Zachariah Selley: So we always start off the interview-- so my name is Zachariah Selley. I am with Garland Joseph from Lewis & Clark College and we are interviewing Tina Semko on May 4th, 2020 via Zoom here in Portland, Oregon. The official starting-- so could you tell us a little bit about what part of Vietnam your family is from? When your family left Vietnam and came to the United States?
Tina Semko: Yeah, so I am a first-generation born American. My family-- so speaking prominently-- my mother's family came to the United States in 1975. So right before the fall of Saigon, April 25th to be exact. They left Vietnam and the fall of Saigon was April 30th, 1975. When they came here they actually went to Guam first as most families probably did. Then at that point, they got dispersed to where they would go next. Then they ended up in Hawaii. Then in Hawaii, they were given the option to kind of decide where they wanted to go. At that time it was either coming to the United States or it was going to France. My grandfather, working for the American government at the time, decided that he would stick to the American friends that he had and come to the United States. Because they were adopted by a Catholic family in Yakima-- the family's name was the Sturgeons-- so they opted to go to Washington. So they ended up in Yakima, Washington.
ZS: What did your grandfather do with the US government?
TS: He was a driver for some of the top officials, some of the generals during that time in Vietnam. From what I understand at the time is if you worked for the American government your ticket out was your friends that you made. So my grandfather was one of the many that-- after they were notified what was going to happen to Saigon, he was given the opportunity to take the family with him to go. So my grandfather opted to take it and go. So a lot of people from what I hear of the story is that a lot of people were able to leave Vietnam in 1975 because of the American friends that they made. Particularly if they worked for the American government at the time.
ZS: Okay, that makes sense. How many members of your family came over at that time? Was it a large group or just a small selected by your grandfather?
TS: No, so all of my living aunts and uncles came. So my grandparents had ten children, seven of them came with them and then my grandparents, so a total of nine.
ZS: Oh, a big crew, okay.
ZS: How did you end up in Oregon then, or in Portland? Was it your parents moved down from Washington or--
TS: So my mother came down in the mid-eighties for work. Yakima-- I don't know if you have ever been or heard-- but Yakima is a very small town, and it's Native. So there wasn't a lot of work at the time, there was a lot of farming, maybe the egg factory, or there was the jean factory if you were going to do any manufacturing. So for work purposes, my mother moved down to Portland and she has resided in Portland ever since.
ZS: She just came down by herself, just getting out of Yakima looking for work--
TS: Yeah, she came down, actually she came down with a friend. Her friend came down first, and said, "Oh, you should come to Portland. It is a bigger city and there is going to be more job opportunities.” So she left Yakima and came down here.
ZS: Okay, and what did she do for work when she moved to Portland?
TS: When she came to Portland she-- what did she do? Well, before then she was learning how to do stained glass art. So she did a little bit of stained glass art, and I think she tried to attend community college in Yakima so I think that was tough. So she did a little of that then, and then when she got here, most of her adult life in Portland has been manufacturing work. So yeah, I believe that is what it was.
ZS: And I am assuming she got married while she was here and had a family, right? So can you tell me a little bit about your father, then?
TS: Yeah, so his family also came the same year in 1975. But my father's family-- they’re boat people. So they were, how he would say, “crammed on a boat,” and sailed the oceans and came here. They ended up just in Portland and they have been here ever since. My dad's family came with his seven or eight siblings and his mother. His father died in Vietnam from a leftover bomb that blew up.
ZS: I’m sorry to hear that. Was it important for your mother and your father as well that they pass on the Vietnamese culture and tradition to you, because you were born in Portland? Was it really important to keep that tradition alive in the family? Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese and English?
TS: So I grew up speaking just Vietnamese, and I learned English when I attended school. I think like most children who grow up in an immigrant or refugee family, because we live in America, learning English, it's just naturally going to happen. So the importance of keeping my mother tongue was embedded when I was little. So at home, we were only allowed to speak Vietnamese. Of course, I attended Sunday school, and that is also taught in Vietnamese growing up. So I had school six days a week, five days a week in Portland public schools, and that was learning English and doing the regular stuff. On Sunday, it was Sunday school learning Vietnamese. Then my parents would teach that at home. In regards to more cultural aspects, like New Year celebration, or any of the other stuff that we did, my parents definitely kept the traditions growing up. So if it was New Year’s we would go visit family and friends, and we would do that through the three day period. Because New Year’s is celebrated for three days, and we don't clean the house, we don't sweep the house, we don't take out the trash, it’s great, right! There is no fighting, no yelling, there was none of that going on. So that was definitely embedded. I would say more so from my mother than my father because my grandparents were alive most of my childhood and then my grandmother has only just recently passed away for about two years. Growing up with her and into my adulthood, I had more opportunities to listen to her story of what it was like living in Vietnam through French occupation and then to the Japanese occupation and what it was like to come to the United States. So I carry a lot more of those stories I would say from what my grandmother has shared with me on my mother's side. So anything I learn culturally would definitely be from grandma.
ZS: Okay, I definitely want to come back to that. But I also want to ask you first while it is kind of more in the time frame-- you said you went to Portland Public Schools as well, can you describe how that was? How was it possibly different given your home’s predominant culture versus integrated Portland Public Schools, and diversity and different types of friends coming from completely different environments?
TS: Yeah, so from what I can remember, my elementary, middle school, and even high school days in Portland public schools, it was really conflicting. So I call myself the middle generation, right-- I am American but I am also Vietnamese because we carry so much of that, right? And it is really hard because in that middle culture, it is really difficult to kind of balance on. Because when I leave the house people in society and at school view me in a very particular way. Whether that is the model minority myth or because I am a woman, or whatever. Then when I come home I have a very specific role to play. So in the Asian culture, particularly speaking just for my family on the Vietnamese side, is when I come home the cooking, the cleaning, all the more home-ec type of activities, and stuff that was happening at home was my responsibility. On top of trying to balance what it was like to grow up as an American child, and be friends with the American kids, as our parents often called them. And then how to kind of keep up, I think it was really difficult because at home parents didn't understand what it was like to grow up as a first-generation American. I mean my parents didn't grow up here, clearly, so that was a challenge as well. So they only carry a lens of what it was like to be Vietnamese or being in a new country. Then, for me to carry a lens to be American and try to integrate into its system carrying the same lens my parents had for me was really hard. It was really hard also because at that time, it differs a little bit than I think now. At the time, the teachers, educators, the system in which we lived in I felt wasn't quite as understanding. So there wasn't a lot of people who were able to say, “Oh, well maybe we have to find the opportunity or the time to step back, see, and understand where the kids are coming from.” I felt like that wasn't happening when I was growing up, for sure.
ZS: Did your parents engage in their own level kind of a more American traditions too, like you were also doing outside of the home? Or were they very kind of strictly Vietnamese cultural, solely at home and in their own personal lives?
TS: I would say they were definitely more culturally specific at home. Very much so kept to the communities that they were able to engage with outside the home. But even outside the home it was really people who were Vietnamese or the community was Vietnamese. My parents attended church, they attended choir at church. I spent a lot of my childhood growing up at a Vietnamese church here in Portland on Sandy. So there wasn't a lot of integration from my parents other than going to work. They worked in manufacturing, and so I think in that space at the time it was still very prominently white. So that was kind of the opportunity for them to be able to be in a space where they are not used to being in. Other than that though, when they came home I felt like home was always kind of a safe space for them. Because at home they can just be who they are. They can go visit family and be who they are, they can socialize with their friends who understand them. But I think anywhere else that we went it was essentially kind of foreign and I still feel like in some time it still is for them.
ZS: Okay, you said you were off Sandy, so describe the neighborhood in Portland you grew up in. Was it mixed Asian American, fully integrated at the time, or was it a very Vietnamese area?
TS: Yeah, so we are in 2020, and what is it? Seventy-five or seventy-seven percent of Portland is white. I grew up in Southeast Portland, right off of 72nd and Duke. And no, we were the only family of color on that block. We lived on Rural street I remember. It was my parent's first time as homeowners, and they saved money to buy this three-bedroom house. You know, cute little danity house. My brother's best friend was the white kid down the street. So no, there were no other families around us that looked like us. At the middle school I did make a couple friends. But they either didn't live in the area or they traveled to come to the school there for whatever reason. But no I definitely don't remember anybody on that street-- yeah.
ZS: So going to church, going to see other family members was--
TS: Seeking it out, yeah. I think oftentimes growing up, and I think communities still unfortunately have to do that. We have to go and seek that community because spaces are white everything is white. You step outside and if you are perceived as a white person it is simple-- you can just go places. But I think communities of color or anybody who doesn't identify as the norm per say, for the lack of words at the moment, you have to seek it out. So I think that is how communities are built, is spending that time seeking it out. So my parents had to do that and church was definitely one place and it still is actually where a lot of families go to be able to seek out that familiarity.
ZS: You can only talk about this if you feel comfortable, but I was wondering if you did experience any kind of high levels of racism or oppression growing in that area of Portland?
TS: Yes, so growing up with refugee parents, there wasn't a lot of financial income. So not having a lot of income, we were limited to buying certain resources. Oftentimes kids would comment on the type of shoes I would have or the type of clothes. I don't know, the type of pencil box, right? So that was only in public school though, it didn't happen when I went to Sunday school. I think that is because, from my experience, I feel like that is because those kids that I went to [Sunday] school with also had family and parents that were similar to mine or had the same experience as mine. So we carried that lens of it’s okay we have what we have and we are okay with that. Whereas when we went to public school maybe kids have a little bit more privilege and were able to buy certain things or afford certain things. So they felt like there was a level of difference and power and privilege there. So yeah, absolutely, I think that still happens now.
ZS: I was going to ask-- because now you have children who are in public school right-- if you see that same level of oppression or racism happening to them in our current community settings?
TS: I think-- so, the answer would be yes. However, I think it is very different. It’s either more subtle or people are more willing to speak out, which is great. So, for example, my daughter-- my children are half Ukrainian and half Vietnamese. So my husband is Ukrainian. So they carry a very complex lens, I would say. However, people only see them a certain way, and even in the Vietnamese community. They only see the kids as half Vietnamese and half caucasian. I think that in itself carries its own dilemmas and chaoticness for them. So I see it, sometimes people will say things, people will say maybe the kids don't understand because they’re not fully Vietnamese, or they are not fully Ukrainian. Or the world will perceive them as a person of color rather than a person of color and also half white, right. So it is very complicated. I think now people are just more willing to speak up against it. Willing to say, "Hey that is not appropriate and this is why." Whereas when I was growing up, it felt like it was normal because I was quote- unquote different. I was labeled different. So I believed it was different, I only understood it as different. Whereas now my seven-year-old daughter, if you said something to her like that she would probably fire back and say, "Oh yeah, but I am also and this is why," right? And that’s okay because now I feel like we have changed a little bit, we are making that progress. But I still think we’re far from where we think we are all going.
ZS: Right, right.
Garland Joseph: What do you think that catalyst for that change has been? Between you and your daughter's experience, what do you think changed the way you guys interact with these experiences?
TS: I think it probably has a lot to do with those in my generation. You know, that middle generation. I am stuck in the middle, and I am not really sure which side to balance. So I can kind of help her a little bit, based on my own lens of how to navigate those two worlds. I think it also has to do with how angry I am. You kind of look back and you think, Oh well I bought into all this lie. We live in a great country, we are the greatest country, we are the best, we are blah blah blah right. You go to school and this is what we’re taught. We are taught that we found this country, and then when you start looking and you are like Woah. As I grow up and all of society and people are starting to point out things because they’re angry. They are angry they have been lied to. Now I’m like, my kids shouldn't have to live the same life because I am angry. I’m angry that I had to live through it, and now I am also learning how to unlive those lies. And at the same time that becomes her truth. And so I think that has a lot to do with it, is how angry and upset I am. But because of those lies I am unliving, it is now her reality. So it’s kind of nice, it’s kind of nice that, “Oh okay, sure I suffer a little bit of that trauma to go with it, but I can ease some of that burden for the kids.”
GJ: Also just to backtrack a little bit-- I am interested to hear what was the name of the church you guys went to. Also if you could give us the names of the elementary schools you went to?
TS: Yeah, so the church's name is La Vang, and that is on 57th and Sandy right behind the German American society, coincidentally. Then my daughter goes to Rose City Park Elementary, and I went there also in my elementary days. Because I lived with my grandma for quite a while so I could go to church during the weekdays and go to school. It was very important that we had to like-- at least in my family-- that we had to ensure we were very busy with the church, school, doing all these extra activities. Then for middle school, I went to Lane and then for high school I went to Cleveland.
GJ: Could you talk a little bit about going to Cleveland? What was your high school experience like there?
TS: It is funny because I never noticed how white it was until-- again, growing up in something you don't know until someone points it out. You don't know that maybe you need to clean something out until someone is like, "That looks kind of messy, you know. " It was really difficult. All my teachers were white. My counselor was white. I remember, I want to say sophomore or junior year, I was really struggling. I wasn't going to be good. I was going to never graduate high school and it would be terrible. My counselor was white and she brought my mom in. We had this conversation and she was just so dispassionate. There was just no passion, like no understanding, and I think it was because she just couldn't understand where we were coming from, where the disconnect was. Like how our home life was with school. She just kept looking at us differently. So I reflect on that a lot because I feel like my high school days were really hard because there was nobody there to help guide me through high school, explain the importance of finishing high school. Except my parents who were always like “You got to go to college and finish school so you don't have to work so hard like the rest of us.” I was always like, “That’s great, but you work hard, that’s a good thing isn't it?” So there was always this conflicting information.
Also, other than the few friends that I had that were Vietnamese, everybody else in the school was white. I mean there was like a handful of kids who were Slavic. My husband also went to the same high school, coincidentally. The other kids there who would identify as non-white all were friends. So I had a couple of friends who were Vietnamese but other than that I didn’t do cheerleading-- probably wasn't in the right shape at the time. Let's see, I didn't do band or music, I just couldn't afford the instrument. I didn't do any other sports, I don't know, whatever high school kids do. I didn't even know what Whistler was until somebody wrote it up on the board one day and I had to ask a teacher, "What is that?" "Oh, that is where all the rich privileged white kids go for skiing in winter break." I was like, " I didn't know that was a thing." I’m like all these things you find out when you are white or not white but you know, at the cost of not white. The irony of it. So yeah high school was not that exciting.
ZS: What grade is your daughter in now?
TS: She’s in second grade.
ZS: Second grade, okay, so she’s just starting elementary school.
TS: Yeah, she’s just starting off. I plan to make sure that it is going to be-- not just for her, but for the Vietnamese programs and for the kids that we engage with-- for it to be a good experience. One in which we don't put up with learning things that are lies. I feel like we are almost bumping up into middle school, where we’re going to be teaching the Vietnam War, the history, the American view of it, and the Vietnamese view of it. Like this is going to be very interesting. So I think as a community and as a family, it’s going to be something to learn how to navigate through.
ZS: And do you want to talk about your involvement in that or what your plans are?
TS: Yeah, so right now I am a board member on the dual language immersion program for the Vietnamese language. Currently, we're just trying to build the board a little bit more. Trying to figure out-- well currently during the pandemic it’s kind of difficult-- I think now it's just really navigating homeschooling. Helping parents who haven't had the opportunity to be exposed to maybe using the computer or internet, learn how to navigate those things and do it very respectfully and culturally appropriate. But the ultimate long term goal is really to be able to build a program for the kids so that they and for the neighborhood kids-- anybody is welcome to learn the Vietnamese language-- but really be able to build a community that is long-lasting. It isn't just about learning the language but it’s also about learning the culture. It’s also learning about where our language comes from and where the family comes from. I think it’s very important for at least my daughter to be able to carry the stories of those that have come before her. I think oftentimes we live so often in the present we forgot that we owe it to so many people we probably even don't know their names anymore. So that is definitely something that, at least for me with a daughter in second grade, it's going to be able to say, "Hey it's great you are gonna learn the language. You are going to learn to write it and read it. But let’s also make sure we learn where we come from, where our family comes from and at what cost did it cost them for us to be here in this country."
ZS: You had mentioned before that you had a bond with your grandmother, and had learned a lot of these stories through her. Could you talk a bit about how that kind of generational gap helped form you or helped you become who you are today?
TS: Yeah. So at least for us, that gap that generational gap with my mother in the middle, was great. I think that oftentimes because when in a mother-daughter relationship, at least in our family, it’s hard to sometimes say things directly and be honest with somebody. Because maybe you are worried you are going to hurt somebody's feelings. I think that mom and grandma had a great relationship and shared a lot of stories. But they are still mother and daughter so it is just a different dynamic than it is with granddaughter and grandma. So that gap served us really well. My grandma was always very open, honest, and angry at me all the time. Which is great because she was able to be very raw in her emotions and her stories. So it served well because she shared every detail of her life that she can remember. She would tell it over and over and over I think that just has to do with the trauma that she lived and experienced why. But I think that that gap is great, and I love it and miss her a lot. But I think that it is important because now my job and responsibilities is to ensure my daughter Ardena [?] carries it with her and hopefully she’ll find some importance to it to pace it on as well if she ever chooses to have kids or do something with it.
ZS: Is there anything you could talk about or describe kind of your grandmother's engagement with living in America? Was it what she expected, was it troublesome?
TS: So she and I have done two projects together now. The first one I did a [unclear] studies project with her and recorded her stories. I know a lot of it but each time I have done this with her-- when she first heard that my grandfather was leaving to come here because his friends, the Americans, at the time were like, "You have to leave or they are going to kill you." He said, "Okay well I am going to go." He came home and told Grandma, "We are going to go." Grandma was like, "I am not going. I am not going anywhere. What is this America?" That is what she told me she said, "I asked him what is this America? Why are we leaving? I don't want to go." He said, "Well, then you can stay. But if you stay you are going to die. But I am taking the kids." So they packed up and got here. Grandma says-- there is a story she always tells me. They get to Guam and she is sitting on the beach and she is crying. She is crying because I look across the ocean and I want to go home. Because she is like-- you know, she left home. Sorry [cries].
ZS: It’s okay, take a moment.
TS: I can't help it when I talk about her she is just...
GJ: That happens to me too, when I talk about my grandparents.
TS: Yeah, I also think it’s the trauma that you carry for them, right. Like they tell you a story and now you’re responsible for it. But yeah, she said she sat across the ocean, and she was like “I want to go home.” So then they ended up in Yakima after that experience. Her first job was at the jean factory. My grandpa worked at the egg factory. She said that she hated that job because she had to make a quota every day, like she had to make a hundred pairs of jeans or something. She is like, "I just couldn't do it." In Vietnam, grandma was a seamstress so she did it for a living, so this should come naturally, right. But now we are talking about her doing it in a jean factory in America with white people as her supervisor. She said the experience she had was terrible because they couldn't understand her and she couldn't understand them. They didn't really want to understand her is how she always perceived it. So the most memorable moment she had working and really integrating into America was when she quit that job. She was like, "I quit the job. I left that job." She got in an argument with a woman, she left, and she never went back to work ever since. So since 1976 grandma never had a job. Grandpa worked at the egg factory in Yakima until he retired and that was it. So then her only job was really to-- well, I take that back. Her only job then was to take care of the family because I feel like that also was work, right. But to have one outside the home, yeah she didn't have a job after that. You know my aunts and mom, they all pitched in working, whether it was working on a farm or cherry-picking or whatever, that’s what they did.
ZS: You just mentioned the trauma, the intergenerational trauma. I think you have talked about this before. Is this something you work on in general?
TS: So I do diversity, equity, and inclusion for work. But I always emphasize on how important storytelling is because of the background I come from. So because I feel like storytelling is also a way for people to heal from that trauma. So-- like kids are a good example. Sometimes my kids will tell me the same story over and over and over. I am just like “Why do you keep telling me the same story over and over and over?” Then I listen to my husband and he’ll tell me the same story over and over and over again from high school and how difficult that was for him. Then I recognize it’s because these are very traumatic and painful events for them. Whether it feels painful or not anymore, it now has embedded itself into their mind somewhere. So when things remind them of that trauma, it comes out. So in my work, I definitely emphasize a lot in storytelling and letting people know that these things are real and it reflects on how we perceive the world. So it is not just about the diversity or the equity and being inclusive, but where do we all come from. So definitely in my work, I try to identify those things and I try to do my best. I think we all do.
ZS: You are working with people from all different backgrounds.
TS: Yes, but so far mostly those who are interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion are going to be white folks, right?
ZS: Yeah [Laughs].
TS: Right, they want some flavor [laughs]. They want to bring the flavor in sometimes I guess, I don't know.
ZS: It could definitely use a little help in education.
ZS: So that's good.
TS: Yeah, we all can in all aspects, I’m sure. You know everybody does, yeah.
GJ: What brought you to do this work?
TS: I am going to say, grandma. I went to college, and I was like “I am going to be a doctor,” like every Asian, particularly Vietnamese parents that I know. Their kids are going to be pharmacists, engineers, or doctors. I was like “I am going to be a doctor.” I still really love medicine. I was going to college and I wanted to be a doctor and this is what I am going to. Then somewhere along the way I just thought I don't really want to be a doctor. I don't really want to see patients one at a time, I don't have the patience for it first of all, and second of all, I feel like I want to change more on a drastic level. Where I can do multiples at one time. If I can see tons of patients at one time that would be great but that is not how that works. So after talking to grandma, and doing a lot listening to her story in my college days, I ended up getting my degree in Women's Studies and focusing on community health. I ended up doing that because of the experiences grandma shared with me. Also watching how my mother, her sisters, and her friends interacted I recognize that there was a need there also-- a different type of doctor. More of community-based where it was to help. Whether to help them heal in regards to maybe the experiences they have had or the trauma they experienced, but that is kind of where it led me because of that. Because of the experiences with grandma.
ZS: You are still fairly connected to the Vietnamese community in Portland, right?
TS: Yeah, so my daughter goes to the church on Sundays for Sunday school now. Of course, she is a part of the DLI program, the dual-language immersion program at Portland public schools.
ZS: How do you see how the community has changed from when you were a child or in high school to how it is now? Has it grown and is stronger or is it kind of more separated as the city expands?
TS: I feel like families are moving away from the church a little bit more. Around the church it’s a little bit-- it’s getting a little bit more expensive. There are still some families there. But I think as the church is going to be relocating this year because the church is getting so-- the community is getting bigger for the size of the property. I think it’s going to also push families to a different location. I think the main difference I see now is that there is a different type of community. It is still there, it is definitely still there, the choir is still there, and people are still doing this youth group and there is more of that. But I definitely think the tone of how the community operates together has changed a lot. There’s more of-- it’s a little less strict I would say. My kids can come and they can maybe speak English if they are having trouble learning Vietnamese. Math is done in English a little bit more. It is translated, there’s captions on the wall. We are using technology-- I think that that in itself is good progress.
Where I think it’s kind of driving people apart though is there is just-- like there’s not really a lot of catching up from where we come from. So for example, we use modern technology to go to church now because of the pandemic, but what has happened to all the elders in our church? Like what are we going to do with them? Are they going to be able to tell us what the church looked like fifty years ago or forty years ago when they came? You know, when I grew up there were lots and lots of grandmas. Because my grandma went to church every day and I went with her. But now it doesn't seem like that anymore. It seems like there are more parents my generation who are just hurrying their kids to school and then having lunch and then rushing them out and trying to figure out what the next activity is instead of stopping and maybe saying, "What can we do for the church? What else can we do?" So I definitely feel like there is a little bit of a disconnect. But also that could be because I am participating in the group that’s rushing my kids out and not stopping and figuring out what I can do. So in part, I would say that also has a lot to do with my own personal responsibility rather than the church itself. Because the church is still there, the community is still there, it’s just am I attending or not?
ZS: Is there other events or work that are helping keep the community going other than just the church itself? Are there events, are there community programs that are thriving community engagement?
TS: Yeah, like just in general or not just the church? Yeah, so we have the community network of Oregon that does a lot of more, I would say, traditional stuff. So those things would be like celebrating Vietnamese New Year. They hold an annual celebration, they also do the moon festival for the kids. There is a lot of that happening every couple of months, there’s a different event that either falls on a holiday or falls on an important date like April 30th. However, in my opinion, I feel like that particular organization that I have once been involved in might be a little bit more difficult for some families to participate in because that middle generation is having trouble connecting with where the older generation is.
So you have a generation that might be like my parents and grandparents who are mostly refugees or immigrants who come here and say “We have to hang on to what the Vietnam War has done to us.” Then you have a generation like myself who is trying to figure out what it looks like to be a part of that community and operate in today's society, who says, "Okay, that’s great. How did I figure out how to walk this line and not disrespect the older generation and know where my future is going." Also a generation like my kids who have no clue what the Vietnam War is and they could probably care less at the moment. So I think those community activities [are] struggling to be able to connect everybody together. I will say from what I feel and understand, it’s because of this war. It is because of this war where everybody has a different stance on it. You have a group of parents and grandparents who are just “This war-- we are anti-communist and this is way we operate.” Then we have everybody who is like “We have to move past it and we have to move on because this is where we are going.” Then that makes everybody on the other side really angry and upset and hurt that nobody understands. Then you can't find a way to connect everybody together. So I find that I go to these events and they are great, people show up, but are they getting what they are really seeking out of it? I don't know. I don't.
GJ: You have talked about these different communities. I am interested in the communities that have immigrated to Portland more recently, like in the nineties or two thousands who might have a different understanding of the Vietnam War. How do you see these communities interacting with the older generations that you were just discussing about?
TS: Yeah, so I do know some people who are in that different generation or the different group. I will say that it’s difficult. It’s a very hard and sensitive topic to talk about because those people now have lived since ‘75 until they came here. So they have a different lens of what it’s like to live in Vietnam and then come to America and be able to learn how to integrate into the American system. They felt like-- I have heard people say they felt like they were abandoned. Like, “You all left in 1975 and have left us here. You don't know what it was like.” Then the people that left in 1975 are hanging on to their experiences of living their entire life through the war and then saying “But you don't know what it was like to live under the threat and bombs every day.” Again there’s that entire muddled water that nobody knows how to navigate and there’s just no way you can separate these particles. I always imagine it like this sandbox or this tub of water and I put sand in it and everybody is a particle and they all have their own different directions and feelings. So I feel like they came after ‘75 or they came before, during, whatever, it’s still such a mess. It is because forty-five years later now, and this war still has continued this divide and even within our own community, about who needs to learn it and how we need to learn it and why we need to forget it and why we need to remember it. So it’s been really challenging. I mean even myself, I have moments like that. But I identify more of the older generation even though I am not, because of those stories that my grandma shares with me. So if you were ask me, I am totally anti-communist but that’s because these are the checklist items that has happened to me. But then the other side of me says “But you are American and you live in America. You were born here and so you understand the importance of it is that now we are in a different time and a different place and in a country in which we are in a global market where we do business with each other and so how does that look?” So it is very conflicting. I mean it is very conflicting and so oftentimes, you know, it’s a touchy subject I think to bring up with anybody.
GJ: How do you plan on explaining the war and its history to your children?
TS: Well, good thing I have grandma on recording. I will let my daughter listen to that part first. Then I will-- my mother actually lives with us, and so she hears little bits and pieces from my mother. I appreciate it and I respect it and I want her to hear it from that perspective first. I think as it comes about we are going to base-- I want her to learn things that are facts, but still question it. Because I think that sometimes in America we learn something and we assume that was right. It is like a pandemic is a good example. “If the FDA didn’t approve the medication it probably doesn't work. Yeah, but if people in Germany are taking it I am sure it’s safe.” But then we for some reason assume that we’re different. Somehow we American humans, our bodies react differently or we might understand things differently, and I think that that's a fault. So whatever she is going to get from this, from what she learns, I am going to teach her to question it. Make sure it’s accurate to make sure it’s correct, and then also carry the stories. Because I think those stories are true. Those feelings, those emotions, those things that she hears from her grandma and great-grandma are real. Those things are facts. The things that she gets out of a book or in school-- we’ll navigate that when we get there. We live in a time where we can verify that is it true, I don't know, let's ask grandma. If grandma doesn't know then grandpa or someone else. Right, so I think that is where we are going to go with it. But I definitely will encourage her to constantly question what we learn. Because yeah, I will say I am often also stuck. I grew with this idea that we are the greatest country. Like you know, we have the best food in the world. As I travel out of this country I am like “Oh my god I’ve been buying into this lie, somebody refund me.” So yeah, it has been really interesting.
ZS: You mentioned that you’re kind of this middle-ground bridge in a sense. How-- and I realize your daughter is young-- but how interested is she in learning about your cultural history and heritage as opposed to being a second-generation now born in the United States?
TS: She is actually very interested. I am very grateful that she is. I have this fear that I am going to have one of my kids not going to be interested, or none of my kids will be and then nobody will carry these stories and I’m responsible for it. So far she is very interested. She wants to know. Then she asks questions like “Why do these things happen?” I also think that she is interested because she has had an opportunity to meet her great-grandma and live her entire seven-year-old life with great-grandma. So she is able to have those experiences. I think that even if she doesn't remember it exactly, it has already embedded somewhere in her mind. To be able to plant that seed and it will grow if my mother continues to tell her stories and if I continue to share. I believe that that curiosity will continue to drive. That’s what I plan to do.
ZS: Do you see other people in the Vietnamese community doing similar work? Is this historical lineage happening across the board or are you seeing it kind of disappear as people get more separate?
TS: You know, that is a very interesting question because I see people doing it but I see white people initiating it.
ZS: Why do you think that is?
TS: You know, I think for one, white people have come to a place in time where they’ve recognized that they have played a really big role in something. Whether that is the Vietnam War, whether that is Natives who have been displaced, African American slavery, I mean name it. I think that at this point white people are trying to redeem themselves. Trying to redeem themselves by saying “What can we do to help save something we either created, we hurt, we harmed, or we helped destroy. So if we were a part of the Vietnam War and this is what we did, now is the time for us to go back and maybe we can help those communities.” Again this is probably a little bit of the white savior complex as well. Being able to say, “Okay how do we redeem ourselves and do it respectfully?” Be able to go into spaces and say, “Hey, we are interested but we are interested in a respectful way,” to say “Can we help fix something?” but without saying that, which is kind of the irony. Instead of saying that we are interested because of whatever reason. It is like redeeming yourself without actually having to confess, I guess is kind of a way to say it. But that’s really how I see it because I don't see a lot Vietnamese people-- at least I haven't run into any-- who are out there actively saying “I want to figure out what really happened in the war and save all these stories and ask all these questions and do all these things.” So far the last three projects, you are my third one, the last two and including this one, there has not been one Vietnamese person in the group or on the team to be either A-- translate, so I am translating for grandma, or B-- initiated the project. So I find it really interesting. But yeah, I don't know. I mean, maybe I should ask you why you are interested. [laughs]
ZS: I mean exactly, this is a perfect example of exactly what you are saying. This college is creating a collection based off the history of Vietnamese people in Portland, you know, to kind of capture this important part of both cultural identity but also city identity. Again, it’s like who are we to go into this project, and what is the motivation behind that? So yeah it’s a very difficult question.
TS: Yeah no, it is-- I mean I don't know many people but my aunt and I have been sharing stories a lot. Vietnam's fiftieth anniversary is in five years and we both are like, “We have to get this story grandma has shared all her life down into a book.” So one of my goals is to get this book written in the next five years. It is her story. I am just going to translate it from her recording and of course add all the wording and everything to make it a book and then my aunt is like, "I'll edit it." She is a writer and hopes to get it published, but just for grandma. Because I feel like I look for a lot of stories from the Vietnam War and I have to really look to be able to find it. You know what I find a lot of? Vietnam War vets. Lots of books about their trauma and their experience and all these old white men, and how they walk around with their hat and duh duh they do all these things. Like you don't see Vietnamese people walking out in the street wearing their “I am a Vietnam refugee.” Like I don't understand that mentality, and that’s okay, I am not trying to figure it out, but as I am looking for books to read and experience what other people have experienced just because I want to fill in the gaps that grandma didn't experience. Just to be able to picture what that war looked like and how that has affected me as another generation, I can't find any. I mean I found one and we read it in a book club which is friends of mine that are Vietnamese. But it is not that easy to find. If I do, it's half the price of what a Vietnam War white guy’s book would be.
GJ: What book was that?
TS: We are reading When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Yeah, but you know, that is one person’s experience and she had to really-- her sons talk to her into publishing her story and sharing it. But if you try to go onto Amazon you will find a few, very few, but you will definitely find a lot of stories from white people and particularly white vets.
ZS: Why do you think that is? Is it just the trauma, you know getting the stories out, language, publishers, I mean...
TS: Yeah this, and I am not trying to say like “Oh, it is a bad thing.” I think that trauma is a real place, everybody has it, everybody experiences it. I think it is very important for them to talk about it. What I am talking about is the people who are willing to publish it, and know where the money is to go and get it. White people, from what I sense, they want to be able to read something they are familiar with. But if they want to learn about another culture and they read a book that is written by somebody else then it is more of like they think it is a way of diversifying their understanding. Like if I read about a white vet then I can feel like oh, white people act like that person did something and I can identify with them because they are a white person. They did a great thing and they are a Vietnam vet, and they are a World War II vet, whatever. But if they read a story from a Vietnamese person who suffered the war, now they’re just adding-- I like to call flavor-- to their portfolio. More of a diversity. Like, “Oh, I read this thing from somebody, a Vietnamese person,” but they can't relate to it. So oftentimes it’s like -- I think I view white people as like they are missing something. I feel like white people are missing something and they are constantly seeking for something because white people own everything. If you’re white and you are identified as white when you walk out of the house, you own it all. So whereas communities of color you have to go in and seek those spaces to be comfortable. So reading a Vietnam War book that is from a vet is like “Yeah, you know look at what white people are doing.” You know, “We continue to be the best.” Then you read another book and maybe it’s a Vietnamese person or an Indian or whoever then it is like “Oh, you’re just adding some culture to my portfolio.” Clearly I have a lot of trauma with white people, right. [laughing] But yeah, that’s why this project-- I am going to do it. Because I have had a couple of projects with grandma and I think it is important to at least share one more perspective, and theirs is very interesting, grandma and grandpa.
ZS: That sounds like a great project. I know we see this in just kind of the general public-- these divisions in politics and socio-economic status-- do you see those same kinds of divisions that we’re facing up in a country affecting people just kind of in more of the smaller communities that you are working with on a day-by-day basis. Do they mirror each other?
TS: Do you mean racial?
ZS: I mean politics, economics, and also racial. But you know the country itself is having its own divisions. Do you see those affecting people within the Vietnamese communities as well?
TS: It’s interesting that you say it in that way. I feel like this country has always had its divisions, not just now. This country has always been in conflict with itself. It doesn't even know its history correctly to teach it. That in itself is the problem. Starting with Lewis & Clark. I always am going back to high school, and that’s my first class. So then you know right. But do I think within the Vietnamese community if there is some conflict? I think absolutely there is, and again it goes back to the war. Because a couple of years ago, for example, there was a protest downtown in Portland, and my aunt was involved. She went down there and my aunt is really involved in the community. She goes down there and she’s holding the flag. She calls my mom and she is like, "You gotta come down here. You go to come and hold the flag and get China out of Vietnam." But then I am like, “nothing’s going to happen.” You know the United States and Russia and China-- they’re all sleeping in bed together. So you can go hold a sign all you want but Vietnam is not a country in which economics plays a value in the United States nothing is going to happen.
You know, if you want to do something we need to be in a place of power. So that means politics and politicians. Right now, I feel like we don't have that in the Vietnamese community to be able to say that there is a divide. The only divide is this war that these two generations can't figure out how to talk to each other without getting offended, first of all, and getting hurt and getting traumatized even more. Then trying to make progress in a country where we have no political power. It’s just not going to happen. Like there is the political divide I only see is until all these voices can find a way to learn from each other and understand and be heard, then we can as a community find political power and actually say, “Okay what is it that we need from this country now that not only are we here, but we are born here and we live here and we contribute here.” But you know, until that happens, your answer to whether there is a divide? Yeah, but it goes all the way back to this war. Whether it’s a political war-- well unless it’s at the dinner table where I often hear aunts and uncles, and friends talking about who they’re voting for and why they don't like certain policies, nothing is going to happen. Because whoever is in charge and typically that is still the white guy. That is where it is going to go. So yeah, within the community. My dad always says that, “this is a white man's world. So sad." But he says he believes it and it’s true. So yeah, that would be my final answer for the divide.
ZS: Yeah and I think that is a good answer. I think a lot of people-- I mean even just general white people, kind of have this same feeling. But they are looking at, well there are these politicians and people with money who have the power, and your voice is never really heard, as well. I don't think it’s just across different racial divides. I think it’s almost becoming more unilateral in a way, so we will see. I know we are coming up on an hour. Is there anything we haven't asked you that you would like to talk about or discuss? Any additional experiences.
GJ: I have one closing question. I am really interested to know if you have seen any ways that COVID-19 is affecting the Vietnamese community in Portland specifically?
TS: That is a great question. Maybe my partner already posted it, but I wrote a short little piece for our website. It was about calling white people to action at the moment. My husband, even though he is Ukrainian, he is white, and my business partner who is also white, [calling them] to step up and really speak out against what is happening. It is interesting because I personally have not experienced the racism that is tied to COVID-19. However, that is in part because I am just home all the time. I am always going to the grocery store and coming home. I am trying to do my part. But my mother who still has to go into work and my aunt who lives in Yakima who is going to the grocery store, they have actually experienced it. So now I am vicariously experiencing this trauma because they are telling me these stories. Now I have those vicarious stress and anger. I am always working on anger-- that’s my problem with all this racism stuff.
But definitely I see how it is affecting the people who are least likely going to say something. The people who are instigating it are more comfortable because they will judge a book by its cover and say “Oh, if I say something to that particular Vietnamese woman” -- my mom is only like four-feet-eleven, she is super tiny -- if I say something to her or I do something or I move away from her. She won't be offended and she won't say something. My aunt who went to the grocery store and said she heard a white person say to his kids, you know, “Stay away from the Asians." Right, my aunt is also four-feet-eleven, very passive. I would say how I grew up viewing them was really conservative-- you know, they keep to themselves, very quiet. I’m American so I am not so much like that. So if someone was to say that to me I would probably pounce on them, and give them a whole thing. But it hasn't happened to me. It is unfortunate because I feel like if it should happen to somebody, which it shouldn't, I wish it was me because I feel like I would say something. Whereas my mom and aunt won't. It happened to my brother at Target. He said this woman literally pulled her kid aside so that her and the child were away from him. Then waved him to go by and he was like “That’s okay, you can go first,” and he was on the way out. And said they didn't leave the store and follow him until he was across the street. As he was walking out the store he heard the little kid ask,"Why did we stop to let him go?" And she muddled something to him. And this was right at the start of the pandemic. So my brother-- he is Asian American-- and so there is this idea that “Oh, he’s also passive and he won't say something.” Out of kindness, he didn't because oftentimes people of color are taught that maybe you missed interpreted something. Maybe it’s you that took it a certain way, and you got offended for something that somebody did but it wasn't like that.
So I definitely see that this pandemic has done something, but it has done it to the people around me and then of course, they come and share. I am like a story hub. I feel like I am going to be the new matriarch of the family. Because my grandma is gone now. I hear all the stories and they come and tell me, and I am like “Oh, we need to do something about it!” So yeah, it’s unfortunate. I keep hearing stories. I mean there’s a website. I forgot what it was but they are tracking stories of Asian Americans experiencing these events because of it. Maybe I can forward it to you but my aunt lives in DC, and she was like, "There is this website that is tracking all of these hateful events.” I’m like, "This is terrible.” You know? I mean, I don't know. It is so traumatizing-- I think first of all to live in Portland and second of all to live in a time where it is even more prevalent because now people are calling it out. So before when I was younger, if it happened you just kind of doubted it a little bit, and you thought “Oh okay well maybe it is just me.” Then now, it’s like everybody is calling it out and there is the internet, and Facebook, and Twitter, and the news. Now you are like “Oh my god, it’s happening so much.” I don't think it is happening so much more. I think it’s still happening at the same rate, and I think certain things will bring it out more like the pandemic or maybe Ebola or Zika. Something like that will bring it out in different communities. But I definitely think that it’s just so much more because technology has intensified it. I think that just intensifies our anxieties and stress for the community. And it’s sad because ultimately, again, it’s the community of colors that is going to pay the health effects of it, and the trauma of it. So, I mean, look at what we have to listen to on the news all the time right? Like, ah-- anyway.
ZS: I think you are absolutely correct. This concludes the interview with Tina Semko in Portland Oregon, May 4th, 2020.