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 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. (snip)
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. (snip)
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. (snip)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sorry for this overly sentimental story and the obviously posed photo. But it has everything: a dying mother, a quest across the oceans, a compassionate community and finally a mother and son reunion. And it's Christmas, you heartless bastards!!!
Here's your Christmas present: http://www.vietfun.com/realaudio/vn/ . Click on the link and go down the list until you find: «Long Me». Hehehehe....