Kim Nguyen on being a refugee from Vietnam
Interview by Anne Morin
Date: June 14, 2005
1 Disc, 80:58, 6 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 17:05
ANNE: Introduce yourself.
KIM NGUYEN: I am Kim Nguyen and I’m originally from Saigon, Vietnam.
ANNE: Family, school…
KIM NGUYEN: I came from Saigon originally from a family of six other siblings, three brothers, three sisters, and I attended a catholic high school.
ANNE: Mom & dad?
KIM NGUYEN: My mom was a manger for a big post office in Saigon and my mom was a homemaker.
ANNE: What was school like?
KIM NGUYEN: Very strict. The nuns made sure we followed the discipline, and the teachers were also strict. We had to be good students, passing all the tests.
ANNE: Were you happy?
KIM NGUYEN: My childhood was very happy. My father was a dedicated father. He made sure we got what we needed and he would never eat a meal before all of us were home. In Vietnam we have a lunchtime between 12 and 2:30 so he’d pick us up at school, eat lunch, take a nap, and take us back. My mom was strictly a homemaker and felt her job was to take care of her children and husband. She still does. She had children over a 20-year span.
ANNE: Where does she live?
KIM NGUYEN: With me and my son. It’s a three-generation home.
ANNE: How did you end up in the US the first time?
KIM NGUYEN: I was an exchange student for American Field Service exchange service in 1971 and I was chosen among many students who, a lot wanted to go to the US so you had to go through a lot of tests, interviews, and I was one of fourteen. Each year they choose 10 to 15, it’s a cultural exchange student program.
ANNE: What year?
KIM NGUYEN: ’71. The war was going on in Vietnam and I went to Vancouver, Washington and all the students asked me about the war in Vietnam and what it was like to grow up and whether I saw communists.
ANNE: What did you tell them?
KIM NGUYEN: We grew up in Saigon, a large city, and things were normal because the war happened in the countryside, so we didn’t experience the direct impact, just once in a while the roads are not safe so you pay higher prices for food. You get terrorist attacks in a theater, a grenade, but people just move on. Like a country that has earthquakes. And you just live your life as normally as possible.
ANNE: Luck was important. Explain.
KIM NGUYEN: I think the first, luck happens when I was chosen as an exchange student. I was on a waiting list, they were waiting for a host family. My host family was going to accept a girl from Thailand. Their daughter had gone to Malaysia and the girl from Thailand decided not to go. I was on a waiting list and they told me I could go to Vancouver, Washington. That was the luckiest. The second piece of luck was when I came back the second time there was a student I had made friends with at Evergreen Army and he was in intelligence in Germany and he wrote me and said Kim, get out of Vietnam. So I wrote my American family and they said come over. So I left in February, two months before the takeover. So I never experienced the drama after Saigon. And with my American family to support me, I had a very nice family that helped me going through hard times. They paid for my tuition and I was still an international student so the tuition was very high. It was $800 a semester. They were very generous.
ANNE: Your American mom.
KIM NGUYEN: My American mom. And I still call her mom. And I have two families, my Vietnamese family and my American family. I keep in touch with them for the last thirty years.
ANNE: Your family was still in Vietnam.
KIM NGUYEN: A group of them, two sisters and one of the oldest sisters’ family tried to escape by boat, they left in ’79. I sponsored them over. And then I sponsored the rest of the family directly. When she escaped by boat, she wrote my family and said don’t escape by boat.
KIM NGUYEN: She was robbed 30 times by pirates and there was no equipment left on the boat so they were floating. My nephews, they had to drink urine in order to survive. She wrote to my parents and said never try to escape by boat, wait for Kim to do the paperwork.
ANNE: When were you able to bring them over?
KIM NGUYEN: 1985. You have to become a citizen first. It takes five years to become a citizen and it take me another five years to get them out. Which was a lot quicker than now. Now it could take 10, 15 years to get someone out of other countries.
ANNE: when did you get married?
KIM NGUYEN: 1979. I met my husband here. He was also by himself. He was in a navy and escaped in a navy boat. Both of us tried hard to get our families out of Vietnam. His family escaped by boat and ended up in France. And the irony was my husband went to France to visit them because his father was almost killed in a car accident. And he came back to Portland, Oregon and two months later he died in an accident.
ANNE: Your husband died.
KIM NGUYEN: He was fishing. He fell off the river. Just on Marine drive. He was climbing out on those logs and he just fell into the river. So the father survived and my husband came home and died two months later. But we kept the information away from my father-in-law because he wouldn’t have come to the US. I went and brought 24 people. I found out after my husband passed away that I was ten weeks pregnant. That was pretty tragic. But after Dominic was born, all of his family is here and my sister’s family is here. And then the rest of the family came from Vietnam. I bring about 40 people altogether. And I also sponsor some of the foster children’s families. We did foster care for Vietnamese kids.
ANNE: What was that like?
KIM NGUYEN: because I was here by myself and I knew it was so important to have a family, someone to be with, so we decided to have foster children, Vietnamese kids with no relatives. It was very rewarding. We had different groups of siblings. Altogether about 15 kids. And there was one group I sponsored to come over. They live in Portland now. We had four or five sibling groups and many of them are married now and have kids so they bring their kids over to see my mom.
ANNE: Tell us about your jobs.
KIM NGUYEN: the first job was a social worker with the Indo-Chinese unaccompanied minors. Those were the first kids we sponsored, with no relatives. We make sure they go to school, get a diploma, and then we emancipate them.. So I was doing that for seven years and we had over 120 kids. My case load was about 25.
ANNE: Who did you work for?
KIM NGUYEN: Lutheran Family Services. It was mostly a counseling center, but they also did unaccompanied minors. It’s mainly non-profit and their mission is to help people. They help people find spiritual ideals that they’re looking for. Help people like refugees, looking for jobs for them, making sure they settle in the US successfully. You have to believe in the mission but you don’t have to be religious.
ANNE: Then what?
KIM NGUYEN: I decided to go back to school and I ran into the director of ESL at the time and he recruited me to work for Portland Public Schools, so I became a multicultural specialist with the ESL program. When I first started they were having problems with Amerasian children.
TRACK 2 – 20:22
ANNE: You worked at PCC.
KIM NGUYEN: That was teaching. That was just a short time, about a year and a half.
ANNE: Tell us about that.
KIM NGUYEN: My first job was working at Burger King before I was able to find anything. And then I worked at Sears and then I went to work for PCC. They had lots of refugee adults. So I did a program where you did training and got paid at the same time. So it was an ESL program to adult refugees.
ANNE: What was that like?
KIM NGUYEN: Everything was going well until one woman asked me if I could teach upper level ESL and she said I was more comfortable teaching lower level ESL. I think we took it on to the next level. And I met with some people at HR at PCC and one of the deans met with me and they said because the co-worker is African American woman they said there is someone behind you. They said the other woman is well-intentioned. It’s not because she has racial bias against you. I was very young and naïve. And I expressed my thoughts and later on, I still see that African American lady and exchange emails. But now that I’ve been here a lot longer I can see the subtleties of the biases. Perceptions can be dangerous because if you are perceived you can’t do the job, they put you in a box. I felt as intimidated but I didn’t know how to put it.
ANNE: But you stood up for yourself.
KIM NGUYEN: I met with two people. One from personnel and the dean. It was scary because these people were at the top. They were afraid I might go further than them.
ANNE: Now back to Lutheran Family Services and the Amerasian program.
KIM NGUYEN: We had a lot of Amerasian kids, those GI soldiers had left behind. We sponsored them over. Many of them felt America owed them something, so they came with an attitude that they are Americans from Vietnam and they should be privileged. They should be treated special. So they all came with that demanding attitude. And then they realized, especially those who are African American, Amerasian kids that it’s not that way. America wanted to forget the war and they were reminders of the war. They still had to do things and pay their dues and work and go to school.
ANNE: Did they experience more prejudice?
KIM NGUYEN: In Vietnam they experience more prejudice but over here people don’t know who they are.
ANNE: And then?
KIM NGUYEN: PPS. We started out with a social work counseling model where you go to schools and run support groups, make sure they get along, make sure teachers understand them, make sure perceptions about them are not prejudiced. You are an advocate for them in that setting.
ANNE: Was there prejudice among teachers?
KIM NGUYEN: Most teachers are well-intentioned. You run into some bad apples, and some misunderstand behaviors, but they start out with good intentions. Many were not well-educated, they were hiding from war, so they didn’t have intact homes, and their behaviors are different. Ever since I started with Lutheran family services I work with troubled kids. I work with kids in trouble with the law at Donald Delong Home. I make decisions about where they stay. That’s all kids. There are very few Asian kids. I know they commit crimes, but for some reason they haven’t been in the system that much. The percentage is limited. It’s mixed. Mostly car theft.
ANNE: not many gangs?
KIM NGUYEN: Car theft is the way for them to support a drug habit. So stealing cars in order to buy drugs and that’s how they get involved in the penal system. Car thefts, some burglaries, some times assault with family members. Families who have trouble raising kids in this country. And some runaways.
ANNE: Tell us about families having difficulties.
KIM NGUYEN: When the parents come to this country and if they’re not equipped with the language and cultures there’s a big gap between parents and kids. If the parents are not able to educate their kids the kids are not taught the proper ways of American life. They pick up TV culture, and they want instant gratification, like any teenager here. There are a lot of kids who join gangs because they want protection. They think they have discrimination so they join a gang for protection. And the third thing is to be something. To show the world you belong to something. If you don’t belong to the dominant culture or your own culture, that’s what it does to you. But deep down they’re good kids.
ANNE: Kids I know have complained about discrimination in schools. Has that abated with time?
KIM NGUYEN: It’s not so much discrimination, it’s the way our system is set up. Kids have to be assimilated. If they are familiar with the language, it’s easier for them to be acculturated or assimilated, but if they’re not, they have a problem. It’s hard for teenagers to be different. There’s a lot of racial baiting going on. Nowadays you will see Russian kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids, they all sit separately. And then you have black kids and white kids. Our system hasn’t helped kids intermingle. But it’s not easy. A s a human person you always hang around with who you’re comfortable with. Many kids can be acculturated but it doesn’t mean they’re comfortable. It’s hard for them to hang around groups that are different. Easy said, but not easy done.
ANNE: How important is Vietnam in the home?
KIM NGUYEN: For us, for my family, either you are acculturated, if you are in-between you are not a good American citizen and not a Vietnamese citizen. If you can be a good American citizen, I am happy with it. Or a Vietnamese citizen, that is good. But there are some kids who cannot do that. There are some who can do both. There is nothing bad about being totally Vietnamese or totally American. But those who are marginal cannot blend cultures.
ANNE: Can I ask your opinion about today’s wars? Do you see similarities?
KIM NGUYEN: There are some similarities but I wouldn’t say completely. With Vietnam it was a lot more complex. With Iraq there was an intended plan. With a republican in office we tend to be more aggressive with other countries. There are some similarities, but I wouldn’t say situations are the same.
ANNE: You’re dealing with kids from that part of the world.
KIM NGUYEN: Iraq kids? I haven’t had any experience with them. We’ve had Somalian and people from Urdu, but nobody from Iraq. At Marshall.
ANNE: Other things you would like to talk about?
KIM NGUYEN: I think it doesn’t matter how long you live here, we will always be Vietnamese-Americans. Allow us that uniqueness. We have been here a long time too. But the most important thing to note are the contributions of Vietnamese Americans or whatever country they came from-Americans. That’s why we are so unique. Because of being here, that’s why we can live that life. I am thankful to be here and also to be aware of the uniqueness of our position. Asking for more flexibility and understanding.
ANNE: What contributions?
KIM NGUYEN: Politically I think people are more consciousness about the Vietnam War. They will always remember Vietnam. There are so many gifts and talents, partly because they came from a war-torn country so talents developed. Especially in politics, in social welfare, in medical, science, engineering. All areas you can see. Which is very surprising to me because these skills wouldn’t be developed if we were in Vietnam. We wouldn’t have resources for skills, especially in arts. Arts are always neglected over there. I see so much talent and now they combine the east and the west in the arts. When they do that play, the bilingual play downtown. Shakespeare. That was wonderful. I was able to see that. A lot of amazing talents we wouldn’t have been able to develop. Computer skills, chemical skills. We are business-minded people. Every country that has refugees settling there always has success stories. Electronics, industries, success stories.
TRACK 3 – 0:58
ANNE: What do you think about your upbringing prepared you?
KIM NGUYEN: One of the things that is important for me is to have the stability of a family.
TRACK 4 – 2:11
KIM NGUYEN: With my father, I was lucky to have such a dedicated father. I was less respectful of my mom and I didn’t understand her role in helping the family succeed. I always thought of Vietnam as being sexist. My father said it doesn’t matter if you are a boy or girl, I want you to succeed. The cultural piece for me is you don’t take life for granted and you always have respect for the elderly, for the past. Because the past connects with the present and the future. If someone does something for you, you need to remember that. The relationship between people is a lot more important than the individual aspect of yourself. It’s not a right, that you were born with. Everything you get, it’s a privilege and you have to earn it. To pay back is an obligation, to take care of the elderly, and to take care of your family. All these things combined make a person very strong.
ANNE: The unspoken agreement that you take care of your parents. It’s changing a bit. Have you seen that?
KIM NGUYEN: Yeah, it’s happening. Even with that, they’re trying to meet the needs of the elderly.
TRACK 5 – 5:56
KIM NGUYEN: For example, here in Portland we have a couple of foster homes just geared for the Vietnamese elderly folks and we have groups of people who are setting up places where they can be hanging out together, like the Vietnamese senior center in Hollywood, so they are responding to situations where people cannot take care of the elderly. The Chinese built the center in NW Portland for Chinese senior citizens, learning how to respond to the changing environment. But we try to keep the elderly at home as long as possible. Like my mom, if something happens where she cannot take care of herself, then one of us will stay home.
ANNE: That’s wonderful. A lot of people I’ve interviewed have been educated, so they seem successful. We know all Vietnamese are not well-educated. What can you tell us about that?
KIM NGUYEN: In ’75 you and I both know that. We had a saying, if you put an Asian kid in the closet, they would do well. But it’s changed a lot. I have parents who don’t know the name, location of the school. They cannot tell anything beyond they go. We have parents who work a couple of jobs. We have parents who are divorced. We have domestic violence, we have child abuse. I run into Vietnamese families where kids are taken from the homes. We run into a host of social problems just like any other American families. And they’re not familiar with the language or how to navigate the system, so in a way they’re in worse shape than an average American family. And for families whose children are in the legal system, it’s even scarier. Some kids are committing measure 11 offences and they don’t understand how to help their kids in the legal system. But what is more difficult for our parents is that they don’t have the help that they need. They don’t know how to access the help. There needs to be someone to help them the system and explain to them how to help.
ANNE: The help is there?
KIM NGUYEN: The agencies that serve mainstream don’t know how to help people with language or social barriers. The help is limited. The problem is worse. We do have a few things: Asian Family Center, IRCO, the refugee program at the hospital. But it’s limited.
KIM NGUYEN: In the schools we have bilingual assistants and in the social service agencies we try to hire bilingual people. But it’s limited, and it’s diverse. We have a lot of diverse people living in Portland.
ANNE: Hard to know how many interpreters. What are future plans?
KIM NGUYEN: Just living an ordinary life is hard, like anybody else. trying to get your retirement in place, and I just work with my family, making sure they’re okay, and get a decent pension, and go back to Vietnam to visit again.
ANNE: Been back?
KIM NGUYEN: Just once. I wasn’t back for almost twenty years, so it was different. Very hot, humid.
TRACK 6 – 34:24
ANNE: Still have family?
KIM NGUYEN: I still have aunts and uncles and cousins. They were very happy to see me and I was happy to see them, but he people are different because they lived with the communists for so long.
KIM NGUYEN: It’s not as peaceful as it used to be and your life is a lot more competitive and you have to worry about the security is not there as it used to be. They worry about changes in government, currency, and whether they can do the same business. They have to live very fast, and for today.
ANNE: Dominic. Your son has just graduated.
KIM NGUYEN: Finally. From Portland state with a degree in geography. He’s hoping to go back to Vietnam because he’s never been to Vietnam. He was born here. And I want him to because if he goes back to Vietnam he’ll have a better sense of appreciation about what he has. He’ll have a sense of Vietnam, the cultural values, and for him to see where he came from. He would like to teach if possible. He wants to teach ESL in Vietnam. I would be happy for him to do that. I think he would grow up a lot. It would help him gain his maturity. You have to compete and learn to navigate the system with the communist government, so he’ll learn to do many thing she hasn’t had to do here. I have a lot of confidence in Dominic, he’s sharp and can take care of himself.