Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College. Today I am joined by one of our student workers, Hannah Stubee. We are doing an oral history interview on Zoom. Today is May 18, 2021. We will go ahead and turn things over to our guest. Could you start by stating your name and telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Mai-Anh Nguyen: Yes. My name is Mai-Anh Nguyen and I am currently a speech-language pathologist. This year I work with high school students. Whoever qualifies for communication disorders, I work with them to improve their communication.
DK: That is so great! How long have you lived in the Portland area?
MN: My family just recently moved here. This is our second or third year here, so not very long [laughs].
DK: What brought you to Portland? And where were you at before?
MN: The weather, first of all. Because, you know, I am from Arizona. It is really hot and dry. My husband grew up in Sandy, Oregon, so he always talked about how liberal Portland is compared to where we lived, so that was one of the factors we considered as well as the really nice weather.
DK: Besides the weather, what were some of your first impressions of Portland when you arrived in the city?
MN: It is awesome! The people here are friendly. We have a small family. We have two young kids and a lot of people are just really friendly. I mean, I do not live in the city of Portland so I do not know about the diversity there, but I do notice how diverse it is. We do drive to Portland once in a while and it is super diverse. I really like that aspect of Portland metro. Everywhere I go is filled with different types of people.
DK: In your time in the greater Portland area—I will keep saying Portland, but I am referring generally to the metro area—in your time here, when have you felt most at home and what do you like most about your city besides it being so friendly?
MN: Where have I felt most at home?
DK: Yeah, what makes you feel most at home here in the greater Portland area?
MN: Well, that is a tricky question because through the pandemic—we moved here and then immediately got hit with the pandemic, so honestly it has been a struggle for my family and I. We have been dealing with some personal family stuff, so I have not felt at home yet. It is just personal stuff that has made me not feel at home. We were actually considering moving back to Arizona, but the weather deterred us. But on a positive note, the people here are really friendly. I really like the school district. I work at a school district and my son also goes to school in one of the districts by our house. It seems like they weigh heavily on equity and equality for all students. They have really honed in on that and I really like that. If we were to move back to Arizona, I think I would miss that part of the school district. I feel like the school district speaks for the whole community as well. Whatever we teach in the school district, whatever values we hold in the school district, it is like a ripple effect. That is what the community is about, values that the school district's hold.
DK: Have you experienced any challenges while living in Portland? You mentioned that people are pretty friendly, but have there been any times where that was not the case?
MN: The pandemic makes it hard to interact with more people too! I have not [experienced challenges in Portland], but on a personal level, I have. But that is just within our family.
DK: Thank you for that. I am going to turn it over to Hannah to ask a few questions about your education experience and then maybe about your experience with Portland's Vietnamese community at large.
Hannah Stubee: You said you were a speech pathologist, and I was wondering, how did you become involved in that line of work?
MN: It was a process. I originally started in Arizona. I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in design management. I was going to pursue architecture. I actually did not really know what I wanted to do, but then I was introduced to speech-language pathology and I pursued that. That has been a really hard journey as well. I am not sure if you guys know, but graduate schools for speech-language pathology are super hard to get into. That has been a journey as well, but that is where I started.
HS: Where did you get your undergraduate degree and where did you decide to go to graduate school?
MN: I got my undergraduate degree at Arizona State University [ASU] and I got my graduate degree at Northern Arizona University. I actually graduated two years ago.
HS: Congratulations! [laughs] What influenced your decision to choose those schools?
MN: I started going to University of Arizona and then I moved back home and went to Arizona State. The obvious reason, it was close to home. My mom has a townhome that is five minutes from ASU, so that was a no-brainer. I loved my ASU experience. I met a lot of friends and I was part of the Asian community. Mainly my friends were Asian, so that helped as well. I really loved the ASU experience. And then NAU—that was the school where I applied to a summer program and that was the one I got accepted into, so that was why I decided to go there.
HS: You said that you have been very involved in the Asian community in college. Have you managed to get involved in the Asian community in Portland at all since you moved here?
MN: I have not! Because I do not know how [laughing]. We do not have any family in Portland metro, so I do not even know where to go for Tết celebrations. We went to downtown Clackamas last year for a Tết celebration at a hotel, but we did not really know anybody. So it has been kind of hard to be part of the Vietnamese community. And then the pandemic hit, so it is super hard, you know? My district sent out an email asking if I wanted to be a part of a summer program to get the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] group of students … I do not even know what the program involves, but it seems fun, so I signed up for that. That is about it.
HS: What differences do you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
MN: Is that like a general question? Not just in the Portland metro area?
HS: Yes, generally.
MN: I think … I do not know. Honestly, I have not really interacted with a lot of the Vietnamese community. I feel like my view and perspective is a little bit limited. I can only speak to my interactions with my family. But I feel like the younger generations are more open minded, especially here in Portland. I used to have a class. I used to teach advisory and I had a few Vietnamese students, and they were so outspoken about politics and everything! And I was like, Wow! I was not that outspoken when I was their age. And they are really intelligent. It just amazes me. So I feel like their perspective … they are more open minded. And maybe it is because Portland is very open to different cultures and diversity so they learn a lot and they are able to speak their mind. The youth are more open minded, open to change. The older generations are more traditional and less willing to change and experience different things. I am not sure [laughs]. It is kind of a tricky question, I think.
DK: You mentioned your son is in a neighboring district. How are you hoping to impart Vietnamese culture in his life?
MN: He is currently in an online Vietnamese class because he speaks no Vietnamese at all. It has been kind of a struggle because I should have started speaking Vietnamese to him when he was younger, but I came here when I was super young as well. I was like seven or eight. I was not confident in my Vietnamese, so I just did not do that. I mainly focused on English, you know? But now he is getting older and I want to be more in touch with the Vietnamese culture and it makes it super hard. Now sometimes he gets super frustrated being in that class because they speak mainly Vietnamese. I remember my ESL [English as a Second Language] experience when I came here and it was super frustrating to me to be in a class when I could not understand anything, you know? You are like in your own world, blindfolded. So I feel bad for him, introducing him to it now. But I just signed him up to be coached to play chess with a Vietnamese instructor. I want to do more of those things. Maybe introduce … if he meets friends, or Vietnamese … I want to introduce more of those people instead of just throwing my kids into the Vietnamese culture. We try to go to Vietnamese events and things like that, but I feel like it is not enough because he is surrounding himself with English speaking students and peers and things like that.
DK: How old is your son now?
MN: He is six. He is still quite young. And I have a four-year-old that is going to turn five.
DK: So there is a lot of excitement and energy around your house.
MN: Yes, a lot. A lot of fighting too.
DK: So, at this point I would like to zoom out and talk a little bit about some of your formative experiences. You mentioned you were about seven—is that right?—when you moved to the United States. Did you move directly to Arizona?
MN: Oh, actually no, sorry. I have to go back. We moved to Texas because my dad was sponsored by his friend and he lived in Texas. So we lived in San Antonio for three months before we moved to Arizona.
DK: Do you still have quite a bit of family living in Arizona?
MN: No. My dad has second cousins on that side of his family, so he has some distant cousins. But my mom has a few… Her late sister used to live in Sacramento. Her kids are currently in Sacramento. I do not have any family in Oregon, but I still have my parents in Arizona.
DK: What was the reason for your family to come to the United States? Can you talk a little bit about what that process looked like?
MN: What was the reason? Well, my dad was part of the Vietnam War Act, I guess? I do not know what it is called, but he was a second lieutenant in the Republic of Vietnam's army. South Vietnam was allied with the United States troops, so they were able to sponsor him through that status—I do not know what it is called. So, we were able to come to America through that status. I think to be able to come here, the family had to have a sponsor, which was my dad's friend. I think they met in the war. That is all I know about the process. Oh! And then I think before we left Vietnam we had to go through an interview. The Vietnamese government put us through an interview. It was pretty grueling and pretty essential for our move. They told us we could not say certain things. We could only say "yes" or "no." It was pretty essential for our move. We could not tell anybody. I could not say goodbye to my friends at school at all. So it was a pretty secretive move. Only immediate family knew about our move. Even my mom, she had to lie to her employer as well. We did not tell anybody about it because… I guess we were just afraid that they would stop the process. Because, you know, Vietnam is and was a communist country, so I think they would stop it.
DK: What year was this?
MN: We moved in '94, so I think it took like, I do not know, three years or five years for the process to take place. I was young, so… I know it was '94 when we moved to the United States.
DK: Did it take a long time to get to the point where there were interviews? Did it take years to get to that point?
MN: I think so. I think there was a waiting period. I feel like my mom and dad did not really go into detail about how long it took, but I feel like it was at least five years or more. It felt like it was really special that they picked us or that we got moved along through the process because I think some people did not get picked or got left behind.
DK: Were you one of the individuals that was personally interviewed?
MN: I stood before a formal… person. I do not know if they were officers or not, but I actually got asked questions. It was not an interview. I think it was just questions to confirm that what my parents were saying was true. So my mom and dad coached us on what to say. It felt like we could not say the wrong thing because there was no redo. I felt that pressure, you know?
DK: You mentioned being pretty young. Did you have a pretty good understanding of what was going on, what was happening?
MN: Not really. Not to the extent I do now as an adult. As a kid, you dream of going to a different place, right? Like, America in my mind was just a cold place with lots of… candy. That was it [laughs]. But the thought of never going back? I guess that had crossed my mind, but that was not something in my immediate mind. I went with my family, so I felt pretty safe.
DK: You expected a cold place with lots of candy. Did Texas and Arizona live up to your expectations?
MN: No. I did get ice cream, though. We went to McDonalds and got vanilla ice cream with the …[chocolate]. But no, no snow.
DK: What was it like for you and your family to assimilate in the United States in those first few years?
MN: I feel like the immediate feeling was not as bad because everyone was super nice, right? But progressively, assimilation was a harder struggle. Even now. Once you assimilate it is kind of like going through the honeymoon stage, right? Initially you are like, "Oh, wow." You are in a new place, there are nice people. They are so welcoming. But then once you get into the actual culture and you are aware … and as I get older there are more things that I am like, "Wow, this is not rosy." It is not as welcoming! There are layers to things that you did not see when you were a kid. Learning English was super hard. I know that I transitioned from being in an ESL class to general education classes and then honors classes and AP [Advanced Placement] classes and stuff like that. The transition was hard! Moving from ESL [English as a Second Language] to a regular classroom. I remember one instance where I actually cried because my parents could not help me with one of my homework assignments. After that, I continued to do well. I think a lot of us do not talk about the mental health aspect of it. There are a lot of changes and there are a lot of nuances that we do not really talk about in the Vietnamese community. A lot of times, children who come here at a younger age, the common thing to think is, "Oh, they will do really well! Children adapt really well." But we do not think about the mental health aspect of removing someone from a culture and assimilating them to a new culture. That can be harmful in a way. There are a lot of negative impacts.
DK: You mentioned some of your goals for your own children and how you would like them to interact with their Vietnamese heritage. What ways did your parents try to instill that Vietnamese culture in your life after you moved to the United States?
MN: My parents still did Tết. We still celebrate—well, it is not really called a celebration, but it is kind of like the Day of the Dead, like our dead ancestors. We have a set up for it. We do incense and we bow to the altar and things like that. Then, you know, other small celebrations here and there. We still do those.
DK: You mentioned that you were in English language learner [ELL] classes and I am curious if your experience in those classes influenced your later decision to become a speech-language pathologist?
MN: Not directly, but it does bring me back to my childhood, learning English. And I see—especially in Oregon, in the Portland metro, and my school district—there is a lot of over-identifying of ELL in the special education program. So yes, it does bring me back to a lot of those things. What was the question?
DK: Did your own experience learning English in ELL influence your decision—
MN: Not initially. I knew I liked working with people, but not initially.
DK: You mentioned something really interesting a minute ago about how, too often, people identify a need for English language learning more than reality would suggest. Can you talk a little bit about the background of that and what are some ways that can be improved upon and how that can stop?
MN: Do you mean the over-identifying of ELL students in special education programs?
DK: Yes, thank you for having a much more clear definition. I think I have come to the end of questions that I would like to ask. Hannah, do you have other questions on your list that you would like to ask.
HS: Yes, I was just wondering, since you came here so young, are you still fluent in Vietnamese?
MN: I am, but I do not know how you are defining "fluent." I can carry on daily conversations, but technical terms? I have no idea. If you want to carry on a conversation with me, I can do that, but do not expect me to know specific technical terms. Wait, Hannah, are you … ? I do not want to assume …
HS: I am half Filipina, half white [laughing] and I am not fluent in my language.
MN: It is hard, right? Were you born here or were you born in the Philippines?
HS: I was born here and my mom was also born here—she is the Filipina half—so I often find it difficult because people will assume, so I was curious about your experience.
MN: Yeah, yeah. It is super hard. Yeah, yeah. Even for me! I was born in Vietnam, and I spoke Vietnamese… I do not anymore as much. I speak with my mom and dad, but it is even hard for me because I do not speak it daily! You lose the language or lose the vocabulary if you do not use it. So it is super hard.
DK: So we are coming close to the end of our allotted time for this interview, and before we wrap things up I am curious if there are any questions that you had hoped we would ask that we have not? Or if there are any other talking points you wanted to address?
MN: Yeah, I know you mentioned that you guys were hoping the Vietnamese culture would be implemented into the curriculum, is that correct?
DK: We were working with Portland Public Schools. We are in the very early stages. Our goal is to eventually have a curriculum that we can help to implement utilizing these oral history interviews and some of the various ephemera that we have received for this project. We are still very much in the early conversations, but we have developed some good contacts and we are excited to see where that can go. That is one way we see this collection living on and making a difference in the wider community.
MN: Are you guys planning to implement it at Lewis & Clark College or are you going to implement it in the PPS [Portland Public School] district?
DK: PPS. The goal is more K-12 at this point, so those were our initial conversations. Having a graduate school of education on campus is certainly an amazing resource that we hope will help with the implementation.
MN: Yeah, if it could assimilate into the curriculum in the district, that would be awesome!
DK: It also helps that there is a dual language immersion program in the Vietnamese language in PPS. We have some contacts with a parent organization that helps to support the dual language immersion program, so we are excited to see where this can go!
MN: Yeah, that is really exciting. I wish that we had that here!
DK: Hey, since it is getting started in PPS maybe there will be future opportunities.
MN: Yeah, I would be happy to be a part of it.
DK: That is awesome. Anything else you wanted to discuss in our remaining minutes?
MN: I do not have anything at the moment. Thank you for involving me in this opportunity!
DK: You are welcome. It was so nice to chat with you today. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Hannah Stubee talking with Mai-Anh Nguyen, and we have been chatting via Zoom. Today is May 18, 2021.