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Unrealized Dreams Mark the Short Lives of 2 Amerasians

If I can’t speak English how can I become a manager? Therefore I always remind myself like to learn and speak English. Because this is the only way I can complete my dream.

--Tu-Anh Pham, journal entry,

May 9, 1991

Tu-Anh Pham, 18 years old, is dead now. So is his best friend, Thoa Huynh. He was 18 too. They had been in the United States two years.

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Tu and Thoa were good kids, quiet, hard workers, lots of love inside. That’s what their families say, their teachers say, their friends. Both were Amerasians. Their mothers are Vietnamese, their fathers, Americans passing through Vietnam on account of war.

The boys always wondered about their fathers. Thoa had no memory at all of this man, the one they called Tom. There are snapshots of Tu’s dad, faded to brown. There’s one that I saw with Tu’s older brother, Tuan, a baby nestled in this big man’s arms. The big man’s nickname was Butch.

Tu was driving his Nissan Stanza, a blue 1984, on Interstate 15 near Hesperia at the start of the Labor Day weekend just past. It was a little before 10 a.m., and the traffic wasn’t too bad. Thoa was next to him in the front seat; another friend was in the back.

They were heading to Las Vegas, just to see what it was like, planning on coming back later Saturday night. Thoa’s stepmother--both his natural parents abandoned him years before in Vietnam--had given him $5 for the trip.

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Thoa was going to start a part-time assembly job on Tuesday. He would save his money for college two years down the road. His plan was to become an electrical engineer. He had never been to school, at all, in Vietnam.

Tu had his eyes on UCLA for the fall of 1992. He was an honors student; he especially loved math. He worked part-time at a clerical job. Tu wrote in his journal that some day he would be a business manager, yet to his mother he said he’d become a mechanical engineer, like his dad, the man who left him when he was 2 years old.

No one can say, now, just exactly went wrong on Interstate 15. Tu apparently lost control of his car. He’d only had his driver’s license a few months. His mother, working two jobs, 5 a.m. to 7 at night, had saved for a year to buy her son his car. It cost her $1,700, used.

The California highway patrolman investigating the crash--"the worst I’ve seen in seven years here"--says it looks as if Tu was just driving over his head, speeding as he passed a slower car.

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He ran off onto the shoulder next, then pulled too hard to the left as he tried to get back on the road. The Nissan skated across the freeway, crossing into a stream of cars coming the other way, hitting one of them just about head on.

Tu died at the scene; Thoa a few hours later in a hospital bed. Both of them were thrown from the car. Two of the four people in the other car--a man, 21, and a woman, 41--died too.

Only three of the seven people involved survived the accident, and just barely at that. Nobody was wearing a seat belt. No drinking or drugs were involved.

Tu’s mother, Lai Pham, speaks little English, but she looks at me now and chooses these foreign words with care. Tears pool deep in her eyes.

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“I want to die with him,” she says. “When my husband went back to America, I was 23 years old. I love my children so much. Nobody but their father could love them as much as me.

“They are always my babies. Every night, I tell them, ‘Take a bath. Eat dinner.’ If I didn’t do that, they wouldn’t do it.”

Here Lai smiles just a bit, recalling how she loved to care for her sons. They were her life, her closest friends. Tu used to cook for her. He made excellent Vietnamese soup.

Tu’s brother, Tuan, is next to his mother, her hand resting on his arm. Tuan says he will move back from San Jose to live with his mother now. He is 20 years old.

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The names of foreign cities don’t seem to matter much anymore to these new immigrants stunned by grief. Pasadena, La Puente, Newport Beach, Dana Point. These are places that they have been, where they have worked, where, as they recall, the boys had a good time. They loved to fish.

We are in West Covina now, at the rented house, bare and seemingly so impermanent, where Thoa and his step-family lived. There is no history here. Adhesive tape affixes certificates, magazine pictures to the walls. This is not home.

Yet this is the country that Tu and Thoa had dreamed of, the country where their fathers were born, the reason that they were here. Like thousands of other Amerasians, they had hoped to find these men, to see what they looked like, how they walked, to listen to their tone when they talked.

Would these men be like them? Their sons would not give up hope.

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Tuan says that he and his brother used to wonder about this out loud. They wanted so much to find this man who had loved their mother, who had said that he loved them. Norris was the last name. He worked for RMK Construction Co. in Long Xuyen, Vietnam. That’s where he met their mother, a secretary, and then they made plans.

He would come back on Christmas vacation, in 1975, and bring his family to the United States. Except the Communists intervened. Saigon fell in April that same year. There were no more letters after that.

Thoa’s stepmother, Tham Tran, sobs. Her memories of Thoa do not go back as far. She had hoped that her love could make up for some of what his natural parents had destroyed. In Vietnam, Thoa was a reminder of an ugly war. Even his mother wished he would go away.

“Every time I would mention his mother, he would just walk away,” Tham says. “He was a good boy. He always listened to what I said. He never said anything against me.”

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Thoa and Tu, their families say, were like twins, together all the time. They know they would have wanted to be buried together, but there is not enough money for that now.

Lai Pham has borrowed money from friends to bury her child at Rose Hill in Whittier. Tham Tran says she doesn’t know how she’ll find the money to do the same; days later, friends lent her money for a burial in a Pomona cemetery where costs are less.

These two women, once close because of their sons, now seem on opposite sides of a gulf even as they sit in the same room.

Lai Pham has given me her son’s journal to look at. She cannot read the English words, but she points to the neat penmanship. She is sure that this speaks well of her son.

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Tu wrote of his classes, his fishing trips, of the clouds changing into animal heads in the pre-dawn sky, of calling the parents of some Vietnamese girls to warn them--too late--about the dangers their daughters’ faced in gangs.

Tu wrote of his faith in America, of working hard, of dreams. He will make something of himself, he said. He will build hotels; he will own plazas with many stores.

“I trust myself,” Tu wrote, again and again.


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