Feb 25, 2020

It OK, Please

On April 30, 1975, Communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. After fighting there for years, the US had signed a peace agreement with the North two years earlier and had left the country, although its embassy remained. During the two years between the peace agreement and April 30, 1975, the South continued to fight, but without the US, victory by the North was inevitable.

On April 29th and 30th of 1975, many in the US watched on TV, horrified, as thousands of South Vietnamese surrounded the US embassy begging to be evacuated. The US managed to evacuate most of the remaining Americans and sent a few helicopters and planes to rescue some of the South Vietnamese.

Those that couldn't evacuate remained, but over many years, some tried to escape, leaving on small, rickety boats. These people, known as "boat people," climbed aboard these boats having no idea what would happen to them -- all for a chance to live in freedom. Many died, but some made it out.

Bian Nguyen* made it out.

Bian, like many other Vietnamese refugees, eventually made her way to Northern Virginia. Over time, lots of Vietnamese restaurants (yum) and other shops popped up, particularly in one section of Arlington, Virginia. In 1979 I started working in a legal aid office a few miles from that block. We saw many Vietnamese refugees who struggled with the typical issues faced by low income people -- landlord/tenant, family, etc. Most situations were frustratingly sad, but every once in a while, there was some sweet with the bitter.

*****

I glanced at the intake sheet - Bian Nguyen, 25, was here for an adoption. Adoptions were easy. Unless a parent objected (which was rare) adoptions were pretty much just paperwork, with one routine court hearing to finalize. Sometimes the Judge would sign the paperwork without a hearing. Kids got parents, became eligible for things like social security, and life went on. Adoptions were easy and good. This should be a snap.

Bian looked more like 15 than 25. A tiny young woman with short black hair and shy demeanor, she came in with her 6 year old niece, Mahin.  Bian and Mahin sat down and looked up at me.

"What can I do for you?"

Luckily, Bian spoke English well enough to talk to me without an interpreter.

"I adopt Mahin," pointing at her niece.

Bian had been a nursing student in Vietnam. Her father was a doctor and wanted his two daughters (Bian and her sister Dacey), and Dacey's daughter (Mahin), to leave Vietnam. He paid for 3 spaces on a small boat.

Bian and Mahin's small boat left Vietnam in the middle of the night, but Dacey refused to go. She wanted to stay and wait for her husband, who was missing in the war. Her plan was somehow to find her husband and have the 2 of them leave and meet up with Bian and Mahin. But, as Bian explained, Dacey's husband was still missing and Dacey never made it out of Vietnam.

Bian and Mahin's boat made its way to Indonesia, where they lived for 2 years before getting permission to migrate to the US as refugees. When I met Bian, she was working in a Vietnamese restaurant, hoping to go back to nursing school. Mahin was getting older and Bian decided it was time to adopt her. Dacey wasn't coming.

Mahin was Adorable with a Capital A -- bowl cut shiny black hair and big brown eyes. As quiet as Bian, she barely moved or made a sound, but I got a few smiles out of her and eventually she was drawing pictures on one of my yellow legal pads. She seemed ok.

In order to adopt a child, Virginia law required that the natural parents consent in person or in writing to the adoption. If the identity of the parents were unknown or their location was unknown, the law required that certain steps be taken -- a newspaper notice and that a letter be sent to the parent(s) by registered mail with return receipt certified.

We were able to do the newspaper notice, but Mahin's father was likely dead and her mother was in Vietnam. The US had no relationship with Vietnam -- mail went back and forth but there was no way to send registered mail to Vietnam. All we had was a letter in Vietnamese from Dacey. Bian said that the letter granted her permission to adopt. I copied the letter and kept the original in my files.

I was stumped. So I did what lawyers do -- I filed a "motion." In litigation, a motion is basically a request to the Judge to "Please Do the Following..."  I entitled it something like "Motion to Proceed with Adoption Without Registered Mail." I summarized the situation and asked for a hearing.

Back in the day, the Arlington courts had "motions day" one Friday a month. Anyone and everyone with a motion scheduled for that Friday showed up and you just waited until the clerk called your name. The courtroom was packed with lawyers waiting their turn.

I brought Bian and someone who could translate Vietnamese with me. And Bian brought Mahin. The clerk called our case "In the Matter of the Adoption of Mahin" and up we went. I explained the matter in simple terms to the Judge. Everyone in Arlington was very familiar with Vietnamese refugees and the "boat people." But the Judge was concerned -- proceeding without notice made him uncomfortable. The Judge wondered how he could be sure that Mahin was related to Bian and not some young girl she found on the boat or in Indonesia. He asked Bian to testify.

Bian told her story. She testified about how her father was a doctor in Vietnam and had paid for 3 spaces on the boat, but her sister Dacey wanted to wait for her husband, who was still missing. Bian told about getting in the boat with Mahin in the middle of the night. She talked about their 2 years in a refugee camp and how she taught Mahin how to read and do her numbers and how they learned English together.

Then I asked the Clerk to mark a piece of paper I had as an Exhibit. I handed it to Bian and said, "Please explain to the Judge what this piece of paper is."

Bian testified, "This is letter from my sister Dacey. She mail it to me from Vietnam."

"Is it in Vietnamese?"

"Yes."

"What does it say?"

"Letter say: It OK, Please. You take Mahin and keep her. You are my sister. You become Mahin's mother because I can't. Thank you."

There wasn't a sound in the courtroom. The war had torn a hole in the US that hadn't begun to heal. But in that moment, it wasn't about communism or protests or bombs or anger or fighting. It was just Bian and Mahin. And Dacey, back in Vietnam.

I looked at the Judge and said: "Your Honor, I understand your concern about Mahin but I believe Bian's testimony is convincing. I ask that you take Judicial Notice that there is no registered mail to Vietnam. There is no way to provide notice to either of Mahin's parents. But, if needed, I have brought someone who is not related to my client who can translate the letter."

The Judge told me that he believed Bian and that the translator wasn't necessary. He looked at Bian and said:

"Ms. Nguyen, you are a very brave young woman, You can step down and go sit with your lawyer. I am happy to sign these adoption papers. You are now Mahin's mother. Best of luck."

As I gathered my papers, a couple of lawyers began to clap and then the courtroom broke out in a gentle applause. Bian held Mahin's hand and mother and daughter walked out of the courtroom.




* no names are real

18 comments:

  1. Feel good story for a “meh” kind of day. Put a smile on my face

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  2. it more than Okay... thanks, Joan.
    =]

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  3. Beautiful!! Again..you really should write a book!!

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  4. Dear Joan, you usually make me smile or laugh, today you made me cry happy tears...
    Thank you.

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  5. Thank you for this heart-warming post. Misty eyes and appreciation for your endeavors.

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  6. For me this brings both happy and sad tears, sad for their hardship, happy for their new beginning! What a great day to come to your blog and find your story!

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  7. This did bring tears. I hope the rest of their story was happy. Beautiful, Joan.

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  8. Coming to your blog is like opening an unmarked box - will it be a card,or a story, or some pithy observation. And that is why I keep coming back. We are lucky to have you in our world.
    Lu C

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  9. What a bittersweet story. It brought tears to my eyes: sad for Dacey, happy for Mahin, proud of Bian for persevering and honouring her sister's wish. Like I've said before, you're a great storyteller. Thanks for sharing.

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