Date: 1995-03-12

Gordon Dillow
The Orange County Register

Now former Garden Grove schoolteacher Mary Payne Nguyen spends her days in this seaside city, with a mission as simple as it is vast: to help the young and the poor of this war-torn, poverty-stricken nation.

Officially, Nguyen is director of the Amerasian Network, based here and in Westminster. She also serves as the Vietnam adoption coordinator for Life Adoption Services Inc. of Tustin. But she is in fact a one-woman international relief agency.

One day she's delivering gifts to ethnic minority children at an orphanage in Khanh Vinh, a desperately poor district 40 miles west over bad dirt roads. Another day she's arranging the international adoption of an abandoned baby in Quang Ngai, 250 miles north. The next week she'll be delivering medical supplies to the inmates of an asylum for the incurably insane in Ninh Binh province near Hanoi. And a few hours later she'll be sitting through another seemingly interminable meeting with a local People's Committee, trying to line up the paperwork for a new school building.

And always she is trying to find and help Amerasians, the so-called "children of the dust," the half-American, half-Vietnamese legacy of the Vietnam war, which ended 20 years ago next month.

The issue of Amerasians is particularly close to Nguyen's heart, since she has three half-Vietnamese children _ along with a Vietnamese surname and the ability to speak Vietnamese _ through her former husband, a Vietnamese refugee.

`Sometimes it's kind of scary, but I really love this country," says Nguyen, 51, as she sits in the living room of her small beachside house, which she shares with her sons, Michael, 12; Andrew, 11; daughter, Leilani, 17; and adopted son, Travis, 27, an Amerasian who grew up in Vietnam.

"I've never felt strange here at all. I mean, look at me. If anything should be out of place here, it's me. But I've never felt that way. A lot of my students used to tell me I was a reincarnated Vietnamese. And they may be right."

Although she's lived here only since last summer, Nguyen already is something of a celebrity in this city of about 200,000. Ask almost anybody on the streets where to find "the big American lady" and they'll send you off in the direction of her home on the outskirts of town, a house that once was part of an orphanage and later, from 1975 until a few years ago, was used as a vacation retreat for Vietnamese Communist Party officials.

Although Western tourists are coming to Nha Trang in increasing numbers, Nguyen is the only American female resident for miles around. She's also one of the few Westerners in this country who can speak Vietnamese.

"I don't know how many times I've been walking past some Vietnamese women and one of them will say in Vietnamese, `Oh, she's so big!' " Nguyen says, chuckling. "And I always turn around and say, `Oh, you're so small!' in Vietnamese. Their jaws just drop."

It is not an easy life, or a financially rewarding one; Nguyen receives a stipend of $1,800 a month, far less than she earned as a teacher. The food is sometimes chancy, the insect population is limitless, and the sanitation system is not for the delicate of heart or of nose. Travel is difficult, especially along the alternately dusty and muddy dirt roads that lead to the interior; bouncing over those roads in a car to get to an orphanage or a school is particularly painful for Nguyen, who in September broke her hip when she fell off the back of a motorbike in Hanoi.

"I still feel every bump," she says.

Vietnam also is a country that, despite increased efforts to open up to the global market economy, remains mired in an almost suffocating bureaucracy. What seems simple at first, such as building a new school, often gets bogged down in political complications.

"The local People's Committee controls everything," Nguyen says. "Sometimes it seems like you need their permission to go to the bathroom."

But Nguyen handles the adversities _ cheerfully, even, which is no surprise to people who know her.

"Mary has always had a houseful of children and a long list of projects," says her longtime friend Nancy Allen, a teacher at Lincoln Education Center in Garden Grove, an adult-education school where Nguyen used to teach. "She's one of those people who sees possibilities and then goes out and makes them work. I've always been in awe of her. I think it's just wonderful what she's doing."

"We could use more Mary Nguyens," says Pham Ngoc Kanh, an official with the Provincial People's Committee in Ninh Binh, where Nguyen has been helping provide medicine to mentally ill patients.

Why does she do all this?

"This is where the need is," she says. "I guess my whole life has been leading up to this."

The daughter of a doctor and a teacher, Nguyen grew up in Inglewood and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a fine-arts degree. She moved to Orange County in 1969 and later started working as a fine-arts and English teacher.

Along the way she began a lifelong involvement with children; she had her first child when she was 17 and later gave birth to eight more, although three died. She now has 21 children through birth and adoption, and over the years she has helped raise more than two dozen foster children.

Like many Americans, Nguyen's association with Vietnam dates back to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Four of her friends were killed and another, an Air Force pilot named Michael Brazelton, was a POW in Hanoi for seven years.

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, Nguyen worked as a Red Cross volunteer at the Vietnamese refugee center at Camp Pendleton, setting up preschools for children. She also taught English to adult Vietnamese in Garden Grove; her second husband, a Vietnamese refugee, was a roommate of one of her students. The couple divorced after 16 years of marriage.

Nguyen started working with Amerasians in 1989, when thousands began arriving in California under the Orderly Departure Program that was worked out, after much wrangling, by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. Deprived of education and simple human respect in Vietnam because of their racial heritage, the Amerasians were ill-equipped for life and often wound up living on the streets.

But many of the Amerasians were used by Vietnamese families as one-way tickets to the United States. The families "adopted" the Amerasians in Vietnam, traveled with them to the United States and then abandoned them.

As Amerasian services coordinator for Orange County, Nguyen worked with hundreds of Amerasians through the Immigrant and Refugee Center at St. Anselm's church in Garden Grove, trying to help them adjust to life in America. She also took several of them into her Huntington Beach home.

"The Amerasians are a passion for me," Nguyen says. "I look at my own kids, who are exactly the same Vietnamese-American genetic mix, and they can go to school, get jobs, do anything. Then I look at these (Amerasian) kids, and it breaks my heart to see that they're treated so horribly."

Nguyen made her first trip to Vietnam in 1990 _ a time when it was still rare to see an American here _ as part of a delegation of California teachers who were conducting teaching workshops in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Later, in 1992, Nguyen formed the Amerasian Network in Westminster, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting Amerasians. It is funded through donations.

An estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Amerasians were left behind in Vietnam at the end of the war in 1975. Some managed to immigrate to the United States in the early 1980s, but the biggest influx occurred after 1987, when Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act. Since then, 20,346 Amerasians have immigrated to the United States, along with 56,945 of their "immediate family members."

But an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Amerasians remain in Vietnam, most of them now in their 20s. Nguyen believes it's a mistake to simply send them to the United States. Because of language and literacy problems, she thinks many would be better off staying in Vietnam if they can get help in getting education and job training. Eventually she hopes to set up a training center for Amerasians in Nha Trang.

Nguyen returned to Vietnam nine times after her initial visit, finding Amerasians and helping them either get the necessary paperwork to emigrate or helping them survive in Vietnam.

Finally, however, Nguyen decided her place was here, not in the United States.

"I didn't want to be a foreigner who was helping them (the Vietnamese)," Nguyen says. "I wanted to be part of the community, building from inside."

Last July she came to Nha Trang and rented a house, then returned to the United States to pick up sons Michael and Andrew; she is their teacher in Vietnam. Daughter Christina, 15, stayed in Huntington Beach to attend school.

Andrew describes living in Vietnam as "cool." Michael is, so far, noncommittal.

Mom, meanwhile, thinks she has finally found her place in the world.

"I plan to be here for the rest of my life," Nguyen says. "It's where I belong."


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