One of the wonderful things about the Oregon At Work: 1859-2009 is the collaboration between Art and myself as authors and the Ooligan Press editors. When we first pitched the book to them they felt that we needed to broaden our reach. Instead of just focusing on pioneer families, we should also include information about new pioneers. My work at the Employment Department includes overseeing the agency's services to Limited English Proficiency customers. One of the major language groups we serve speak Vietnamese. i thought it might be interesting to talk to a more modern pioneer who overcame hardships to come to Oregon and what they did to survive.
I contacted one of our translators in the Portland area and she connected me with Anna Ngo. Anna is one of those people that once you meet them is hard to forget. We had a couple of conversations on the phone, then she came down to my office in Salem for our main interview. To hear her story is to hear the struggle of so many in her home country in the 1970s and 80s. Anna lived in a small town. Her parents were successful coffee growers. But after the United States left Vietnam, the government began to confiscate land. Prior to that her father was a well known cabinet maker and even owned a van.
But hard times forced the family to sell everything, even their bicycle, sewing machine and motorcycle. Anna's family told her that the only way she was going to really survive was to go to the United States. That was much easier said than done. People were selling seats on boats - the trip cost $2,000 in 1980 dollars. The family put down fifty percent. She remembers when they approached the dock to embark on her journey, part of the so-called "boat people" that fled Vietnam by the tens of thousands. While she boarded the ship, the authorities arrived. The food was still on the dock but the boat operators had to leave it behind or risk not being able to leave at all.
Anna remembers spending five days and five nights in rough seas. The boat was fifteen feet long and six feet wide. Seventy five people crammed into that small space. Anna says she nearly died. No one would pick them up from their small vessel until finally a fishing boat picked them up and delivered them to a refuge camp in Indonesia. Anna was in that camp for twenty seven months. She didn't know if she would ever get to the United States and start a new life.
Finally, a cousin in America sponsored her and she came to Portland, where she began doing jobs, going to school, and slowly built a life for herself. Today she is married, owns a business, and has even traveled back to Vietnam and hopes to set up schools to help people find work in her home country. She's even writing a book of her life story.
Anna was a true joy to interview. She is vivacious and full of life. You can tell she feels passionately about her work and her new country. Later on I visited her cosmotology school up in Portland to take some pictures. She's come a long way from a scared twenty one year old, not knowing if she'd ever see land. Read Anna's story in Oregon at Work: 1859-2009 on page 160.