Zach Selley: My name is Zachariah Selley I am interviewing Xuan-Giang Tran in Portland Oregon via zoom, it is May 20th 2020. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Just a little introduction about yourself in general, and then we can go back and talk about some of your childhood events and what brought you to Portland.
Xuan-Giang Tran: Sure. I am a mother of two. I think by way of leading with that is sort of a prominent identity right now. I am also a graduate student at Lewis and Clark, working on getting my master's in marriage, couples, and family therapy. So I am busy just doing that. Hoping to help my kids through this very awkward time of homeschooling, and being under lockdown.
ZS: You were born in Vietnam, correct?
ZS: Can you tell me a little bit about what you remember living there? How old you were when you left and came to the United States, and what that experience was like?
XT: I was born in March 1974. So three weeks after I was born my dad left for Japan. So both my parents were teachers. My dad was working on his graduate degree. So he obtained a scholarship to go to Japan in order to further his studies. So I was born in a little town in [unclear] which is right on the banks of the delta going into the southern part of Vietnam. So I didn't see my dad again actually after he had left because a year after, Saigon fell. Just the political atmosphere at the time was difficult, especially for anyone who was associated with education, and anyone in particular who was associated with foreign education. So it was difficult for my dad to consider going back because that would have meant he would have been arrested and imprisoned or sent to a reeducation camp. So he stayed in Japan, and it was my mother and I in post-war Vietnam. As you can imagine it is difficult all around, but more so for a single parent who is female and a female educator. So things were very difficult to just be able to survive. I do recall the house that my dad had built for us being taken over by the Viet Cong at the time. So my mom and I were somewhat homeless for a few months. Just living with friends and family for a while. Things became difficult to the point where my mother felt like there was no other choice but to try to escape to find a better way and be reunited with my dad somehow. We didn't know what that looked like yet, but we did know that we had to find a way or route to escape. But I think we started trying to escape when I was maybe, I don't know, three or four. I can't remember the time. But we tried nine times before we were actually successful. I do remember one of the times we tried it was through land and we were arrested. So we were put in prison. My only memory of that really is dancing for ice cubes. That is what is coming up for me right now as I am talking about it. So during the ninth time, again when you are escaping it is all under very cloak and dagger. Very sort of you know hush you can't be seen leaving. You can't be seen with anybody who is known to be, I guess, someone who has business of helping others escape.
So I think it was like early, early in the morning and I remember being woken up and put on the back of a bicycle. Driven to the banks where a boat met us there. The boat rode us all the way out to another boat that was sort of docked offshore in the waters. This boat was a fishing boat that was not meant for sea travel. It was meant for river travel. It was not meant for sea travel. So there was one engine; it was some very rudimentary navigation. You know a device that gave you a little bit of help with regards to where you are headed. But, the interesting thing is, I do remember parts because we were headed towards the south. We were headed towards Thailand. That was our main destination. The organizers figured it would take us maybe three, four days considering the tide and all of that. But we also knew there were a lot of pirates that were kind of very active along the route because they prey on desperate refugees. They prey on desperate people who are traveling and they know who are traveling with a lot of possessions. So we encountered the pirates the first day. You know we were told by the crew members to say, hold up seven fingers, because try to trick them into believing them: “we have been robbed seven times so that we wouldn't have anything.” You know we would do things like women would put dirt on their faces so they wouldn't be considered desirable for kidnapping and other things. It did really matter because the pirates ended up taking stuff, including the engine of the boat and the navigation devices. So we were basically left adrift at sea without a way to really propel the boat towards anywhere that would lead towards land. So we were adrift. I don't know how we managed to kind of hack together some oars or something that would help with sort of guide the boat back into some form of land, and not be adrift too far off the shore. So it was funny because we held our fingers up for seven indicating we would have been robbed seven times. We ended up being robbed seven times. One of those times I don't know what happened I guess I just got scared. There was yelling. I got scared and one of the pirates came and basically choked me. I must have passed out because I don't remember much of what happened after that. We, I don't know how nobody knows how, but we saw land and it was Thailand. If you believe in miracles that would have been it. So we made it to Thailand where we were taken to a refugee camp along the beach. At the time my father's family was very insistent we go to America, and not join him in Japan. Then once we were in America then maybe we might reunite in America with my father, not Japan. We told the authorities that my father was dead. So for a long time, I told everybody that my father was dead. So nine months at the refugee camp we were finally able to get the papers to go to America. So I celebrated my sixth birthday at the camp and my seventh birthday in the United States. So in August 1980, we arrived in Salem Oregon where my father's family was.
ZS: So they sponsored you to bring you into the United States?
XT: We were sponsored by a Lutheran church.
ZS: Oh okay. Do you remember the name of the church? It was just in Salem?
XT: It was in Salem. It might have been like the Salem Lutheran church, I am not sure.
ZS: What were some of your first kind of observations or thoughts on arriving in Salem, Oregon after this experience of almost a year living in a camp in Thailand?
XT: It was in August. So I had maybe a few weeks before I started school. So my first experience really was I had some cousins who were there. I was just really really needing friends at the time because it was... you kind of get a little bit more mature when you go through these episodes. I was with myself a lot and in my head a lot, so I just needed to talk to friends who were going through the same thing. So that was sort of the first thing popped into my head was I felt the need to connect with somebody or something that was familiar for me. Because everything was not familiar. So that was the first thing I remember thinking. When I saw my cousins I was like, oh gosh, someone who is also a girl around my age who kind of knew what it was like. It was also cold, I remember it was August but I remember I have pictures of me in August in like a coat. Because you know tropical warm humid weather, and you’re in the dry heat of Salem Oregon. It is a different type of heat so it was a little colder than I remember and everything was so spacious. There were people like all over. It was very spacious, I thought.
ZS: So you had your father's family who were already living here. Was the community you were living in Salem was it a big Vietnamese neighborhood or community, or was it very sparse? Did you have other friends and a community that was growing that you connected with?
XT: So when we came we all sort of... there was a wave that came all at once of just a few hundred. I mean we were sparse. The way that we connected was through the housing and through the school. So most of us ended up in housing units that were on the lower end. So that was sort of where the community was. Then the school connected the kids together. But there weren't a lot of services, there were no services, to be honest, for helping immigrants to integrate into the American culture. So that kind of... actually the thing about what I feel that when we first came there was a sense of the need for us to kind of make our own opportunities. To be able to advocate and do things that were going to be able to help us because nothing was really in place at the time. So the community was basically supporting each other trying to find resources that we learned from the social workers at the time and we shared with each other.
ZS: What did you see possibly your parents or your parents’ friends doing to help kind of develop this community outside of what you were doing as children and connecting?
XT: I think they integrated themselves into services that would be helpful for the community, the educational services, the social services, and the state department. The lower-paying jobs of being an assistant at a school were really helpful because you are able to understand how the school works, how the school system works. Be able to gather information as to what’s going on and be able to relay it to the community. So my mom, actually and my uncle, both worked at schools which was hugely helpful in being able to spread any news that the school needed to be spread. If there was testing going on, if you needed certain things in order to move to the next grade, or anything that the school system needed for the Vietnamese community to know they would call upon the helpers, the assistants, to be able to spread the word to the rest of the community. So that is an example of how they integrated themselves into the mainstream system and helped spread knowledge to the community. You know my mother also ended up working at the immigration... social services actually she became a social worker. Through that, she was able to communicate a lot of policies and laws and be able to inform the community of a lot of services that they are eligible for where they may not have known.
ZS: What was your elementary school like?
XT: I entered the second grade, that was my first experience, and we were in a class with other kids who also immigrated over. So we didn't have... we had an assistant that was in the classroom with us. She was an elderly grandmotherly woman who spoke English and that was it. We were basically told, “okay if you have any questions, ask her.” She would try to help but she would try to interpret things for us, but for the most part, we had to kind of learn by doing and listening. But later on, they had established more the beginning of an ESL program. So I did go through the ESL program for a few years, but because I was thrown into the classroom I was able to pick things up pretty quickly. When there was a time I think around the sixth grade where I really didn't feel that ESL was helpful for me, and in fact, it was sort of holding me back from being put in the same classroom as the rest of the mainstream students. For me to further the education rather than just sort of learning the language and the culture through an ESL way. So I think I advocated my parents to kind of take me out of the system so I can just be put into the mainstream classroom for me just to be able to learn.
ZS: That is just a regular public school?
ZS: What school did you go to?
XT: Elementary I started off, let's see, there was Gubser, Washington, Hayesville for elementary, I went to Waldo Middle School, I went to McKay High School and all in Salem.
ZS: What was your high school experience like? You know, a community there that you could connect to or were you just kind of more integrated and adapting to an American lifestyle? How did your different cultures kind of meet and combine at that point?
XT: I feel like I consider myself point five generation where you have a half foot here and a half foot there. There weren't that many Vietnamese people in Salem. So the majority of my friends were from the mainstream population, the dominant population. They were wonderful, they were very caring and understanding. They didn't understand some things, like my dad wouldn't let me go on sleepovers or just random things like that. They were very kind to include me. Even if I couldn't spend the night I could still go to the parties and they didn't really have a comment or say anything if I had to leave early. So they were wonderful which helped a lot because I felt accepted, but that is not true for all of my friends. I would say there were some Vietnamese friends who struggled quite a bit. There were some tensions, especially among the boys. Between the football players and what we call the kind of new wavers. So we would see football players chasing the new wavers down the hall by just threatening to physically harm him, and new wavers provoking them. So there was a lot of tension between the original [?] boys. A lot of my girlfriends who are Vietnamese also felt that they didn't fit in so much. So I would say my experience of having a lot of American friends was not typical. But it could just be because of my early experience of just being thrown in the classroom and having to just adjust. Learning how to navigate and picking up on little cues here and there. That felt natural for me to continue to do that.
ZS: Do you have any siblings?
XT: I have a younger sister who was born eight years after I was when my parents united [laughs] in America. Yeah, so I did eventually reunite with my father when I was eight years old. We went to see him in Japan. Then eventually an opportunity opened in the US. So my sister kids that she was made in Japan.
ZS: And did he work in education too?
XT: No not right now because the degrees you had were no longer valid. So he had to basically...everybody had to start from the very beginning. There is no way to prove you had a diploma when you leave a country. They had just gone through a war. There was just no way to prove who you were education-wise. So both my parents went back to school and received advanced degrees.
ZS: How long did you live in Salem? Did you move out to Portland? Have you always been central to Salem?
XT: No I am central to Oregon [laughs]. I went to school at Oregon State where I met my now-husband. Then after Oregon State, I moved to Portland for a job.
ZS: When was that?
XT: Ninety-eight, ninety-nine maybe.
ZS: What was that job?
XT: So I graduated, a little background here, my parents adhere to the trifecta of you are either doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I didn't want to be any of those. So after undergrad I really kind of, you know, stepped out of that whole thought process and really wanted to look at what I wanted to do. I mean I was a biology major intending to go to medical school, but I just did not want to be a medical doctor. What I really wanted to be was more in the psychology end of things, but that was not an option for me. So I kind of, I was struggling after college. What I really felt that I was good at and what I felt should be doing my parents absolutely did not want me to do. So I had a friend who was thinking about applying to law school and so she was working as a legal assistant at a firm. So she said, "Hey just for a job you can take over my place.” So I did, I was a legal assistant for a while just trying to figure out is law school a thing. Then what happened was I ended up in a job as a paralegal for an intellectual property law firm in Portland, downtown Portland. I stayed there for nineteen years because it was such an amazing opportunity and job that became a really satisfying career. So that is why I stayed in Portland.
ZS: That is good, what was the catalyst that got you going back to school now?
XT: A few years ago… I am in a very privileged situation where I have a lot of choices. So a few years ago I was just talking to my husband and said, "I can do what I want to do." So this is an opportunity if you had a choice to do whatever you want to do without having to worry about survival and not having to worry about fighting for your family. Without having to worry about income what would you do?
ZS: I am sure your mother and father are completely supportive even though you didn't become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
XT: Well it is funny because my mom is a social worker [laughs]. So you know for her it was survival, it is how she was able to support her family. But… I really didn't… the process I went through wasn't really shared with them because I felt like it was my own process and my own journey. But going into therapy was something that I absolutely felt was right for me. I call it my retirement career. It has been amazing... I mean I have started two years ago so it has been an amazing, second half I would say or the second act, for where I am going and how I am growing and who I am as a point five generation. You know just knowing that there is a lot of stigmatism [sic] in the Asian community around mental health. It is not something that is thought about or really considered until recently when people are able to build more resources and attention to it. Growing up we were so busy trying to survive there is a group mentality of you have a role within a group and you have to do your role to enhance the group. It is to do whatever for the good of the group so you can not think about yourself. You have to think about whatever it is that you are doing is for the greater good of the group. So mental health is very personal and very individualistic, and in a way is perceived as being somewhat selfish. Because you are thinking about the greater good for the group. It is hard to kind of understand at the time you know where... so it is like an emotional thing where you kind of have to see your emotional bank and you have to deposit things in your emotional bank to give and take out. But that is not the thinking. The thinking is you have to kind of always take out before you sacrifice yourself in the order for the greater good of the group. So I feel that changing my thinking a little bit was something that I learned to do in order to be able to be a better resource for the group.
ZS: Do you think that once you graduate you are going to be working prominently with the Vietnamese community? Are you going to be contributing largely in that capacity or more general therapy?
XT: I am going to be working in more general therapy, but advocating for more involvement. Like what my parents and my uncles did in school getting the information out there destigmatizing therapy and mental health. Encouraging the application of it for group health.
ZS: Do you feel that you are currently or did you feel connected to the Vietnamese American Community here in Portland?
XT: I have such a large family [laughs] so in that sense we do keep to ourselves quite a bit, but at the same time I am in touch with a lot of Vietnamese American people just because I have such a huge family and network of friends. So you know we are not actively participating in Tết or lunar celebration or Mid Autumn festival celebration. So we are not actively involved in planning all of that. Although my husband and I were both very active in Oregon Today in the Vietnamese students association and putting all that on. But we just don't have time with kids and stuff. But you know our relatives are very active so we kind of live vicariously through them and know what is going on. You know we are always updated as to if the school is putting on some sort of celebration then we will take our kids there. Just for them to kind of get a feel as to what is going on there. So yeah it is yes and no we have our thumbs in a lot of different areas so we are actively participating not so much.
ZS: Could you talk a bit about… you had mentioned you were part of an organization at Oregon State?
ZS: Could you talk a bit about that? It sounds like it might have been kind of interesting.
XT: Yeah so it is the Vietnamese Student Association and it was under the umbrella of the International Students Association. My husband, when I first met him, he was the president of the Vietnamese Student Association. So we put on our big event for the year which would have been the Tết [?] show. Which was amazing because you know that was what we do for the community in Salem was we put on the best show. We do the dragon dance, we wrote the script. We had talented students sing, play music, and did all the artwork. So there was a lot of community that brought the Vietnamese students together. So that was where you talk about a community that would bring people together. That was it for us that was where our friends were. That was where we were comfortable with. We would have meetings like once a month or something like that. I later became the president of the Vietnamese Association, and then later on the president of the International Student Association as well. But that was my college experience being involved with Vietnamese students. Those were my friends. So that translated to connections in Portland and being able to keep that connection when I did move to Portland.
ZS: Definitely. You have children now, correct?
ZS: How old are they?
XT: Nine and thirteen.
ZS: Do you keep, other than just with family connections, to other Vietnamese culture and events? You had mentioned before that you take them to some things but are you part of other religious organizations or other community organizations that you are helping them connect to?
XT: So when we first started out my elder son went to the Vietnamese school in Southeast Portland off of eighty-second. Where my cousin was one of the teachers and organizers there. So you know it was hard because he had a lot going on and he wasn't getting as much out of it as I was hoping he would. The teachers were wonderful, they were amazing individuals who dedicated a lot of time to helping students. But he had other passions that he wanted to do, mainly music and sports that sort of conflict with the schedule of the Vietnamese school. So we ended up after two years going with the other activities. So you know with regards to, again, I have cousins and relatives who are very involved in the world and the community. So whenever they tell us we go. But it is kind of funny because they prefer Asian food, they know their Vietnamese, and even though the majority are Americans. In fact, all their friends are Americans. They are very aware of their identity as a Vietnamese individual.
ZS: How do you feel that kind of intersectionality of the two cultures has helped formulate who you are? Both as a child, mid career adult, and now. Has it changed over time? Have you…
XT: Yeah it has changed quite a bit. Because I believe that as a child there was a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration in not having the autonomy that your friends had. Right? So you had to live by a different rule than your friends did. You had to be better in order for you to rise above the racism, and you had to put yourself in a position of being above, in order to be equal if that makes sense. So there was a lot of pressure growing up to do that. A lot of my energy and time was spent doing that. But I feel that now and it could just be because things have changed, people are more accepting. You know our population has grown so much through the years it has been integrated more into the mainstream with like I mentioned the restaurants and I am seeing a lot of different ethnicities at the Asian shops. Cooking Asian food, and going to Asian markets and things like that. So I feel that there is a lot less pressure to rise above. But still, at the same time, I am more comfortable with where I am because I did work hard to get where I am at.
ZS: Is there any specific incidents that happened in Portland that made you feel uncomfortable or singled out?
XT: I think it's more… I don't think it is a single incident, but it is more subtle. It is more covert than overt. In the workplace that happens quite a bit. Small little things like “your community” or “your people,” just minor things like that. Not so much in Portland but I was in trial in Virginia and so we would move there for however long the duration is. I think I was there for a month. Someone there told me they don't see “my kind” there very often. So you know that was the only direct experience I had. A lot of it has been indirect and covert that I have experienced all my life. So for me, that seems so common to have the undertones of racism that you know it is always troubling but it is never fully out there. So, you know, I sometimes… it is hard to call people out on that because you sometimes need to know their intentions. So it is something that I am used to, it feels so common for me to kind of experience the subtle interactions that I have with people that no longer bothers me but it does bother me when it happens to my kids.
ZS: That was going to be my next question. If you see it happening in different ways and people reacting differently from generation to generation? So like your parents versus how your children might act or react to possible racial statements and things as they come up. Obviously, you’re recognizing it. But generationally you know there is a kind of difference?
XT: It is less but at the same time my kids are in a very privileged situation. They have not experienced a lot of interactions that I would consider racist or anything like that. It is funny, my oldest son, one time he came home from kindergarten and just said, "Hey Mom I am white." I am like, “Okay there is more.” He is like, "Yeah so all my friends are all like you know yeah we are all white and you are white too." [laughs] You know he was like, "I am white." I was like, "But you are not." He was like, "I am not?" No, not even by a little [laughs]. He was like, "Oh what am I then?" Like you are kinda Asian duh. He is like, "I am?" So that was one of our first conversations when he first recognized that he wasn't white. Because otherwise his friends thought he was white and he thought he was white. So but yeah again my kids have been very privileged and very lucky that they have not had to deal a lot with being different. So in that sense, they are different in other senses, but you know the race sense. His friends seem to have embraced the culture and are always asking to come over because they like our food better, things like that. But I do worry because he lives in a bubble, and the schools that they grew up in is Laurelhurst which is very much a bubble. So yeah I do worry when they are no longer in that bubble.
ZS: I know you mentioned that you went back to Tokyo to see your father, right? Have you ever returned to Vietnam with your family at all?
XT: I went back to Vietnam with my mom and my husband for my brother-in-law's wedding. My dad did not go back. He is very bitter still about the war and about what happened. So he refuses to go back. My mom and I went back and a lot of things have changed. I mean my cousins who grew up post-war [don't] see anything bad about being under communist rule. Whereas my mom absolutely has opinions on that. So you know they are like, "We are thriving, we’re doing well, our economy is opening-up. What is so bad about that?" My mom definitely has opinions as to what it was that she went through during that time.
ZS: Do you teach your kids about that part of your past? Are they fully aware of your parents’ plight, you coming over, and the complications with communism and all of that?
XT: We have discussed it. My older one understands better obviously just because of development mentally that is where he is at. He grasps a lot of the nuances that happened around that time. So we discussed it quite a bit. My husband and I, we kind of joke because when we were in the refugee camp he was also a refugee. He was in Indonesia where they had tin roofs and I had a canvas roof. So he was living the large life and I was living in the slums. But my kids it is not their fault that they have a roof over their home [laughs]. You know that is really our fault not theirs, but we kid about it in a sense that we can't really forget about that. We can't drop them into our world. Like “when I was your age I was eating dirt” [laughs]. It is not their experience. So we try not to bring that up to make them feel guilty about how different or how good they have it. But we are very careful about falling into that pattern. Which is very easy to do sometimes, but again it is not their lived experiences it is our lived experiences.
ZS: Very wise. Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you would like to talk about or [are] there any specific stories that you think are particularly noteworthy?
XT: No… I am just going off whatever you wanted to know.
ZS: I am pretty sure we interviewed your mother recently.
XT: I don’t know if you have, she would have told me, she lives in Salem.
ZS: Yeah I think we interviewed her last week.
XT: Oh did you really?
ZS: I think so. As soon you started talking about how she was a social worker and some of the story, I was like I interviewed this woman.
XT: In Salem?
XT: Alright I am going to have to call her.
ZS: Via zoom, yes.
XT: I am going to have to call her because that would have been hilarious oh my gosh. That tells you because with internship and everything that has happened all at once I haven't had a chance to speak with my mother. This is bad of me [laughs].
ZS: Yeah I recognized some of the stories, and I remember she even said that she had a daughter that went to Lewis and Clark.
XT: Oh my gosh okay I am going to have to talk to her now. This is hilarious.
ZS: Once we get everything done you can compare stories.
ZS: They are great.
XT: Actually that would be kind of interesting because based on my recollection and her recollection it would be good to see how it is that differs from one point of view to another.
ZS: Exactly, exactly very interesting.
ZS: Thank you for your time. I think that this is a great narrative to add to the collection.
XT: Thank you.
ZS: I am going to do the closing statement. So I am Zach Selley and we are interviewing, I am going to mess up your name again Xuan Giang...
XT: Xuan Giang
ZS: Xuan Giang Tran. It is May 20th 2020 in Portland, Oregon.