Khoi Dinh September 11, 2019
Interviewers: Azen Jaffe, Hannah Crummé
Azen Jaffe: Okay my name is Azen Jaffe, it is September 11, 2019, I am in Watzek Library with Hannah Crummé and Khoi Dinh. Thank you for being with me. Could you start by introducing yourself, when and where you were born and maybe a little bit about yourself.
Khoi Dinh: Yeah. I was born in October 1982 in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. I came to the US in 2001 to pursue higher education. With a goal of going back to Vietnam to work, but then I had this opportunity to pursue a career in development research which I am currently in. I couldn't pass it so I ended up staying in the United States to do this and I just love doing that. Yeah I have been doing this since 2005 now.
AJ: Great thanks, I am excited to get to development research, but before could you tell us just a bit about growing up in Hanoi.
KD: I grew up in a middle-class family. So I had everything I needed, not everything I wanted. My mom was a teacher at a public school, she taught math and physics. My dad worked as a researcher. High school was a blast. I miss my high school time in Vietnam. Me and my friends, we had a great time. I would say my childhood was fantastic [laughs].
AJ: Great. What made high school such a blast?
KD: I think that the class that I was in, my classmates and I bonded very well. We just did a lot of silly things. Including like cheating on some exams, skipping classes, and that sort of thing. Stupid things that a lot of kids do. It was a hard time for us because school was very stressful, but because of the things we did outside of class, I thought it was a lot of fun. Yeah, I stayed in touch with a lot of my high school classmates.
AJ: When did you decide you wanted to study in the US?
KD: I would say, my freshman year in high school because that was when I was in tenth grade. So in Vietnam, you start high school when you are in the tenth grade. So when you enter high school is when most people think about their career choice. Because in Vietnam when you go to a university you must declare a major before you even enter a university. On the university application, you have to declare a major. So that is when I thought oh I need to think about my career choices. What do I want to do? That sort of thing. A lot of people in Vietnam at that time were studying abroad, or were thinking about studying abroad in Australia, the United States, and the UK. All of these developed, English speaking countries were options. I thought about the US, Australia, UK, and New Zealand all of those countries. I started doing research and I found out that the US was probably the best choice for me because all the information about the US education was easier to understand. Also, a lot of US colleges offer scholarships to international students. I thought getting a degree from a US university would provide me with a lot of job opportunities in Vietnam and that is why I pursued that path. Now, of course, I did go to a university in Vietnam for one year.
AJ: Oh okay where was that?
KD: It was in Hanoi, it was Hanoi National University.
AJ: Okay and then you transferred?
KD: Well I entered Cameron University as a freshman because my major in Vietnam was linguistics. When I came to the US I switched to business administration.
AJ: Okay. Had you been to the US before?
AJ: No. So did you learn English in Vietnam or did you know...
KD: Yes I took English classes in high school.
AJ: Okay. So can you tell me about Cameron University at all?
KD: Cameron University I appreciated the education that I received. It wasn't the right fit, the culture wasn't the right fit. It is in the bible belt, it is extremely conservative and I expected to be able to make friends around my age. It was a challenge because Cameron University is not a traditional college like Lewis and Clark. Because Lawton, Oklahoma is a military town — because Fort Still is right there. A lot of my classmates were nontraditional students. A lot of them were in their fifties or sixties, married with kids. Some were even pregnant. It is not a residential college. So most students commute. I think when it was founded it was a community college. So it gradually became a four-year college. But I did make some friends who lived in the dorms. But the number of dorm residents was very, very low compared to the total student population.
AJ: Okay were your friends in the dorms other international students?
KD: There were a few international students. Most of them, at that time when I was in college, most of them were from the Carribean Islands, St. Lucia and St. Kitts.
AJ: Did you feel welcomed?
KD: Oh I totally felt welcomed. I was the first Vietnamese student to be admitted from Vietnam.
HC: Can you tell us any more about your undergraduate experience? Did you do any extra circulars?
KD: I did, I think I participated in the international club and the accounting or business club. But I worked a lot to pay for school. I got what is called non-resident fee waiver. So I didn't have to pay the out of state tuition I paid the in-state tuition portion.
HC: How did you get involved in development? Did you do that during undergraduate or is that something you moved into after you finished at the University?
KD: I started development research when I entered graduate school.
HC: Tell us more about graduate school. I am interested in that.
KD: Yeah so when I applied to graduate school I knew right away that I would need financial assistance again. I applied for a lot of fellowships and scholarships in business departments at the university that I applied to. But I didn't get any of them and so this position, research assistant, at the Missouri State University Foundation. I didn't know what I was getting into but, I was offered the job. So I thought what the heck I am just going to do it. I had a great mentor Jenifer Cruise, I still stay in touch with her. She retired last year. She taught me everything. How to do research, how to do a donor profile, everything.
HC: How did your family feel about you staying in the US?
KD: They were very happy that I was able to get a job to stay. If I had stayed, let's say without a job or illegally, they would not have been happy. I was at home recently in June and I could tell that the older my parents are getting the more they might feel that they would rather that I work closer. They didn't say, “Hey we don't want you to continue to live in the US.” I could tell they wish they could be closer to me. That is hard, I feel it too.
HC: At the time was it difficult to decide to stay here?
KD: No, it wasn't difficult at all. I was like I am so happy, you know [laughs]. My parents have never influenced my decision at all.
HC: Was Missouri different than Oklahoma?
KD: No very similar. Well, it was a little different in terms of scenery. Like the Ozarks are beautiful, more green. Oklahoma is flat, brown.
HC: What ultimately brought you to Portland.
KD: So I lived in Iowa. So after graduate school, I got a job at Grinnell College -- also a liberal arts college -- to do the same thing, prospect research. But after one year and a half there I thought oh gosh I can't live here. It is a very small rural community. I mean Grinnell College is a fantastic college if you are a student or a faculty member with a family. But I was twenty-four, twenty-five years old, single, and the town of ten thousand people, I just could not. You know it just wasn't a good fit. I wanted to move to a larger city, preferable on the west coast. So I looked at San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. I found this job so I came out here for my job interview and fell in love with Portland. I stayed in a hotel downtown and walked around and I thought oh this is the right place.
HC: Why preferably on the west coast?
KD: Because I had been to both the west coast and the east coast. Even though I had not been to Portland and Seattle I had been to San Francisco and San Diego. I prefer the weather on the west coast. Also when I was in Vietnam, I met a professor from a university in Seattle and he was married to a woman from Taiwan. But then he moved to North Carolina and both he and his wife missed Seattle. Because in Seattle there is a large Asian community and he missed the Asian food in Seattle. So I thought, oh okay I think the west coast has a lot of Asian food [laughs].
HC: Yeah that makes sense. So you first walked around downtown. What were your first impressions both when you came for your interview and when you actually moved here? How did you react to the city?
KD: Very well I was so glad I saw a lot of people. Because in Iowa I didn't see people at all, right. Also as soon as I saw Mount Hood from downtown I was very impressed with the city. I took the max, I took the streetcar I was impressed with the infrastructure of Portland. Because I had never lived in a city in America before.
HC: What year was that?
KD: It was 2008. I remember it was April 2008. When I drove from Grinell to Des Moines to get to the airport it started snowing in April. And when I came here it was a sunny day, believe it or not! [Laughs] That is why I fell in love with it.
HC: Yeah that makes sense. So how quickly after doing the interview did you transition to Portland?
KD: So I was given only three weeks to move to Portland.
HC: Oh wow, so that is quite frantic.
KD: Right but I didn't have much to do in Iowa at all. I only gave my former college a two week notice. I rented and I didn't have anything there so I just packed my bags and shipped some stuff. I shipped my car here.
HC: Where did you move to when you arrived here?
KD: So I moved to Southwest Portland, which was Spring Garden and Barbur Boulevard. The reason why I moved there is because my first month here I didn't have my car. They told me in Iowa that it would take a least a month for my car to get here. I thought, okay well I need to rely on public transportation to get to work. So I found this apartment complex that is right on line thirty-nine. In fact, I took the bus for seven years until I moved to Beaverton.
HC: How did you find being here? I moved back three years ago and was pretty lonely. Was it lonely or did you like being in a bigger city? How was it once you arrived?
KD: Once I arrived I just fell in love with it. In fact, I am still in love with Portland. When I talk to people here, some people who move from California they don't like the rain. Well, I grew up in Vietnam so it rains a lot there too. I love the greenery here and when I moved here I picked up on a lot of outdoor activities like hiking, for example. I never hiked before I came to Portland, and now I go hiking a lot.
HC: Yeah, did you make efforts to connect with the Vietnamese community when you arrived?
KD: So there was a listserv that I was on, but that listserv was for international students or soon to be international students from Vietnam who were studying in the US. I contacted the listserve to see who else was in Portland and I found a few people in Corvallis, Vietnamese students in Corvallis. So I was able to connect with some of them. Corvallis is an hour and a half away from here. So it is really hard to maintain a friendship with them. Some of the people that I met a few years ago they moved back to Vietnam or they moved to another state.
AJ: When we were corresponding by email you said something like you would describe yourself more as an expat than an immigrant. Can you talk about the distinction you make?
KD: One of the reasons why I tend to not use the word immigrant to describe myself, especially when I tell people I am Vietnamese, people think about Vietnamese refugees. I wasn't a refugee. Coming here was a choice and staying here was a choice. I have more ties to Vietnam than I do to the United States. My whole family is in Vietnam. I don't need to settle in America. I don't need to live here. My home is actually in Vietnam. I mean I call Portland home too. I mean when I come back here, this is my home. Portland is my home. I am also a US citizen, I am a dual citizen. The word immigrant sometimes conjures up images of desperate immigrants, you know on the shores. I wasn't one of them. Sometimes people think if you are an immigrant, you are illegal. Are you undocumented? But it is okay for people to say, "Khoi when did you immigrate to the US?" I don't have any issues, in the right context. Like in this context, I said, "Oh am I qualified for this project?" Because you can call me Vietnamese American that is fine. But for this particular project, for this purpose, I wasn't sure.
HC: What do you call yourself? By that I mean Vietnamese American or how do you think of yourself in terms of nationality?
KD: I describe myself as a Viet living in America. I often tell people that I am seventy-five percent American, because I am very Americanized [laughs].
HC: Where did you do the citizenship process?
KD: So here in Portland. Yeah, it was in 2012.
HC: What was that like?
KD: It was fantastic. It was a very emotional thing for me. Because it was a dream for me to come to America, and becoming a US citizen was surreal. A lot of times people ask me why I am always happy or why I always look happy. I always tell people I wake up everyday thinking that I am still dreaming because I am in America.
HC: I am interested in how that works with your sense of being an expatriate or not an immigrant. I mean, I am not questioning it...
KD: Right, right no totally. Well, I’ll tell you a little long story. So a few years ago, well actually right before I left Grinnell College, I met a professor who is Vietnamese American. So he was either born in Vietnam or born in America. But he came to America when he was very young so he considers himself Vietnamese American right. He is a professor of Asian Studies at Grinnell College. He was, I am not sure if he is still there. He told me that he was married to a Korean American woman. One of the things that he said to me was after thirty minutes into our conversation and he said, "Khoi you have a very strong identity." I didn't get it. I was like, "What do you mean? Tell me more." He said, "Compared to other Vietnamese Americans or Asian Americans, I can tell that you know who you are.” Verses a lot of Asian Americans because their upbringing’s very different than yours. In the sense that you know they couldn't tell if they were either Vietnamese or Americans. The community around them doesn't see them as being a part of their community. Whereas I grew up in Vietnam, I didn't expect to be treated the same as other Americans. In fact, I expected to be treated differently because I come from another country. Because if you went to Vietnam, for example, you would be treated differently. Right? And I saw that and I was like oh in fact in America nobody cares where I am from. I never get asked where I am from and I always want to be asked [laughs]. Because I love to tell people about my country. I love to tell people, "Hey come to Vietnam we offer all of these things blah blah blah.” Whereas an immigrant I mean, I haven't talked to a lot of Vietnamese Americans here, but I think what they think about their former country or the country that their parents fled from, it was probably a very sad history. A very sad story. Whereas I bring a lot of positive things.
HC: To that end what would you want to tell somebody who is asking about Vietnam. What do you want to tell people about Vietnam?
KD: Vietnam is a very different country nowadays than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Every time I go home I get emotional because I see a lot of changes. A lot from the infrastructure, to the way people behave. Just a lot of things. A lot of new restaurants. The tourism industry is growing. If you went to Vietnam you would see a lot of tourists from so many different countries. It has become a hotspot for expats from all over the world. It is very different. It is a very welcoming country with great hospitality.
HC: That is great. I am tempted to switch directions a little. Tell us about the community you live within here. Not necessarily the Vietnamese community, but what your world looks like here.
KD: I actually -- when I first moved here -- I joined this meetup group. I met a few people, I wasn't able to connect with them. So I ditched that group shortly after that. But I was able to make friends with some Lewis and Clark alumni. So I remained friends with them. Sometimes I go to birthday parties and social events. I have also been able to make friends with people who work in my area, other nonprofits. But I am not part of the Vietnamese community here.
HC: You moved here partially for the Asian food. I know that is something.
KD: Yes [Laughs].
HC: Are you engaging with the Asian community at large to any extent?
KD: No I haven't been involved. I guess part of it is because my circle of friends isn't heavily involved. The Vietnamese people that I am friends with are also like me. I mean they came from Vietnam and they are not part of the Vietnamese community or any Asian American community. I guess when your friends don't participate in any of those things you don't [Laughs].
HC: Right, great. What lead you to move to Beaverton?
KD: I bought a condo in Beaverton. My rent in Southwest Portland had gone up. I thought it might be a good time to look into buying. So I found this condo. It was very cheap in Beaverton, so I moved there.
AJ: Do you have any family in the US or are they all back in Vietnam?
KD: Well my immediate family is in Vietnam but, I do have a relative. My late grandmother's younger brother lives in Orange county. He fled South Vietnam in the seventies. I have visited him and his wife there. So have my parents.
HC: What were your impressions of Orange County versus Portland?
KD: I did not like Orange County. I didn't see anything special. Now I do have to say I like Laguna Beach. That is a very pretty area. But other than that I didn't see anything special. I prefer Portland.
AJ: Do you go and visit your parents frequently?
KD: I try to see them once a year. Last year they came here. When I can't go to Vietnam -- because if I want to travel to another country than I don't want to go to Vietnam -- then I try to have my parents come.
AJ: Do you have any siblings?
KD: Yeah I do have one brother, an older brother.
AJ: Okay and he is in Vietnam?
KD: No, actually he is in Finland now. He is pursuing graduate studies in Finland. He also has a job too.
HC: Oh it is cold there.
KD: Oh I know [Laughs].
HC Good for him [Laughs]. Do you have a sense of your parent's impressions of Portland when they visit?
KD: They fell in love with it. They miss Portland. I took them to Seattle, they did not like it. They went to Orange County, they did not like it. They said, "We don't like California we like Portland."
HC: That is nice.
KD: I mean of course, partly because when they were in Portland they stayed with me. I took them to the gardens. I took them to Mount Hood. They always say that they are too old to enjoy a big city. Portland has that small-town feel. It doesn't take you long to get out of the city feel. So you go out to see the nature, and they really enjoyed it. My mom is obsessed with cherries and I took her to...
HC: Hood River?
KD: Yeah, yeah to pick cherries and she loved it [Laughs].
HC: Do you participate in any religious communities or other communities?
HC: I have run out of questions. Do you have any more questions?
AZ: Yeah a while ago you mentioned that there is sometimes this bias from people when they hear about others who are of an immigrant background. Have you experienced discrimination here in Portland, in Iowa, or in Oklahoma? Can you talk about that at all?
KD: No, not at all. The only time when I did my due diligence, but I wouldn't call it discrimination. One example I keep telling, because a lot of people ask me if I have experienced any discrimination or prejudice. My experience in the United States has always been very, very positive. I remember I went to the mall in Missouri when I was in grad school, it was the summer. So I was looking for a part-time job in addition to my research assistant job. I went to this store, I can't remember what it was, but it was a food stall in the mall. I asked the guy who was behind the counter if he had a job application or if he was looking for workers. He said, "Are you from here?" I did not answer his question. I did say I am legally authorized to work in the United States. He kept pressing, "But are you from here?" I said, "I live in Springfield Missouri I am legally authorized to work in the US." He finally gave me a job application. But I wouldn't call it discrimination or anything.
HC: Yeah but it might constitute an unpleasant interaction.
KD: That is exactly right, but that was it. Other times when I look for a job nobody even cared.
HC: That is good.
KD: Yeah [Laughs].
HC: You haven't had a sense of discrimination or anything like that outside of work interactions either?
HC: That is good.
AJ: I also wanted to ask about prospect development. I don't know much about that position. Can you tell me what you do and what your day looks like here at the college?
KD: So my job is to identify prospective donors for the college. Especially those donors who can give at least $50,000 to the college to support different things, scholarships, the library, and the endowments that sort of thing. Besides research, I also manage part of the information system. So of course when you do research you have to analyze the data, just like you do right. You have to track it in the system, you have to be able to pull reports, and track the donors and the research. So yeah that is pretty much my primary job.
AJ: What do you like about it?
KD: I think that when I see the impact that my work has on the students, I just feel great. I have been here for eleven years so I can see the fruit of my work. But of course, it takes a village to raise money. It takes a fundraiser to go out there to talk to the donor it takes the president and vice president to deliver a message that sort of thing. But I can see from the initial state where say, "Oh hey Sylvia this a donor that you should talk to here is some information about him or her." To the point where the donor is ready to make a gift.
HC: That does seem like a fun job. That seems like a fun type of research to do. I have thought of another question or another couple of questions about the city of Portland which are sort of more frivolous. One of the things we have difficulty within this project from time to time is getting people to really talk about the city. I think just because of the nature of our questions. But what is your favorite part of Portland? Outside of your home where you spend the most time in the city and outside of work?
KD: What is really interesting is that I used to like downtown Portland a lot. Because when I first moved here it was the first city in America that I had lived in. But nowadays, I mean on the weekends, I run in this Fennel Creek Park in Beaverton. That is probably the place in the Portland area that I spend most of my time in, outside of work. But look at this college campus. I mean do you really need to go somewhere else [Laughs].
HC: I basically don't. I am here always.
KD: Now I use to also go to the Gorge to go hiking. But the traffic in the past I would say seven or five years has been terrible. When I first came here I remember the traffic was a bit light. So I would drive there on the weekends to go hiking every weekend, but now I don't. I just go somewhere else to go hiking. Like I was in the Rockies National Park.
HC: Where is your favorite place to eat in Portland?
KD: At home, I cook [winks].
HC: Outside of your home?
KD: Outside of my home, actually every weekend I go to Burgerville. I love their hamburgers. But I haven't been back there since maybe two or three weekends ago. When I went there and I had the worst meal ever.
HC: How come? What went awry?
KD: For whatever reason, the burger was too salty, too cheesy. It was like too much of everything.
HC: Huh okay.
KD: So I have not gone back there.
HC: Yeah Burgerville used to be a big deal in Oregon because there use to only be a few of them. One of my friends was training for a marathon and then ran to Burgerville which was twenty miles away.
KD: Well and the store that I use to go to right outside of Fred Myer that one is closed. So now I go to the other one on the other side of Beaverton. That one is probably not as good as the other one. So I guess that is probably it.
HC: So you said you cook a lot, what do you cook?
KD: I cook a lot of Vietnamese food, but last night I had pizza [laughs].
HC: Are you able to get the ingredients for Vietnamese food at the regular grocery store?
KD: Yes so I go to H-mart which is a Korean store on highway ninety-nine. I get some Vietnamese ingredients too but in order for me to cook like a very good Vietnamese meal I have to go to Fubon on 82nd to get a lot of Vietnamese ingredients. But when my parents came here they were like, "Oh this is not good.” [Laughs].
AJ: They didn't like Fubon?
KD: They were like oh nothing is fresh here. I was like well what do expect this is not Vietnam [laughs].
HC: Have you been to the new, there is a new grocery store down from Fubon, that opened this summer.
KD: Really I didn't know that.
AJ: It is huge.
HC: Yeah it is quite a bit bigger than Fubon.
KD: Fubon, I'll have to look it up.
AJ: SF Supermarket I think.
HC: SF supermarket, there is one that had Viet in the name as well I think. There is a grocery store I think that has Viet something. It is really big I think it took over a Winco. It is a really big grocery store.
AJ: I did want to transition away from this line of questioning. I just wanted to ask about what some of the challenges you have faced have been? Coming here yourself at a young age, or moving to Portland.
KD: Challenges I think that my initial challenge was the language. I learned English in school. But it was only enough to attend lectures. So I was able to understand my professors very well, but I could not understand my peers. When you talk to your friends you use a lot of slang so you talk very fast. That type of language I did not learn in school. Because when you go to school you learn correct English, but when people talk they don't use correct English. Other challenges? I can't think of because I wanted to come here so bad. I am sure there are a lot of challenges, but I was able to overcome those challenges so quickly because I just love America. I love this country I love being here. It was like my dream and so I am still living my dream. It is hard to articulate all the challenges that I have faced. If I told you all of my challenges of coming here and moving here I think they would sound very similar to the challenges that other people face like finding a job. I mean that is not unique to anybody right? It doesn't matter if English is your first language or not.
HC: Right. Other questions?
AJ: I think I have worked through most of my questions.
HC: Yeah I think yeah. This has been an unusual interview probably because I kept interjecting.
KD: Oh that is fine [laughs].
HC: I did take us out of order. We often try to develop more of a single narrative. So I sort of messed with that this time.
KD: Well he is going to have to do a lot of work [laughter].
AJ: Do you think that there is anything more we should talk about or more that we should ask?
KD: So I am just curious, what do you guys know about Vietnam in general? What do you guys know about the Vietnamese community here in general? What is your sense?
HC: Well that is a good question. Azen probably knows more than I do because he did his thesis on the Vietnamese community.
KD: Woah really, I am impressed. I would actually love to see your thesis.
AJ: Let me turn this off.
HC: Although you could always leave it on and we can cut the part that is talking about the project.
[Discussion continues regarding the oral history project and some of the challenges that the project has faced. This sparked Khoi to continue the conversation about discrimination.]
KD: Talking about discrimination I am just overwhelmed with how welcomed I feel. Like how friendly people here are. I am sure that there is a lot of discrimination out there, I mean that is a fact. It is very interesting because I think that now I am friends with this woman who is Vietnamese American, she was born here. If you talk to her and tried to get some negativity out of her she would probably tell you a lot about her experiences as a Vietnamese American woman. Because she has told me a lot about her experiences growing up here as a minority. But I have only had positive experiences.
HC: That is great.
[Crummé continues the conversation about the project]
KD: Well I mean if you wanted me to knit pick I could list a lot of things that I don't like about Portland. Like the Homeless issue, I don't like that. But then you compare it to other developed nations I have been to Paris. Paris is a lot worse. San Francisco is a lot worse. LA is probably the worst. Of course, it does not mean that it is okay for Portland to continue to not solve that. But just to put Portland into Perspective.
HC: Maybe that is the advantage of people we are talking to because perhaps they have seen various other places, and it seems relatively put together and good.
KD: I mean I have been to forty different countries and five continents. I can tell you that despite all the negativity that is happening in this country America is still a good place to live in.
[Crummé and Dinh discuss Britain and the project.]