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Original Issue


Fifteen years after his family fled Saigon, Mike Nguyen is off to UCLA to play football

Hoang Tran looked up at her son and trembled, her eyes wide with emotion. Then very slowly she raised her hand to his shoulder, leaving it there like a sparrow perched on a rocky promontory. "I've waited 17 years for this day," she said. "From the moment my son was born, I look forward to the day he graduate from school. Grandmother, grandfather, everybody wait for this one day."

Mike Nguyen's day finally arrived May 23 at the Portland (Ore.) Civic Auditorium, when he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High with honors. It is a symbol of an American passage that the 1990 Franklin graduating class of 251 contained as many Nguyens as Smiths—four each—although Mike's name was called so often, there seemed to be an army of Nguyens. He was listed among the members of the National Honor Society, was one of 15 graduates receiving highest academic honors because of his 3.88 grade point average and also was named one of four student recipients of the school's award for outstanding citizenship.

A choir sang You'll Never Walk Alone, and then a school official announced that Mike would be leaving Portland in the fall to play football at UCLA. On a full scholarship. "My boy is leaving me now," Hoang said. It wasn't until then that it became obvious her heart was breaking.

The gold braid worn by the school's honors students spread across Mike's broad chest like latticework, and unlike the other graduates in the hall, he seemed about to burst out of his maroon cap and gown. Though his body is almost perfectly formed, he is an athlete who looks about a size larger than the clothes he is wearing at the time. Even his skin has developed its own latticework of cracks and stretch marks around the shoulders. His mother believes that by constantly lifting weights Mike has simply strained the limits to which his Vietnamese frame can carry his outsized muscles.

After the diplomas had been handed out, another graduate walked up to Mike, shook his hand and said, "You'll never be too big a star for me, bud."

The wide receiver who right away will challenge for playing time at UCLA next season is named Mike Nguyen, but when Hoang Iran and her late husband, Hung Nguyen, fled South Vietnam during the calamitous final hours before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, the two-year-old child they carried in their arms was called Huy Nguyen (pronounced Whee Win). Hoang, who like most Vietnamese women retained her maiden name, was the daughter of a captain in the South Vietnamese army. Born to a life of comparative privilege, she had two live-in maids who attended to her every need. But war was never far away.

One day, when Hoang was six years old, she was walking through a field when a bomb fell out of the sky and exploded not far from her. "I didn't know what had happened to me, and I kept walking until my leg began to feel all wet," she says. She passed out and lay unconscious in the field that night, and was eventually discovered the next day in a pool of her own blood, more dead than alive.

When Hoang was 17, she married Hung, an officer in the South Vietnamese navy, and not long after their wedding he was riding in a jeep with three other sailors when it struck a mine and was blown to pieces. Hung was the only one not killed by the blast.

On April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon. Hung returned home just before midnight that night. "He said the communists were taking over the country, so we got to get on ship and stay out in ocean until the fighting is over," Hoang recalls. "After that we can go home. But we never did go home again. I didn't really want to go, even just to get on the ship. So my husband took out his gun and made us go."

Carrying their two children—Mike and his infant sister, Susan—Hoang and Hung made their way through the darkened streets of Saigon to the South Vietnamese naval base. "When we got to the dock, there were million people there," Hoang says. "People were shooting each other, fighting to get on ship."

Her husband and the children were allowed to board the ship, but Hoang was left standing amid the chaos on the dock. Finally, a rope ladder was lowered to her, and she climbed until she saw her children again. "My husband was pretty intelligent person," she says. "He was ship's electrician, and until we were all on board he turn off power so they can't go without us." The ship left just before dawn on April 30, floating down the Saigon River toward the South China Sea. The family had brought nothing but some Vietnamese money with them, and as soon as the ship left the dock, that became worthless. At 10 o'clock that morning, word came over the radio that the communists had captured Saigon.

There was little choice but to turn for the Philippines. From there the family was sent to Guam and then on to Camp Pendleton in California, where they languished for six months until they were sponsored for residency by a man from Oakland, Ore., a town of slightly fewer than 900 people in the southwest part of the state. He found Hung a job as a gardener for a wealthy elderly woman, and Hoang became the woman's maid—in return for virtual slave wages of $150 a month for both, and the use of a one-bedroom house.

Their jobs lasted until Hoang was ready to give birth to Melissa, their younger daughter. "When I was in hospital in labor, that lady decided to kick my husband and our children out of our house," Hoang says. They were then aided by a Lutheran pastor in Roseburg, Ore., who arranged for them to receive donations of food and clothing and helped the family find a new house. "That was the first time our life began to look up," Hoang says.

Portland is one of the largest refugee centers in the United States, mainly because its churches have encouraged parishioners to sponsor Southeast Asian boat people. There are more than 13,000 Vietnamese refugees in Oregon now, but when the Nguyens arrived in the state 15 years ago, they could not find the most basic Southeast Asian foods. When Hoang wanted to serve her family noodles, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, she had to use spaghetti instead.

Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that Mike's favorite food is Italian. Like many children of immigrants, he speaks little of the language of his parents. He calls his friends "dude" and knows as much about the Vietnam War as do most other 17-year-olds in the United States, which is to say practically nothing at all. "I know the way we left Vietnam was a real scary and dangerous situation," he says, "but I really can't comprehend how bad it was. I've basically been raised as an American, and a lot of times I don't realize I'm Vietnamese. But then my mom reminds me that I'm doing well for the Vietnamese community."

"Most Asians work twice as hard because they learn from their parents that they can't take anything for granted," Hoang says. "You must be an asset to your family and to your community." Despite the stereotype, not all the children of Vietnamese refugees are brilliant mathematicians headed for MIT or Cal Tech. Some struggle with a sense of dislocation that they try to resolve by becoming members of Vietnamese gangs. But as one teacher at Franklin High says, "Whether they're geniuses or juvenile delinquents, if they're Vietnamese, Mike Nguyen is like their patron saint."

Mike can't remember his grandparents—though those on his mother's side are still living—just as he has no memory of the village in the Mekong Delta where he was born. The war has erased a part of his identity so completely that it is as if it never existed. "It would be great to be close to all those people," he says of his family in Vietnam, "but I can't really say my life has turned out bad."

Hoang and Hung worked all day and went to school in the evening to learn English. Until he was 10 years old, Mike went to a babysitter's house every day after school, and from there he was picked up at night in time for dinner with his parents, who often fell asleep while studying. "I've had to be more independent because my mom couldn't spend as much time as she would have liked with me," Mike says. "I missed having my parents around. When you're growing up, you want them there all the time."

Mike's sense of loss grew far worse in 1982, when Hung was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. For the next 2½ years he could neither speak nor move, and finally, at the age of 39, he died. Less than a year later, Hoang was in a serious auto accident. But six months after undergoing back surgery, she was on her feet and had started her own business, an employment agency and translation service that specializes in assisting Southeast Asians. She has taken off most of this year to spend time with her son before he leaves for UCLA.

Mike will probably play wide receiver for the Bruins, although Stanford and Oregon worked hard to recruit him as a defensive back. "He's a monstrous hitter," says Frank Geske, the football coach at Franklin High. He's also not bad at avoiding hitters. In the face of constant double-and triple-teaming, Mike caught 54 passes for more than 800 yards as a senior. In his final two seasons, he accumulated 3,800 yards in total offense, and five times gained more than 100 yards rushing, often lining up in the backfield, and 100 yards receiving in the same game.

"Mike has the most intense concentration I've ever seen," Geske says, "and he's got that motivation that just burns." Mike did not have speed to burn when he started playing football, but after a rigorous weightlifting program he was able to cut half a second off his time in the 40. "He's got that highway speed for 20 yards," Geske says. No one realized that Mike had developed into a true sprinter until a month ago, when he ran in his first 100-meter dash for the Franklin track team and won. Last Friday, after only a week of formal training and in the fifth race of his career, he ran an 11.1 at the state track meet in Eugene, finishing ninth.

At 6'2" and 180 pounds, Mike is bigger and stronger than most Southeast Asian males. That, and his dark complexion, has set off considerable tongue wagging. "Most people are surprised when they find out I'm Vietnamese," Mike says. "I really don't know how I got so tall. Most Asians aren't very big at all."

Mike says he has heard the speculation that his father was black—perhaps an American serviceman, the story goes—but insists all the talk doesn't bother him. "I don't take it as an insult, if that's how they mean it," he says. "I didn't do anything wrong. And I don't consider being part black a bad thing. Even if I am part black, it wouldn't mean I had to work any less hard to accomplish the things I have."

Hoang says that one of Mike's uncles in Vietnam is 6'5", but she knows it is likely they will never meet. If her son has doubts about his parentage, they may never be dispelled. "We used to kid him about being adopted," she says, trying gamely to laugh at the rumors. Others suspect the family has been deeply wounded by the gossip. "I've heard all the stories, everyone has, and I know Mike's very sensitive about it," Geske says.

Mike says he doesn't have time to worry about what people think of him, and there seems to be little free time in his schedule for reflection. He holds down two part-time jobs, as a video store clerk and as a valet parking attendant, after school and on weekends.

Despite the astonishing success of those who have come to the United States from Vietnam—Mike is the academic underachiever of the family; his sisters, Susan and Melissa, have perfect 4.0 grade point averages—Mike almost certainly will be the first Vietnamese refugee to play football at the major college level. (Stanford recruiters rather blatantly enlisted junior cornerback Tuan Van Le, who is Amerasian, to help recruit Nguyen, only to discover that the two had almost nothing in common.) Mike does not seem particularly eager to become the first Vietnamese anything, but he is willing to be a symbol if that is what it takes to be an asset to his community.

Sometimes players are born with gifts that don't come tied in neat packages. "I think there's something special about him because he's Vietnamese," says UCLA offensive coordinator Homer Smith. "Mike Nguyen is a young renaissance man—beautifully proportioned physically and also a thinking person. He appears, in other words, to have been born to play football." Sometimes it doesn't matter where the gifts are from; you're just glad they're yours.



On graduation day, Hoang was proud and yet sad knowing Mike would soon be moving on.


Though born in Vietnam, Mike—above with father, Hung, and sisters, Susan and Melissa (right)—soon took up the national pastime.



Mike, a star athlete and student at Franklin, is the all-American boy.