Woman to Pursue Better Quality of Life in Vietnam

Mary Payne Nguyen is hearing that inner voice again. Feeling that rhythm in her soul telling her it's time to go.

If life's not an adventure, then what is it? And if packing up and leaving America for Vietnam isn't an adventure, then what is?

By the end of this summer, Mary Nguyen will have resettled in Nha Trang in south-central Vietnam with her 24-year-old adopted Amerasian son and three natural children, ages 9 to 14. Her natural children's father, from whom she is divorced, is Vietnamese. In that sense, her children will be returning to a country that is part of their heritage, but there is much more to Mary Nguyen's story than that.

She is an American woman whose family settled in California in 1949. Her parents were active in the post-World War II refugee movement and as a young girl she instinctively knew she would adopt children when she grew up.

Over the years, in addition to giving birth to nine children, she and her husband adopted 14 others. Altogether, they fostered more than 30 children. Most of her adopted children are Vietnamese, but Nguyen has been most identified in Orange County for her efforts in helping Amerasians--those children fathered by American servicemen during the Vietnam War but largely abandoned and often scorned afterward.

But now, for reasons that are part practical and part personal, Mary Nguyen is going to Vietnam. A large, heavy-set woman with reddish-blond hair, she jokes that she will not slip into Vietnam unnoticed.

"I have never felt strange in Vietnam," she says in her Huntington Beach home. "I feel very comfortable, very at home, and that's weird because as you can see I'm not the common thing you see in Vietnam. I stand out everywhere I go and cause quite a stir everywhere I go. They really don't know quite what to make of me. That can open a lot of doors."

She's taking a year's leave of absence from her adult-education teaching job with the Garden Grove Unified School District. The truth is, she's hoping to settle permanently in Vietnam.

"I'm going back for a quality of life that I'll never be able to find here," she says. "I think we've lost it here in Southern California, frankly. The violence scares me, the guns. Children committing crimes really frightens me. Somewhere along the way, we've lost the balance of authority. The values have kind of gotten twisted and off-kilter."

The oddity, perhaps, is that her children's Vietnamese-born father is remaining in California. And yet, Nguyen thinks her children will benefit from going to Vietnam.

"I think they need to be in touch with who the other half of them is. Amerasians came to their father's country. Vietnam is my children's father's country and they deserve to know, I think."

I suggest it's ironic that she's leaving America in search of a better life, since history says it's supposed to work the other way around. "I'm not saying a better life, materially," she says. "I'm talking about values. It's really hard in Orange County to get in touch with what's really important. Kids want to go to the mall on weekends, hang around the malls. What is that? We've got people all over the world dying for lack of food and the children in the province we're going to--they estimate 800 to 900 orphans. There's an orphanage there with 37 children."

I ask what she thinks her children will learn there. "They will understand that there is more to life than how many TVs you have. What's really important--if you're comparing buying a new whatever set of POGs or games for videos or feeding hungry children and providing them with someplace to live? What's really important here?"

Her words may sound scornful of American society, but that isn't how it comes across in person.

"I really don't see this as leaving here, as picking up and going. I see this as going to Vietnam. I didn't say, 'It's time for me to get out of here and where should I go' and then choose a place to go. That wasn't it at all. If it wasn't Vietnam, I'd be staying here. I feel driven, somehow, to go to Vietnam."

Because of Nguyen's age (she'll be 50 in August), Vietnam has formed part of the backdrop of her life. A friend was a POW and several other friends were killed in the war. And she did marry a Vietnamese man. But always in the background was her lifelong belief she would adopt children.

Why so many? "It's a tendency of mine to do the maximum. When the need is so tremendous and not enough people are doing their share, I tend to take on more than I should, probably. It upsets me to see so much need and people not coming forward. That's been a real problem for me with Amerasians in the U.S. I've been appalled at the lack of response of the American people to Amerasians, because I expected Americans to really stand up and help these kids, because they are, in fact, American kids. And they've been deprived of all the things American kids should expect to have."

Once in Vietnam, she plans to continue working with orphans. She already has a contract with an adoption agency and she's also involved in an ongoing Amerasian program.

"I will be able to make a real mark, a difference," she says. "My mission in life is to leave it better than when I got here. It's real hard to make that kind of a difference here, but I can make that kind of difference over there."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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