since I had my baby I have not been able to. Also because of COVID, everything is frozen right now, travel is frozen. My plan was to go back home this year to visit my parents, but that got delayed because of COVID. Fingers crossed for the end of the year and next year if the airlines start opening up, maybe I will get a chance to go.
DK: This is all great. Ngan, I do not think I have any more questions on my list and I think we have even discussed beyond my list! I am wondering, is there anything you hoped I would ask that I have not, or a story that came up in your mind after we finished one of the questions? Anything you would like to talk about in a closing?
NH: You ask good questions. I think I have told all the stories that I have, that I think about. This is a great program. I appreciate that Lewis & Clark has this program to document archives of Vietnamese in Portland, and I really hope it goes beyond documenting. Hopefully [there will be] a community-based, follow-up activity so that maybe Vietnamese get a chance to meet, to celebrate and to connect with one another in Portland.
DK: Definitely. This project has only been in existence for about three years, so it is very fresh. We have about thirty-five to forty interviews currently on the website, but we have conducted over eighty interviews, so we have a little bit of a backlog. There are several new interviews to keep an eye out for on the website. Our goal is to keep interviewing and then as we grow our collection, we can have more events and try to have this collection be another piece of community for the Vietnamese American community in Portland.
DK: We definitely want to do what you are talking about and if you have ideas feel free to email us. That goes for anyone that happens to be listening to this interview too! We want this project to be as useful as possible both in terms of the historical record and building community and fostering that.
NH: Thank you. You guys are doing great work.
DK: Well, thank you. This has been Dustin Kelley and I have been chatting with Ngan here today, and we are so glad that you took the time to chat with us. This concludes our interview. Today is Friday, September 18, 2020.