Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am here today speaking with Kien Truong. We are so glad you are here today with us. We are meeting on Zoom today. And today is May 14, 2021. Why don’t we begin by you stating your name and telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Kien Truong: Hi Dustin, thanks for having me. My name is Kien Truong and my family and I emigrated here to the US in 2014, and we have been living in Southeast Portland ever since. Thanks so much for having me.
DK: We are so glad to have you. When you moved to the United States in 2014, where did you move to? Which neighborhood?
KT: Actually, I misstated a little bit. Actually when we first came here, we lived in Beaverton, Oregon, for about six months. It is in the Aloha area. We stayed there for six months because my parents could not find a job back then because there were not a lot of Vietnamese restaurants or Vietnamese-speaking businesses, and my parents do not speak English so we decided to move to Portland after six months, and now we are in Southeast Portland after that.
DK: When you arrived in Portland, what was your first impression, what was going through your mind as you came to the city?
KT: [laughs] Do you mind if I share a little bit about my first impression in the US and then transition to Portland? Because before we came to the US, in my mind, I was thinking, “Oh my god, we are going to get really cold weather, and we’re going to get to eat a lot of chocolate, the school is going to be really cool.” Because I watched a lot of American movies in high schools just to learn about high schools here when we first came. I think everything went actually really well at the beginning, and then after that it kicks in when you don’t speak English and you do not know how to navigate a system. For me, I was the oldest child, so it was really hard at the beginning.
My first funny experience when we first got to Portland––so we got to Portland around August and we had to find a school to go to in September, and I did not know that you have to go by zip code. Like what high school you go to depends on what zip code you live in. I took a bus on 82nd and then just rode along 82nd Avenue and just hopped off at a random school, and it happened to be Madison High School. I went inside and asked, “Hey, can I go to school here, and can my siblings go to school here?” and they said “What zip code do you live in?” and I told them, and they said “Well, you have to go to Franklin High School.” I took a bus to Franklin High School and there was a whole construction going on. A Vietnamese counselor called me in and told me, “Welcome, I can help you enroll here, but you are seventeen years old, so you have to come back another day with your parents to enroll here.” That was my very, very first experience when I first got to Portland, but it was lovely.
DK: Wow! Were your siblings with you when you were taking the bus to try to enroll at Madison?
KT: Yes, so I was seventeen years old back then, and my sister was fifteen years old, and my younger brother was like thirteen back then.
DK: Wow! So, how was it adjusting to school in the United States at seventeen?
KT: [laughs] For me, it was a mix of a lot of things. I was very excited to go to school here because you know it is just like you move to a new country, you got to go to a new school, a new environment, getting to make some friends. It was just hard for me to understand-- when I think back then, a lot of my friends focused a lot on extracurricular activities or sporting and all that. For me, most of the time I focused on was studying English and spending extra time with my ESL teacher to make sure I finish school on time––because for me, as seventeen-years-old––it also meant that I was a senior back then, so for me I had to meet all the requirements. I had to take some history classes, I had to take some economics and government and for me, to just simply understand what was going on. A lot of my high school experience is only one year, so it just focused a lot around that. I didn't even get to go to Prom or anything because I did not know what that meant during my year, so I was just trying to rush through.
DK: It sounds very time-consuming. Were you able to participate in any extracurricular activities in high school or just rushing through?
KT: The Vietnamese Club was the only one, but I was just a member. I went to a few meetings, I learned about what was going on, but I was not very active. Basically just to rush through, just to make sure that I meet the requirements and all that.
DK: What was that like––being in the Vietnamese Club in Portland?
KT: I think it gave them a lot of pride because they took us to volunteer with different communities in the Portland area, including the Vietnamese Community of Oregon. They had the annual Lunar New Year celebration-- we call it Tết. So I went volunteering with them. It was a really good experience just to have some friends and to expand my knowledge a little bit on what is going on in Portland.
DK: So after you graduated from high school, did you choose to attend college? If so, how did you decide where to attend?
KT: For my family––and I believe it’s true for a lot of Asian families––the expectation that you have to graduate and you have to go to a higher education institution is very high. To be honest, it has always been in my family tradition and expectations, even though my parents, they did not even complete middle school, so that was always one of my biggest goals. My struggle back then was to decide where to go next after I graduated from Franklin High School. I wanted to go to PSU back then. In my mind, there were two: Portland Community College, and Portland State University. I always wanted to go to Portland State University, simply because university had to be better than community college. My ESL teacher back then, Miss Alice Weinstein, kept pushing to consider community college instead. [She said:] “There is nothing wrong about PSU, it is just that I know your English level, it was not great. I know that your family is also from a low-income background, and I know that you are still figuring things out. Community college will give you some time to figure that out, while not costing you a lot.” She kept pushing me to consider community college. I had to have a few conversations with my parents and my relatives because they did not like community college at all. The turning point was that there was a program back then, it is still existing now, called Future Connect Program, and my ESL teacher pushed me to apply for that program and I got into that program and that was like the talking point that helped my parents give me an “OK” to go to community college. They were like “OK, you got into some sort of program, so just go to PCC.” That’s how that decision happened.
DK: Tell me a little bit more about the Future Connect Program.
KT: So, the Future Connect Program is a program that supports low-income and first-generation college students. They help high school students before they even get into college. They had a few staff coming to my high school talk to me about the program, talk to me a little bit about colleges, and then they helped me with my application process. When I got accepted into the program they brought me on to campus for a kick-off event. After the kick-off, they walked me through all the prep work because you know, when you are accepted into an institution, you have to do some requirements like submitting some documents, you have to fill out your FAFSA, all that. So they made sure that I completed all of them. That’s how they helped me get started. There’s a lot more things that they do, but that is how they helped me in that transition from high school to college.
DK: What did you study at PCC?
KT: At PCC, it was just General Studies.
DK: Have you continued your education after PCC?
KT: Yes, I stayed at PCC for three years, and after that, I transferred to Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I stayed there for an extra two and a half years. I just got my degree a month and a half ago.
DK: Congratulations! [KT: Thank you!] So, what did you study at Drexel?
KT: It’s Global Studies, focusing on human rights and global justice. To be honest with you, even now, I’m still struggling a lot with that degree––I chose the degree simply because in the future I want to become a community college president, and I need to figure out my life. I am still figuring out what I want to do but because for that degree I get to learn a lot about different culture and politics in different countries, I figured that whatever career I do in the future it is going to be helpful regardless.
DK: That is awesome. So, tell us a little bit more about your current career, and a little bit about how you became interested in it and how the opportunity came about.
KT: During my time at Portland Community College, I have always been an active person for some reason. Probably because in high school I didn’t get to do anything [laughs] so, when I attended PCC I focused a lot of my time on extracurriculars. Through a lot of student leadership activities, I got to learn about the importance of having a seat at the table, whether you are a student, basically for any decision. I think that the group that impacted me by that decision took me to that table. That is the mindset that always stuck with me throughout all of that experience. To get involved in the community, to get involved in politics, are some things that I had known that I was always interested in. But when I transferred to Drexel University in Philadelphia, that community connection got paused a little bit. Of course, I still have a lot of Facebook friends that I got to follow on social media, but I didn’t really go to events or didn’t really know what was going on, so there was a pause. As I got closer to my graduation, I knew that I had to come back to Portland soon, so that’s when I started to more proactively learn about what is going on in the communities.
For me to get the job that I am having right now, it was more like a coincidence. Every December or November, I always do a personal project just to fundraise, and to either give that money to a food pantry, or to some things. Just last year, I did a fundraising project to give a holiday gift to low-income families in Portland that probably couldn’t afford buying a holiday gift, and one of the donors, after the project was completed contacted me and said, “Hey, there was a new senator in your district that just got appointed”––that was [OR State] Senator Kayse Jama––“he needs some staff to help him get the ball rolling, and you should consider applying.” I applied, and I got accepted, that is how I ended up doing the job. It was a very coincidental thing.
DK: That is wonderful. So, what do you do as part of Mr. Jama's team? How does that work?
KT: I know I am biased, but I have to say that I have one of the best teams ever [laughs]. My senator, Kayse Jama, he comes from a community organizing background. He has been doing community organizing for more than twenty years and now in Senate, he is the first and only Muslim and immigrant Senator in the Senate. My chief of staff was a transgender person, so they also helped educate our team on how to be more inclusive in our language and advocacy. For me, just to be working for them is very helpful, they treat me as a team member, so that is on that end. For my day-to-day job, we do a lot of different types of things. For example, when a student contacted us saying they had some problems with unemployment or something, we helped them do that. I am working on scheduling my Senator's calendar, planning town halls, planning events, or just working with community organizations on some policies that are being discussed to make sure that we involve everyone and just to basically work on policy research.
DK: That is awesome.
KT: Thank you.
DK: So, I want to back up a little bit and hear a little bit about the beginnings of your story, and I am wondering if you can tell us where your family was from in Vietnam, and also just a little bit about your immediate family and also your extended family.
KT: In Vietnam, we are from a town called Cam Ranh Khanh Hoa. It is in central Vietnam but is further south, a little bit. It’s a small village, so for me growing up it was pretty normal––it was not really normal but now as I think about it there were really no significant events going on. It was just like going to school, going home, I was a little bit addicted to video games back then. And also to be honest with you, I am gay and I haven’t come out to my family yet, and now thinking about back then, I tried to do a lot of things just to fit into that community. So now when I think about my past, it was OK, it was not a very happy time.
Up until I was about fourteen years old, that is when I knew that we were going to move to the US sometime. My parents, they have always known, because after the Vietnam War, my grandparents, they immigrated to the United States by boat and then after my grandparents became citizens, they tried to do some paperwork to bring the rest of the family. My grandparents tried to bring their children, especially my parents and my aunts and uncles to the US. The process ended up taking about––we estimated back then eleven years––but it took like two years extra. For me, when I was fourteen years old, fifteen years old, sixteen years old, and seventeen years old, every year in my mind I am like, “OK, this year I’m going to move to the US,” but it just kept taking longer and longer. That was when I became aware, “Oh, we’re going to go to the US soon.” Now, as I recall, I think that moving, immigrating to the US, is a very big deal that everyone in my town really was hoping to do. Either doing that or sending their children as international students, like F-1 students. That is always like the dream goal for basically everyone in my town to do so.
DK: So what year did your grandparents come to the United States?
KT: After the Vietnam War, after 1975, they came about four years after, so around the 1980s.
DK: Where did they settle?
KT: I know that they went to the Philippines first and eventually California was their final destination in the US.
DK: I know that your family did end up choosing to live in Portland, how did the decision of where to live in the United States come about?
KT: I think that for my grandparents, it was just moving around whenever they could find a job, and they ended up finding a job in Portland, so they just decided to come here. I think they have been in Portland really ever since. I know they only stayed in California for a few years.
DK: So your grandparents were here––did other members of your extended family come to Portland as well?
KT: My grandparents, they had twelve children in total, so I have eleven uncles and aunts. I could not remember the exact number in my head, but we had about four or five living here, and the rest of uncles and aunts just spread across the US like North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia––basically, in another part.
DK: You have a lot of relatives here, so Portland was a pretty logical spot for your parents, and you and your siblings.
KT: Yeah, when we decided to come to the US, it was like, “OK, my grandparents live here, we have some aunts and uncles living here, so let’s just come to Portland, figuring out the next steps.”
DK: Did having so many relatives already living here help ease the transition for you?
KT: [laughs] I feel I am going into family drama-- but at first, that was our family's expectation so having them here at the beginning was helpful, but I know that having to live with someone else as a host-- I think it is really hard for anyone to host a family long periods of time. I would say I am grateful to have them here when we first moved to a new country.
DK: Do you feel that you have been able to build a connection to the Vietnamese American community at large in Portland?
KT: I would say...yes, but that connection happened in a natural way. There was no intended program or something. For me, because during my time at PCC, through volunteering, going to a few events, and actually starting working on some political campaigns, that’s when I got to know some Vietnamese leaders in the community. It happened that way, I do not know if that makes sense to you.
DK: Do you participate in any religious or community organizations?
KT: When I first came here, during my time in Beaverton, I got involved through a Vietnamese church then. I think that also helped a little bit, just by getting immersed into a new environment. When we moved to Portland, I was not involved in any religious group.
DK: You arrived in Portland aged seventeen, do you feel like Portland is home now? Is this where you think of home?
KT: Yes, when I think of Portland, I do think of it as home.
DK: What do you like about living in Portland and about your community as a whole?
KT: What I like about Portland––I am currently living in Southeast Portland––so we have a lot of food carts, so that is something I like the most. My favorite spot is on Division and 31st Street. A lot of food carts, a lot of food. And I think it’s growing, I can see the potential of it being a really, really fast growing––comparing it to New York but in the West. I know we have California and Seattle, but I think we’re growing a lot. So that is something I love. And also because I got involved in the community, I see that support group, being very supportive and trying to help each other. That is what I like about it. And also because I have not lived in another city to compare it to, but if you ask me, I definitely call Portland home right now. About the community––it is really hard for me personally to just say that I have a group only of Vietnamese community, so when I think of my community, it is more like at large. I work with people, not just from the Vietnamese community, but also the Asia Pacific Islander community. Basically not just Vietnamese when I think of my community.
DK: You mentioned some of those food carts, can you describe what that is like? Say if someone is listening to this twenty, thirty years from now, can you describe what it looks like, smells like, tastes like––all of that?
KT: I also think there is a reason why I like food carts. Because in Vietnam, we are very popular for street food, where we have a lot of food on the street where you can just come. Not just like one restaurant like a mall, but an outside space where you can come and there are a lot of different types of foods for you to choose and pick from. So you know, when you get into the food carts there are a lot of people, you can sense some festive feeling. It always smells good because there are so many different types of food there and honestly it is really hard to choose because every one of them is really good.
DK: That is awesome.
KT: And honestly, it reminds me of Vietnam sometimes.
DK: So, I asked you about some of the things that you like most about Portland. I am curious if there is anything that has been challenging about living in Portland.
KT: I think I would try to reflect on my family as a whole, not just me personally, because for us––I think I told you that my parents do not speak English––so basically I try to do all [things] paperwork related, or even when they seek for a job. So I think one thing is about transportation. For us, we live in Southeast Portland and I know my parents and a lot of their friends actually do not work in Southeast Portland and we do not really have a lot of transportation from Southeast Portland to go to different parts of town. So they have to rely on either carpooling or going with a lot of people––so that is one thing. That is what immediately comes to my mind. I hope that on 82nd––82nd is where I basically go every day either to pick up my mom from work or go grocery shopping––hopefully, they can do some improvement on 82nd Avenue.
DK: I am curious if you have ever encountered any discrimination or racism in your time in Portland.
KT: Yes, and including my mom as well. So there were at least three times. I hang out with my mom a lot, and we normally go downtown just to hang around and for me to show my mom around. It happened three times already, one time during the pandemic, and two times before when basically people would you came to me and [were] just like, “Why the fuck are you here?” and my mom asked me “What did they say?” I had to lie to her immediately and say, “Oh, they have some mental health problems, don’t worry about it,” and we would just keep going, but it stuck with me forever. Sometimes I think to myself, almost whenever I can, I always try to give back to the community, to the city, to say that basically––adopted me or have a home for me. Sometimes I just don’t get how I can even address it, so I just decide to ignore that and go on. I felt definitely lucky that none of that were physical attacks, it is more verbal. I told you when I was young growing up, a lot of people actually hated me for being too girly or not straight enough, so I feel like that childhood helped me say, “Oh it’s just a lot of verbal attack,” and just moving on.
DK: I am curious, what role do you think being Vietnamese American plays in your life?
KT: I think, as of now, I am working, considering working for government right now, and one thing that I’m still personally struggling to navigate through is that when I am sharing my experience as a Vietnamese person when I am trying to advocate for more resources or something for my Vietnamese community, it has to be for the whole Vietnamese community. I cannot just say “Oh, I am speaking for the Vietnamese Democrats only,” or a certain type of group only. I know that in my own community we have very split in political standpoints between the older generation and the younger generation. So for me, I am still struggling how I can navigate through that. You know Vietnamese and Asian Pacific Islanders, we are very well-connected upon one generation, like we are gathering every year. So for me, to navigate through that, as someone who is involved in politics and government things and knowing that basically all of my extended relatives don’t support what I’m doing, while at the same time I’m trying to advocate for more resources for policies that I personally believe benefit them. That plays a very important part for me personally and for my mental health. How can I support my community while trying to understand where they come from, while disagreeing with them?
DK: You mentioned the political differences that you have seen between younger and older generations. I am curious how you came to learn that, or did you already know that when you came to the United States?
KT: I did not know that when I first came to the United States, I think I only learned or realized about that difference when I became more involved in the community. I think it happens to every group––that people tend to talk more about politics and political stuff around election years. I think that is when, like this past election, we had a lot of conversations going on even within our family and that is when I realize our values don’t align, but I have a lot of respect for them on a personal level. For me, how I navigate through that. But, to answer your question, that was when I realized that difference.
DK: Have you noticed any other differences, besides politics, in regard to older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
KT: I think in addition to politics, for Vietnamese younger generations, and younger generations in general, they are leaning towards a more progressive––I can give you some examples, a lot of my aunts and uncles are already asking me why I haven’t had a girlfriend, or haven’t thought of getting married yet. For me, I am only twenty-four years old, so some of that difference––personally I am only twenty-four years old, but for them you have to get married by a certain age to get some respect from the community or in the family. But for me, I will do it whenever I want, or I don’t even have to do that if I don’t want to. That is one example. I was able to not talk directly about those things, just smiling and kind of moving on in those conversations.
DK: I am wondering if there is anything you wanted to talk about that we have not come to yet, or if there is a topic you would like to make sure we cover today.
KT: First of all, thank you so, so much for having me. I think that something I have not talked about, but something I wish my Vietnamese community or something I would try to do in my personal capacity is that... I hope that we can, as a lot of us are becoming more politically active, I hope that we can come together and talk or have more community conversation on what we are facing or what is affecting the Vietnamese community and how we can advocate to make it better. I am bringing this example because I am thinking of my mom a lot. She is currently working at a nail salon and when we have programs or assistance that she can apply for she is always hesitant, “Oh, I don’t want to apply for any of that, I don’t want to do anything, all I want to do is work and have enough money to support my family and just have a non-conflictive life. I don’t want to do anything with the government, I don't really want to do anything because I’m scared. I don’t want to have anything to do with those things.” I think that if the Vietnamese community as a whole can do more advocational things, having more support networks, more people can be more open to speaking up and sharing their stories, or doing things they are allowed to do.
DK: Well, thank you so much for being with us today. Unless you have any other topics, I think it’s time we conclude our interview.
KT: I don’t have any other things to share, thank you so much for having me.
DK: Thank you. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley speaking with Kien Truong. Today is May 14th, 2021, and we have been chatting via Zoom.