Teresa Nguyen Interview: September 22nd, 2018
Interviewers: E.J. Carter, Hannah Crummé
E.J. Carter: We’re here with Teresa Nguyen, we are at the Beaverton City Library. It’s September 22nd, 2018. Thanks for meeting with us, first of all.
Teresa Nguyen: Thank you for having me.
EC: Could you start by telling us where you were born and when, and a little bit about your life here in Portland?
TN: I was born in 1964, I’m old [laughs.] I’m one of the boat people that escaped the country to Thailand. I landed in the USA in 1983. I came to Oregon in 2004.
EC: Where had you lived before that?
TN: I lived in Mobile, Alabama. I graduated there and then I moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Then I went to Dallas, Texas, I worked in Dallas as a software test engineer. Then I moved here.
EC: Did you have a sponsor in Alabama? Is that why you ended up there? Or was it just chance?
TN: My dad. My dad took half of my family -- my three siblings. They had escaped the country five years earlier. Then he sponsored half of us later.
EC: You made the journey by yourself then?
TN: No, I came with my mom, my older sister, and my youngest brother.
EC: And what kind of work was your father doing in Mobile?
TN: He was an officer in the army before, so when he came to the USA at an old age he couldn’t land any job besides the odd job here and there.
EC: Did you attend high school in Mobile? Or did you go directly to college?
TN: No, I attended about one and a half years of high school. I skipped a lot of grades [laughs]. I graduated high school before twenty one.
EC: Did you know English before you arrived?
TN: No, a little bit.
EC: How did you get up to speed? How did you learn it?
TN: Well, it’s not easy but I’ve been here thirty something years now.
EC: What did you study in college? Software engineering?
TN: I studied statistics. Then I graduated with a statistics degree and moved to Huntsville, Alabama and studied engineering. Then I landed a job as a software test engineer in Dallas, Texas.
EC: So that was the University of Alabama at Huntsville?
EC: How was your experience there?
TN: I liked it. I liked the city, the environment, it’s a place where a lot of big companies like missile command and NASA. So there are a lot of jobs for software engineer. University of Alabama at Huntsville benefits from it.
EC: What made you want to go into engineering?
TN: Because of my lack in English. So I think engineering or any technology or science background was better for me. I don’t have as much choice as younger generations.
EC: What kind of company did you work for in Dallas?
TN: I worked for DSE. Later on it turned into Alcatel Communication.
EC: Why did you move to Portland in 2004?
TN: I lost a job. At that time in 2003 or 2002, the economy started going down so bad, so they lay off quite a bunch of engineers. I was one of them. About a year later my husband lost his job too. So he lucky to get an offer here in Oregon, so we moved.
EC: Did you know anyone here when you moved here?
TN: Not really, I had some very long distance relative here. He helped us quite a bit when we first arrived.
EC: What were your first impressions of Portland when you arrived?
TN: I love it [laughs.] I love here. Actually, the first impression was that I came in here and then on the eve of 2003, it started to snow so bad for a few days. I feel like I was crammed in the house with no beds, no nothing, felt like back to the refugee life again [laughs.] But then eventually, I came to love it. The weather here is nice, the scenery is beautiful. So much better compared to Dallas.
EC: Really? What are some other differences?
TN: The people here are softer. I can see that the weather affects people quite a bit. I used to live in Dallas, I’m not necessarily negative about Dallas, but in Dallas the weather is quite a bit extreme. Either it’s too hot or too cold. Here it’s much better.
EC: Did you look for engineering jobs here?
TN: No, I didn’t. My husband talked to me about it but I thought I’d better stay home with my children.
EC: How many children do you have?
TN: I had two of them and then later on I had two more.
EC: How have their experiences in the educational system here been?
TN: Compared to back then?
TN:A lot better. I love it here. Here you have so much opportunity. So much to learn. Back then I lived in a war region, so our education get interrupted a lot of times because of the war. So a lot of time I went to school with just a building, with a roof, nothing in it, no walls, no nothing, I can see people walking around the street. We didn’t have any education books, because teachers just teach what they learned -- what they had from their memories. It was not as good -- as luxury -- that we have here.
EC: Did your children have any trouble making the adjustment from Dallas to Oregon?
TN: No, they came here at three and four years old, so they have no problem.
EC: Did you settle immediately in Beaverton? Or have you lived in different parts of the region?
TN: No I lived here. I live in Beaverton. Actually, I live around five minutes away from here. So that’s why I knew this library.
EC: Is there a significant Vietnamese community here in Beaverton?
TN: I don’t know about here but I go to church in Portland, Our Lady of La Vang. We’ve been involved with them quite a bit. My husband and I are in a choir and my children is in the Eucharist youth movement and the choirs. Now my son has just found the youth orchestra. We have quite a bit activity there.
EC: Is that your main connection to the larger Vietnamese community?
HC: How often do you have to go back and forth to the church?
HC: So you only go once a week? You don’t go during the week?
TN: When my children were younger -- this was my crazy time -- I took them to church everyday. So it took about two hours to get there, during the busy hours. Then another hour to half an hour to get back. So every day about three or four hours [laughs.] I was crazy.
HC: Why did you do that?
TN: Because religion was more important to me. I’m afraid that my children grow up lacking in faith.
HC: Did you think about living closer to the church?
TN: No. Because my husband worked in Hillsboro.
EC: Do a lot of people do that? Drive from Beaverton to the church on a regular basis?
TN: Not on a regular basis, on a weekly basis, I think. Yeah, I know a lot of the people in my choir live way farther in Hillsboro or Aloha. They live even farther from me. They join the choir.
EC: Is there a Vietnamese Catholic church in Beaverton?
TN: They do now. They just built a church about one or two years ago in Aloha.
HC: Would you ever consider joining the closer by church?
TN: Later, when I...
HC: When it’s more established?
TN: Yeah, and when my children is older. Right now they have some connections with friends in Our Lady of La Vang.
HC: Was the church helpful when you first moved here? Did they help you make friends, or?
TN: Well we -- my husband and I -- were always in the choir so it wasn’t that hard for us to join in the group.
HC: Were both you and your husband always religious?
TN: Yeah. Me especially. I’m always in the choir. I was in the choir ever since I was little. [HC: That’s nice.] It’s part of my life.
EC: Has music always been an important part of your life?
TN: Yeah. I love to sing. I can’t sing as good now but I love to be in the group.
EC: Did that start when you were young in Vietnam?
HC: Going to both the neighborhood around Sandy where the church is, and Beaverton, have you seen significant changes in the community since you've been here? You’ve been here for about fifteen years now. [TN: Right.] Has anything changed substantially in that time?
TN: Not much. Because I see that in here, in Oregon, the government don't allow to expand the land so much. So the only thing that I see change is the building, they from smaller building to bigger building, that's about it. But last month I went back to Dallas, Texas. It was a huge change. The houses they allowed to go further and further...
HC: Into the countryside?
TN: On the countryside, and the bridges, the highways, is so much, so much extends, expands.
HC: Were you involved with a Vietnamese church in Dallas?
HC: Do you see differences in the way the community functions here and the way it is there? One of our goals is to understand if the Portland Vietnamese community is different than the Vietnamese community in other parts of the country.
TN: I don't see any difference.
HC: It's similar?
TN: Yeah, it's similar.
HC: Do you participate in other organizations in the Vietnamese community?
TN: I don't have time [laughs.]
HC: Yeah, no, you sound busy.
TN: Yeah. Occasionally I join the Vietnamese community in Portland just for some event like the April 30th, you know where the date is. Or some rallies and something like that. But not much.
HC: So it sounds like you have some political association with the community as well.
HC: Can you tell us about that?
TN: Yes, we came here to avoid the communist, so we don't like whatever the communist has done for our people and our country. Up until now they have destroy almost the whole thing, even the land, the people, the education and everything. We don't like that. So anything that relate to communist we just disagree.
HC: You said you might join protests. What is there to protest in Portland?
TN: Well, recently they have signed the agreement to lend three important pieces of land in Vietnam to China for ninety-nine years, and the contract is that only Chinese can come in to that closed door and that pieces of land. They can do anything about it and the Vietnamese people cannot come in, they only come to serve, only as a servant, not as a...
TN: As an owner. They lend them for ninety-nine years. So that has very upset, not only me, but anybody who hear about it.
HC: So would you describe the Vietnamese community in Portland as politically engaged with the things that are still happening in Vietnam?
TN: Right. Yeah. We do.
HC: Is that true of the younger generation, as well as the generation that left during the war?
TN: The younger generation we try to get them in, but they don't get as much the feeling as much as we do, as our generation.
HC: Do you think that is fostered in the younger generation by being part of Vietnamese organizations like Our Lady of Lavang? Are the younger generation that participate in the church or other organizations more engaged than children who don't participate? You might not know because you might not meet the children that don't---
TN: Yeah, I'm sorry I can't--
HC: That was a complicated question. I don't think that worked well [laughs.]
HC: Are there ways that the younger generation are being engaged with the community, either through the church, or through the Vietnamese school, or other community organizations?
TN: Yeah I mean that the more they are involved the more they would understand the culture and the feeling that adults have.
HC: Is that something you sought to foster with the church, with your participation in the church, or was it solely for religion?
TN: It was both. Because I remember one time, on Mother's Day, and my son was in first grade and he wrote me a letter and say -- I didn't know that I have affect him that much. So he wrote the letter to me and said dear Mom, you're a superhero mom because you taught me to value the money, because you wanted me to study piano, and you taught me the country -- Vietnamese country -- even though it is so small, but the commoners, the people to try to get, try to obtain our country, our land. I mean he was on the third grade. Then he wrote that and this mean a lot to me.
HC: Yeah, that's very intricate for a third grader. That's nice. How do you think he gained that appreciation of your history and the country?
TN: Yeah I think it's from home, mostly from home or in the school, Sunday school, where he associates more with the Vietnamese teachers and that stuff.
EC: Do your children speak Vietnamese well?
TN: They can, but they [laughs] they prefer English because they spend a whole day at school already.
HC: How old are your children now?
TN: The oldest is nineteen, he's going to be nineteen next week, and the next one is almost eighteen, and fourteen, and eleven.
HC: Have they encountered any difficulty in Portland?
TN: No. Not at all.
HC: That's good. Have you encountered any difficulty in Portland as a result of being Vietnamese?
TN: No. Not really. [Laughs]
HC: That's good. What other questions do we have?
TN: Yeah, we met some differences, you know when you deal with people, but it's normal when you deal with those who are not the same race. But it's normal.
HC: Have you had a different experience in Portland than you had in other places in the US, or is it pretty consistent across the US?
TN: Pretty consistent. Because here, now to me it's much better because then before when I just moved in, I was getting to the USA, I was new to the culture, was new to the land, and I didn't happen to know the language, so it's much different now.
HC: That's good.
EC: Do your mother and father still live in Alabama, or have they moved?
TN: No, they passed away.
EC: Oh, I'm sorry.
HC: I'm sorry.
TN: Thank you.
HC: Where does the rest of your family live now? Are they in Alabama or have they moved around?
TN: Well they scatter everywhere. My oldest sister in Dallas, Texas, and then my other sister is in Australia. [HC: Oh, wow.] And my older brother is in Alabama, and my younger brother is in New Jersey, and my youngest in Las Vegas, so we scatter everywhere.
HC: Yeah. That is everywhere.
EC: Do you ever get together?
TN: Yeah, every year. A family reunion every year. So this year was Dallas, Texas because I was taking my younger daughter to University of Texas at Dallas. So we kind of get that opportunity to get together.
HC: Do you think your children will go to college outside of Oregon?
TN: I don't know yet. My daughter is right now, then my son is now looking to apply to a school. So I just hope that… anywhere is good for him.
EC: Do you find it hard to be separated from your siblings?
TN: It is hard. It is not easy. I can see here, in the Portland area especially, that a lot of people come and then try to stay together even though they get a job offer elsewhere, but they try to stay. It's really meaningful to me, and I wish my siblings are the same.
HC: Do you think that will ever happen? Is anyone interested in moving together?
TN: I don't think so.
HC: Because they've got families established elsewhere?
TN: Right. Yeah.
EC: You mentioned that you sometimes work as a translator.
TN: Yeah. I am now.
EC: What kinds of projects do you work on?
TN: Most of the time, it's clinical work.
HC: In hospitals?
TN: Hospitals, like clinic work, and the doctor appointment. Stuff like that.
EC: So people hire you, or is there an organization that...?
TN: There's a company that hired me to do that.
EC: So for people who have arrived more recently and maybe don't speak any English, you'll come and translate between the doctor and the patient?
EC: How often do you do that?
TN: Oh, every day.
HC: Oh wow.
TN: Yeah. So in fact I just finished a couple appointments this morning and I have one after this.
HC: Oh wow. Are there lots of people who aren't able to speak English sufficiently to communicate with their doctors?
HC: It sounds like there are.
TN: Yeah. But a lot of people already get the help as well, because their relatives speak English.
EC: Is that challenging work?
TN: Sometimes. Sometime, you know, because I don't know all the medical terminology.
EC: Do you have to look words up?
TN: Yeah, no. I would ask the doctor. I would ask the doctor what the meaning of it. So I would tell the patient the meaning of it rather than the word because I wouldn't think they'd know what it is they don't remember anyways.
HC: Are there other things about your experience in Portland that we should ask?
TN: [Laughs] I don't know.
HC: If you think of anything, let us know.
HC: The purpose of this project is largely to develop a history of the Vietnamese community in Portland. We'll also now ask you some more questions about your leaving of Vietnam and your experience in Vietnam, but we're always interested particularly on insights on how Portland developed as a city. We're trying to diversify our history of Portland.
TN: Yeah, yes.
EC: What part of Vietnam did you grow up in?
TN: My father was in the army, so we moved quite a lot. Almost every year, we celebrated New Year in a different house [laughs.] But mainly in the South.
EC: Is that unusual in Vietnam, to move that often?
TN: No. Not really. I don't know about others anyway because we move quite a lot.
EC: Did your mother work or did she take care of the children?
TN: Yeah, my mom was staying home mom until 1975 when the South was lost to the communist. So my mom have to go out there and do things to find job, to provide for the house, family.
EC: What was your father's role in the army?
TN: My father was a captain in the army. So he had that goal for many years, until the loss of the South.
EC: Did he see a lot of intense fighting?
TN: I think he did. Very much.
EC: Did he talk about it?
TN: Not much. Because I was so little then. But he spent a lot of time in the office as well. When the South lost, he took his family to another remote area. So we changed his identity and we burnt all the family documents and pictures so he didn't have to go to the reeducation camp. So during that time my mom said that every night that the police just walk around the neighborhood and every time he hear the dog his back shaking, you know. Like a nightmare. And then even so after he came to the USA about ten years later he's still shaking every night. Every time he hear dog bark outside he gets shaken.
HC: How was he able to obtain the documents to get out? How was he able to leave?
TN: We escaped the country by boat. Yeah, he did.
HC: Can you tell us more about that?
TN: I don't know much about his, but mine is pretty simple, because my mom was a best friend with a boat owner. So we were lucky with that. They did not want to get many customers. So our boat is about thirty people, mainly his family. We were so lucky that he knew where to go and he knew when to go. We didn't spend much time on the ocean really, one or two days and that was about it. By the time we landed we still had a lot of food and water. So by the time we landed to Thailand I realized how lucky I was because about ninety-nine [percent of] people get horrible, horrible stories. A lot of people don't want to talk about anymore because it's really painful for them.
HC: How long were you in Thailand?
TN: Two years.
HC: Okay. And you came from there to the US?
TN: Yeah. We lived there in the refugee camp, which mainly is a prison, because we couldn't get outside. So by one month before we left for the USA my mom died.
HC: I'm sorry about that.
TN: Thank you. Instead of landing us to go to Phillipine for six months for learning English they let us all sisters -- my sister and I and younger brother -- to go straight to USA.
HC: And you joined your father and your other siblings there.
EC: That was 1983?
EC: How much earlier had he come?
TN: Five years earlier.
EC: That was 1978?
EC: Had he been able to work after he changed his identity? Was he able to find employment?
TN: Well, he worked odd jobs here and there. Like he would do knife sharpener and he created the job himself, just go here and there. Occasionally people tell like, “I know who you are.” He’d say, “I don't know anything I don't know a word. I see, I can't read, I can't write.” So as soon as he hear that he had to run to another part of the country. He had to go to remote areas where people don't know him.
EC: And would he bring his family with him, or would he just go and you would stay?
TN: He would just go by himself.
EC: So your mother was supporting the family then.
TN: Yes, my mom was the main supporter.
HC: What work did she do?
TN: She sells vegetables outside in the market. And she had never done it before but… that's what she would do. And we were lucky that she could make money for the family.
EC: Where did she get the vegetables from? Did she have relationships with farmers?
TN: This is interesting. She didn't know what to do then. Because when we landed we got to that piece of land in Há Tiên, we didn't know what to do because it's a family of eight people. She had only seventy dollars in the pocket. So every morning he went run to the market and just stand around, didn't know what to do. So then people they put out from the boats so he had to count the pineapple. He said, "okay." She thought it was just to help her. So she counted and a big huge pile over here. The lady said, "Well, a dollar a piece." She said, okay, for dollars she’d sell to other people. And by the end of the day, the lady came back and say "Okay give me the money. Fifty dollars? I'll charge you fifty cent per piece." So this is how I make money? So that's how it start.
HC: That's lucky. That's good.
TN: Yeah. That's got lucky. So eventually she go out and get connected to people and that's how she starts selling things.
EC: Was your education disrupted by moving so often, or...?
TN: Yeah, yeah. I was in Huế in central Vietnam and I moved to Saigon when I was second grade, and I moved to another place for third grade. Yeah, no, every year.
EC: Were you in Huế during 1968? During the Tet Offensive?
TN: In the war, yeah. I got this scar here.
EC: Oh, no.
HC: Oh, wow.
EC: What was that like?
TN: It was very scary. My neighbors get burned, I mean get killed alive by the communists. We couldn't get outside, you know my mom told me to stay indoors and just get locked.
HC: How did you get the scar?
TN: Oh, just because I was playful. [Laughs] I was playful with fires and it burned, burned a dress and I got all this scar here, see.
HC: You can barely see it. [Laughs]
EC: How long did you have to live like that, indoors?
TN: I don't remember, three days, a few days, weeks or so. I don't remember. But I do remember I stay inside for a while, for a long time and nobody dared to go out. By the time I get out, I learned that some of my neighbor get burned alive. I mean get bury alive by the communist.
EC: And did you flee the city then when the fighting got bad? [TN: No.] Or you stayed?
HC: Other questions about Vietnam?
EC: I don't think I do.
HC: Is there other things we should ask you about your experience in Vietnam, or immigrating to the US?
TN: Not really. [laughs]
HC: How was the process of getting into the US? How did you get your visa?
TN: My dad sponsored us as immigrants. So at that time, when we live in Thailand in refugee camp in Thailand we were considered the illegal people. So it's like a prison. So at that time the Thai government didn't want to discourage Vietnamese people to escape the country and [unclear 34:41] and in their land. So they would all, they wouldn't' allow any country representative to come to sponsor us. So we lived there for a year or so already and then my dad get nervous so he sponsor us as a immigrant instead of refugee. So as a immigrant, he has to support everything. We didn't have to, we didn't get any support from the government at all. So that was the hardest thing for us, when we came here. I came here I didn't have anything from the government. My dad was with worked a art job here and there that was minimum wage then for three dollars and twenty five cent. My older sister was in [unclear] college and she got odd job here and there after school. My older brother also same thing. So only three of them make money, with the little money for eight-- seven of us. There was really hard at that time.
HC: How did you live? What was it like when you first arrived? Where did you live?
TN: I live in Mobile, Alabama.
HC: How was your house, or where were you living?
TN: My dad purchased a house, a small house then, so we were okay in the house. But for the...it's good that we have a good house to live in, but with the financially then it was really extremely difficult.
HC: Yeah. Where did you meet your husband?
TN: We met in Dallas, Texas. We both were professional then, and we met three years in the middle thirties, [36:33] so.
HC: And is he Vietnamese?
EC: Did you work for the same firm?
TN: Yeah, we work for the same company. He graduated from Canada as an electrical engineer and I am from Alabama so...
HC: You met there.
TN: We met there. We work at the same company, same project, I mean it's really good. Sing at the same choir in the weekend, so.
HC: So you saw a lot of each other.
TN: [laughs] Yeah.
HC: Do you think he's had a similar experience in Portland and in general? He also feels positively about it?
TN; Yeah, he's like me. He loves Portland. He loves the weather and the scenery here. He can't be anywhere [37:23]. [laughs]
HC: Do we have other questions?
EC: No, I think that's everything.
HC: Okay. I think that's the interview, as we've planned it.
TN: Okay. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
HC: Thank you. So you--
EC: Okay, so this is EJ Carter and Hannah Crummé. We've been speaking with Theresa Nguyen on September 22, 2018. Thanks again for talking with us.
TN: Well, thank you.
HC: Thank you for speaking with us.