EJ Carter: Ok this EJ Carter and Hannah Crummé. Today is January 19, 2018. We’re here with Thao Tu, the president of the Vietnamese Community of Oregon Organization. Thank you first of all for meeting with us.
Thao Tu: You’re welcome. It’s very nice to meet both of you and I’m ready for the interview.
EC: Great. Could you start just by telling us a little bit about yourself and your life in Portland?
TT: My name is Thao Tu. I came from Vietnam in July 1991. The city of Portland was the first city that I came. I left Vietnam on July 15, 1991 for Thailand. We spent ten days in Thailand’s refugee camp before we transferred to Portland, Oregon. You may ask why we had to stop at Thailand instead of going directly to the US. This is because before 1995 between Vietnam and the US, both sides didn’t have any diplomatic relationship.
EC: What part of Vietnam was your family from?
TT: We come from South Vietnam. We lived not very far from Saigon. Saigon was the old capital of Republic of Vietnam.
EC: What kind of work did your parents do?
TT: You mean before we came to the US?
TT: This is a long story. I was born in 1962, before I was born, my parents were both teachers. My dad was high school teacher and my mom was elementary school teacher. Then my dad had to join the South Vietnamese Army in March 1966. And after finish his military academy, he went to the Central Highlands of Vietnam and took a job over there, as an officer when he was the first lieutenant in 1967. Then from 1967 to 1975 we lived in Central Highlands. After the communists took over my hometown in Buôn Ma Thuột in Central Highlands, we went back to Phan Thiet, that is very close to Saigon now, and lived with my grandparents for sixteen years before leaving Vietnam for the US. After the war, my dad was in the POW camp, but Communists, they call “reeducation camp.” And they didn’t let my mom to continue teaching as an elementary teacher. We have had a very hard time to live over there. They call us -- in the US, we call it “secondary citizen.” Over there they call it bottomline of the society under the communist society. Not only for myself but also for my next generation; my sons. They count three generations; my dad, myself, and my children could not do anything, work for that kind of government.
EC: That was because your father had served in the military?
TT: Yes, served in the military. That military had a very close relationship with the US during the war. After he came home from the POW camp, he had to be under house arrest for another two years. Then they let him have Vietnamese citizenship with the ID card so he could go to vote. But, they always kept an eye on him -- and everyone who get involved in the former government like him in Vietnam.
EC: How long was he in the “reeducation” camp?
TT: He went to reeducation camp on June 19, 1975 and he didn’t come home until October 1981. I remember exactly. After finishing high school, my dad was still in the camp.
EC: And was he allowed, afterwards, to work as a teacher or did he have to find another kind of job?
TT: Yeah, he could not work as a teacher. He had to work for the corporation that make sea salt in my city. Somehow he quit that job and worked for another corporation that built houses for local people. He had two kinds of job after he finished his prison time. But they always kept eyes on him. Sometimes they called him up, so he had to report to the local police station and answer some questions if they had, and sometimes they directly visited us without any warning. Either in the daytime or nighttime. To make sure that we didn’t invite any stranger to stay with us.
EC: And where were you living at this time? Was it the same village … ?
TT: Oh yeah, I lived in the same house with my parents.
EC: Ok, and what was the name of that?
TT: Phan Thiet. It is a coastal city. Very close to Saigon, now they call Ho Chi Minh City. On the Northeast of Saigon.
EC: How was your life affected by this? Were you able to go to school?
TT: Yeah, after they attacked my hometown in Buôn Ma Thuột, at that time I was eighth grade. Here we call it, “middle school students.”
EC: That was 1975?
TT: 1975, yeah. With my age at that time, I could be in seventh grade because I was only twelve years old. Twelve, older than twelve years old. But I skipped my second grade, so I studied with the kids one grade higher than normal. And after 1975, after the country was under the communist regime, in November 1975 they had the general exam for every student in South Vietnam. We had to make a report that answered the father’s last name, first name, day of birth, and where he is working, and especially they asked us to report whether the mom or the dad was working for the former government. Everyone have to put the information on the application. It is simple, but it important so they can screen. With some normal people -- normal student -- they would let them go further in the education. But with us, they stopped there. I remember one day, after completing the exams, one week later I went back to the high school to check the result. They had a bulletin that put the name of the people to passed the test and with the grade, which class that they should go. I could not see my name.
EC: You were not listed at all?
TT: Yeah. From the top to bottom, looked over and over again I thought I should miss something, but nothing that I could see. And a younger lady, maybe older than me one or two years older, she turned around and she said that.... [pauses] Very emotional. Our life turned upside down. With kids, our school is so special. Not only kids in Vietnam but also every single kids in the world.
But eventually, I had one relative who is very close to my mom. He come back from the jungle, he had joined the Viet Cong force. He secretly left the family for what they call the National Liberation Front. Yeah, you are very familiar with that? During the Vietnam War. He talked to myself and my mom and he said, “This is so wrong. The father did something that the government didn’t agree and put him in jail. But the kid is innocent. So I have to do something for you. I would like to say that my kids was living in the South while I was secretly join the opposition force, but my kid was a registered nurse and was an engineer without any article.” So he made a really nice decision to bring me to the school and talk to the principal. And the principal said that, “Well, this is a special case, so I would accept him.” He was so brave that he accepted me in one of the classes. But he said he could not put me in the ninth grade with my ability. He put me in the eighth grade.
EC: But you were allowed to continue to go to school?
TT: Yeah I was allowed to continue. I was one of a few kids allowed to continue going to school.
EC: Wow. It was all because of a cousin who intervened?
TT: Yeah. They tried to prevent us to study so that we could not get into the system later.
EC: You were able to finish high school then?
TT: Yeah, I was able to finish high school in 1980. June 1980 I finished my high school. Then I applied for the National Exam with the Forestry College. And according to a friend of mine, who was familiar with somebody who grades the papers and that I did with the same time with him, I did have a good grade to go into that college. But, again, nothing happened [Laughs].
TT: I asked them, they said that, “Well, we could not say.” And I came to the province headquarter and asked them again. They said, “No I don’t have the answer for you.” But the third time, they gave me the answer. They said that, “Well, we could not do anything for you because your father was in reeducation camp. So please wait until your father comes home.” Then my father came home in 1981, and I apply for another education exam at a local college. And I passed the exam with very high score, but in low math and literature. I was the top student who get high score with 14.5 -- I do remember. And the rest is less than my point. But they turned my paper upside down again [laughs]. They said, “No you cannot do anything at all. Even your father came home from the camp, but you are the thirteenth class of citizen in society so no way that we accept you to get into a college.”
EC: So you had to start working?
TT: Yeah, I had to start working with the corporate factory that made mat and packets from, well it looked like a leaf but it is stronger and longer -- at least five feet longer. The oldest one could be six feet tall. And this would specially grow naturally in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. So make bamboo and packets with the same material like this.
EC: So like boxes?
TT: Boxes, yeah. And mats, like door mats. But before they process it, we had to let it dry under the sun for at least a day. [ … ] And we had to use a razor, we had a ruler and with the razor,you had to take it out to maybe two or three millimeters wide and then they had the hand made machine to weave it together. Very delicate job, yet very minimum pay [laughs.] They make that kind of products and they send to former Soviet Union. And from the former Soviet Union they send it to freedom country like Japan and France. So they made money by that. I worked for that corporation for four years. Then, one of my relatives had a friend who worked for the literature and sports department of the local area. He said that I could apply for a job at the printing company. So I applied for a job at the printing company. And at that time, I lie about my father’s rank in the army. I put only second lieutenant on my paper so I could be accepted to work for them. Then, they didn’t let me do some delicate job like putting letter into a mold and make the story. Now we don’t need to do that because we have computer. But at that time we had to pick up every single word and pick up the little upside mold and run it with the special machine and make a newspaper or a book. But they didn’t let me do that. I had to do some very heavy job; cutting paper by manual machine.
They had a very special machine that everytime we cut only a hundred pages. The knife was so sharp, we could cut up to two hundred pages like this. Cut by hand. [Laughs] Strong energy to do that. And cut paper with the Japanese machine is not high. At that time, Japanese -- I don’t know why -- they build the machine kind of low. But if you are tall, you don’t like to work with a real low machine because you have to bend your back. Then one day, they send to my factory a huge machine that I was so proud to be with that machine. It was made in the US in the, I remember, around the 1850s.
TT: Yeah. So they seized that kind of paper cutting machine from one of the big churches in Saigon. [Laughs] There’s no private media in Vietnam. Until now, I’m not sure. But at that time there’s no private media in Vietnam. So they seized the big machine from the church and put into the state-run printing company. And we had to do that -- it’s a tall machine.
EC: When did your family decide to come to the United States?
TT: At that time, we applied to leave Vietnam for the US under the sponsorship from my older uncle who left Vietnam in 1979. He lived in Portland at that time. Then...
EC: This was in the 1980s that you made this application?
TT: In 1984. My family decided had to leave Vietnam by applying to leave Vietnam with the Orderly Departure Program -- the abbreviation for that is ODP. Then the printing company, they open their file from the local police, they said, “Wow. That guy would leave Vietnam for some place in the world.” So they terminated me.
EC: Oh really? Just for making that application?
TT: Yeah, you are correct.
EC: Wow. And so it took about six years, or seven years, for the application to be approved?
TT: Seven years. If my older uncle still helped us to leave Vietnam for the US, I would not say it happened because he didn't have really nice income. He worked for University of Portland, but he received very low income. He worked for the kitchen over there and he had two … three kids with a wife who didn’t work. My family left Vietnam for the US under the Humanitarian Operation Program. That allowed who spent over three year in the so-called “reeducation camp” to leave Vietnam for the US. They had an agreement to expel all of us to the US. And they began that program at the end of 1990s. So the first people come to the US who had family members sponsor them for awhile. But for us, we didn’t go with that category. We go with the regular people who were allowed to leave Vietnam for the US under the main Humanitarian Operation and we only call H.O.7. They had many separate ordinary number, but we dropped into the seven.
EC: Did you stay with your uncle when you first arrived here?
TT: Yeah, exactly. I stayed with my uncle in the Halsey Square apartment. You were familiar with that right?
EC: I think so.
TT: Between Northeast Halsey and Northeast 66nd … 65, 66, and 67. Very big apartment building over there. We spent with him a week, and then he -- because three room apartment didn’t have enough room for four of us -- so he rent a separate one for us.
EC: So it was just you? Your parents didn’t come at the same time?
TT: Four of us. My parents, myself, and my younger brother. Four of us left Vietnam for the US at the same time.
EC: And then your uncle had the two children as well?
TT: He had three grown up children at that time.
EC: So yeah, that’s a lot of people in just one apartment.
TT: Yeah. So we had our own apartment over there. And we lived over there from 1991 until 2002 -- before we moved to Southeast Portland.
EC: And what kind of work did you do when you first came?
TT: First of all, December 1991, I first got a job from the company that hires people to do temp job. The beginning, on Northeast Halsey they have -- now that building belongs to David Douglas High School District -- but a long time ago it had one office inside that building, I remember. The beginning hiring company, I got a job to do with Evergreen. The Evergreen Company hire people during Christmas time to pick up Christmas material, boxes from airplane and transport them to a truck and deliver throughout the towns. And it was so exciting for me to work next to the airplane. Most of us came from the same time and we talked to each other like, “Wow if we was in Vietnam, they wouldn’t let us get very close to the airplane at all.” [Laughs] But now in the US, we was free to get in and get out of the airplane to put up thing and unlock things. I was very excited. We worked with a very cold situation, but again it was a very exciting job at that time. Then in the summer, I applied for a job at the Post Office. And I do remember, I could not remember the last name, but his first name is Ray. He worked for HR at Post Office. He interviewed me and he said that he was in Vietnam during the war. So I got the job at the Post Office, summer 1992. At that time it was a really good rate, at over $6.75 per hour compared to minimum pay at that time only $4.75.
EC: How long did you have that job?
TT: I got that job for my brother and I worked for the main Post Office for during the summer. And because we worked very hard, so they come to us and ask us to continue working with them. And they let us go home and think about that and the next day we come back, we said, “Sorry, we have to go back to school.” Because our English at that time was not strong enough, so we needed to go to school and learn more.
EC: Oh, ok. Where did you go?
TT: I went to Portland Community College. And I finished my three associate degrees at Portland Community College. The first one: Associate Degree of Arts. Second one: Associate Degree of Science. And the last one: Associate Degree of General Studies. Then I applied for the scholarship with the Ford Family Foundation. [EC: Oh, wow.] Do you know the Ford Family Foundation?
EC: Sure, sure.
TT: I was one of the students who got the Ford Family Foundation Scholarship in 1995.
EC: Oh great. And you used that to complete your studies at PCC?
TT: After I finished my college degrees, first I went to University of Portland. Then I changed my major. I went to Oregon Institute of Technology and I studied over there from 1997 to 2000.
EC: That’s in Ashland?
TT: Not in Ashland, in Klamath Falls. Actually, we had another university too. I think the Southern University of Oregon. Very nice city too, Ashland. Klamath Falls is different. Sunnyside all day -- all year long [laughs].
EC: And what did you study there?
TT: I studied for radiology and I earned a Bachelor Degree of Science in radiology in June 2000. One year after that, I got married. Got married in 2001. And we had our first child in April 2002. And now he is fifteen years old. He is studying at David Douglas High School with tenth grade. We had the second one in 2004. He is studying for eighth grade. [Referring to list of interview questions] So you have a lot of questions that is so interesting and you can follow the question and if I miss something you can go over and ask me.
EC: Yeah, hopefully we’ll get to most of these along the way. So do you still work as a radiologist?
TT: Yeah I am still working at Radiology Technologists, with a four year degree.
EC: At a hospital?
TT: Not at a hospital. I work at the Vancouver Clinic in Washington.
EC: Ok. And when did you get involved with the VNCO [Vietnamese Community of Oregon]?
TT: I got involved with the VNCO… I was invited to be secretary, I remember that time was 2008 to 2010. I worked for the VNCO for one year, 2008 to 2009. Then when they had the election, I turned my application for the election in 2014. But at that time, I didn’t get high enough votes to become the president. Aat that time, the president called me to work for her as the Internal Vice President from 2014 to 2016. Then in July 2016, I ran for president of the VNCO and I got a high score, over 400 votes and I become president of the VNCO until now.
TT: [Laughs] You’re welcome. A very special job.
EC: So does it take a lot of work?
TT: Yeah. I work full time, I have two kids, I have family. Luckily my wife helps me a lot and my dad also helps me to give my kids rides to school and pick them up. Sometimes I pick them up from school, but most of the time they go back home by bus. But with some outside, after school activities, like going to kung fu classes or attending basketball at school, my dad too helps me out.
EC: Your website at the VNCO says one of your aims is to preserve Vietnamese heritage. What are some of the ways that you do that?
TT: The way that we can preserve Vietnamese heritage, by organizing the traditional Vietnamese New Year with traditional music, dance, line dance, martial arts. On that occasion we can meet a lot of people in the city of Portland, not only in Portland but also in many different towns around Portland like Tigard, Milwaukie, Gresham, even Salem and Vancouver. We join together to celebrate the New Year. Then we have the Mid-Autumn Festival, especially for kids. And the Black April. We call it Black April Remembrance. Over there they celebrate the victory. Here we celebrate something so different. We will remember the day that they took over South Vietnam: April 30th, 1975. Time has been going so fast. Almost forty three years after the Vietnam War finished.
EC: So what role do you play in organizing these events?
TT: Actually, as the president, I have to take care of every single thing. But with every single event we have a project manager. So we work side-by-side with the project manager and the treasurer, to make sure that we have enough funds to fund the program.
EC: Do you hire them? Or do they volunteer?
TT: They volunteer. All of them volunteer. We hire some people to make backdrop or banners for us, but most of the jobs come from volunteers and the people who are members of the board.
EC: Are those events held at different places or do they tend to be fixed in location?
TT: Many years previously we have the New Year at the Convention Center. But they charged us too much. So this year we will celebrate the New Year at Holiday Inn. I sent you the invitation!
HC: Yes, we look forward to it. We’ll show up.
TT: Please show up!
HC: We’ll definitely be there.
TT: So both of you will be there, right? So you can observe what I am talking about.
HC: Yeah, it’ll be great. Thank you for inviting us.
TT: You are welcome. And I hope that Doctor Connie Truong will be with you too.
HC: Yeah. I hope to see her there.
TT: With the Mid-Autumn Festival, many years we celebrated at Vestal Middle School. Then the Parkrose High School. But last year we celebrated at Ron Russell Middle School -- very, very nice school that is next to my house. With Black April Remembrance, we organize that festival at Park Rose. And last year we organized at the gym at Northeast Gleeson and Northeast 102nd. But this year, we will hold that event at Ron Russell Middle School, April 28th, and if you have time you can come observe.
HC: Thank you.
EC: Could you tell us a little bit about VNCO’s youth programs?
TT: We have the connection with the Rose Heights Elementary School that has many kids to not study for English but also for Vietnamese, so we call it dual-language immersion program. We try to advocate and recruit more kids for that program. First we add the kindergarten class, then we add first grade, the second grade, and next year we will add the third grade. They are aged from five years old to ten years old. But we don’t have the special program for older kids like my sons. Like teenager kids, we haven’t had a program for that. But we always have the activity that the kids can participate, like martial arts, dancing, and singing for Mid-Autumn events.
EC: I see. So you recruit the students for performances at the VNCO events? And you have volunteer teachers who provide instruction?
TT: We have some music groups that come from a Vietnamese Sunday school. Here we have two Vietnamese schools on Sundays. The first one is Lac Hong in Beaverton and the second one is Van Lang at Southeast PCC. Each school has its own music group and we ask them to contribute to an event like Tet or the Mid-Autumn Festival. Not only for those but also kids can join the special program. Via the event, the kids will observe and learn about the Vietnamese culture.
EC: How are the Vietnamese language skills of younger generations? Vietnamese-Americans who are maybe born here, are they still learning the language? Do they still speak good Vietnamese? Or are you worried that people will lose their facility with the language?
TT: Like my kids? [Laughs] I would let you know about my kids. First of all, they listen to us speak in Vietnamese at home when they were little. But when they got into kindergarten, they learned English. So they come home and they speak to each other, or they can learn from the TV, and both of them speak to each other in English. Then they decided to talk to us in English. We talked back to them in Vietnamese. Of course, if they stay with us, in this conversation I would talk to them in English so that you both can understand what we are talking about. But just between me, my wife, and the kids, my wife and I talk to them in Vietnamese. They talk back to us in English. They understand Vietnamese. Then we leave home for work, they stay home with Grandmom. And Grandmom doesn’t speak English, so [with emphasis] They have to speak Vietnamese with Grandmom [Laughs].
EC: So they’re still good at it.
TT: They learn more and more about that. And they know how to write, they know how to read, and they know how to write a short essay in Vietnamese. And sometimes I text them in Vietnamese and they answer my texts in English. But, the second son, yesterday he typed back in Vietnamese. [Laughs]
EC: So you’re happy with their knowledge of Vietnamese?
TT: Yeah, I’m happy with that.
EC: And would you say that’s true of most young people?
TT: That is true with most young kids that have family members who value the Vietnamese and connect them to go to school every Sunday to learn Vietnamese with other kids.
EC: So your children do that too?
TT: Yeah. Some of the families, for some reason, they don’t have time to bring kids to the school -- kids at home can speak Vietnamese, but they don’t know how to write in Vietnamese. But my kids can. I would say that they are very good in writing and speaking in Vietnamese.
EC: Oh good. What school do they go to on Sundays?
TT: The Van Lang Vietnamese School. That school has almost five hundred kids. Some kids study in the regular school, and they are now eighteen years old. But with the Vietnamese school, they may stay until eighth grade or ninth grade. It depends on what age the family decides to bring them to Sunday school. So we try and try to ask them to speak Vietnamese and learn Vietnamese. And we have the advantage that Grandmom stays home from early morning until the end of the day. So without us at home they talk to each other in English, but they have to talk to Grandmom in Vietnamese.
EC: They have no other option.
EC: Are there any other differences between younger and older Vietnamese-Americans that you notice in terms of maybe political attitudes or maybe attitudes towards Vietnam or Communism? Things like that?
TT: Yeah, like my kids, they themselves choose very sensitive topics … like when they were elementary school, both of them choose the topic of the Vietnam War. Very basic, but they knew how to identify which one is the flag of the current government, which one is the flag of the former government and why people here don’t honor the communist flag. We honor and we call the yellow flag with the three red stripes our heritage and freedom flag. So they know about that. And they know what happened during the war by asking. They even interviewed my dad too. They wrote a paper. And they learn from the internet and from books about the Vietnam War. They know about that.
EC: Have you been back to Vietnam?
TT: Since I left in 1991, I went back when I was in university [ … ] in 1998, the first time. And the second time in 2009 with my kids and my wife.
EC: So they’ve been there too?
EC: How did they like it?
TT: They didn’t say, but they told me, “Wow they saw the flag over there is different.” But I already told them about that. So they didn’t ask any questions at all. They said nothing. There is the flag that we saw that we talked about. Nobody asked them any questions about politics at all because they were so small at that time. At that time, my first son was only seven years old and the second one was only five years old. They were little!
EC: Do you think it was a mistake that the United States normalized relations with the Vietnamese government in the 1990s?
TT: In 1995. Under the Clinton Administration.
EC: Did you support that or did you disagree with that decision?
TT: I would say that at that time I was neutral, because at that time I was not a US citizen. I still had a Green Card. I became a US citizen in 1997. But anyway, we had to obey and honor whatever the US government made a decision with the government over there. I think it’s too long for the process to become normal [Laughs]. Of course.
EC: So you’re in favor of reconciliation between the two countries?
TT: Yeah. [ … ] If I had the opportunity to say something at that time I would say that, “Well the US Government tried to normalize relationship with the Vietnamese communists over there. However, the US Government needs to tell them that they need to obey human rights and need to release POWs from their secret camps.” They still keep a lot of former officials who worked for the Republic of Vietnam’s government. Around 1997, they released all of them after President Clinton visited them. But a lot of people, they oppose the relationship between Vietnam and the US at that time. I remember. Not only on newspaper, but also they protested by peaceful demonstration. But we cannot turn the history away, we have to move on.
EC: Are there other ways that the war continues to affect Vietnamese-Americans in Portland, do you think?
TT: The war had a lot of effects on their memory; like my parents, when we meet with each other we still bring grievous memory about the war. Like myself, my house was destroyed by a communist rocket and I was so lucky to survive. My dad was not home at that time. We lost him for almost three months and then after they took control of Saigon he went home from Saigon to stay with us for maybe a month before he had to report to the local authority. They sent him to the jungle and they moved him through many different camps before he got released from the camp. First -- communist military unit. They took care of the POW prisoners. Then they had the strong police force. They had to deal with Chinese invaders in the north and Khmer Rouge in the South, so they transferred him to police hands and police controlled him harder. They worked very hard and received very little portions of rice everyday. My dad didn’t have lunch. In the morning they gave him enough food to eat and then let him be hungry until four or five o’clock and then eat one more meal before going to bed everyday.
EC: Do people talk about these experiences or do they mostly keep quiet about them?
TT: People talk about that in newspapers. Everyone had a memory to write down, express their feelings, express their story in newspapers -- in Vietnamese newspaper. Some of the stories were published in English, but most of the stories were published in Vietnamese. If people want to know about the past history, when they had to spend in reeducation camp, they need to follow the story in the newspapers.
EC: When were those stories collected? Do you remember?
TT: I think that story was collected after the first majority of people left Vietnam for the US in the late 1980s. After they got home from the camp and they secretly sneaked out of the country by boat or by foot. So when they were in a freedom country like the US, they would remember and write the story and put the story in a newspaper [ … ].
EC: Well I think that is all the questions that we had prepared. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about yet that you would like to talk about?
TT: Let’s see.
HC: You might ask a little bit more about your first impressions of Portland.
TT: First impression of Portland? When I was on the airplane from San Francisco to Portland and one of the American passengers asked me “Where is your destination.” I said, “Portland.” He said, “Wow. This is a really nice city. You can see full trees and green forests.” And when the airplane passed one area, he point me to a very green area. I came here in July, and that year was very dry. There was no rain during August and September. And that year there was no snow. 1991, no snow [laughs]. So I didn’t enjoy seeing any snow in 1991. The first snow I saw in 1992. First impressions? I come from the city that is very hot. Vietnam is very humid. Portland is very nice, very cold. And especially this is a free and democratic country, different from Vietnam. When I talked to my dad last night, when we first left Vietnam for Thailand, our first step out of the airplane and on to Thailand soil, wow, very impressed. So we talked to each other and we said, “Wow, we have freedom.” [ … ] We left Vietnam for Thailand, at that time Tan Son Nhat airport was still under some construction, so we had to walk to the airplane and police stayed on both sides, left and right. We had to walk to the airplane and they kept an eye on us. Also they opened every suitcase to search for something that they said they wouldn’t allow us to bring to the US. Maybe they wanted to make sure we didn’t bring any sensitive material to the US. I remember, we had to bring some family albums, some very important papers like birth certificates or release from reeducation camp to prove that my dad spent more than seven years in the prison. They saw this, and they put the seal that they had already searched it. But, one, they opened again one time. I saw one of the policemen open it again. I told him, “Sir, one of your guys already searched the papers.” He said, “I want to make sure that everything is correct.” So he opened it and searched it again. Very interesting to search twice for something.
EC: How long were you in Thailand?
TT: Eleven days because they waited until they had enough passengers so they can transfer us to the US. You didn’t ask me if I identify strongly with the South Vietnamese government.
EC: Oh right.
HC: Did you?
TT: Yeah. Of course [laughs]. I was born in South Vietnam. I was lucky. Some people say I was so unlucky because I was born during the war, but I was lucky living in South Vietnamese government control for almost thirteen years. I still remember the life over there. During the war, not very excited -- very worried, very scared. But this is a freedom country. Half of the country under freedom. And the other half belongs to the communists.
EC: What does freedom mean to you? How would you define freedom?
TT: Even during the war in Vietnam I remember I liked to read newspapers when I was around fifth grade. People can say something different with the government. If you disagree you can say something different, it’s not too wrong. Because they can use the curfew law and tell you, “well you cannot say something that is so bad to the government.” But at a certain level you can criticize the government in the south. Even the students who studied at many universities in South Vietnam, they marched on the street to oppose the war. Of course, the South Vietnamese police arrested them. And with some people they sent to Côn Đảo, and they had a hard time over there. But some they release and allow them to go back to school. I do know that the Viet Cong, they planted their spies in many students groups like that to create a situation worse. Half of the country before the war was the freedom side because we were allied with the US. We earned some certain [ … ] rights that are honored in the US and applied to South Vietnam. We are in the freedom bloc. In contrast, on the other side, Communism.
EC: Were there any other questions that maybe we missed?
TT: I remember one of the very interesting questions that you asked, “Why do you think South Vietnam lost the war?” Of course, we lost the war because the people in the US, they marched on the street to oppose the war. They did not want the US to get involved in the Vietnam War. It is understandable because 58,000 Americans lost life in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their ability to have a normal life whenever they got out of the army or the airforce or the navy. It is true.
And also South Vietnam lost the war because after January 27, 1973 at that time I remember I was younger than eleven years old, the US, South Vietnam government, North Vietnam government, and the Viet Cong signed the Paris Agreement that the US would gradually withdraw completely out of Vietnam without any support to South Vietnam, by all means, because of the US Congress referendum doing that. Then the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were allowed to stay wherever they already stayed in South Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam’s government did not like that. But they had to accept that. They knew that one day, when the US withdrew from Vietnam, North Vietnam would attack South Vietnam. So, North Vietnam received aid, weapons, medicine, and food from the former Soviet Union and especially Red China and the entirety of the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe. They used Laos and Cambodia as a good way to sneak into South Vietnam. But at that time, the US stopped aiding South Vietnam’s government, so we had to fight by ourselves and we lost the war.
EC: So you think it was just a matter of time after that?
TT: Yeah, just a time after that. My dad said that we ran out of ammunition [ … ] and we didn’t have air support from the US, like B-52 drop bombs which would pacify the area before we entered, and the US didn’t do anything on the Ho Chi Minh Trail like they did before or during the war, especially from 1965-1973, the US kept an eye on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and attacked every movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. From 1973, Communist forces were free. They moved South freely. So during the war, it took them at least a year to bring ammunition from North to South. But after 1973, it took them only one month to move ammunition or their people from the North to the South. Communists, we had experience with them, they tell us one thing, but they do something different.
TT: And right now, the US and the government over there have a [ … ] we say a [ … ] very weird relationship [laughs]. We have different systems, but they are still working together.
HC: Are there other questions that were on the list that we think we should particularly cover.
TT: Let’s see. “First impressions of the US?” I already answered it. Very nice city and we enjoyed freedom when we lived here. [ … ] “What local public or political issues are most important to the Vietnamese community?” Of course. I discussed with my dad this morning, even the people who don’t say anything, who are so quiet. Being quiet does not mean that they agree with the Communist government over there. Maybe they are quiet because they don’t want the police over there stopping them from getting into Vietnam to visit their family members. This is so important; family. Family is so important to the Vietnamese. This is the reason they live here and don’t say anything at all. Tet Event, Mid Autumn Event, they come out and enjoy with us. But some special political event like Black April, they will stay home. The people who often enjoy the events, who are very similar to me, we don’t care. This is the freedom country. We want to express our opinion. We want to say our idea. Opposed against Communists, we would say “liberal” or “conservative” -- we always have that certain level. With liberals, we don’t like communists. We know that communism is not a good choice for Vietnamese or the rest of the world. But we don’t do anything abruptly or aggressively. We know that it is one that will collapse. China communists, gone. But they are so far away, probably not my generation. My next generation -- far away generation. And conservatives? They talk too loud and they always want to do something but in reality they cannot do anything at all. The people who are in the liberal side, they say what they want and what they need to do. Very reality based. The people who are very conservative, there is something in their mind [ … ]. Of course we can join hands and we can work with each other, but it is hard to make a common decision.
HC: Is there anything else you think is particularly important for us to cover?
TT: If you follow the news, if you read the news from the US embassy to Hanoi you can say that sometimes the US says something that makes the government over there [ … ] they don’t like [what the government says] about some [ … ] conscientious people, or people who are nonviolent. They just want the government to change their policy to honor some certain human rights, and they put them in jail. Of course, the people who support conservative foreign policy positions, they are only on the Republican side. I’m on the Democratic side, so I’m different from the people who are on the Conservative side.
EC: What about the nineteenth question? What groups do you take part in or rely on? Besides the VNCO are there other organizations that you are involved in?
TT: Oh. Besides, the VNCO I am a member of the APANO
EC: What’s that?
TT: APANO is the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon that includes a group of islands on the Pacific Ocean and also many countries like the Philippines, Taiwan, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia. Their new office is being built right now at the corner of SE Divisions and SE 82nd.
HC: Were there any organizations that particularly helped you when you arrived?
TT: When we first came -- thank you for asking -- when we first came, we got help from the La Vang Church. At that time we had USCC, United States Catholic Conference, and we got many first lessons about how to adapt our life in the US; how to apply for a job, how to observe different culture, how to honor different culture between Vietnamese and Americans. At that time, IRCO, I’m not sure it had some similar abbreviation as IRCO right now but a different title, Immigrant Refugee of Oregon. Do you remember? Maybe I am correct, in 1990s. Any of us above eighteen years old, we had to take the bus to their office at Northeast Burnside and Northeast 11th or Northeast 9th to learn about new culture, learn about how to write the application, how to ask the store to provide us the application, to fill out the application with references, and we turn it in to apply for a job. We had to do some practice too. I remember, one day I had to go to different stores like Burger King, McDonalds, or some other [ … ] companies to apply for a job. Practice again and again until we are very familiar with that. It is a very nice process. I believe that IRCO now is still helping the people who first come to the US to get through that process.
EC: We’ve already talked to some people over there and are hoping to work with them some more on this project. They seem to be a real pillar of the community.
HC: Are there any people from IRCO or Our Lady of Lavang or any other organizations that you think we should particularly speak to?
TT: At IRCO, Doctor Connie Truong, I believe that she is working for IRCO. But from my community, I need to ask them first before I can say. I need information from them to see if they are willing to be interviewed by you two. That would be great because you can listen to, not only my story, but also different stories and make a really nice book [laughs]. Is it a history? History document, right?
HC: Right. So we’re interested in collecting a lot of histories to get a broad sense of how it has been for the community in Portland specifically. We’re quite interested in speaking to a lot of people to get a sense of how the community has developed and changed over time.
TT: I would say that all people have his or her own different story to tell you. I may tell my story so differently from the people who are younger than me. Maybe even the same family. Maybe me and my brother have different stories to tell you. My brother said that he cannot remember much [laughs]. Is he ok? But the younger generation, they would say something different too. Because they grew up over their too long and they observe and they live with different perspectives.