Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am one of the librarians at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is December 17th, 2020, and today I have the privilege of meeting with Trang Oliver via Zoom. Trang is a library professional for Multnomah County Library—you may even recognize her from her Story Time reading in Vietnamese. Trang, thank you so much for meeting with me today.
Trang Oliver: Thank you, Dustin, for having me.
DK: Could you begin by just stating your name and introducing yourself?
TO: My name is Trang Oliver. I am from Vietnam. I have been in the United States for about twenty-one years. I have been working at the Multnomah County Library for about nine years, and I have two daughters and I have been living in Portland for that many years—twenty-one years.
DK: Awesome. Let's go back to the beginning. Would you tell us a little bit about your childhood in Vietnam, like, for instance, what part of Vietnam was your family originally from?
TO: My parents were from Tuy Hòa. It's a city in the southeast of Vietnam. They moved around a lot before they finally settled down in Cam Ranh, which is where I was born and grew up. I am the youngest of five. I was a lot younger than most of my siblings, so most of them were away for college or work. As far as I can remember, my childhood was very, very simple and very uneventful. When I was old enough to be on my own … and I mostly spent time on my own or hung out with my best friend. Basically, it was safe for kids to be alone at five, so I went to the beach by myself, I explored the village by myself, or just be at home.
DK: What are some of your earliest memories?
TO: My earliest memory … you know, now, looking back I am surprised that I did not get hurt, I did not get into any accidents, because I was five! I was just around the town without any adult supervision. I had a best friend who was in the same class with me from kindergarten to twelfth grade, so most of my good memories were with her. When we were young, we invented a lot of games and toys together because our parents were too poor to buy us toys and games. So, we invented a whole lot of that, and her parents had a lot of fruit trees in their yard. They had mangos, they had jackfruit, they had guava. So, I was wild when I was a child, so we would climb in those trees and just sit up there and eat the ripe fruits and just talked about whatever that we felt like it, and those are really great memories. During the school year, I just liked hanging out with my friends, and when I was old enough to do chores I just did whatever my siblings told me to do, or just avoided the chores and hung out with my friends.
DK: Sounds like a pretty fun childhood. I am especially jealous of all the fresh fruit.
TO: I know! I miss those. I came here and the fruits are so different. Yes, I miss the fresh fruit, and that was an innocent time.
DK: You mentioned being the youngest of five children. I am curious if you can tell me a little more about your family and also a little more about what your parents were like?
TO: I have two older brothers and two older sisters. My father came from a scholar family, so he finished high school and he always valued education and he always wanted us to have a high education, to have a degree. My mom came from a wealthy family, but then she told us that women were not allowed to pursue any higher education, so I think she told us that she only was able to finish fifth grade. They did not know each other, so the marriage was an arranged marriage. My mom said when she was young she had help in the family, so she did not know anything, she did not do anything. But then, once she married my father, she had to learn to do a whole lot of stuff as things happened, and she just learned on her own. My parents always wanted us to move to the city, move out of Cam Ranh where we grew up, because they wanted us to have a better life than they did; farming is really hard. My parents were farmers and all of their work was in the fields by hand. They did not have any—like, here you have equipment to help you with farming—my parents did not have any of those. So, they always wanted us to go to school, get a degree, go to the city, get a job, move away from farming. My parents worked really, really hard, so most of us got to leave town to the city and get a degree. When my siblings … because I was a lot younger, so they mostly just left home when I was young. Only one of my older sisters was my sole caregiver when I was young. So, I did not know my siblings a lot besides the sister who had to take care of me. I saw them just around New Year, or so.
DK: You have mentioned this a little bit … I am curious if you could describe a typical day during your childhood. Maybe mention some of the meals that were special to you, or some about your school day, or things like that.
TO: Let's see. Well, when I was young, I do not remember much before school years, but during school … the school system in Vietnam was that we went to school in the morning and we went home for lunch, and we had time for a nap if we wanted. I do not remember whether I took naps or not, but I remember I walked to school no matter what weather, we walked, on my own or with my friend. Then, we came for lunch, then we came back for the rest of the day at school. My mom was not home a lot during those times, so I do not remember what I was fed. Whatever my sister fed me, I do not remember. I remember that we usually had whatever we had around the house, leftovers or whatever we could find, ‘cause my mom was the main person who could cook good food, but then she was at the farm. So, I do not remember whether I was fed good food, I just looked around the house and whatever I had around the house. But if I did not have school, like I mentioned, I just did chores around the house like I was told, or just hang out with my friend on her trees.
DK: Sounds like so much fun. Did you study other languages while you were at school?
TO: I studied Russian from sixth grade ‘til twelfth grade. I was efficient at it, but then after graduation from high school, the reason the school system in Vietnam offered the Russian language was there were a lot of companies in Cam Ranh Bay, so there were a lot of jobs for people who lived in Cam Ranh, but when I graduated from high school those companies left, so there was no use for my Russian skill, so I do not remember a word. Now, I work with colleagues who speak Russian, I only know a word or two if they teach me.
DK: What prompted you to leave Vietnam and come to the United States? I realize that I am fast-forwarding quite a bit here. Feel free to add any more backstory you would like.
TO: I studied and graduated to be an elementary teacher in Vietnam, so I was looking for a job after my graduation. Then, my sister who was five years older than me, who was my sole caregiver, she married a Caucasian in the United States, so I came home and got to meet my brother-in-law. We got to talk and to learn about the culture here, and I felt that my sister came here alone, by herself, and I wanted to come here with her at least to have a family with her, so I decided that I would come to the United States. So, that is the main reason that prompted me to go.
DK: What was the process of leaving Vietnam like? What emotions did you feel as you were leaving?
TO: The process to come here was difficult. The paperwork, the bureaucracy that we had to go through was tremendously hard. But the emotion … it was even harder. I had to leave family, friends, and the culture that I knew for twenty-seven years. When you grew up in town, you know the people, you know the culture, it is so easy to make friends, it is so easy to talk to people with your own language. To leave all that behind and to come to a completely different culture, language, food … everything is like 180 degrees different, and it was extremely, extremely hard for me. But, fortunately, I have a sister, so we can at least complain with one another, like, "Hey!" you know, or just hanging out or cry together when we miss home. Yeah, really emotionally hard for us to leave. Especially [since] I am the youngest in the family, I was spoiled. I came here and no one spoiled me [laughs].
DK: I am glad you are able to have that support with your sister and share that with each other. So, why Portland? What led you specifically to be here in this city?
TO: My husband lived here all his life, so I never lived anywhere else. Portland was the first place I came [to] and probably the last place I will stay.
DK: Where did you meet your husband?
TO: In Vietnam. He knew my brother-in-law. So we got to know each other, we emailed, we phone called, then he came to Vietnam to visit for a couple of months. So that is where we met.
DK: That's great. So, when you got to Portland, when you were getting established here, what were your first impressions of the city like?
TO: I came to Portland—I think it was November 23rd, 1998. My first impression of Portland was cold. I still remember, I just stepped down the stair of the airplane and turned around and told my fiance then, "I want to go home!" It was so cold! It was snowing. That was the first time in my life I saw real snow, not on TV. Can you imagine? You came from a country that is, like, one hundred or more degrees year-round, almost, to a country that is thirty-two degrees, snowing, cold! I did not have a proper jacket—with a jacket it is still freezing. My first impression … I wanted to go back to Vietnam, to the warm weather. After we settled down a bit … the culture shock—I could not eat any food, even Vietnamese food, for a couple weeks. The taste is different, the flavors different, everything is different. People around me spoke so fast, all I heard was "sssss." The language was incredibly fast. The only person I could understand was my fiance then, ‘cause he already knew how my English was, so he would speak slowly, enunciating the word. It took me months to feel comfortable, to step out the front door just to say hi to my neighbors. Otherwise I just hid in the house and tried to adjust to everything new.
DK: That is a lot of changes, especially getting used to the cooler temperatures.
TO: I am still not used to it.
DK: You mentioned earlier that you took classes in the Russian language. When did you start speaking English?
TO: During my teaching degree, one of our requirements was taking some English classes to be qualified to graduate. So, I took English, but if you learn not from a native teacher the pronunciations, the vocabulary to understand them is completely different. So yeah, I took some classes during those times.
DK: Describe the neighborhood in Portland you first settled in … did you even have a lot of Vietnamese neighbors?
TO: None. I had mostly English-speaking neighbors. One or two families spoke Spanish. None of my neighbors were Vietnamese. We lived near Concordia College in Northeast Portland. We lived there for at least twelve years. The neighborhood, when I settled there, it was really quiet. We had nice neighbors, but, like I said, it took me a while to feel comfortable to just say hi. ‘Cause, you know, you guys spoke so fast that for us to be able to catch … the first couple years, that is how I felt. My neighbors would come over and offer welcome gifts, that kind of thing, because my husband lived in that house for a while before I came. So, the neighbors, they knew each other pretty well. The house that we stayed in in Northeast Portland and the neighborhood in Northeast Portland was quite nice, but really quiet. Most people there were either retired or working class in the morning, and at night came home. So, I mostly was home alone and watching English speaking programs so that I could catch up with my English. I do not remember why, but I turned on the TV, I watched wrestling television shows [laughs]. My husband came home and was like, "What are you watching?" "I'm not watching, I'm just learning English." And all the swearing … "Why are you watching that show?" I was like, "I don't know! I don't see anything else." It was a weird time.
DK: That's funny. So, when you were new to Portland, I am wondering if there's any special ways that you became more connected with Portland's Vietnamese community? Any restaurants, shops, religious institutions that helped you find connections—well, two-fold—either to the Vietnamese community or to just the city in general?
TO: We do not belong to a religious group, so we did not go to any pagoda-type churches. Because my husband is Caucasian, I lived in that community only. To venture out whenever I needed some cultural connection … the only time that I would be able to connect to the community was during Lunar New Year. The Vietnamese community of Oregon, they organized a celebration at the convention center. I remember that was the only time that I would be able to mingle with the other Vietnamese community. I would go to the Vietnamese market—just a small market that is closed now—just for food. I still prefer Vietnamese food, so I spent a lot of time shopping at those little Vietnamese stores. I have not [sought] out any help from any other organization.
When I first came, I knew that I needed to improve my English by either watching English-speaking programs or find[ing] a job that required English only, so if I was not taking classes at PCC then I would be looking for a job [where] I have to use English. And I remember, back then, my English was kind of mediocre, but I got a job right away. It was so easy to find a job, like twenty-some years ago. So, it helped me to improve English a lot. Even though it was harder, because everything was so strange and different and trying to adjust, with the workers, with the people I worked for … I'm off topic, eh?
DK: No, this is great. So, I am going to skip ahead to talking about your career since you have been in Portland. I know you mentioned in your introduction that you have been with Multnomah County Library for nine years, is that correct?
DK: What other positions have you held in your career?
TO: I worked at a before-and-after school care program—Chapman school, in the Northwest area. That is the first job I got. When we had kids, I wanted to be with my oldest daughter, because I wanted her to be bilingual. So, I worked at an in-home daycare program that allowed me to have my daughter with me and the person who ran that daycare, she was really supportive, so encouraged bilingual in her programs. So, I got to speak with my daughter in Vietnamese whenever we met or whenever we were together, and I was there for five or so years before I had my youngest, and then I stopped working at that place until I got a job at Multnomah County.
DK: So how did your position at Multnomah County Library come about?
TO: I took my youngest daughter to a Vietnamese story time, believe it or not. There was a Vietnamese youth librarian, she just started out a Vietnamese story time program, and I brought my oldest daughter to her program and we went for many years. The youth librarian and I got to know each other pretty well, and she asked me whether I would like to collaborate with her to offer a program for older kids. So, I volunteered to run a playgroup instead of story time, because I was not trained to offer story time, so I only offered play time doing crafts or playing games with the older kids who were too old to be interested in story time. So, I volunteered to run that program, then I volunteered in that position for a couple years and then the job that I hold right now was offered. So, I applied and I have been here since then.
DK: Well, I bet your educational training sure comes in handy working with all these kids.
TO: Yes, yes. The education I got from Vietnam—so, when I came here, the system is different—in Vietnam, learning is learning, that's it. You sit, you learn, you do not venture out of that zone, you stay in that zone. Studying is a serious business. We did not have any fun, we just studied, studied, studied. And when I came to the United States I took some classes in early childhood education. I understood child development, that kind of thing. When I worked for the Chapman school I did not know any of that, and it was so hard because I did not understand about child development. I grew up in a culture [that was] really strict, like, learning is not having fun. So, for me, to come into a culture where having fun while you learn—so to take what I learned from Vietnam with the education I got here—it helps me understand the Vietnamese culture, what parents need from the Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese parents want their kids to learn. But combined with what I learned about child development, having fun while you learn, that way, in my job, helps me to offer the things that the children would be interested in, while I have a background knowledge about how important it is for them, for their kids to learn seriously, but some fun included in it.
DK: Sounds like a pretty important combination.
TO: It is. I mean, if it is too strict … I remember how I did not like school, but I had to because my parents said, "You need to go to school, and you need to do your homework." But it was not fun. But, I have to say, a combination of both—understanding both cultures—here it helped tremendously.
DK: Can you describe some of your work responsibilities for the library system?
TO: My position, specifically, I helped all of the communities living around Midland [Library] … or any communities that utilize the library. My main responsibilities are for the Vietnamese community. But on a typical day before COVID some of my responsibilities would be offering reader advisories, offer computer assistance, people who need some information to do their research or information to apply for a job. With the Vietnamese community, I reach out to the senior community. I offer them the resources and services that the libraries offer. We partner with IRCO [Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization], with Asian Health Service Center, with APANO [Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon], with the Vietnamese community of Oregon, so that we can share information and during the year, in my position I offer story time and cultural celebration like the Lunar New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival.
DK: So, with the story time that you lead, how do you approach that in terms of selections of stories, marketing?
TO: So, selection and marketing … with the selections of story, usually I would gauge the children that I present stories to. It is very tricky, because our Vietnamese collections—we have a lot of books for the children but they are not appropriate as far as for font size, as far as for graphics—it is not very appealing to children. So, I have to use English books that I found interesting. Vietnamese parents, they like their children to learn things, so I usually chose concept books that can offer shapes, colors, numbers, letters. But, of course, I have to serve the children and the parents, so I have to choose some materials that parents think their children are learning something, otherwise they will not attend, but I have to choose material fun for the kids, or they will say, "I don't want to go to Trang's story time! It's boring!" So I have to balance, I have to gauge what the children like. If I read a book about shapes, they just sit and look at me like, "What are you talking about?" and I have to find something else that is more appealing to that specific group. So, basically, I combine the culture, I combine the children's age group, I combine what I think might interest the kids and the parents, and sometimes I use materials that reflect the season, like around Lunar New Year, around Mid-Autumn Festival. I want the children to learn about our culture, so I would select stories around those specific themes.
With marketing, now during COVID we post our marketing materials on our website. We post on Facebook, we are friends with the Vietnamese in Portland Facebook, so they post our story time on Facebook and sometimes we advertise in the newspaper that our community reads. So, we have a couple ways that we have the words out, and mostly word of mouth that we promote our story time.
DK: Has there been a strong community response to these virtual story hours?
TO: The virtual one is not a strong response. We have technical issues. In-person story time, it was a huge response from the community … but from the virtual program, the YouTube recorded story time, we learned that we had a good amount of people visiting those videos, but the live story time, we have not had a good response. We have seen patrons try to log on and just on-off, on-off with technical things. Right now, I do not know what the reason is, but we would like more response from the community during this live story time.
DK: You have mentioned that there is a team of you that work for the library servicing the Vietnamese community. What are some of the other Vietnamese staff members—what are some of their responsibilities or positions?
TO: So, there are three classifications as far as the front line staff: youth librarian, library assistant, and ASA—it means Access Service Assistant. Right now, in our Vietnamese group, we do not have a youth librarian. We have library assistants and Access Service Assistant. With the library assistant, we have four of us and we mostly do the same thing, but each of us have different tasks. Like, we have people who are translator editors, we have one that works specifically with technology, like doing tutorials. So, with classifications, we do the same thing and right now we have an Access Service Assistant who would assist us when we go to outreach. We have to make new library cards, and they could help us. So, we have a really small group for the entire system, but at this moment in time we kind of just say, "Hey, are you available doing this? Can you help with this even though it's not our job?" We work really well together, we just say, "Hey, I need a translation proofed, can you do this?" and everyone available just steps in. So, I really like the Vietnamese group that works for the Multnomah County Library. We work really well together.
DK: Sounds like you are a small group, but a mighty one.
TO: We are mighty, yes!
DK: So, I kind of want to zoom out a little bit and ask if—you have talked a little bit about this—I am curious if, right now, you see there's any groups or organizations that you rely on individually, or are there individuals in the community who you look to for leadership and guidance?
TO: Right now, we mostly reach out to APANO. Do you know the APANO group in Portland?
DK: Yeah, we have a very close relationship with APANO.
TO: They are really good in reaching out to us or vice versa. I have to say, seeking out for leadership right now, it is harder. I mean, everyone has so much to do during this COVID time, but the library and the Vietnamese group specifically, we have been working really well with APANO. Mostly our job is partnership, like we would partner with a group that is serving the Vietnamese community so that they share their connection and we share our resources. With the library, we mostly want to offer help and support. We have a lot of materials, we have a lot of resources that we can either send directly to the families, to the seniors who cannot move about. So partnership is mostly our work ethic, working with an organization that is serving the Vietnamese community.
DK: If someone was listening to this interview and had small children or kids in general and wanted to get more involved with your team and some of what you offer, what would the best way for them to get involved be? How should they reach out to you?
TO: So, we have a group email, and people can email us, the Vietnamese group, directly. We offer this email to everybody who wants—like with the language barrier—they can just reach the Vietnamese staff directly. And we have a phone number that people can call us directly for the Vietnamese group only, but in general people can—like the way that you found me—just the library website. And their phone number that is offered on there.
DK: Phone number and a general contact email address.
TO: Yeah. So, with the Vietnamese group, we would offer the group email that everyone in the Vietnamese group will receive directly and the phone number that we can either answer when we are there or check the message and follow up.
DK: Now, we are toward the end of our time together, and there is one thing that I was curious about that was not on my list of questions that I gave to you ahead of time, so I hope you will forgive me, but I think it would be really interesting. You have talked some about your two daughters and mentioned that you have wanted them to learn the Vietnamese language. I am also curious what aspects of your Vietnamese culture and heritage you are trying to instill in them, and how you go about sharing those values.
TO: My children—like I mentioned, my husband is Caucasian so it is kind of a weird dynamic in my family at the dining table—the three of us, speaking Vietnamese, my husband sitting there saying, "What?" And he heard his name, and I would ask him, "Is that right, honey?" and said, "What? No, I don't care what you say, I'll just say no … " [laughs] " … no matter what." I know how important it is to be bilingual, so I always reinforce that in my family. I have to say, I grew up in a very strict family, and now that I look back, I did not like it much then. But now, I look back, I really value the culture lessons, the important lessons that my parents taught me, how to respect our culture, respect our elders. In Vietnam, when you see an elder, you do not say, "Hi!" You have to bow your head and fold your arms to say hi, and you have to address them respectfully, and that is one of the shocks that I still found really difficult to adjust to. Here, the language makes it really disrespectful for a young person to talk to an elder.
So, my hopes are to instill in my children the respect they should have for elders, respect the culture that they were born with, they are Vietnamese, and the cultures here. So, the balance between the two cultures and to get those cultures intertwined is important, and learn how to adapt the two cultures. So, since they were young, I would try to take them to Lunar New Year celebrations, to the programs that offer Vietnamese at the library. But kids here, they would rather do something that they are interested in, not what I am interested in. Like, I want to go to the library and watch Lunar New Year, but they do not want it, they want something else. So, it is how to balance that is a thing I am still trying to learn. I have an eighteen[-year-old] and I have a thirteen[-year-old], so, you know, I am still trying to adjust. I am just trying to do what I think and I need to be a good mother, otherwise it is hard.
DK: I think that makes sense, and obviously kids are all different, too, in terms of their interests and personalities.
TO: Yeah. Did that answer your question?
DK: Yes, yes it did. So, toward the end of our time together, I'm wondering if there's anything we haven't asked you about today that you would like to discuss, or if your memory about a story was jogged during our time together and you wanted to share anything special.
TO: Special … not really. I think we covered it.
DK: That's okay. Well, thank you again so much for taking the time to chat with me today and to share your story with us for the Vietnamese Portland Project.
TO: Thank you for having me. It has been interesting.
DK: Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and I have had the privilege of chatting with Trang Oliver today via Zoom. This concludes our interview.