Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am talking with Huan Luu via Zoom today, October 7, 2020. He spent over thirty years working for the City of Gresham as Fleet Maintenance Supervisor, and was a part of the first Vietnamese family to settle in Portland. There is a wonderful profile of Luu in the newspaper, the Gresham Outlook, and I will reference that a few times. So, thank you so much for being with us today and for sharing some of your story. Could you start by telling us about your childhood in Vietnam? And what part of Vietnam was your family originally from?
Huan Luu: Okay. My name is Huan Luu. Basically, I am from Vietnam. I was born in 1950 in Hanoi, Vietnam. After I was born in 1950, we moved from Hanoi to Saigon in 1954, right after my dad had been assassinated by Viet Minh at that time. And my dad, his work was high ranking in the government of French Indochina at that time. We moved to Saigon, Vietnam in 1954, with my mom, three more brothers, and two sisters. We settled out in Saigon and started everything over again. And we went to school and mom tried to take care of family. She went to the supermarket, tried to sell all kinds of stuff, tried to survive. And basically we survived, and to now, mom passed away in 2011. She passed away when she was ninety-two years old, and we miss her so much. Basically, that is it. And after 25 years we stayed in Vietnam, in Saigon, and until 1975, another time we moved again because we avoid to live with the communists. That time we moved to the United States, and we settled out in Portland, Oregon.
DK: Wow, that is a lot of transitions in just a matter of decades.
HL: [laughs] Yes.
DK: I am curious, what were some of your earliest memories?
HL: Regarding what? When I was a kid?
DK: Yeah, when you were a little boy what were some of the earliest things you remember seeing, hearing?
HL: Basically, my dad worked for the French Indochina government and he was high ranking. And actually in the family, we had people working around the house in a family. Myself, at that time, I am probably about three, four years old—I think about three years old. All my sisters and brothers had to go to school with people. They had the people take them to the school and bring them back home. After my dad had been assassinated by the communists and we moved to Saigon, my mom, she never did this stuff before. We had six people, four boys and two girls plus her servant, and we needed to survive. She took her little money—not much—she had a little bit of money, making that when she went to the market and tried to lease, rent some of the spots in the markets. She tried to sell all kinds of stuff to survive, to take care of her kids. And until we were all old enough, my older sister, to help my mom, she went to the school to become a teacher. She was teaching elementary school for kids, and my older brother, after he got the high school degree, he joined the army. He went into the office of academy military and tried to help the family a little bit and to leave my other sister and two brothers at home to finish school. Basically, that’s the one.
DK: So, everyone was working hard to pitch in and do what needed to be done?
DK: What was your schooling like in Vietnam while your siblings were doing all this work? And, did you study other languages in school?
HL: Actually, school in Vietnam is just like French schools. The education is just like a French school. You had elementary school from kindergarten up to the fifth grade. After the fifth grade, you had to take a test. If you pass the test, you can join the high school. If you did not pass the test, you had to go to private school. Private school costs you money. And if you passed the test, you go to the public school. The public school does not cost much money, and you had to go to that. And in junior year in high school, they had the big test. You had to pass the test in order to go into the twelfth grade, okay? If you do not pass the test, you had to join the army. Okay, that is a very difficult time, because basically, in Vietnam, when you are growing up you begin thinking that joining the army is just normal. And you passed the test in order to continue the education to stay home. And then same thing in the twelfth grade, you had to pass another test in order to get into college. And same thing, if you failed the test, you join the army. I am just a little lucky, I stayed home and I had three brothers. They all joined the army. My two sisters and I were lucky because I know that my family was happy for me to stay home and go to school every single year until 1975. At that time, I am in law graduate school and I worked part-time with another law firm in Vietnam to try to help the family. And until ‘75, after the fall of Saigon, we, the whole family, through my sister—at that time, my sister married an American boy and they took care of the whole family and [the whole family] left Vietnam in 1975. At that time, my sister, the one who married the American gentleman, they met when my sister went to Portland State [University] to get a master’s degree, and she got the master degree and she met her husband, Tim Leatherman. She went back to Vietnam, Tim followed her to Vietnam and asked my mom to marry my sister. And at that time, he stayed in Vietnam for a few years until ‘75, and my sister and him took care of the whole family moving to the United States. Basically, [laughs] that's it.
DK: So your brother-in-law was from Portland originally?
HL: Yes, my brother-in-law is from Portland. And, actually, do you know the Leatherman Tool company?
DK: Yes, but tell me more.
HL: [laughs] What do you want to know more about that?
DK: Maybe say a little bit about the company and how it is connected with your family a little bit more.
HL: Sure. When my sister traveled for the scholarship to Portland State to get a master’s degree, she met Tim. Tim, at that time, I think he was attending Oregon State University. They met in a ping-pong tournament or something and that is what I know, true or not true, I do not know. My sister then graduated from Portland State, and she had to go back to Vietnam and Tim just followed her to Vietnam. He settled in Vietnam a little bit and came to meet my mom to ask my sister to marry.
DK: So your sister is getting married, it is 1975, clearly it is a tumultuous year in Vietnam. What was the experience of leaving like for your family? How were you able to depart, and where did you have to go?
HL: Oh, okay. At that time, my sister, she went back to Vietnam. First thing, she went back to teaching again and then she applied for a job to work for the MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam], it means the United States international office in Saigon at that time. She worked in that office over there and her boss told her that in April ‘75, "You better go back to the United States" and she said "No, I cannot leave because my family is still here." And her boss told her, "Why don't you just bring the whole family?" At that time, the office was inside an airport, Tan Son Nhat Air Base. He gave her his key card and told her to go back home and pick up the whole family and take them into the office. She went back home and asked Tim, "Can you take the car and come back to pick up my family?" Actually, Tim made two trips to take the whole family into the Tan Son Nhat Air Base in the office. And everything after that was in the airbase, her office. We stayed there I think a couple nights. And after that I think my sister did all the paperwork and we left Vietnam at that time.
DK: Did you come straight to Portland, or did you spend time anywhere else on your way?
HL: Actually when we left Vietnam, we stopped by the Philippines in Clark Air Base, I think, for one or two days. After the Clark Air Base, followed up by some paperwork, we flew into Andersen Air Base in Guam. Then we stopped in Guam, some more paperwork needed to be completed. After we stayed in Guam for a few days, we left Guam to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. In Camp Pendleton, San Diego, California, we stayed there for a few days and then we just came to Portland because Tim's family sponsored us and my sister and Tim came to Portland, Oregon.
DK: Now if I remember correctly, when you were in Guam there was something else special that happened to you as part of your story. Would you care to elaborate on that?
HL: [laughs] Yes. Actually when we came to Guam, we stayed in a military barrack and I met my wife through a mutual friend. After I met my wife, we went back and forth to Guam for a few days and a week or so. Because my family was sponsored by my sister and brother-in-law, we left the camp early. We came to Pendleton really early. My wife at that time was in Pendleton too, so we saw each other again a little bit in Pendleton. We stayed in Pendleton for a few days because we had a family sponsorship pretty quick. We got out of Pendleton very quick, and settled out in Portland, Oregon. And my wife's family’s side—I called her and she said that her family will probably stay in Pendleton for about a month or so. Her dad knew a family from back in Vietnam and they sponsored their family to Fairfax, northern Virginia. After I settled out in Portland, Oregon, I finished school—a two year program in one year—I joined her in Virginia and we got married in September, 1977.
DK: Wow, that is a remarkable story. So when you arrived in Portland, I am curious, what were some of your first impressions of the city?
HL: The first thing for me was that the city was very green and there were a lot of cars on the street, because in Vietnam, basically, you can see bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, and very few cars unless you had a lot of money and you drove a car. If you had a motorcycle, you were lucky you had money to buy a motorcycle. The people in Portland, Oregon were very friendly and I remember we settled out in my brother-in-law's family. I think at that time his dad, Kenneth Leatherman, and his mom, Arlene Leatherman, took us into their house and we stayed there for a few days. Also with the help of the Lutheran Church, because Tim's parents are members of the Lutheran Church in Southwest Portland on 42nd, SW Vermont. After that the church helped us a little bit. In a month or so, my sister rented a house in Southwest Portland for us to stay there. The whole family, you think about that, three brothers, myself makes four, and mom, five, my sister-in-law and two kids. The house was just a crowd of people. We were lucky to have a house over our heads. After a little while we started looking for a job, get things to do. My older brother-in-law, he is a graduate from Michigan in equipment. He is teaching equipment in Vietnam to get a good job, to work for that ESCO company. You know that ESCO company? He is working over there, he is an inspector. After we settled out, everyone was looking for a job. Everyone tried to learn English. We understood that if you want to get a job, you need to understand the people talking to you, what they want from you. [laughs] Or if you want to ask them questions, you need to understand English before you can find something good for you to do in looking for a job. I wanted to get out as soon as possible, to work. Back in Vietnam I practiced law, but here in Portland, Oregon, I changed my mind. I wanted to learn about automotive at PCC [Portland Community College]. How to take care of a car, how to prepare a car. That two year program, I finished in one year. I got out and got married. After I got married, I worked for the Arlington County equipment division for about a couple years. And then I talked to my wife, and we decided to move to Portland. And after we decided to move to Portland, I got a job to work for the city of Gresham to take care of the police and fire equipment, everything. I took care of that for about ten years. After the ten years, my supervisor retired and I got the promotion to become the supervisor manager for the fleet maintenance division at the city of Gresham. After twenty-somewhat years, I retired from that job.
DK: Wow. So you must have enjoyed it to have stayed there for that long?
HL: Ah, actually the first ten, twelve years when I was working to repair the vehicles, it was hard work. But when you become a supervisor, to run the fleet, that is easy, no problem because they know you already know about the vehicles. And with my education I can learn to deal with people very easily, that is no problem. And actually, that turned out pretty good and I stayed there till the last day I retired [laughs].
DK: Did you and your wife settle in Gresham as well? Is that where you built your home?
HL: Yes, I think when we came back to Portland we settled in the Southeast area, and I stayed in the Southeast area because it was close to Gresham, and then we rented an apartment. After we got jobs, we worked for Gresham for a while, we were saving up money. Then we bought the house in the Gresham area and that was the first house we bought. We stayed in the first house for probably ten, eleven years. And then we bought the second house. We sold the old one because it was a little too small and it had a tri-level up-and-down, and I think I wanted a one-level, easy for me when I get older [laughs] and I cannot go up-and-down anymore. Actually, we bought a second house. We sold the old house, and we bought the second house in Gresham and right now that is the house where we are staying in. I think I retired in 2011 after thirty years, yes.
DK: Thirty years, that is a good run. That is a good, good run.
HL: That is right. It [was] hard work for half of them and the other second half got a little bit better. But, you know, when you come to work, you work.
DK: I am curious if during this time you were able to build connections with the greater Vietnamese community in Portland?
HL: We have a few friends. We attend some of the Vietnamese community. But, sometimes, any group, any community they always have the good people or the bad people and we know quite a lot of good people and we made friendships with them. Even until now, we still have a lot of Vietnamese friends. They all retired. Another Vietnamese group, they were in the military before and we play tennis together. Until now, we are still playing tennis, but because of COVID-19 all the clubs are closed, [laughs] and we can't do it everyday. We do not have anything going on, my wife and I. We take a walk in the park and walk for about forty-five minutes to an hour everyday.
DK: I am glad you brought up 2020. It is a very unique time to be alive for all of us. And for our listeners, this is October of 2020 and COVID-19 came into the United States and changed our lives in March of 2020. We are still dealing with it and trying to stay as healthy as we possibly can, so I understand what you are saying about taking walks and trying to find ways to stay active. It is certainly a challenge.
HL: It is a lot of challenge. If you do not do anything, it is a challenge to stay home. I think sometimes you need to go out and take a walk a little bit, enjoy the fresh air for a little bit and come back and feel a little bit better that way.
DK: So, you mention making several friends in the Vietnamese community through certain events. What types of events were you involved with, or what events were you excited to attend?
HL: I have one friend who lived in the Hollywood District. He passed away last year. He grew up with me in Vietnam. He and I were very close, like five houses apart. My house here, and five houses down was his house. It is very hard for me, but there is nothing I can do because he had a blockage in his artery. He had a heart attack and he passed away. And all the while, I was with some friends around in the Portland area; we were playing tennis and after we had a cup of coffee then went home and went on with our lives.
DK: Wow, I am sorry for your loss. It is so tough to say goodbye to your close friends and family.
HL: Yes, because he and I grew up in the same neighborhood. And his wife and my wife got along very well. Everyone has different things. In life, you settled everything right, and that day you will be gone. You do not know what is going on in the future. A good thing is I knew him when he first came to Portland, Oregon. That day I came to see him in his driveway [laughs]—very, very surprised and happy to see him.
DK: So, I have a few questions about the Vietnamese community at large. And then later on, I want to come back to a few follow-up questions about your earliest times in Portland. But, regarding the Vietnamese community at large, I'm curious what social and economic issues do you think have been most significant for the Vietnamese community in your experience?
HL: I can go out in my social life and make contact with any people outside the Vietnamese group. But the Vietnamese community here, I think more people want to stay in the group and talk the same language. It is better for them. Sometimes they feel more comfortable talking in the same Vietnamese language, but not everyone can pick and choose what they like to do. Myself, I talk to my son quite a bit and actually my grandkid—his name is Henry Luu—he joined the Vietnamese-English dual language program. This year he is in the fifth grade, and he already has six years in the dual language program. He can speak English with me, he can speak Vietnamese with me. We both understand very well and he is awesome [laughs]. He is good at it and I ask him, "Hey, Henry, do you like the Vietnamese language and the dual language program?" He says, "Yeah grandpa, I love it!" [laughs]
DK: That is great feedback.
HL: Yes, and …
DK: I'm curious, in relation to your grandson, what are some of the important aspects of Vietnamese culture you hope that he is able to experience when you are interacting with him?
HL: My whole family—I have three brothers and two sisters—they all live in the Portland area. Usually, when we have a big holiday like Chinese New Year and Christmas and everything, all the grandkids, all the nephews, they all get together and they all have a good time. They all have fun. They look forward to it. A little disappointing for me is [that] they all speak English. They learn Vietnamese, but they only speak a little. When they all get together they speak English. But, with me, I do not have a problem with that because [my grandson] learns English in elementary school. But myself, I want him to understand Vietnamese when people are talking to him, [so] he can understand what is going on. And that is why every time they come home for dinner or something like that, I will talk to him in Vietnamese and try to encourage him to speak more, because when he grows up I want to take him back to Vietnam and let him practice the Vietnamese language. If he goes to Vietnam, he needs to practice Vietnamese. If he wants something, he has to talk Vietnamese with them [laughs].
DK: Have you been able to return to Vietnam and visit?
HL: Yes, actually my wife and I went back to Vietnam I think … [turns to ask his wife] "Honey, how many times have we been back to Vietnam?" I think we have been back in Vietnam at least once or twice. Last time we traveled to all three regions. We traveled to Saigon first, then flew to North Vietnam to visit my dad's grave and visited some relatives for a week, then stayed in central Vietnam for another week and traveled to Saigon and stayed there for two weeks. After that we came back to the United States. I think after the COVID, maybe next year or the year after next, we are planning to go back to Vietnam, another trip back to Vietnam, but strictly between north and south only, not in central Vietnam.
DK: What was the country like when you went back? And, how has it changed since you left in 1975?
HL: It is changing a lot, it is changing a lot. There are a lot of buildings going up in Saigon and the people seem to me a little bit more hurried. Talking about the lifestyle, I saw the people who are poor are still poor and the people who had money had more money. It still had a gap between the poor and the rich, nothing much in between. But the good thing is to go back and see how it is going, to see if it has improved or not. I traveled to all three regions. I went to North Vietnam. In North Vietnam, it seems like they keep the old French colonial architecture, still keep that all, and the weather is a little cooler and easier. The people are nicer. In central Vietnam, the same thing. When I was younger, I had only one chance to visit central Vietnam and this time when we went back we stopped by the old citadel for the king of Vietnam before. I never had the chance to see that before, now I had time [and] I went to see everything on that. In Saigon, a couple hours I walked along in Saigon, [in] central Vietnam and in a couple hours, every memory came right back. I walked by Saigon because the law school is about half an hour walk from the school to the center of Saigon. I walked to my old school and took a look in the old school, but it is gone now. There is a business building now. It is sad, but [laughs] everything will be changed too.
DK: That is great. Thank you for all the detail, I really appreciate it. If it is okay, I just have a couple questions that we kind of missed about when you first came to Portland. I wanted to touch on that.
DK: In your Gresham Outlook profile, it was said that your family was the first Vietnamese family to settle in Portland following the Vietnam war, and I am curious both what that was like for you and how you even knew for sure you were the first family?
HL: I know for sure we were the first Vietnamese family in the Portland area because I know there were two families. One family is my family in the Portland area, and the other Vietnamese family was in Vancouver, Washington. They had two families. I know that because the reason is that in the transit between Vietnam and the United States, my sister and my brother-in-law went through very quickly and fast. In Clark Air Base we stayed there for a couple days, Guam maybe a couple days, then to Pendleton for a couple days. And we are talking about six or seven days—within a week we got out of the camp.
DK: Wow, that is really fast.
HL: That is the reason I tell you we were the first Vietnamese family. Within a week, it was very quick and very fast and we settled out in Portland.
DK: So what was that like being the first family in Portland? Was it challenging, exciting? What were some of the emotions you experienced?
HL: It was very challenging because the first thing was it was hard to catch up in English. Your brain is just like a computer, right? I listen to you, I understand what you are saying to me. I have translated from English to Vietnamese, to understand that in my brain first. And then, in my brain, just like a computer, I answer by the Vietnamese language first, then translate to English and talk back to you to answer your question. It takes quite a while to do that. Then after a while, after I went to school to learn some English from Portland State, I learned English as a second language. We started to catch up, slowly at first, but after forty-something years, if you ask me questions I can automatically answer them. I do not have to do the translation anymore.
DK: Were there any challenges besides the language?
HL: English is one, and trying to get a job. It was challenging because when I came here, I went to Portland State and I took twelve credit hours. Sometimes I had twenty-two credit hours per term …
DK: That is a lot.
HL: A lot. And then in the meantime, I worked as a janitor in one of the radio studios in downtown Portland. Then I [would] go back home late at night and try to get sleep and go to school early in the morning. By the time I went to school in the morning, I tried to sit in the cafeteria and get all the homework done. And at lunch time I did the same thing, tried to eat lunch and get the homework done at the same time.
DK: That is challenging. So much of your challenges were time because you were trying to hurry through this degree and you were trying to learn English, that was the bulk of it. Which is a lot! [laughs]
HL: It is a lot, because if you don't do that no one will help you. You just have to do it.
DK: And you mentioned earlier that the Lutheran Church was really helpful in getting you settled. Was the rest of Portland pretty welcoming as well? Did you have a pretty positive transition overall?
HL: I think it was a very positive transition at that time because a lot of people in Portland area … the news people said, "Okay, why don't we take you shopping, and we'll pay for everything," and they had a camera crew with us to see what we buy and what kinds of food we eat. The language challenge varied a little bit. It takes a few months after you get past the second language and you start taking the regular class. After that you just follow along until now. [laughs]
DK: Well, we have come to the end of the questions I planned for today. I am wondering if there is anything we did not discuss that you were hoping to, or any questions I did not ask that you wish I had.
HL: No, basically I do not have anything. I am so glad that you called me and you want to know about what happened in the transition from Vietnam to the United States. I am so glad I can help, and it just seemed like one article in the Gresham Outlook, the gentleman talked about that and then the second article, we traveled to Australia. My wife wrote the article and we sent it to the Gresham Outlook. It is another challenge when we take the time to travel. Funny, but scary a little bit too [laughs]. When we left, we traveled to Australia on February fourteenth …
DK: A special holiday to travel with your wife.
HL: Yeah, February fourteenth. We traveled then got on a cruise ship. We cruised for a month. The first three weeks were smooth sailing, no problem. Then the coronavirus happened. Everybody was scared, but we were a little lucky because when we boarded the cruise ship on the fourteenth of February the coronavirus at that time was still far away in Southeast Asia, in just Japan or China. The people on the cruise ship were pretty comfortable because we were one hundred percent sure that nobody on the cruise had the virus. But when we came back home after a month of traveling, we stayed in the LA airport. Oh boy, that was scary for me sometimes. The whole airport only had four or five couples [laughs]. When the cruise ship came back, we decided to fly back from Tahiti. Tahiti to LA, then LA back to Portland. In Tahiti, they did not let the cruise ship come in. The cruise ship had to sail five more days to Honolulu, Hawaii. And from Honolulu, Hawaii, they docked the ship outside in the ocean area. They did not let you on to the land. When they allowed you to go into the land, they rented one or two airplanes with a police escort in the front and the rear that went to a special part of the Hawaii airport. Everybody lined up to go in the airplane. They said, "You're not going in the airplane, you're not going anywhere." They came in to give us boxes of food and bottles of water, that's it. That is how we flew from Hawaii back to LA. It was a challenge, scary sometimes. But we know that on the airplane everybody was still comfortable, because we knew, in the airplane, nobody was sick. We left about thirty days ago on the cruise. And we landed in LAX, the whole airport was so quiet, nothing happening there, nobody around … jeez.
DK: [laughs] That quiet must have been eerie.
HL: [laughs] Yeah, but that’s okay, just the same thing when we left Vietnam. When we left Vietnam, it was the same situation. Just quiet, and scary sometimes. It was quiet, but not quite as scary when we left Vietnam.
DK: Well that might be a good note to end on.
HL: [laughs] Yeah.
DK: Thank you so much for chatting with me today and for sharing some of your story. I really appreciate it.
HL: And thank you very much for contacting me. I am so glad to talk to you. I can explain some things in Vietnamese if you need some more help. Just let me know, I am happy to do whatever to help you out.
DK: Again this is Dustin Kelley and I have been chatting with Huan Luu. Today is Wednesday, October 7th, 2020. Thank you for listening.
HL: You're welcome [laughs].