Thai Tien Nguyen Interview: July 9, 2018
Interviewers: E.J. Carter and Hannah Crummé
[The interview takes place in a public library. The sounds of patrons can be heard in the background]
E.J. Carter: I’m E.J. Carter and this is Hannah Crummé. We’re here with Thai Tien Nguyen at the Midland Public Library and today is July 9, 2018. First of all, thanks for meeting with us. We’re really happy to talk to you.
Thai Tien Nguyen: You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure too.
EC: Could you start by giving us a summary of your life here in Portland?
TN: So I immigrated here almost nine years ago. My first year here, just exploring a little bit about the city and life here. After that I went to Mt. Hood Community College to get my prerequisite and entered nursing school at Clark College in Vancouver. Got my bachelors in Vancouver to start my nursing career two years ago here in Portland.
EC: And so you currently work as a nurse?
TN: Yes. I currently work as a nurse.
EC: Is there a particular clinic that you work at?
TN: Yes, I work at Post-Acute Rehab Center.
EC: Where did you move here from?
TN: I moved here from Vietnam.
EC: What part of Vietnam did you grow up in?
TN: It’s the central Vietnam. A little bit towards the south of Vietnam. It is a beautiful highland city.
EC: Was it a city or a village or…
TN: It was a city. It’s name is Da Lat. It is famous for its beautiful weather and scenery.
EC: What kind of work did your parents do?
TN: My parents, they are running a hotel there, still in Vietnam.
EC: Nice. How would you describe your childhood?
TN: My childhood? I can say it is quite different from the kids nowadays. Just all the time outdoors. Exploring the world, exploring the village. Things outside, not inside. A lot of books, reading, because we did not have a lot of iPads, internet, or TV back then.
EC: What made you decide to come to the United States?
TN: So actually, I married my husband, he is living here, so I just followed him here.
EC: How did you meet him? Where did you meet?
TN: [Our] two families, we are friends for a long, long time ago in Vietnam. We lost contact for a long time. After that we reconnected again. And then we started talking on like Yahoo Messenger or something. So just over time, we built up some kind of love.
EC: So he grew up here?
TN: He moved here when he was fourteen or fifteen.
EC: In Portland?
TN: Yes, in Portland most of the time.
EC: What were your first impressions of Portland?
TN: My first impressions? The city is very much like my own hometown because of the weather, like rainy and sunny season. It is not very busy like the other bigger cities. Kind of a familiar sense.
EC: Do you feel a close connection with the Vietnamese community here in Portland?
TN: Actually I don’t know a lot of Vietnamese people here, even though my in-laws know a lot of them because they were part of the Vietnamese church. But for myself, it’s just through my first job. I worked for a Vietnamese doctor, so I know some of the Vietnamese patients. But mostly it is through my in-laws connections,
EC: The rest of your family is still in Vietnam?
TN: Yes. My parents and my two older brothers are in Vietnam. And I have a younger sister in Canada.
EC: When did you decide to go into nursing?
TN: It was when I first came here. I was wondering if I should go back to school, because I did not want to labor jobs [laughs], things like that. And also I have some degrees in Vietnam and I did not want to waste all of the knowledge there. Even though I entered a nursing program, which is very different from my experience in Vietnam. I discussed with my in-laws. I don’t know the main reason, but I ended up in nursing school.
EC: What did you study in Vietnam?
TN: I studied English language and business administration.
EC: Were there any particular challenges that you experienced in pursuing higher education here in Oregon?
TN: The first thing was language. When I first came here, I had studied some English back in Vietnam but we don’t use a lot of English back there, like ten years after my graduation that I came here. [Exasperated] All of my English, we don’t use. It was the most challenging thing here. But I can read. I read really good. I understand what people say. But sometimes it is hard for me to express myself speaking. But it’s not a very big deal.
EC: Did you take English classes when you first came here?
TN: No, actually. When I did my placement test, my scores were very high. So I didn’t have to take the English classes.
EC: So you hadn’t taken any science classes?
TN: I did have to take some science classes because they were required for the program.
EC: But in your previous education in Vietnam, you hadn’t studied the sciences?
TN: Just general classes in high school. During my college years there I did not study science. Some high level classes of math, but that is it.
EC: Was your first job -- with, you said a Vietnamese doctor -- was that here in Portland?
TN: I worked there when I was in nursing school. I worked as a medical assistant. They called us “Health Coordinators.” It was a mix of nursing, medical assistant, and health coordinator.
EC: What sort of patients would you see?
TN: It was a mix of both Vietnamese and other patients. Half Vietnamese. Half of the patients are a mix of American, Chinese, and other.
Hannah Crummé: Sorry, we usually have a piece of paper with the questions on it, but today we have my phone. Which is non-standard and we are not good at.
EC: Are there any other clinics that you have worked at as a nurse?
TN: Actually, during my nursing school I volunteered at that office for a couple of months and I volunteered at another Vietnamese clinic too. But it was just a volunteer job, it was not a paid job.
HC: What was the Vietnamese clinic?
TN: It was the Columbia Clinic.
HC: It serves the Vietnamese community specifically?
TN: Like the other clinic, the one I worked for was the Golden Dawn Clinic and the Columbia Clinic they both serve Vietnamese and English speaking patients too.
HC: Is it an organization specifically designed to help the Vietnamese community or it has a lot of Vietnamese people because of the neighborhood?
TN: It is because it is in the neighborhood and the doctor speaks Vietnamese and there is a lot of staff who speak Vietnamese too. So that is why there are a lot of patients there.
HC: That makes sense.
EC: Doctor Connie said you have some heartwarming stories about having worked with particular refugees in these clinics.
TN: Yes. When I volunteered there I saw a lot of new immigrants from Vietnam. Just didn’t understand how hard it is for them to have those health resources and information about health resources here in Portland. Some people, they got referrals from relatives or people that they know or they just searched for help from Vietnamese providers here.
EC: And you’ve worked at bilingual clinics as well, is that right?
TN: Those two are bilingual clinics.
EC: What would you say are the major health issues facing the Vietnamese community?
TN: Some of them, they don’t know how to apply for a health plan if they don’t have enough income. Or if they need to do something for their job they don’t know where to start. Sometimes they just go to any clinic and ask. They will have some kind of unnecessary procedure to do. So they have to pay a very high bill. Things like that. Like when they get a job here and they get health insurance and then later they lose their job, they don’t know if they can qualify for government funded insurance or not. And they don’t know where to apply. They don’t know where to apply for other, like food stamps or any kind of assistance from the government.
EC: Are there programs that the city, state, or federal government could put into place that would address some of these issues?
TN: Yes. Mostly I think that some of them, they know that they can have some kind of non-profit organization that serves that particular population. Some of them they do know, some they don’t. So some sort of outreach programs from those would be very good.
Like when I first came here, my husband he was still a student back then and I didn’t work back then because I wanted to concentrate on nursing school because it is kind of hard to get in to. I did not want to both work and study at the same time. Because of my English barrier, it took me a longer time to study. I wanted to concentrate on that. I got pregnant with my first baby here. I didn’t know where to apply for health insurance. I don’t know how I ended up meeting one of IRCO’s staff. She helped me a lot through that. I was just thinking back then, “One day I can do something to help new immigrants like me.” To make it easier to know what we can do to get support from the government.
HC: In the time that you’ve been here, do you think that’s improved? Since you used the service from IRCO, to now, do you think there is more information for immigrants or do you think it’s stayed about the same?
TN: Actually, there is different measures. Like in the past we did not use internet a lot. So we did not know. Nowadays, people can just surf the net. They can search, they can Google. Or even they will just Google one time and later it will pop up, more of those necessary programs. It is easier. Also, I’ve heard that there are some other organizations that support refugees and immigrants here. They outreach through doctor’s offices, through like church and temple organizations here to the ones that need those things. Also doctor’s offices, they also do a good job too. Some of them, we have health coordinators. I saw that we have some Vietnamese staff from like Medicare, Medicaid something. They go to the clinic and they have some kind of workshop and provide information about how to get insurance, how to get the most benefit from those two. So I can say that it is getting better.
EC: Has the Affordable Care Act improved access to insurance in the Vietnamese community in particular or the immigrant community more generally
TN: It does help. But sometimes it is kind of misleading because some people, they first came here they don’t know English. They just think that they buy some care or something. But you know there are some different prices with different coverage and they don’t really understand that. They just think, “Oh I have health insurance, I can do anything.” And they don’t know about the costs of those procedures. They don’t know about “Out of Pocket,” things like that. They just think that they have insurance, which means, therefore covered. There is a lot of things missing there. I don’t know if they have any Vietnamese in those places that can explain more about those policies.
EC: Does IRCO have programs to do that?
TN: I think that, yes. There are people that refugees can ask for help if they have questions about those programs. But not all people will go there. Some, they just buy and use those, and they don’t even go to IRCO because they think that IRCO is the place for those who came here with no income. So they think that they don’t need help so they don’t go there.
HC: You mentioned that the doctor’s offices sometimes works with the temples and the churches as well. Have you seen how either of those programs work? Have you seen how temples and churches are helping?
TN: I don’t belong to any temple or church. I don’t know what they do in there. But, for IRCO and other programs, if they have any kind of program they will outreach and they go to those kinds of organizations so they can have a broader reach.
EC: Are there any other programs at IRCO that you are involved in?
TN: Yes. First time I joined Dr. Connie’s research. That research, she patterned with IRCO.
EC: That’s the Women’s Health Project?
TN: Yes. I worked there as a CPAC member. The Committee Consultant member with her. But there was a change in the staff in charge of that program at IRCO. There was a change, I don’t know, she transferred to another program. They were short one person to coordinate. So Dr. Connie just referred me to that position for a short term. So I worked there as a coordinator for the project at IRCO.
EC: And what were the outcomes of that project?
TN: That was a very good project. I worked there as, not a part-timer, just casual status there. But I did have some kind of help from their staff there. They tried their best to help me outreach, to recruit the participants for their research. They referred even their staff’s family. Like her program includes a story about a cancer survivor and that story comes from the staff there. They really help a lot in the project.
EC: Can you describe that story in more detail?
TN: Actually, that one I have to ask Dr. Connie because it is private. But if you get an opportunity to [see] a powerpoint [or] slideshow of that project, you can have that story. It is a very good store. Moving story.
EC: What could make IRCO more visible? Or make people more willing to take advantage of its programs?
TN: IRCO, they provide so many programs for refugees and new immigrants. There’s a trust between the refugee or new immigrant and IRCO. Also they are a place where people come -- they gather people. So it’s easier to outreach when you need to do any kind of project involving those immigrant and refugee populations.
EC: Are there other organizations that play an important role in the public health needs of Vietnamese Americans in Portland?
TN: Yes. I think that there are so many organizations. Recently, Dr. Connie also worked with Asian Health Centers.
EC: Are there any others?
TN: There are many more, but I don’t work with them so…
EC: Are there any other organizations in Portland that have been important to you, in terms of getting acclimated to the city or connecting you with different aspects of Vietnamese life in Portland?
TN: Truth to tell, I came here and I had a lot of support from my in-laws. So I didn’t look for help from those organizations. The first thing and the only thing that I needed help with was to get health insurance from IRCO. That was the only one.
HC: Where did you live when you first arrived here?
TN: Right here in Portland.
HC: Did you live in this neighborhood?
HC: For the purpose of the oral history could you describe the neighborhood and how you found it when you first moved here?
TN: It is kind of different from Vietnam. In Vietnam, all the neighborhood, we know each other, we play with each other, we can go bang into anyone’s house without asking for permission [laughs.] It is just like a relatives or family’s house. But here, it is a little bit different. They value privacy and things like that. Little bit different, but I expect that much so it’s not a big surprise for me.
HC: Is this also where your in-laws live?
HC: Have they lived here the whole time since they came?
HC: So they’ve been here about ten years longer? Since your husband was fourteen?
TN: Yes. My husband, he came here twenty-five plus years or something.
HC: And they are involved with the church?
HC: Is that Our Lady of Lavang or is it a different church?
TN: My sister in-law and her husband, they are part of Lavang. My mother in law, she is not attending any church right now, but in the past she did, but a different church than Lavang.
HC: Did the church, as far as you know, shape their experience here? Or was it sort of secondary?
TN: Yeah, I think so. When they first came here, they had to have an organization that would support them so that they could move here. Back then, when you first came to the States from Vietnam, they called it -- I don’t know what it stands for -- but it’s HO Program, they had to have someone to sponsor you so that you can move to the States. When they first came here, they were sponsored by that church. They got a lot of help from that church, from those members there. Like where to buy things, where to buy a car, how to buy houses and foods, all that stuff. Also, that church has activities for families and kids to explore the city.
HC: And so their decision to come to Portland, specifically, from Vietnam was shaped by the church that sponsored them?
HC: That’s interesting. Do you know which church it was?
TN: I don’t remember the name of the church. They have Catholic and they have...
TN: I don’t know. It is different from Lavang.
HC: It might be Baptist? There’s a Vietnamese Baptist church?
TN: Yeah, I think so. It is a kind of small one. But I never attended that one, so I don’t know. I just know a lot about that.
HC: You mentioned you had a child pretty quickly after coming. Is your child in school yet?
TN: Yes, in school right now.
HC: How have you found the school system in Portland for your child?
TN: Basically, my in-laws. My daughter has a cousin who went to school and we just followed them there.
HC: Has the public school system worked well?
TN: Yes. The first of my sister in-law’s children, she went to a private school and when I first came here I helped to bring her to school and back home. I felt that it was a very small school and I just told them that I heard a lot about the public schools in the States. They have much more programs for the kids to develop. I encouraged them to transfer her from private to public school because they could save money and have more opportunities for her. So they did move her out from the private school and transferred her to the public school. They could tell that there was a difference after just one year. After that, all the kids followed. Just went to public school instead of the private ones.
HC: That’s great. And do your children go to Vietnamese school as well?
TN: Yes. My sister in-law’s kids go to Lavang’s Vietnamese classes so I sent my daughter there too.
EC: Is her Vietnamese good?
TN: We try our best to only speak Vietnamese with her. Before she goes to preschool, she doesn’t speak English at all. But once she goes to school she picks up English very fast. And now it is just like when she speaks Vietnamese with me, for some words that she cannot find in Vietnamese she mixes Vietnamese and English. She is still good for a six year old speaking Vietnamese. The accent is not too bad. It is good. Also when I send her to the Vietnamese school I just hope she keeps that with her.
HC: I can see that there are lots of advantages in being bilingual, but what is your purpose with having her continue to speak Vietnamese? Is it so that she can speak with your parents or for the general advantage of learning lots of languages?
TN: We still have relatives in Vietnam. In Vietnam, we value traditions and family -- spiritual. There is communication between my children and my parents and like her cousin in Vietnam. We don’t want to disrupt that. I saw a lot of people bringing their kids to Vietnam and they cannot communicate at all. It’s not good. They don’t have a connection, they don’t feel close to each other.
EC: So your daughter doesn’t attend the Vietnamese immersion program?
TN: No she does not. Her first day of school, she didn’t speak English at all. But after one year, her teacher said that she doesn’t know that my daughter speaks Vietnamese at home. [Laughs] Caught up very fast. And also, you know, internet, like YouTube. They love YouTube. Just watching everything in English. They can even sing English songs. Vietnamese songs? Yeah, they listen. But they don’t understand at all. That’s the bad thing about that [laughs.]
EC: Are there a lot of other Vietnamese children in the school she attends as well as the neighborhood you live in?
TN: In her school, sometimes there are one or two other Vietnamese speaking kids in her class. But she told me, “Mommy you know what? They speak Vietnamese with me, but I don’t reply in Vietnamese.” I asked why. She said, “Because in school we have to use English.” [Laughs] I would like for her not to, but yeah. There are still some other Vietnamese speaking kids in her classes, but she just speaks English together.
HC: She is probably helping them with English as well.
TN: [Laughs] I think most are good in Vietnamese and English.
EC: Are there local public or political issues that you think are important to the Vietnamese community?
TN: I think that the Vietnamese community here is a very big one. It’s been over twenty years, so the foundation is strong. We have a lot of organization. We have a lot of Vietnamese markets, we have Vietnamese doctors, we have Vietnamese support from even here in the library -- they have Vietnamese support too. It is strong here.
EC: Do you think that the community is well organized politically? Does it speak with a single voice or is it important that it speaks in a single voice?
TN: It is hard for me to answer that question because I don’t join in a lot of those organizations.
EC: Are there healthcare issues, for example, that could be addressed more directly through political organization?
TN: Yes. the Vietnamese community here, they just know they come here, they will follow anything. If they can benefit anything from the government, they just gladly accept that. They don’t request anything from the government. They don’t expect more than they are offered.
EC: Are there individuals in the Vietnamese community that you look to for guidance or leadership? Anyone in particular?
TN: Do you mean, any kind of leadership? Or the leadership in politics and things?
EC: In politics in particular, but even more broadly.
TN: Vietnamese, we don’t pay a lot of attention on politics at all. I have to tell you that. Even in the past, and nowadays, we just accept what it is. We don’t want to fight or look for something different or better. We just accept what we have. We don’t get involved in politics a lot.
HC: Is there somebody you look to for leadership outside of politics?
TN: For my career life and educational life, Dr. Connie is one that I respect a lot and see helping a lot. Yeah.
HC: I think that is all of our questions. Thank you for meeting with us.
TN: You’re welcome.
EC: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you would like to talk about?
TN: I don’t think so. I don’t know if we have a lot of Vietnamese representatives in the government or those organizations. But it is a big community and it would be very good if we have those, we can help the community.
HC: Since you’ve been in the US, have you traveled to other Vietnamese communities in the US? I know there is a large Vietnamese community in California. Have you visited any of those areas?
TN: Yes, I have visited California. But the thing is, my parents, my dad, he is an old soldier from the US government when they occupied Vietnam. So he has a lot of friends who live in California. They are very strong community there. I don’t join them, but I’ve heard a lot of stories and opinions about them.
HC: Do you think the Vietnamese community here is different from there or is it a similar structure just on a different scale?
TN: I can tell that there are similarities and some differences, but the scale there is much bigger than here.
HC: What do you think the main differences are?
TN: The big difference is, the Vietnamese we have a different part of the country. Most of the Vietnamese here are from Central Vietnam. So the culture is different than South Vietnam. The culture and even the politics, opinions, point of views.
HC: That’s interesting.
TN: Yeah it is.
HC: I think that is all of our questions. Thank you for meeting with us.
TN: You’re welcome. Nice to meet you two and thank you for doing this program for the Vietnamese community.