Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley and I am an archives librarian at Lewis & Clark College and today I am here for an oral history interview joined by Huy Hoang. Today is Wednesday, January 19th, 2022. Let's go ahead and get started. Would you begin by stating your name and telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Huy Hoang: Thanks, Dustin. My name is Huy Hoang and I am a first-generation Vietnamese American. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. I grew up in Portland and now I am a pharmacist and an assistant professor at Pacific University School of Pharmacy. So I practice in the community pharmacy setting, but I mainly teach at the Hillsboro School of Pharmacy campus.
DK: That is awesome. I am excited to unpack some about your career and how you got there, but first let's talk a little bit about your upbringing and some of your early life living in Portland. You mentioned being born and raised in Portland—I am curious, what are some of the neighborhoods you grew up in?
HH: I grew up in Northeast Portland, a few blocks away from the 82nd [Street] MAX stop, kind of up by Madison High School area, 85th and Halsey. I grew up there a majority of my childhood, up until seventeen, when I went to Seattle for college. So seventeen years roughly in that neighborhood. It was quite the experience for me.
DK: Can you talk a little more about your childhood? What was it like to grow up in Northeast Portland?
HH: You know, Dustin, it was pretty rough, to be frank with you. I think it was one of the reasons why I decided to cut my high school years short, so I graduated early, because of the gang violence I was experiencing as a kid. Mainly in high school, something my parents did not even know at the time, just a lot of kids up to no good, just trying to start fights every week or so. I could not put myself in that position anymore, so I made sure I had to get out as quickly as I could. Growing up, I was always the smallest kid in school, so I was picked on, I was bullied, so that kind of perpetuated my acceleration to get out. [laughing] But all of this, I went to school and when I was done with school I would go to work, my parents owned a restaurant in Southeast Portland, and so eight in the morning to 3 pm, I would go to school and then right after school I would go straight to work as a waiter. I would come home at 10, 11 p.m., have dinner, and that is when I would start homework. And then I would go to sleep at one or two in the morning, wake up, and do it again.
That was kind of the gist of my childhood. It was kind of repetitive, I did not know anything outside of that. That was kind of my personal workload up until I was seventeen years old. Being bullied, I was thrown in the trash can outside of school, there were a few instances that happened outside Benson, and then I would come home and my mom would ask me, "Hey honey, how was school for you?" And I did not tell her I was bullied, because my parents were working twelve, fourteen hour days at the restaurant, and the last thing is to add more stress to what they were already feeling. So I would keep all of that bullying and all of that violence internally, for the sake of my parents' peace, if that makes sense. When I went to college, everything drastically improved. So that was my childhood. I think, you know, as much negativity as all that sounds, it kind of showed that you can get through it no matter how hard things are. It is kind of where I learned grit and resilience, to get back on my feet and keep moving forward. So I kind of learned that at a young age.
DK: Thank you for sharing that. You certainly had a time consuming and eventful childhood.
HH: [laughs] You know, it is a lot of my friends who supported me. You find that great niche of friends. I think that was really important, outside of my family support, is having a few close friends that believed in you. It really helped me through it.
DK: So you mentioned your family had a restaurant in Portland. What was the name of that restaurant?
HH: It was called Chopsticks, on 36th and Hawthorne. It was a little restaurant across from Ben & Jerry's. It was next to the first waffle window, the Bagdad Theater. It was very lively and it was a chance for my parents to really learn English, because not only do we speak Vietnamese at home, I try to teach them English, and dealing with that Southeast community really helped their English as well. So that was fun to see.
DK: Is the restaurant still in operation?
HH: No, they sold it right after I graduated pharmacy school. They said, "Hey Huy, congratulations! We're done!" [laughing] That is kind of the typical Asian-Vietnamese cultural mindset. Once the kids get to the point where they can take care of themselves, that is when the parents are like, "OK, our job is done, and we can relax a little bit now."
DK: Would you be willing to tell us a little bit more about your family?
HH: Yeah. It is my mom, my dad, and my older sister—so just the four of us. All three of them immigrated from Vietnam, so I was the first to be born here in Portland. Growing up, like I said, they were very hard workers, they put in twelve-fourteen hour work days every day. They have had three businesses—one bakery, two restaurants. They were on that restaurant entrepreneurship that runs in the family. I have some family members back in Vietnam who are in the bakery business and they make those traditional mooncakes that are really popular during Lunar New Year, coming up in February. They specialize in mooncakes and so that is kind of what they came to Portland to start doing. They started making mooncakes at a bakery in Northeast Portland on Sandy and then they transitioned over to the restaurant business after that. So being part of that—I am not a baker or a cook by all means—I just tell them if it tastes good. They do all the baking and I do all the taste testing, so it kind of worked out. But that is a little bit about my family.
So now, my father is very involved in the Vietnamese community. He is very connected, that is what gets him going through this retirement phase of his life, because he is a former Lieutenant in the Vietnam war. My mother was a former U.S. banker—when she came over she worked for the U.S. bank. My father always had this military Lieutenant stern attitude of going about his daily life that I learned to appreciate and adapted to a lot of things that I do in my life too. My sister, she was always that motherly figure for me, because my parents were always at work. So when I was home, it would just be me and my older sister. She took on that motherly role for me. Now she has two beautiful daughters. That is a little bit about my family.
DK: How much of an age difference was there between you and your sister?
HH: She is eight years older than me. It was easier for her to take on that motherly role being eight years older. I remember in middle school she would have me start studying for my SATs. She enrolled me in college courses—in seventh grade I was taking pre-calculus courses at Portland State [University] and that was because of my sister. She said, "You know, I really want you to get a head start." So my summers would be spent inside Portland State University math classes and science classes. I never had a typical summer. My summer would be taking more college courses. That is how I stayed busy and out of trouble. You hear stories about students playing basketball or picking up sports. It was me picking up more calculus classes and more organic chemistry classes at PSU when I was in seventh grade!
DK: How did you feel about that at the time?
HH: I still remember the first day as a seventh grader. You have a fourteen or thirteen year old coming in and you have all these eyes looking at me like, "Are you in the wrong class? Do you know where you're at, kid?" So I felt that little judgment and that kind of carried through high school because I was the freshman in calculus, I was the only freshman in our AP Calculus class at Benson High and that is kind of what led to me being bullied by the seniors. It started out as neat, because it felt like I could keep up, I would find myself tutoring other adults at an early age. And that just translated to—I just thought of it as me teaching English to my parents—and I was able to have this way of teaching math to other forty and fifty year olds in my pre-calculus class. So I learned that at a young age. I loved doing that. I just did not love the stereotype that led to it. Like, "Oh, he is the freshman, he's the Asian who knows math." I did not appreciate that. But I loved how I was able to help others older than me who needed help.
DK: You mentioned just a little bit about your experience at Benson—what are some of the other schools you attended growing up, and can you talk a little bit about your early academic experience?
HH: When I was a student? Yeah, so for elementary school I went to Jason Lee Elementary. It was a few blocks away from wherever I grew up on Halsey. In middle school, I went to Clark Middle School. Midway through, I went to Mt. Tabor Middle School for some family personal reasons. Mt. Tabor Middle School up until eighth grade—that is when I went to Benson, in ninth grade.
DK: Did you have any teachers who were especially impactful during your time in PPS?
HH: Oh yes! The first teacher that comes to mind is Ms. Montgomery in fourth grade—was that at Clark Elementary? She brought out this type of energy that I did not know. She was the first teacher where I felt that she believed in what I can or cannot do. She had a way of motivating me to get out of my comfort zone, to explore new things, and I think I owe a lot of… what I do now is because of what I learned from her in fourth grade. I was always the very shy kid and she was able to provide that comfort, like, "Hey, it is OK to be shy and there are [times] it is not OK to be shy and stand up for things you want." That is the first teacher that comes to mind, Ms. Montgomery in fourth grade.
DK: Shifting gears just a little bit, growing up in Portland, I am wondering if you have felt connected to the Vietnamese American community?
HH: Yeah, growing up in Portland, thanks to my dad, I was. Because seeing him, he was always the one marching during the Rose Festival parade, and there was that Vietnamese section when it is time for the Vietnamese community when they are walking, when they [have banners], so my dad would always be the one carrying the Vietnamese flag. That is kind of how I was able to feel connected, through my father, and seeing him always so proud whenever he was dressed in his uniform, it made me proud to see that and to know the sacrifices that he and my mother made. Growing up in Portland, that was my connection, and I took that further when I went to Seattle at the University of Washington. And then I started joining the Vietnamese Student Association and that is when I started to be more active in the Vietnamese community in Seattle, Washington. But I was not too active as a student in PPS. My activism started when I was an undergrad in Seattle.
DK: Were there other community events that your family participated in besides the parade that you just referred to?
HH: Any time there was a big, big Vietnamese event, there is a good ninety-nine percent chance that my father would be there. [laughing] Any Vietnamese community event you can think of, there is a high likelihood that my father would be there. There was one where he invited me to speak—this is when I was already a pharmacist—all the veterans would invite the next generation, so their children, to pass the torch on if that makes sense. So I was able to speak at an event to our generation, to the younger generation, about my parents' sacrifices and that was an eye-opening experience for me, because that was the first time where I was able to represent my father to our younger generation. And that did not happen until two or three years ago, so that was pretty recent.
DK: That was really impactful.
HH: Yeah, it was. Because I had to do it in Vietnamese! And my Vietnamese is not the strongest, so that was one speech where I really studied a lot to make sure my Vietnamese was somewhat understandable to the older generation.
DK: I was wondering if your family was part of any civic or religious organizations when you were growing up?
HH: Yeah, my parents are Buddhists. So my mom and my dad would go to the temples very frequently, and they still go pretty frequently. The majority of my family are Buddhists. I grew up in that Buddhist family and was able to try to keep up with the chants in temples, but I did not ever understand what I was saying. I understood the values and the peace and the compassion and the kindness that Buddhism passes on to us and that we learn from.
DK: What are some of the temples that your family attended when you were growing up?
HH: So in Vietnamese, it is Chùa Nam Quang. Chùa means temple. I remember Chùa Nam Quang and Chùa Ngoc Son were the two main temples that my family would go to. I always looked forward to New Year's because that is almost like their Christmas. One of the biggest events that temples throw every year. You have the lion dances and the firecrackers that go off at midnight and you see all the children running around, getting gifts and fruits from the monks—I loved it and I still love it.
DK: So you mentioned a little bit about speaking in Vietnamese at home and also working on English with your parents as well. I am curious about what specific Vietnamese culture, language, traditions your parents tried to instill in you, as the first family member being born in Portland.
HH: I do not think it is just Vietnamese, but I would say for most Asian families, especially with immigrant parents, they instill that you have to work hard, you have to study hard, you have to make sure you get good grades and respect your elders, and those are the main pillars growing up in my household at least. My sister would kind of double down on that sometimes, if my grades were not up to par to her expectations. She was a little harder on me on my academics than my parents. Maybe it is because she understood how the school sector and education system worked. Those are probably the main principles in our family.
DK: You mentioned attending college at the University of Washington—how did you determine that that would be the best institution for you?
HH: I think one of the reasons I chose that was… the renowned university that the University of Washington is, it is Seattle, a little bigger city than Portland. I grew up in Portland so I am kind of used to that city environment and I had a few close friends who went there as well, so that helped me follow suit with them. And it is not too far away in that if my parents needed something, I could just drive home to see them. But it gave me enough distance I felt that I could finally have my own independence and kind of start somewhat of a new life. Those are the main reasons why I chose University of Washington.
DK: What did you study while you were there?
HH: You know, I did everything I could to not study pharmacy, just because my sister is a pharmacist and I did not want to have the impression that I am just following her footsteps. So I studied engineering, I studied accounting, I did business, and then I ended up graduating with a Bachelors in economics. And I am still a pharmacist today [laughs]. I learned the hard way that pharmacy was my calling, because I just naturally gravitated towards the sciences and the medical remedies and therapeutics of helping folks out. But I wanted to make sure that this was the right choice for me, and that is kind of what college is all about, experimenting [with] all these different subjects of what entices you, what gets you going every day. I had the fortunate opportunity to learn that in Seattle.
DK: What was the a-ha moment for you, or the pivot point, towards pharmacy?
HH: The a-ha moment for me was when I had the position of tutoring chemistry. There was a tutoring center, it is called the IC at UDub [University of Washington] where you were able to tutor low-income, disadvantaged students. I was able to teach chemistry to some of my peers and colleagues and underclassmen. I found that I just understood science and chemistry specifically and it just came naturally to me. I saw the connection between chemistry and how to use that to help others in medicine, and that was kind of my a-ha moment. Then, I took that opportunity to explore more about what pharmacy was all about by talking to more pharmacists and learning about what they do. But the a-ha moment started when I was tutoring chemistry, and I was like, "What can I do with this chemistry, where can I take this?" And that led me to exploring pharmacy.
DK: Which graduate program did you attend?
HH: I went to Washington State University in Pullman, where I spent two years there and then a year in Spokane, and then a fourth year back in Portland, and then I graduated. So Washington State University.
DK: Anything you would like to say about pharmacy or that state of life for you?
HH: It was fantastic! I learned so much about myself, especially in Pullman, where it is a very small town and that was the first time I had lived in a small town, and not just about pharmacy, but being a Vietnamese American, because Pullman is predominantly a white town and so I remember the first week I moved into Pullman and I went shopping, I remember I was approached by an older white gentleman and he looked at me and came up to me and he goes, "What Asian are you? Can I ask, what is your background? Can I ask if you speak English?" He came at me and I said, "Oh my gosh, is this what I am going to have to deal with for the next two years?" But I took it almost as an education opportunity. I know most people in my shoes would have gotten stirred up or approached it differently, but I methodically told him, "I am Vietnamese American, yes I speak English, I was born here in Portland, Oregon." I just used it as an education opportunity because I think a lot of folks who have never seen an Asian person before—it is easy to feel offended by some of these questions, maybe the way they ask or how they can approach you. But that was the first time I had experienced that kind of questioning, especially from an older gentleman. I used that—being mellow and finding peace through pharmacy school because it can throw you ups and downs throughout the four years if you do not have a way to be mentally stable through the curriculum. So I think of that moment from time to time and I use that as a way to ground myself, that even when life throws at you lemons, you make lemonade and you make the most of it and keep on going, right?
DK: How did you end up coming back to Portland after pharmacy school?
HH: I was interning at Target pharmacy through pharmacy school—back when Target had a pharmacy, and now it is CVS—but when I interned for Target, they had a job opportunity right before I graduated, so I took that opportunity because I knew I wanted to come home to Portland. I figured eight years being out of state was enough time for me to finally come home. I think that internship when I was a pharmacy student definitely helped me get a job opportunity at Target. I came home and moved back in with my parents, where I grew up, right after I graduated. I moved back into my same old room like I never left [laughs].
DK: So now that you have been in Portland working professionally for quite some time now, I am curious, when have you felt most at home here in Portland, and what do you like most about the city and the community?
HH: I feel the most at home in Portland when I have all my family together. Whether it be eating dim sum at HK Cafe or whether it be just everyone hanging out at my grandma's house in Northeast Portland, it takes me back to how that was the case when I grew up. Most of my family on my mother's side live in Portland, so I am grateful enough to have all my aunts and uncles and cousins. They all live in driving distance in Portland. Any time the family gets together, no matter where it is, that feels like home. What was the second question, sorry.
DK: What do you like about the city of Portland and your community?
HH: I love how active the city of Portland can be. Sometimes, it can make it national news, not for positivity at times, but it is living in a progressive city, you can see how people are not afraid to speak up when they do not believe something is right and going back to what Ms. Montgomery told me in fourth grade, I feel that more so now than ever before. It is just so important to stand up for what you believe in and make sure that you use your voice to make change. I think I am proud to be in a city who really takes that to heart. That is what I am most proud of in Portland.
DK: Early in the interview, you talked about some of the bullying you experienced while at Benson. Are there some other challenges you have experienced in Portland, perhaps with racism or discrimination?
HH: Not so much racism and discrimination, I think because in Northeast Portland, there is a pretty high Asian population where I grew up, so I felt like there [were] enough people that looked like me, who have had similar experiences as me, so I did not feel like I was the odd one out. Even in the school systems, elementary, middle, and high school, it was a very diverse classroom. All my classrooms—even my teachers were diverse—so I never felt I did not belong. And I was pretty fortunate to have that because I did not find out until college that some other students did not have the same experience as me. I felt that I was pretty fortunate to grow up in such a diverse community. So no, I do not experience any racism or discrimination.
DK: Do you currently feel a connection to the Vietnamese community here in Portland as an adult?
HH: Yeah, I do. So this Saturday is the Lunar New Year Tết Festival, which growing up I would always be an attendee because of my father. And now, as an assistant professor at Pacific University School of Pharmacy, our pharmacy students are putting on health fairs at the Tết Festival. Now being a faculty advisor for these pharmacy students, putting on health screening services for the Vietnamese community, it is a whole 180 for me. It is just a really gratifying experience to be able to grow up as an attendee and now being able to participate in the health fairs and giving back to the Vietnamese community, it is such a rewarding feeling.
DK: I did not ask you earlier how you were able to become a professor and train the next generation of pharmacists. How did that come about?
HH: That was my ten year goal after I graduated pharmacy school. I knew that I wanted to go into academia, mainly because of the outstanding faculty I had at Washington State and my passion for tutoring at a young age. When I was in middle school, I was tutoring my cousins' math in my living room. I had a white board up in my living room and I would just go through math principles with my sister and my little cousins. But there was a difference, because they actually loved doing it. They loved coming over on the weekends in the summer to learn science and math from me. So that passion for teaching started at a young age and I knew that I wanted to go into academia. That was my ten year plan after I graduated. I graduated in 2014 and there was a position that opened up at Pacific in 2017 and I was referred to it by some close friends who I had, like, "Oh, you should apply for this!" I applied and I interviewed and now I am here. I am very grateful to be in this role a lot sooner than I expected! There is a thing about being in the pharmacy academia because I think if you look at the country, there are about two to three-percent of all pharmacy faculty that are of Asian descent. Two or three percent. That's it. If you look at the makeup of the pharmacy classroom, Asians make up a pretty large number—more than three percent—of the classroom. So going back to representation of faculty, I am just very proud to be able to be a part of that and increase that diversity at our institution.
DK: I am curious, as a pharmacist and health care professional and educator, what has it been like to work and teach over the last couple of years as we have been going through a pandemic?
HH: It has been hard. It is safe to say for all educators and all health care professionals, when it hit, we all had to adapt to the Zoom environment setting. So having one hundred students, black screens on Zoom, was tough. Balancing that with being on the front lines was even harder because at that time—that was kind of our calling, we knew what we had signed up for when we entered the health profession. So being on the front lines and serving our communities and being able to be in a position where you can tell students, "Hey, this is what we are signing up for." This pandemic is our chance to show people why we chose the pharmacy field. It was a very gratifying position to be able to be in those two positions and trying to balance that at the same time. Fast forward now, we are slowly transitioning back to be in person, because there are some things you just cannot teach over Zoom, like vaccinating people. You cannot teach that over the camera, students need to physically practice vaccinating in person to be able to learn that skill. So as much as we tried to adapt, we are trying to be more efficient with how we teach, and testing hybrid models and seeing what students prefer and how we meet their expectations and exceed them.
DK: I have a couple final questions that are taking a step back and looking at the community as a whole. I am wondering what differences you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans.
HH: I think the biggest difference I see is how to accept change. I think growing up with my father, he always instilled values of his life style growing up in Vietnam and trying to implement that here and some cases, as much as you want to take in all those teachings and principles, at the same time, you have to push back and say, "Hey, this is not how it is anymore, Dad. We are living in the US, it is not Vietnam anymore." How do you do that respectfully? That is the biggest challenge for a lot of the younger generation. I hate to get into politics, but the last election cycle was kind of a turning point for a lot of the contrast differences between the older generation and the younger generation because the older generation, from Vietnamese immigrant parents, are mostly conservative and are mostly Republican idealistic because of what happened in the Vietnam War. A majority of the younger generation tend to be more liberal and more democratic and that is when you start to see a lot of those tense conversations come up because that is when you see the differences between the ideals and values of the older generation are just not the same as the younger generation. As the younger generation, how are we able to have that conversation in a respectful manner and say, "Hey, we still love you as parents. We just sometimes do not see eye to eye on the same values." That is something that is pretty recent for a lot of us Vietnamese younger generation folks.
DK: In your mind, what role does being Vietnamese American play in your life?
HH: I think my role as a Vietnamese American is to pass on as much of those ideals and values from the older generation to the next generation and to remind the older generation that, "Your sacrifices will always be remembered. They will always be treasured and valued." And this is how I am going to do that. I am going to make sure I instill that onto the next generation and take in as much as I can now to be able to translate that and teach that as often as I can and be able to still be active in the community. To show up and be present whenever those community events occur and show that as much as this is important to you, this is important to me too. We are all in this together.
DK: I have actually come to the end of the list of questions I had in mind for today. I am wondering if there is anything that I have not asked you about that you would like to discuss or any stories you would like to share about your time growing up in Portland or your family or anything really. I would like to just give you the floor at this time.
HH: Thanks, Dustin. No, I think you hit all of the critical points in my life. I think it is not often that I share. It would be news to my parents if they ever hear this interview, but my message to folks who are listening is that—especially if they are of the younger generation—it is OK to go through struggles in life and it is okay to reach out for help. Looking back, I wish I had reached out for more help when I could, because a lot of times, I internalize that a lot. I did not tell a lot of folks that the bullying was happening, I did not tell a lot of folks that I was dumped in the trash can or I witnessed some drive-by shootings and gun violence. I did not tell anyone a lot of that. I think it is just because of mostly fear of what the consequences would be if I were to speak up. Going back, I wish I could have been a bit more vocal in knowing where to seek help and where to find those resources. That is my message for the younger folks listening. Don't be afraid to reach out for help, because it is not always easy to learn resilience and grit. Know that there is help around you when you need it. So I just want to emphasize that point, so thanks.
DK: Thank you. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley chatting with Huy Hoang. Today is Wednesday, January 19, 2022. Thank you so much for being with us today and for sharing some of your story.
HH: Thanks so much Dustin, I appreciate it.