Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library, and I am joined by one of our student workers, Mei Bailey. Today is Tuesday, May 25, 2021, and we are here for another oral history interview. I want to thank our guest so much for being here and I will give you a chance to introduce yourself in just a moment. Yeah, we are just so glad you can be here. Again, we are on Zoom, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Alright, for our esteemed guest, can you start by stating your name and then telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Thuy Pham: Hi, my name is Thuy Pham. I am the owner of Mama Dút, which is a vegan Vietnamese restaurant here in Portland, Oregon. I am forty-one years old. I was born in Vietnam. My family escaped Vietnam in 1981 [starting to cry]. We lost my grandmother on the trip and ended up in a refugee camp in Indonesia. After about a year or so, we were sponsored to Portland, Oregon by our family who were already here. That was about––[we] came over here in 1982. I am the oldest of three kids and I was raised by a single mom. I am also a mother of an eight-year-old daughter and I am a single mother [chuckles] living here and trying to survive in Portland.
DK: Thank you so much for being here. And you talked a little bit about how you came to be living in Portland, and I am curious if you want to talk a little bit more about what it was like when you first arrived here and how it was for you and your mom and the rest of your family to build a home and adjust to life in the United States?
TP: You know, I was really young when we first came here, but obviously I have bits of memories and I remember––something that always stands out that my mom has told me about coming to Portland. She said flying in on the plane, looking down, all she could see were like trees and forest. And she wondered to herself, "Are they sending me to another wild countryside like Vietnam?" Because she thought she was coming to America, like a city. I do not know why that always just struck me and sat with me. We were really fortunate to have family here when we came over and my family was really active in the Catholic church so there was a lot of support. I remember living in my great-great uncle's house––my ông cô’s––house off of [the] interstate. And we lived in the basement because there were like four families living in this one house. And bà cô, which is "great-great grandmother," would always be in the yard and she had turned the backyard into a little mini Vietnamese farm where she grew Vietnamese vegetables and herbs. I always had really fond memories of that [voice shaking].
So that was one part of my experience. But then another part was––one of my earliest memories as a kid was being at Lloyd Center and at the time, Lloyd Center was open space. And I remember walking with my family––it was my uncles––and hearing somebody scream, "Go back to your own country!" And I did not quite understand. I looked around and was like, "Who are they talking––" I could not quite understand. And it was not until much later, retelling this story, that I really understood what that meant, you know? Portland is seventy-seven percent White and I do not think… our family would have really survived and I do not think immigrant families would have survived like us if we did not have each other to lean on because Portland in the eighties was much different. You got a lot of microaggressions. "Oh, I love Oriental food," or "Why don't you have an American name?" It was really hard… being one of two kids who were non-White in first grade and getting called out to go to ESL class and it was always very clear that I did not belong.
DK: Sounds like you have a very, very close-knit family. Can you tell us a little bit more about who was living together in your uncle's home and what it was like to live with so many people under one roof?
TP: It was normal. That was my normal [laughs], you know? I did not know anything else. I do not have much memory of the refugee camp but when we lived in the refugee camp, it was a lot of us in a very small space. I have photographs of how small our living quarters were [laughing]. And so it was normal. It was [sighs] comforting. It felt safe. Obviously I had my grandma and great-great grand uncle––grandma and grandpa––and they had a son, my uncle, who had down syndrome, so they were his caretakers. And then I had my other uncles and their families. It was, to be honest, always a lot of people at our house and I was never quite sure who was exactly living there [laughs]. Because there were always just people just congregating at ông bà co's house. I always had cousins to play with. I never quite appreciated the closeness that I had with my family at that young age until I got older and heard and listened to other people's experiences and realized that so much of the pride that I have of being a Vietnamese woman is because [getting tearful] I was raised and grew up around really strong Vietnamese immigrants.
My great-great grandmother and grandfather, ông bà cô', helped to sponsor dozens of families over here. They opened up their home to people. They did not have to. And I think that is why the Vietnamese community here is so strong and close, is because so many of us are immigrants and share very similar stories of how we got here. We are boat people. It takes a lot of tenacity and strength to pick up your life and get into a boat and sail out to sea and then somehow make it to the United States and land in a city. And I never understood the strength that my family carried from being able to do that until I got older and had my own experiences. I do not know if I have ever really sat and reflected on all of this before in my life [chuckles].
DK: What neighborhood were you living in when you moved in with your uncle and extended family?
TP: We lived, back then, in the eighties, we lived on the interstate and Lombard, that area. It was the most affordable area in the city. We eventually saved up––my mom and my dad––they eventually saved up money, worked, and got their own place. At the time, there were these large, government funded apartment buildings over––they are projects, basically [laughing]––over off of Halsey and 60th area. And as a child we would always call it Halsey Square. And it was basically like huge blocks and blocks of apartment complexes that basically housed mostly immigrants, immigrant families. And at the time there were African immigrants as well as a lot of Southeast Asian immigrants living there. I remember living right across the way from my aunt and my cousins and we would yell out the window to each other. It was a great place––I always had fond memories of it because my friends were always nearby, all my cousins lived nearby, within like a block across the way, and then a block from each other. But it was not until I got older that I realized that… it was pretty ghetto [laughing]. It was not the greatest apartment building. But because I was surrounded by my community and people who I could relate to, and to my family, it was wonderful as a kid having that. I remember playing like––we were so poor––we would go outside and play in the dirt and make dirt pies and use tree leaves and stuff as garnish [laughing]. Like that was our play kitchen because we could not afford toy kitchen stuff. I remember there were tons of rhododendron bushes and we would make cakes out of mud and the rhode flowers.
Yeah, it was great living there and it is funny because… it is so cool because I went to Rose City Elementary in kindergarten and first grade. I remember playing at Rose City Park and stuff because that is where the housing apartment complex was, where we lived. And so now, I get to drive through that area everyday because my daughter goes to the Vietnamese immersion program at Rose City Elementary. And it still brings back really fond memories of playing with my cousins and playing with my family there. And it was where I felt like I was in a community with Vietnamese people and I am really grateful to have been able to have that little bubble of community in an otherwise very different city, a very White city.
DK: You mentioned attending Rose City Elementary, what were some of the other schools you attended in Portland?
TP: Oh, so my family after staying here a few years moved away to California, and then did not come back until 1996. And so by that time I was in high school, so I went to Franklin High School. I get to drive by Franklin High School all the time too, and it is––as an immigrant, I never had the experience of seeing where I came from, seeing where my mom came from [getting teary] and understanding the history of where I am from. So to be able to drive around the city and show my daughter, "Hey look, that is where Mommy went to high school. Hey look, you are going to the same school Mommy went to…” Being able to put down roots for my daughter is something I never had, so I feel really lucky to be able to do that. So every time we drive by Franklin now, she always points out, "Mommy, there is your old school. It is so big," and she is like, "Do you think I am going to go to that school?" And it is something that I think many White Americans––it is a privilege that I think many White Americans do not see that they have. That ability to look to your children and to your grandchildren and say, "Hey, you have the opportunity to go to the same school as your family. You have an opportunity to continue building these roots that we built for you." Giving her a sense of history and a sense of legacy and identity… [it] is hard for immigrants to do for their children and in the United States here.
People often ask me why I have not moved away to Los Angeles because I have friends down there, I love it down there, but I have not moved away because I feel like I belong here and I feel like this is––Portland is where I have planted my foundation for the legacy that I want my daughter to have. And I want to give her those experiences that I did not have. So yeah, [laughing] I hope that one day my grandkids, if I get to have them, will be driving around town and be like, "That is where grandma went to school, that is where grandma grew up, that is where grandma first started her business." I hope that I can offer that to our future generation.
DK: I am curious, in Portland, when do you feel most at home?
TP: When do I feel most at home––honestly, I feel most at home when I am grocery shopping at the grocery stores like Hong Phat, the Asian grocery stores. I feel most at home when I am in spaces where I can utilize my Vietnamese, where I can speak Vietnamese. So the Vietnamese grocery store with my mom. It is not a physical place for me, it is more of where I can have a real connection to who I am as a Vietnamese American. So any time that I get an opportunity to speak Vietnamese while I am in the city, it gives me just a sense of comfort. So I tend to patron a lot of Vietnamese businesses because of it. But yeah, that is definitely home for me. And I think just being at Hong Phat is really nice for me because even if I do not get to speak, it necessarily while I am there, I get to hear it be spoken around me and so that is always really comforting [laughing].
DK: What are some of those places and businesses that you frequent, if you do not mind me asking?
TP: Oh yeah, so I love Hong Phat. My uncle was college roommates and friends with the owner over there and so our family knows each other from way back in the eighties and stuff. It makes me happy to see Vietnamese families thrive in the community,so I shop at Hong Phat… all the time [laughs]. But I also go to Van Hanh, which is a vegan Vietnamese restaurant over on Division and it is run by Vietnamese female monks, and they are just the absolute sweetest and people there are so kind and I always enjoy going there. But those are two spots that I always go to all the time.
Mei Bailey: So shifting gears a little bit, you mentioned you went to Franklin High School, I am wondering if you attended college, and if so, what you studied?
TP: You know––school is hard for me. As an adult I have come to learn that I struggled a little bit with ADD. So I did go to PCC for a little bit after high school but then went to work right away after that. I do not know, I just never felt empowered to go to college and so I just never did [laughs]. After that I went to beauty school and became a hair stylist and worked as a hair stylist for years and then last year when I could not work because of COVID was when I started Mama Dút, my vegan food business.
MB: Yeah, we are really excited to hear more about that. So, what inspired you to start Mama Dút?
TP: Survival. [laughs] I wish it was some beautiful reason why I started Mama Dút, but to be quite honest it was pure survival. I was in a position where everything was shut down, I had just taken my last client and made my last five hundred dollars, I did not know if I was going to get any type of federal assistance and I was constantly wracking my brain, like how long is this going to last, how long can I survive on what I have? So I was definitely in survival mode and my daughter at that time stopped going to school and so trying to entertain her and engage her while also trying to keep my business clients engaged so they do not forget about me when COVID comes back up and I do not lose my clients. It was all survival mode. I was cooking a lot to try to entertain my daughter. And she was like, "Mama, let's do something on Instagram, let's do it on [Instagram] Live!" And I had been testing out recipes for vegan pork belly. I had always wanted to learn how to make vegan pork belly but I really never had the time to research it, and COVID gave me the time to research it and virtually everything online, as far as videos and tutorials, is all in Vietnamese, and so I sat and just watched all these different YouTube tutorials in Vietnamese and different techniques. So yeah, this is a fun project to keep my sanity, and I wanted to test it out one day and my daughter was going to help me, she suggested putting it on Instagram Live, I said, okay she can host while we do it, it is fun for her. And it just kind of took off after that. People could not believe that I had made vegan pork belly, they wanted to know if they could buy it and then I was like "D-ding! This could be a way for me to survive until I go back to work." It was going to be my side hustle.
And so I just posted a thing on my Instagram and was like, "Hey, if anybody's interested in ordering vegan pork belly, DM me, let me know." I got so many DM's. I got so many DMs. And lucky for me, my sister who was living in Los Angeles at the time was unemployed––well not unemployed but she could not work because of the shut down––so she had free time to help me. So that first week I was like, "Kathy, I think I need a separate Instagram for this pork belly thing because I cannot manage it, can you set something up and do a logo and just do something cute. You know my aesthetic." And she asked, "Okay, well what do you want the name to be?" And the name was really easy because I had already had a name picked out a long time ago. "Dút" in Vietnamese means to feed, and growing up any time I wanted to feed my daughter or get her to try something, I would be like, "Kinsley, come here, Mama dút." Because she calls me "Mama." And it kind of became this thing where if she got lazy to eat, she would be like, "Mama dút, mama dút!" And one of my friends heard it and was like, "Oh my god, that is really cute that she says that." He was like, "That would be a really cool name for a food business." And I was like, "Oh, I should save it for her," because at the time she loved cooking and watching YouTube cooking tutorials, so I was like, "Oh, you know if she ever wanted to do a YouTube, I should register this name for her." So I think it is like a hundred bucks or something like that to just register and save a name with the state. So I did that a couple years ago already. And so when this pork belly thing came up, I was like, "Oh yeah, Mama Dút." And my sister was like, "Okay, what do you want the logo to be?" And I was like, "I want it to be an illustration of Kinsley's face, and me feeding Kinsley with chopsticks." And so it was like a week, pretty much, between me doing that Instagram Live and us being up and going as a business.
And then I started doing––my sister was taking orders via DM, putting it on a spreadsheet for me and then after the first week I had so many orders. I had over a hundred slabs ordered. And I was like, "I cannot do this at home. I need a real kitchen." Because this was the only way. Food was the only thing that people were able to continue to work in. You were either a healthcare provider, a frontline worker, or you were in food. I was like, "Okay, this is my only chance to find a little bit of income." So yeah, I am sorry, I am just kind of reliving this as I am telling you all [laughing]. So it is just––it is a lot. So I literally Googled, "How to start a food business in Portland, Oregon." And Google told me, "Get a commissary kitchen, get all your licenses, get this." And so I Googled, "What is a commissary kitchen?" [laughing] and then I Googled, "Commissary kitchen in Portland." Like Google helped me start my business. And then from there I found a kitchen, started making pork belly––do you all want to hear everything? Because I feel like there is a lot that has happened.
MB: We want to hear it all!
TP: I think this is the first time that I am telling everything in one sitting [getting teary]. So the first couple of weeks before I found the commissary kitchen, I was driving around town, doing contactless deliveries, just trying to survive and I finally found a kitchen space and I started making my pork belly, packaging it and selling it out of the kitchen and people were able to pick it up at the kitchen. And I would create dishes out of my pork belly and take pictures of those dishes to showcase the pork belly, and my kitchen mates got to eat my creations and they were saying, "Oh my God, your food is so amazing! Oh my God, you can totally sell this for lunch, people would buy this, why aren't you cooking this?" And I never considered myself a chef, I made one thing, I made pork belly, I am not a chef. I did not go to culinary school. I was a hostess once, like when I was fourteen at a restaurant and then I was a cocktail waitress once in my twenties, but that is the extent of my food experience. So it never dawned on me that I could even be capable of selling food. I never was told that the food I cooked had that kind of value because in my head I was like, "This is so easy, this is simple, I cook this all the time. People will buy this, what?"
And so I decided to do a pop-up––my first pop-up. And at the time, there were so many restrictions and safety precautions. And so I knew that in order to do it safely, I had to build a website to allow people to pre-order and then just come at their allotted times so we could socially distance everyone. As I said earlier, I did not go to college. I grew up in the eighties and nineties with rotary phones. I am not tech-savvy. I understand technology to a certain extent and I learn it, but it does not come easy for me. And so my sister, luckily I had my sister, and she and I built a website [laughing] and I launched pre-orders for my first pop-up on the website, and I launched it two days before the actual pop-up to give people two days to order, and I sold out without six hours. I was like, "Holy shit!" I think there is a video somewhere of me crying because I could not believe I sold out in six hours! It was wild.
I never understood the value of our cuisine. I never understood what it meant to other people to see people who look like me cook our own food. And honestly I never saw value in my identity as a Vietnamese woman until I started my journey on Mama Dút… and my pop-ups continued to just sell out and I continued to do well and this was like, by this time, June. And I was starting to get press. I was invited to be part of a Tender Table panel and it was such an honor, I felt so… seen. And then I was featured by Veganizer and it was the most wild experience because it was like––I remember saying to one of my friends, "Wow, I know I have made it if I actually get a feature by Veganizer because Veganizer is like the account for vegan food right now in Portland." And then I remember a couple weeks later, Waz from Veganizer reached out to me to do a feature and I was like, "Oh my God." And then after that I was like, "Damn, if I can get an Eater, I would feel so legit." And then shortly after that I got a feature on Eater. And for the first time in my life… real actual dreams were happening to me [getting teary]. And my Vietnamese heritage was being celebrated for the first time in my life. I spent so much of my life suppressing my Vietnamese culture and Whitewashing myself to fit in, so it was overwhelming to finally feel like I could celebrate being a Vietnamese woman.
MB: That is a really incredible story and I am glad that you were able to accomplish some of those dreams, that is really amazing.
MB: I have another question––on your website, I saw that you talk in your bio a little bit about trying to find a balance between that Vietnamese heritage as well as people and animals. So I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that goal and how Mama Dút is part of that balance between your heritage and veganism and people.
TP: You know, it was not until I became vegan that I learned how deeply embedded veganism is in Vietnamese culture and its cuisine. My family is Catholic, so I did not grow up with Buddhism. We celebrate a lot of Buddhist traditions, but I did not grow up with fixed teachings. And when I started researching recipes and techniques, it was to make mock meats. A lot of it was centered around techniques and recipes from centuries ago in China that were brought over to Vietnam. The colonization of Vietnam by the French brought over Catholicism and kind of a shift in the way society viewed its consumption of meat and meat became kind of like this elite thing and from building Mama Dút and starting it, I have come to learn that like––because I get the comment, "Oh wow, vegan Vietnamese, that is so new." But it is not new. It is just new to the States, it is new to America, but if you go to Buddhist temples, here or in Vietnam, you get a lot of the techniques and dishes that you get from centuries ago. Techniques of making seitan where you are washing the flour and how we make pork belly with different types of flours and proteins and stuff and it has brought me more awareness about the wildlife and the contributions of animals within our ecosystem. For instance, like the water buffalo is a really revered animal and does a lot of farming for Vietnamese people.
And just becoming vegan and reflecting on the contributions of animals to our ecosystem and reflecting on my compassion as a human. Learning more about some of the different sectors of Vietnamese Buddhism in Vietnam has just [sighs] motivated me to be a better person every day and I cannot be a better person if I, knowingly, can prevent harm to other living beings. And I honor my ancestors and my culture by cooking their vegan food and the foods that they had been eating centuries ago. To be honest it is like this intersectionality that I really have not sat with and processed a lot because so much has happened in the past year for me. It is really interesting. When I started the path to veganism, I felt like I also started this path of rediscovering myself as a Vietnamese woman and my Vietnamese culture and heritage. And I almost feel like it was a rebirth in a lot of ways and it has brought me closer to Vietnam.
MB: Yeah, thank you so much for that answer, that is really beautiful.
DK: Is it alright if we shift gears a little bit?
TP: Yeah, please do.
DK: I am wondering if you can talk about any connection you might feel to the larger Vietnamese American community here in Portland? Like the community at large.
TP: You know, because I grew up here and I had family here I feel like I do know a lot of the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese community, whether it is personally or through other friends or from doing their hair or something, I feel really connected to my Vietnamese folks here. I feel really lucky for that. I have cousins here and I have been here since 1996 [laughs], I have met a lot of Vietnamese people here. And I met a lot from doing hair, honestly. I specialized in making Asian girls blonde and so because of that, a lot of Vietnamese people reached out to me for hair and it was really wonderful. Reflecting back on it now, I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to be of service to my Asian and specifically Vietnamese women in Portland and it helped me––each person helped me make one more connection to the bigger community at large, right?
And then having Mama Dút just furthered that even more for me and I have had opportunities to speak at Asian American and Pacific Islander [AAPI] events and I was recently on the cover of Portland Monthly Magazine. And when they reached out to me about the cover, it was like my first instinct to be like, "Okay, great, but can I wear an áo dài?" A Vietnamese traditional dress. And they were great and they said, “Of course,” and I was on the cover wearing a traditional dress and I did not realize what a positive impact it would make for people seeing that at a grocery store. I mean like, I knew my intent when I did that was because I wanted somebody like my mom to go grocery shopping and to be pleasantly surprised and feel seen that there is a Vietnamese girl in an áo dài that they can recognize. And so it was a tribute to my mom and other women like her… What it did for the community, I would not have ever predicted. I have gotten people who have come to me, who have met me and said, "Thank you for wearing an áo dài," and people who have been in tears to say that they felt so seen when they saw me seeing the áo dài. I had a Vietnamese baker in New York who reached out to me and was like, "That is so badass that you are wearing an áo dài on a White city's magazine cover!" So I feel really lucky because I have had a lot of opportunities in my life to continue to be connected to my Vietnamese community and I hope that I can offer that to other people who do not feel as connected as I do, you know?
DK: You mentioned participating in various AAPI events. I am curious if you can talk about some of the organizations that you participated in?
TP: I have collabed on a couple of fundraisers for different initiatives to IRCO. IRCO––you all are familiar––but I worked with Asian Family Center when I was a teenager and volunteered with them and I have also volunteered at Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) when I was younger. Recently me and some other businesses in the community got together and did a fundraiser to raise some money for AAPI organizations and IRCO was one of them. There was an AAPI event in March out at Harrison Park so we were a vendor there and I was a speaker there as well and then we also recently did a fundraiser to send COVID support to India, actually, because India has been struggling right now. So it is never just one particular organization, it is kind of like seeing where the need is and seeing how we can contribute. Contribution and support always looks a little bit different depending on the situation and the need, but IRCO and Asian Family Center have always had a special place for me. Only because, you know, I worked with them when I was younger and I love the fact that IRCO services not just the Asian refugee immigrant community. They service the immigrant and refugee community at large and it is so important to have that.
DK: I think that Mei and I have come to the end of the questions we had hoped to discuss, but I want to turn it back to you and see if there is anything that you wanted to discuss that we have not brought up or if in the course of answering a different question you thought of a different memory from earlier in the interview you wanted to expand on? I just wanted to see if you had anything else you wanted to share.
TP: Oh, I do not know, I share a lot [laughs]. I do not think so. I am just really grateful that you all are taking the time to document the stories and the histories of Vietnamese immigrants here. I think as the next generations get older, it is harder for us to stay connected to our Vietnamese roots because for many of us, the connection to our roots are our grandparents and our parents and as they get older, we lose that connection. Just in my experience in speaking with some community members, a lot of people feel it is really hard to be in community with Vietnamese folks, especially the younger generation, because we kind of grow up and we scatter. So having Lewis & Clark doing this project and gathering all of this data and this historical oral history, means a lot. It means a lot.
DK: Well, we are so grateful that you took the time to share some of your story today. Thank you so, so much.
TP: Thank you so much for having me! And let me know if there is anything else I can do to support. I will reach out to some folks and send you some contacts on other people you can interview as well.
DK: That would be wonderful.
MB: Thank you so much for that.
TP: You are welcome, of course. I am happy to do it.
DK: Let's go ahead and wrap up the interview and end the recording. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Mei Bailey and we have had the privilege today of speaking with Thuy Pham. Today is May 25, 2021 and we have been speaking via Zoom.