A desperate mother ignores the odds
December 20, 2006
Vietnamese woman who 20 years ago sent her son to the U.S. sets out — with little money and barely a clue — to find him before her visa expires or her cancer returns.
SHE arrived in Los Angeles with $600 in borrowed cash, a failing heart and arthritis in both knees. She spoke no English. She had not seen her firstborn son, Tuan, in the 20 years since he fled Vietnam for the United States as a teenager.
Judging from the letters he sent home, he had prospered here. He was repairing watches, living in Santa Ana. Inexplicably, four years ago, his letters had stopped coming. Now, Hai Nguyen had crossed the ocean herself, hoping to find her son before she died.
She had one lead, the address in Santa Ana. She took a cab there from the airport. She went to the door to find that her son was long gone, leaving no clue behind. She shuffled away with her single suitcase, not knowing what to do next. He could be anywhere. She had no grasp of America’s immensity, though a friend who knew the country tried to warn her: It would be like finding a needle at the bottom of the sea.
Where would she start looking, in a country of 300 million strangers? Still, how could she go to her grave without trying?
So in September, a tiny 57-year-old woman began stubbornly pushing a pair of green, worn-out plastic flip-flops along the sidewalks and strip malls and alleys of Southern California, past street signs she couldn’t read and storefronts she couldn’t fathom. She didn’t have long — just a few months before her visa expired in January, maybe less before her legs buckled or her heart quit or her cancer returned. Or her money ran out.
She had a husky voice and thick, rough hands. Her skin was the deep brown of the Vietnamese poor who spend their lives in the sun. She printed fliers with Tuan’s face and stuffed them in the hands of street people and business owners and anyone who might listen.
She found her way to Little Saigon in Westminster, the country’s largest Vietnamese American enclave. There, people sympathized. They gave her couches to sleep on, bowls of soup. In their own flight from starvation and violence, many had said goodbye to their families in Vietnam, often forever. Parents cleft from children was one of the community’s defining stories. So was arrival in the States with little save hope.
But in other ways she was hardly familiar, this worn-looking woman who had single-mindedly chased hope 8,000 miles, knowing so little, and having no time to count the odds.
HE was 16 when she sent him to the boat. For his passage out of Vietnam, the price was two bars of gold that she spent a year buying on layaway. It was 1986, and Ho Chi Minh City was a desperate place. Everyone she knew was starving.
She knew Tuan’s escape would be risky. Once before, the scrawny, gap-toothed boy had tried to flee the country only to be seized by police and thrown into jail for six months, to return home even more haggard and emaciated than before.
Now, around midnight at a big marketplace, she handed him to the boat captain who would smuggle him away. She had packed her son a bag with three changes of clothes, sweet rice, moon cakes and lemon bars. She could tell him nothing about America — not what it looked like, not its language or customs, not its size or landmarks. She knew it only as a mythical country over the sea where people had opportunity and plump cheeks. America was, in one popular phrase, the Jungle of Money.
But it was inconceivably far, and many died on the way. She tried to hold her tears, not wanting to scare Tuan or make him hesitate. Existence had been a day-to-day struggle since 1973, when her husband, a Vietnamese army soldier, died fighting the Communists.
Orphaned of his father as a toddler, Tuan would now face life without his mother, a misfortune that a Vietnamese proverb found even more profound.
Lose your father, you can still eat a poor meal of rice with fish, the proverb went. Lose a mother, you lick the leaves littering the streets. It conjured the crumbs clinging to castoff leaves used to pack food.
But as she saw it, there was no choice. On the night they said goodbye, it was raining lightly. She kissed him and told him, I love you. Write. She watched him go. He seemed eager.
She did not know if she would see him again. She had two other children to take care of, a son and a daughter. To feed them, she peddled grain from her bicycle and fruit at the market. There was no money to send them away too, or she would have.
SOON Tuan’s letters started arriving. He wrote of many days at sea, of running out of food and water and then being rescued by a commercial fishing boat that took them to Malaysia. Of how he found his way to the United States, to Minnesota, which was so cold he moved on to Denver, then farther west, to Southern California.
His letters came steadily for years. He wrote that he was doing well, learning to repair watches. He said nothing to worry her. He sent a picture of himself, smiling. His muscles were thick. His cheeks were full. America had been good.
In Vietnam, where a mother’s worth is largely defined by the accomplishments of her kids, to say “I have a son in America” conferred instant pride and status. Everyone understood that fate had smiled on the family.
In 2001, doctors diagnosed Nguyen with ovarian cancer and gave her two months to live, a prediction she was able to defy with chemotherapy and surgery. Tuan sent $500 and spoke of visiting. Then his letters stopped coming. Twice, medical bills forced her to move to smaller quarters, so she thought perhaps his letters were getting lost.
A year passed without word from him, and another, then a third and a fourth. Her cancer seemed to be in remission, but her overall health was poor. She had developed a heart condition, osteoporosis, arthritis. She knew she was dying, and her final wish was to see him.
She gathered her savings, which had been meant to buy her burial plot. Her younger son, who worked as an ambulance driver, and her daughter, who sold clothes out of a small shop, scraped together loans. Finally she had $1,400, enough for a ticket to California. It was her first time on a plane outside the country. Crossing the ocean, she couldn’t eat or sleep.
SHE was not in America long before her money ran out. She had covered mile after mile on foot, stuffed fliers into hundreds of hands, and still there was no sign of him. At wit’s end, she pleaded with Nguoi Viet, the country’s largest Vietnamese-language paper, based in Little Saigon. It published her story and a 5-year-old picture of Tuan, the one of him smiling with full cheeks. Soon, local radio picked it up. Donations started pouring in, as well as tips.
One led her to the Westminster Police Department, where she learned two things that shocked her, upending her image of the solid, prosperous life Tuan had lived in the States. At some point, she learned, her son had been incarcerated for robbery. At another point, he had stayed at the Los Angeles Mission. That meant he had been homeless, the orphaned beggar from the proverb.
The possibility of a plummet so extreme had not occurred to her. The Vietnamese had flourished in the United States, and the community had a reputation for taking care of its own. What had happened to her son?
She took a cab to the mission, but he wasn’t there. She printed and distributed more fliers, this time offering a $1,000 reward. It was money she didn’t have, but she was desperate.
She got word that a man who looked like her son dug up recyclables in the trashcans at John Wayne Airport. For a week, she went there every day, waiting. No luck.
She had reconciled herself to the possibility that she would find him dead. But even that, she reasoned, would be some consolation, better than not knowing.
Chasing every lead, she took cabs to the Asian Garden Mall and Chinatown and across the San Gabriel Valley. She searched homeless shelters and alleys, parks and strip malls. All through the land of promise, to her astonishment, the concrete was littered with human shapes crouched under reeking blankets.
She went from shape to shape, slowly lifting the blankets off ragged, hollow-eyed faces that smelled of beer, off men with tangled hair and dirty hands. They cursed in words she couldn’t understand and yanked their blankets back, many of them, sinking back into their covers. Some just looked at her in bewilderment. She looked into dozens of hopeless faces. There were other mothers’ sons, but not hers.
Sorry, she said, over and over. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. It was one of the few English words she had learned.
She shuffled forward long after her knees burned with pain and her breath came short. When it got too bad, she would sit down on a bus bench and rest. She thought of giving up, taking a plane home to die without him. Then she would get up and keep walking.
Finally, in November, there came an improbable call from a restaurateur in San Jose, a woman named Huong Le who had seen Nguyen’s story on Vietnamese-language television. She said Tuan had been living behind her restaurant for the last couple of months at the Lion Plaza shopping center on King Boulevard. He slept on the sidewalk on a patch of cardboard.
On Nov. 19, a woman moved by her story offered her a ride from Orange County to San Jose. It was about noon when she found the restaurant. Her son wasn’t there, but restaurant employees said they had been taking care of him. When he was hungry, he’d knock lightly on the rear kitchen door and they would pass him beef noodles and rice, bread and pork. He rarely spoke, they said, and often stood completely immobile. But they found him polite, unthreatening.
Look for his blanket, they told Nguyen. It’s blue and yellow fleece. We gave it to him.
After three hours of searching, there in a parking lot across the street, she spotted the blanket. It was just another filthy shape, curled upon a sheet of blue vinyl against some bushes, beside castoff rolls of iron fencing and rusted steel bars. From the blanket protruded one shoe with a gashed sole. On the ground were takeout containers filled with rotting Vietnamese food.
She had been searching in the United States for three months, lifting blankets off men and women who had somehow fallen into its sewers. Now she knelt and lifted one more.
RIGHT away she knew it was him, even through his thick, tangled beard and his long, unkempt hair. He was sleeping, curled in a fetal position, and she startled him awake. She knelt, looking closer. She recognized his overbite, his eyes that were so much like his father’s, the scar on his left brow he got as a kid, jumping on a bed with his brother.
She was shaking. Looking at him, she couldn’t speak. When words came, she told him through her tears who she was and that she had come across the world to find him.
You have the wrong person, he said. You’re not my mother. My mother is sick in Vietnam and ready to die.
She begged him to let her hug him, but he refused. His only possessions were his blanket, a windbreaker, a pocketknife, and 69 cents.
Why would you want to hug a homeless man? he said. Wouldn’t you be ashamed?
She planted herself on the pavement, refusing to budge. Afraid he would run away, she grabbed his collar and held him. He kept saying, Let go of me, woman. But she had not flown 8,000 miles and walked for three months to go home without him.
She talked the restaurant into calling the police, hoping they would hold him.
They took him to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for observation in the psychiatric unit. They shaved him and cleaned him and gave him a room.
She came every day, to sit with him. He said little. Mostly he sat slouched forward, staring at the floor, his hands folded in his lap. He seemed to recognize her but would not acknowledge it. Perhaps he just could not grasp the improbability of a poor woman from Vietnam coming to find him in a land so large.
When he did speak, he told of having been chased by men who meant to harm him. She did not know what it meant, whether it was a real memory or part of what doctors called his mental illness. They had diagnosed him with an unspecific psychotic disorder.
There were details of his time in the United States that she didn’t ask about. So she would not learn that in 1995, he and several other men had burst into an Arcadia home and used a rope to tie up a man and his wife before making off with their cash and jewelry. That police had labeled him a gang member. That a judge had sentenced him to 10 years in state prison, though he was released in five. That he went to prison three more times on parole violations, finally going free in January.
I’m nobody, he kept saying. You don’t want anything to do with me.
Hoping to break through, she brought him photos of his brother and sister back in Vietnam, of aunts and nieces and nephews. She spoke of taking him home to Vietnam. She did not dwell on whether such a trip was even possible. She had to return in January, when her visa expired. It was not clear whether authorities would let him go too.
For now, though, she had arranged a place for them to stay, at the Cao Dai Temple in San Jose, when the hospital released him.
She ran her hand up and down his back and promised she wouldn’t leave him. She would take care of him from now on. She told him that it didn’t matter to her, whatever had happened, whatever he’d done. She blamed herself for sending him across the world with no one to watch over him.
Five days had passed since she rescued him from the streets, and all he would call her is “aunt,” a generic Vietnamese term for an older woman, not necessarily of blood relation. Now, he spoke a word she had not heard him utter in 20 years.