Vietnamese, U.S. families reunite on Martha’s Vineyard

Three decades have elapsed since the Nguyens first met the Maxners at an airport. (From left) Dung, Doan, Ha, and Hai, with Thuong's daughter, Taylor, holding the stuffed animal. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Thirty-one years ago, Steve and Joyce Maxner of West Tisbury went out on a limb to offer a haven for a family half a world away that they’d never met. Living in Northampton, Mass., at the time, the Maxners sponsored a Vietnamese family who had left their homeland in an overloaded boat on the first leg of a courageous journey to a new life of opportunity and freedom.

Two weeks ago, nine members of that family, the Nguyens, flew from Houston to Martha’s Vineyard to reconnect with the Maxners and three of their children — Noah, Hannah, and Jennifer — who also live on the Island. Mr. Maxner is a retired counselor and active jack-of-all-trades; Ms. Maxner is a music teacher.

In the years immediately after Saigon fell and the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were moved to re-education camps or simply imprisoned. Hoang Nguyen, 30 at the time, and his wife, Doan Thi Duong, avoided the camps and prison, but they were forced to keep a low profile, to deflect the attention of the totalitarian regime, whose actions were as unpredictable as they were cruel. Determined to provide a better life for his children, Mr. Nguyen (pronounced Wynn) decided to risk everything to get his family to the United States.

For $4,000, a huge sum, they were crammed aboard a fishing boat with 400 other refugees. The goal was to get far enough offshore to be picked up by a freighter that would take them to Hong Kong or the Philippines or any distant port, from where they could find their way to the United States.

Seated in a circle in the Maxners’ backyard on September 26, the Nguyens looked back at their odyssey. “That was the most dangerous part [of our journey],” Ms. Nguyen said of the 17 days spent aboard the boat in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. “We were very lucky — eleven people died.”

There was very little food and they had to supplement their meager supply of water by catching rain in tin cans. Three days out, they were boarded by pirates who stole what remained of their limited possessions and disabled the vessel’s engines.

The oldest son, Dung (pronounced Yoong), who was six at the time, remembers the pirates wielding guns and machetes. His voice tensed as he told the story, prompting his siblings to distract him by gently ribbing him about his refusal to see “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Laughter was a constant as the four Nguyen children, who now range in age from 32 to 36, recounted their story and recalled their late father. They credited their father with teaching them to maintain a balance between the serious and the comical in their lives. “Dad had a great sense of humor,” Dung said. “He was witty, very clever.”

At the same time, the serious side of life was very serious. “Imagine taking that kind of gamble with your life,” Dung said. “But my Dad said, ‘we have to do it for the children.’ He was determined to give his children the opportunity.” He was also curious, innovative, and resourceful, his children said.

When the boat approached the coast of Thailand, it was twice towed back out to sea and left to drift. Finally, the boat ran aground, and Mr. and Ms. Nguyen each grabbed two children, jumped into waist-deep water, and scrambled up onto dry land.

The Nguyens spent seven months in a series of refugee camps in Thailand. When he wasn’t building shelters for his children or staying up all night with his wife shooing mosquitoes away from them with palm leaves, Mr. Nguyen spent hours studying English, which he passed along to his children, word by word.

Part of a massive exodus from their homeland, these brave and sometimes desperate souls became known as boat people. The risks they took and the conditions they encountered attracted the sympathy and outrage of human rights activists worldwide.

Steve Maxner, now 65, served in Vietnam with the U. S. Army in 1969-70. He came away from the experience in “considerable emotional turmoil,” he wrote in a note just before the Nguyens arrived. “The only thing I was not confused about was a desire to help the Vietnamese people still living in a shattered, war-torn country.”

When the Maxners learned of the plight of the boat people, they contacted the International Rescue Committee and offered to sponsor a refugee family trying to get into this country. “I witnessed and participated in things I still feel guilty about, and this was just one constructive thing I could do,” Mr. Maxner said. “It was a way for me to say we were wrong, and I’m sorry, and I can help a little bit.”

The Maxners signed on as sponsors and got busy collecting clothing, food, furniture, and other essentials for a family of six who had nothing. Before long, they were at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn., greeting a family of six who had never felt cold like they did that November day, nor had they ever seen snow.

And then there was the culture shock. The first night, the Maxners served fish and rice with chopsticks, but the Nguyens recalled that they were hoping for steak with knives and forks. For years they had heard about steak from Hoang, who had been introduced to it in Hawaii, where he had called when he was in the South Vietnamese Navy.

There were some inevitable cross-cultural gulfs between the Maxners and the Nguyens, but they were easily bridged by good will. “They were unbelievably appreciative, and there was this tremendous sense of relief that their journey from the refugee camps was over,” Ms. Maxner said. “And we benefited too, by being able to help, and it was a great experience for our two kids who were old enough to understand what was going on.”

With help from like-minded individuals in the Pioneer Valley and the International Rescue Committee, an apartment in Amherst was arranged for the Nguyens. Hoang soon started a C.E.T.A. program where he became trained as a machinist. By summer, he had a job and was once again supporting his family. “He was determined and worked very hard, and he was the head of this C.E.T.A. class,” Mr. Maxner said. “He proved that even with barriers, you can move ahead.”

The Nguyens stayed in Amherst for two winters before they moved to a more temperate area — Texas — in 1981. Mr. Nguyen found work as a machinist, and Ms. Nguyen worked in a restaurant when she wasn’t minding the four children. In time they started working in a convenience store, which they eventually bought in 1987. They have been running Seven Day, as they named it, ever since — seven days a week, 18 hours a day.

Today they all live within 15 minutes of each other, and they have Sunday dinner together at the modest house they purchased in 1988. They might have moved since then but for the house’s street number — 5823, which, when the four digits are added together comes to 18, which is a multiple of 9 and whose two digits add up to 9, an especially lucky number to the Vietnamese.

Between work and school, the Nguyens got caught up in life in Houston, but it wasn’t easy, given the inevitable complications of holding on to one culture while adapting to another. “It’s kind of a burden sometimes: you’re still living in the past, but struggling to make a better life for yourself,” Dung said.

When the Maxners moved to the Island in 1992, the two families lost touch. But Mr. Nguyen tracked them down after a couple of years, and since then the Nguyens have sent a ham or a turkey to the Maxners every Thanksgiving.

In 2000, Mr. Nguyen’s health started to fail and he was soon bedridden. “It was a very hard time for us,” said Thoung (Twoong) said. “He had been our North Star. For two years we were at his bedside, 24/7.” Shortly before he died in April 2002, he reminded his children not to forget the Maxners.

Nor have they, despite leading very busy, very accomplished lives. All four Nguyen children graduated from college, and two have advanced degrees.

Dung, 36, earned a master’s degree after serving in the U.S. Navy from 1994 to 1999, and he is now an I.T. project manager. Thoung, 35, works full-time, while raising two girls, 5 and 3, and helping out in the family store. Hai, 33, is the head instructor at Elite Mixed Martial Arts, a gym/academy that he founded ten years ago with 14 students; today there are 800. Ha, 32, is an energy analyst in the oil industry.

Now 57, Ms. Nguyen is a lovely, gracious woman who is also very determined and resourceful. “She is our rock,” Dung said. “No matter how capricious life was for us or the troubles we went through, she was always there.”

Ms. Nguyen is also steadfast in her appreciation of her new country. “We have been very lucky,” she said, echoing a constant refrain. “I thank the United States for our freedom — and the Maxners. I am very grateful.”

The four Nguyen children share their mother’s gratitude. “An act of kindness by the Maxners lives on, now in three generations,” Dung said. “They gave us the nudge, the spark, by choosing to open their house and life to perfect strangers.”

The good feeling flows both ways. “We take freedom for granted in this country, but the Nguyens showed us how important it is,” Ms. Maxner said. “We’re very lucky to live here, and we’re very lucky to know them.”

For nine Nguyens to fly from Texas to reconnect with the Maxners after 29 years was complicated and expensive, but it was an easy choice for the visitors. Once here, sightseeing and swimming were passed over as the two families just talked and talked, as interested about each other’s current lives and future plans as they were about their shared past, brief as it was.

And they ate. The Maxners cooked for their guests on the first night of their two-day stay, and the Nguyens took over the kitchen the second night to prepare — what else? — steak and lobster.