Quy Nguyen

Quy Nguyen, Vietnamese refugee
Interview by Anne Morin
Date: June 14, 2005
1 Disc, 74:54, 6 Tracks

TRACK 1 – 22:34

ANNE: Talk a bit.

QUY NGUYEN: Hello. I’m Quy Nguyen.


QUY NGUYEN: I’m Quy Nguyen and today I get an interview by Anne Morin about my culture and I’m so glad to have my interview.

ANNE: Do it again.

QUY NGUYEN: I’m Quy Nguyen and today I have interview with Anne Morin to talk about my culture and our family and I’m so glad I have this interview.

ANNE: Tell me about your childhood, family, schooling.

QUY NGUYEN: My family we live in Saigon and we have twelve siblings and two adopted sisters, so all together we have fourteen siblings and we all grow up in the south of Vietnam. My, when I was little I went to French school from elementary to high school.

ANNE: Explain.

QUY NGUYEN: French school. I was born in a city called Naturan. And I start kindergarten at the French school which called Colege de Frances. And I got into fifth grade I moved to Saigon and I continued to have French school that call Le Lorie. Then in high school I move to a city called Dala, a beautiful city. It looked like Oregon here. And I went to high school, Catholic School. It’s called Kuvan Dusaso. And I graduate from that school.

ANNE: So you are literate in French?

QUY NGUYEN: Yes. I was very good in French language but since I came here I haven’t used very much and I think I forget a lot.


ANNE: So you went to two different schools?

QUY NGUYEN: Three. In three different cities. First, Naturan is kind of like a student central of Vietnam. And then my family moved to Saigon and I went to French school there. And then when I went to high school my parents decided for me to move to only a few of my siblings that include me we went to Dala for school there where I went to a catholic school. I graduate from that school. 1973. And after I graduate there I went back to Saigon and I went to University of Law in Saigon for about one and a half year.

ANNE: what University?

QUY NGUYEN: University of Law. About one and a half years the communists took over Saigon and they closed that school.

ANNE: The end of the war was ’75 and you graduated in ’73.

QUY NGUYEN: I remember when I went to high school in Dala and I still remember detail that in 1972 the communists attack that city, so I have to fly back to Saigon right away because my parents are so worried about us. We have to arrange with the sisters in the catholic school to arrange an air ticket and let us go back home. And I went back home that time. I still remember the war was there. I saw bodies, dead bodies close to my school. It was frightened. And I was glad the school let, because a lot of students there from different cities, they came there for school and then so all the people in the school, they arrange us to leave the city. So I left for a few months and then everything went fine after that and we went back after that. But it was quite an experience for me to saw things happen in front of my eyes. Well, in my life twice. In 19…that’s the day we call the New Year, the communists attack to the south and I saw in front of my eyes the war in front of my house. Both sides shooting each other.

ANNE: How much interaction did you have with Americans?

QUY NGUYEN: You mean during the war? Well, I was little, I was not really pay attention those time because I just only, parents just only want us to go to school, come home, that’s all. I know that a lot of people that time against the American there but I was so young that I not really know about that.

ANNE: You finished school. And then how did you and Tien end up together?

QUY NGUYEN: Good question. After the communists took over Saigon, I stay home. Totally stay home and didn’t have anything to do.

ANNE: Why?

QUY NGUYEN: Because nobody have, I don’t think the communists let us have a job unless you have some kind of business, like the black market. So I just stay home and we have my parents had a house in Naturan that the city where I was born and we went back and forth. I decide that it’s so boring for me to stay home in Saigon without anything to do. cannot go to school because the university closed. So I went to Naturan where my father had a house and I stayed there took care of the home, and I went with my sister and one day I was enjoying have at the beach, because they have so beautiful beach in Naturan. And I was enjoying my day at the beach and my sister came and said Quy, mom and dad want you to go back to Saigon. And I said what for? And they said you have to go back and get married. I thought she was just joking. I thought maybe my parents wanted me to go home. Because nobody is in Naturan and they didn’t want me to say by myself. And I say really? And she said yeah. I thought she just joke, and I prepare. Next day went back to Saigon and just like usually stay home, nothing to do. and one day my parents told me that I have to go to somebody’s house. And I went with them and also no questions, because they used to take us to go place to places and visiting a lot of their friends. So I went and it’s nothing. I didn’t hear anything. And then one day I saw my mother in law. I was with my friends. We singing. I have a lot of friends that came almost every day singing, because we didn’t have anything to do. and here he came, Tien came with his mother and I didn’t know. And my parents call me up and say we want you to come up. And just come up and then I sit with them and they talk and they talk and talk and I was just so naive that I didn’t know anything. And then one day my mom said well, you are about asked to get married. So we want you to marry with that person. And I say no, no way. And she said…well, that time my father and my mom and his mom a lot of time they get together and went to dinner. Invite to theater or something like that. And I went with them but I was so naïve that I didn’t know anything until that day they really told me and I say no. and I say that I don’t like him, I told them. And my father say who you going to marry? He’s so good. He’s a good guy. I went to his home, he knows how to prepare food. He know how to entertain us. He’s so polite, he’s so good. And he’s the only boy in the family, only son in the family. And he knows so much, he knows more than you. Who do you think you’re going to marry with, he’s the best? And I say no, I try to go against my parents. And they say well, you’re going to marry him.

ANNE: You didn’t have a choice?

QUY NGUYEN: No. I against them, but I was afraid. So one day his mother came for the engagement and then after the engagement they have party something like that. But I never know anything. Just a party and I be there. And I just like a blind person. I don’t want to know anything. And then after that they find the days for us to have a wedding day.

ANNE: Who makes that decision?

QUY NGUYEN: They went to see…

ANNE: Astrologist?

QUY NGUYEN: Yeah, the signs. I don’t know how to call, but look like that. Then he say well, I find out after we marry people on Tien’s side say…we have a zodiac and each person have a different animal. They say Tien’s ash is not good for her ash, they cannot married. So the person say if you want both of them married just have a suitcase for her and have her walk to his house and leave, that’s it. No party, no nothing. If you do that, it’s not good for both of them. One of them one day will die. One of them one day will separate. So they say both of us our ash is not good together. So his mother say that well, we have the only son in the family to marry. And I want to have a big party, a big wedding, because I want to celebrate to all my friends and my relatives and everybody to celebrate with him and with us. So she decide to choose a good day. And she went to my mom and she say well, we have a very good…how you say the person? Fortuneteller. He say we have a very good day. He gave us a very good day for a wedding. Then at the wedding when we have the wedding, I cry so bad because I don’t want to. But my sister say make fun of me, then I laugh. I laugh and one of the old men, old women, because…all the people who participate for the wedding ceremony, they are old women, old men. They say don’t laugh. It’s not good for you to laugh at the wedding day. You have to cry, not smile at all. Not smile, not laugh. I didn’t understand what they mean but yeah, it is so funny.

ANNE: So you got married.

QUY NGUYEN: Yeah. I got married and we had a lot of conflict. Immediately. We not get along, we fight every day and we, it’s…

ANNE: Because you’re independent?

QUY NGUYEN: No, not like that. Because he was so spoiled with his mother so I cannot, so that’s why. But then

TRACK 2 – 20:58

ANNE: You were together how long then?

QUY NGUYEN: I stay with him about a year, just a year. And then they send him to re-education camp.

ANNE: Why him?

QUY NGUYEN: I think it’s not only him, but his mother also. Because the communists want their property, their houses. They want to take all his houses and his mother, so they say that his father was a general, I’m not sure. But his father died when he was eleven years old. But he was in the military.

ANNE: Against the communists?

QUY NGUYEN: Yes. His father was south military. They tried to take all the properties but my mother in law against them and they tried to find anything that they can find to put him in jail, in re-education camp.

ANNE: Then she would give the property?

QUY NGUYEN: Even her, they put her in jail. They put him in first and they put her, because he not signed paper to give up the house. So I have to escape that time because I feel I do not have any freedom. I was so scared that everyday they came and they ask us to be prepared. This and that, have to give up this and that. So I was so scared and I decide to leave the country with my daughter. My daughter was four years old at that time.

ANNE: How long had Tien been in jail?

QUY NGUYEN: He was…it’s about two years, I guess. About two years. Then I decide to escape the country.

ANNE: Christy was how old?

QUY NGUYEN: Four years old.

ANNE: She was born and he left. She was born, and about a year and they took him.

QUY NGUYEN: My understanding had been he did not see her until she came here.

ANNE: He saw her about a years old or less and then didn’t see her for eight years. I left when he was four years in prison. And yeah. And I left and…

ANNE: Christy was how old?

QUY NGUYEN: Almost four years. She was born, he saw her…

ANNE: It’s not clear.

QUY NGUYEN: I pregnant, when I was pregnant. He left when I was pregnant.

ANNE: You said he didn’t even know.

QUY NGUYEN: So he left when I was two or three months, I forget, and then she born and we took her to visit him one time and then we left after that. Because we cannot visit him, once a year depend on each year. I remember, he was in the prison about four years and I left with Christine. And…

ANNE: How did you arrange to go?

QUY NGUYEN: It was very scare. My parents helped me and my brothers and sisters to, they know somebody had a boat and we pay money for them and then that night or that day we went to the countryside and we have to wear different kind of clothes, like country people. So the communist government not recognize us as city. During that time, if they see city people but like walking or being or go to the country direction, then they raise suspicions about escaping Vietnam so they can follow you anywhere. So we have to put black clothes and everything and we stay at the hotel at the beach and that hotel I think that nobody there anymore because it was empty because the owner already escape. And we stay there until midnight and just dark, no light. And I had Christine with me and other people, my sister and sisters in law, they have their babies with them. But every other babies have to give sleeping medicine because they cry the police could know. But Christine you should be quiet, don’t cry, mommy’s here with you, I hold you all the time. If you cry you have to take medication. And she was so wonderful so we escape. We went down to the beach shore and then they have a little, we call a taxi, a little boat. And took every five or seven people and took out to little, to the big boat.

ANNE: How many on the big boat?

QUY NGUYEN: I remember that time, the boat, it was so small boat, but we have more than hundred people in there because a lot of people they know. And we cannot say no because if we reject them we never know what happened. So we have to take them. And we went on the sea three, three days. Three nights. I guess, I remember that. The third night it was a storm and we reach to the oil station in the middle of the sea, the ocean. That is close between Malaysia and Indonesia they have a huge gas station there where all the different people work in there. And I remember I don’t know what time, but it was so the ocean so at that time, were so. Oh no, was storm. And a very big storm and the people who work all the men who work in the boat have to tie me and Christine to the pole. And because they worry the storm going to take us away. By that time Christine say it’s Christmas, and I look out and saw a lot of lights. Like Christmas trees. And I say oh my goodness, we reach to a city. Some city. So we were so happy and the guys, because by that time was storm so not very much people on the top of the boat, just me and Christine and a few other people in there. So we went close to that lights and we saw that was a gas, the oil station.

ANNE: It’s on the ocean?

QUY NGUYEN: Not for boats to get fuel but they dig the oil. But it was so huge that when we didn’t know, we thought from far away I thought this was an island or big city or something. Then we went close to them and we asked for help. And they after a while we have somebody in our boat can speak English. We were so lucky in our boat we have people who can speak English, a doctor, and we have different professional people there, so we were so lucky. So they rescue us. The people on the oil station decide to help us. Because the reason they help us because they saw Christine. They saw a baby. They say there is a baby down there. We have a lot of babies down in the trunk. So the first person who get rescued was Christine. They took Christine first and after that they took all the women. They took Christine and they put her in a room. They had, I don’t know why but that station have everything. So Christine was put in the room, there was small beds for kids. And the other kids too. And I tried, it was so huge, huge station that I didn’t speak English that time. I want to find my daughter and after a while I ask and found her. And all the kids crying and I went to her and I took her with me. And yeah, it was so

ANNE: Did they put you on another boat?

QUY NGUYEN: They feed us, they do everything for us and the next day they put us in a different boat and that boat took us to Bidong Island, that belong to Malaysia. But before we were rescued by the oil station people, the second night we met the pirates.

ANNE: Tell us.

QUY NGUYEN: We were surrounded by about ten pirate boats around us and all the women have to climb down to the trunk, hide in there. Because we know if the pirates sees us they’re going to kill us or do bad things. You call the trunk, right? And almost everybody down there. Only all the men up, to do whatever to defend. So one of the men work in the boat, he has a gun rescue. And he try to shoot that but he didn’t know how to do. so accidentally that thing came down, the flare came down and blow up and I thought somebody died but nobody died, it was so miracle. And they saw that things, then they went away. They thought we have guns. So they run and the third night we met them.

ANNE: How did you know about the pirates?

QUY NGUYEN: We all heard, because before I escaped, a lot of my neighbors, family, daughters, escape like me. And they never get information where they are. Some people in the same boat send letters saying your daughter was captured by the pirates, they took her to the jungle and they never come back. But in Vietnam every single family know about that. And some of the neighbors had lost their relatives, their daughters. Mostly women. So that’s why we know. And also our boat in the middle. They try to get close and then when we shoot they just went. The second day we also met a big ship and we tried to ask to rescue, but is too far away, so we lost them. But then the third night we saw that oil station and they rescue us. But another thing, they rescue us because they say there was a storm. The people on the boat. The storm, I don’t know, but they say that so that’s why they want to rescue us. They say the day before, there was a boat came and they just gave food and gas to keep going but that boat never made it.

ANNE: You were in a camp. and then you came to Portland. Tell us when you got to America what you thought.

QUY NGUYEN: My first impression is like I have freedom. The first thing we feel so free. We don’t have, because that time in Vietnam it was so, the government treat people so badly, we cannot move, we cannot go anywhere, we cannot do anything because they say we ware the people from the former government. Especially my husband, my mother in law and my father in law was in military and my mother in law was a businesswoman and they want to take her properties and she against them.

TRACK 3 – 7:33

QUY NGUYEN: So I know I never have a future if I stay there.

ANNE: When you first got here you were happy.

QUY NGUYEN: very happy. First of all is my sister. She’s the one who sponsored us. my sister left in 1975. at the fall of Saigon. And we didn’t’ hear from her, my mom just so worried because that time, she doesn’t know how to let my parents know she’s safe in America. But for almost like a year my mom finally got her message and so that’s hwy we are so happy to see her and yeah.

ANNE: What did you think about America?

QUY NGUYEN: We know that we’re in a freedom country. We know that we’re going to have a better future. We so happy. But also, we homesick. The same time. Because yes, you are free, you are safe now, but you still have a connection to the country that belong to you that you live before. So it was very homesick. I miss my parents. My sister is still left there and every night when I had that time been living here about five years but almost every night I dream I went back to Vietnam and the communists took me and I try to escape again and never make it. And I say how stupid you are, you cannot to back to Vietnam. You are homesick but you are still afraid of the government.

ANNE: Did you hear about Tien?

QUY NGUYEN: From my mother in law. Once a year they let her go to see him.

ANNE: What was it like?

QUY NGUYEN: She didn’t tell in detail, but she say she visit him, he was okay. Of course it’s not like you are in re-education camp. you have to work hard and have everything less, but work so hard. He was not really but my mother in law just want to make me feel not worry so she say everything’s okay. Just take care of Christine.

ANNE: So you and Christie are here in the US and you learn English?

QUY NGUYEN: Oh yeah. I went to school after a month. I enroll in Clackamas Community College and I learn ESL first, for I think a year. And then I went to take classes for a courier.

A; what kind?

QUY NGUYEN: I took accounting and I have an accounting degree, two years, from Clackamas Community College.

ANNE: How did you end up with Portland Public Schools.

QUY NGUYEN: A friend I know said Quy, Portland Public School needs Vietnamese and they might need a job there as an accountant. I went there, they didn’t have it, but they interviewed me anyway. And I thought I never get the job because I was interested in accounting. But they called me the next day and asked if I would accept the position working with kids. And I say okay, because I need the money to support Tien.

ANNE: How long?

QUY NGUYEN: I hadn’t graduated yet. I took that job, when I got that job, I told, I forget who call me and I have to take more classes to support Tien. My sister support me because she sponsors and we stay with her. And I have some money from a basic grant for living. And during summer I work some kind of job.

ANNE: So you weren’t hurting. When did Tien come?

QUY NGUYEN: I work for Portland Public School when Tien came. He one day I got a letter from him.

TRACK 4 – 9:10

QUY NGUYEN: I guess maybe from my mother in law first, or maybe from him. I forget. From him from Indonesia. He send me a letter and said I’m here in a refugee camp. because I remember I sent home to her mother I said don’t let him try to escape by boat. Because it’s so very dangerous. It’s 99% that you die. My experience was so scary and dangerous so don’t let him go that way. If he gets out of the camp tell him to wait so I can fill out the paper to sponsor him. But my mother in law wanted him to go right away because it’s not safe to stay there so he escape and send me a letter from Indonesia. And I was so surprised but so happy that he’s halfway to America. So then after that I sponsor him from Indonesia.

ANNE: How did he look?

QUY NGUYEN: He look very… he has so dark skin, very skinny, I hardly recognize him. And the only thing I remember, because I love corn to eat corn. He came here and I think summer, most close to summer, and one day I brought corn and cook for him and he say oh, when I see those corn I am scared. And I say why? Because I remember in the camp we eat corn every day. Then he remember all the hard time there so that make him scare.

ANNE: You were working for PPS by the time he got here?

QUY NGUYEN: Then, I work for, before I work for the school I work for water bureau. I work for them for a year. But just temporary because I hadn’t graduated yet. But then the school offered me a job with insurance, with everything, and I decide to take the job at the school in order my daughter have insurance and Tien have insurance.

ANNE: And Christy was seven?


ANNE: What was it like for her to meet him?

QUY NGUYEN: That time she knew that is my father because I told her, but it’s kind of like she was still very attached to me because I’ve been with her everywhere. Without him. A but then after that she’s doing fine.

ANNE: I remember he had a lot of dental problems.

QUY NGUYEN: Yeah. He had because in the camp they don’t have good nutrition for the prisoner. The only fresh good food that they can get when they work in the field and they can eat there, but usually they. But it’s not only for the prisoner but even the whole country, people it changed. It change so much that people get poor. People didn’t have what they had before. They took everything. And I still remember when I was a little, I watched the movie Doctor Zhivago and I watched that movie in Vietnam before the communists took over and I say I don’t believe that, it’s just a movie. It’s not real. But when the communists took over South Vietnam it’s exactly the same. Whatever you have you share. And they really recognize people who are not educate or they can, the communists back there they can come to you house and ask I want this, I want this. Or they can say you did this wrong, you did that wrong, but you didn’t do anything wrong. You have to listen to them. It was hard, it was a big change.

ANNE: what is your experience with the public school system? How do kids deal with discrimination?


ANNE: Tell us about the school you and Tien work with now.

QUY NGUYEN: The school name is Van Lang School. Vietnamese school is at PCC Southeast center.


QUY NGUYEN: Well, Tien start for five years already.

ANNE: Did he start it?

QUY NGUYEN: There is a guy here whose foundation

TRACK 5 – 9:59
QUY NGUYEN: of that school and he’s’ retired. And by the time he retire, we have a son. Who going to that school and by that time he, the founder of the school, he retire, and there was.

ANNE: What is it?

QUY NGUYEN: We like him to go there because he need to learn Vietnamese. He is Vietnamese, he need to know Vietnamese language. In order for him to communicate here with grandmother, because we have grandmother live with us and she doesn’t know English and it bothers her if no one can communicate, especially my son. And we want him to keep the cultural that his belong. And I think it’s good for the second generation to keep their culture. It’s not only for them to know the language but it’s help for the family. For the connection with parents and grandparents and so on, relatives. Because most of people right now, they are the first generation. The next generation is, we have some but not very much. By the time my son grow up, he’s the second generation here. And if he don’t’ know how to speak Vietnamese he lose that root. And it’s for the community too, we have a big community here. To socialize and to communicate. It’s good for my son and the Vietnamese community who has children. To learn Vietnamese. So the school has right now about five hundred, almost five hundred students there and they all really, their parents really want them to be not only come to school to learn Vietnamese but involve in cultural activities too.

ANNE: The school began how many years ago?

QUY NGUYEN: It’s about I think fifteen years already. And it’s grow and grow every day.

ANNE: How is it financed?

QUY NGUYEN: It’s very difficult. People volunteer, every year they work very hard to get donations from businesses, from companies, from advertising, from school magazine. They work on every year and they work very hard.

ANNE: How much money do they raise for what?

QUY NGUYEN: I’m not sure. I’m just involved this year and I’m not sure how much. But all the purpose for the funds that they get from everywhere is to process the school in different way. To pay for school rent. For all kinds of cultural activities.

ANNE: You pay rent to PCC?

QUY NGUYEN: Yes. We pay the rent to PCC. Every month. I’m not in the board members, I’m only the president of parents association. The detail of funds raising and spending money I think its’ the best to ask Tien.

ANNE: What do you think, so you work as a teacher?

QUY NGUYEN: No, I just only do involve with parents and school. That means my job is to put the communication and the connection between the school and families.

ANNE: You inform them.

QUY NGUYEN: About graduation. To have them involved in school. If we have to have like last Sunday we have graduation day, I in charge of having parents come to help the school organize food, entertainment, so my job is kind of like, I in charge of a little bit of the kids. Helping kids to get involved in a certain kind of school activities. But my major duty is involved with parents. See how parents are involved round the school. Change their voice to the school. It needs to be connect between parents and school and the bar of the school. So…

ANNE: Your son is still going?

QUY NGUYEN: My son is still going to school and he’s doing very well in school. At first he say oh mom, I don’t want to go, but now he can read and write in Vietnamese and I’m very proud. And last year he got a prize the school gave to him because he wrote an essay that they choose. They chose a good essay, so he got a good prize. This year he got an award too for being good in school and learning. So he’s very good and he’s’ proud he’s learned Vietnamese.

ANNE: Does Christy speak Vietnamese?

QUY NGUYEN: Yes, she can speak Vietnamese very well. This school, years before, was in Beaverton and she went there. But it was not, it was just a short time because we found a school when she was in high school. So she had a few years and graduate from high school and went to college. But she speak very well in Vietnamese and can write a little bit.

ANNE: Have you been back to Vietnam?

QUY NGUYEN: Yes, one time. With Vi and Tien. And it was great. We have a chance to see all my aunts and

TRACK 6 – 4:38

QUY NGUYEN: uncles and relatives. We went to Tien’s the city where he was born there.

ANNE: How did Vietnam look?

QUY NGUYEN: so different. Totally different. It was so crowd. So so crowd. Many many people. And I heard the reason was that people from the north and from central, they move to the south. For business and yeah. And for work.

ANNE: But it looks, everybody’s okay. They get enough food.

QUY NGUYEN: Yes. But I still feel that poor is still poor and rich still get to the top. So it’s totally.

ANNE: no middle.

QUY NGUYEN: Yeah. Maybe no middle. Maybe little of middle class. But the thing that I see that is very changed that I some like the city that I was born. It was crowd but not like in Saigon. But it was very, they built a lot of hotels. When I live there it was beautiful because my parents have a kiosk at the beach where they sell food and pop and all kind of beverages. So it was beautiful but not I think and then.



QUY NGUYEN: If you go there you see the city where I was born is totally different. Before you see the green trees along the shore, but now all the hotels. It look like Las Vegas. I said oh my god, it’s totally different.

ANNE: Did you see any after-affects of the war?

QUY NGUYEN: I didn’t go that far. So I didn’t really see that. I heard about that but I didn’t’ go that far. I heard that in some countryside they still have that.

ANNE: Thanks.

QUY NGUYEN: You’re very welcome, thank you Anne.