Pride and Prejudice

Nobody can say why Loi Nguyen fell through the cracks. All they can say is they're sorry.

Pina replies, "For you to say this is completely untrue, is based on biases, and I can't help that."

John Gray announces that Loi Nguyen's funeral cost about $7,000. The family has received about $1,600 in donations from the "community," he notes.

(Gray later expressed surprise when told Thunderbird High's faculty donated $400 to defray funeral costs. Jennifer Johnson gave an envelope containing cash to Boi Nguyen at Loi's funeral.)

Naomi Story adjourns the meeting after more than two hours, after scheduling another session for March.

The Nguyens
Miet Tran turns on a videotape. It shows scenes of her return last summer to Vietnam, her first visit since emigrating in 1992.

She took the two-month trip with her son, Loi, reintroducing him to a world he'd left behind as a 10-year-old. On the tape, Loi rides a bicycle down a dirt lane, goofs with his cousins, stands solemnly with relatives in front of an ancient pagoda.

"He wanted to know how we lived over there," Miet Tran says of Loi. "Three weeks after we got back, he died."

Miet retains her sweet disposition despite the tragedies she has endured. Though neither she nor her husband, Boi, can read or write, both are richly educated in the ways of survival.

They have created a shrine to Loi in their living room. It includes his photo, a string of lights. Miet has put mementos of Loi's short life on the shrine--an award from Royal Palm Middle School, cans of Coke and coconut juice, a school notebook.

Miet lights incense, then fetches her husband a glass of water. Boi bellows occasionally in his foghorn of a voice.

Asked how they got to the States, he says, "Not that easy."
Boi grew up in central Vietnam, and raised six children with a previous wife before being drafted into the South Vietnamese army. Captured by the Viet Cong in 1972, Boi says he later escaped by swimming a river with his arms still bound behind him (he shows the scars that encircle his forearms). He hid for a week before friendly forces found him.

A year after his escape, Boi lost his right leg above the knee after stepping on a land mine. Around that time, he learned that his wife and children had been killed by a bomb in his home village.

In April 1975, the Vietnam War ended. The victorious Communists later relocated millions of people in so-called "reeducation camps." Boi was shipped to a camp--a makeshift rural city, really--holding a million people. There, he met Miet Tran, a widow with three kids, including one fathered by an American soldier.

The two became a couple: Miet labored in the rice fields--backbreaking work--while Boi fished for food. Boi and Miet married in the late 1970s, and had three boys together--Hung, Loi and Lan. For years, Miet Tran says, they lived in a little hut with no electricity or running water.

In 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which promised a new life to half-Viets--pariahs in their homelands--who could prove American parentage. Miet's son, Dung Tran, met that criterion. The Nguyen family arrived in Phoenix in November 1992.

"To see a city so big is very strange," Miet Tran says, smiling at the memory. "You feel when you get off the plane like you are lost."

Cuom Tran was 23 when the family emigrated. She found work in Phoenix at a bakery and a tailor shop. "I can work very hard because I want to," she says. "I wanted to come here to learn and to work, and to work some more."

Cuom became more parent than sister to her two younger brothers. She embraced her role without complaint.

As the family's breadwinner (her parents are on social security), Cuom found two better-paying jobs--one at a north Phoenix assembly plant, the other (on weekends) at an insurance agency.

Cuom also takes English classes at night, and her grasp of her adopted language is excellent, and improving daily.

In 1995, just three years after landing in Phoenix, Cuom Tram bought her family a home on 18th Avenue.

American educators long have known that children raised in Asian cultures tend to work tirelessly, cherish family life and keep an unabiding faith for bright futures. Education is considered essential, even to those who have been deprived of it.

Most Asian-born youngsters are excited to speak English and to assimilate, and their zest makes for a remarkable number of success stories.

But it soon became apparent to his teachers that Loi would never be a star student. It wasn't for lack of effort. Loi's teachers in grammar and middle schools remember him as a quiet, respectful kid who worked hard, and rarely lost his temper.

He just couldn't keep up with his peers in the classroom.
"Loi would think he was on to something," says veteran Royal Palm Middle School teacher Joan Bergdolt, "but the next day, forget it. He couldn't retain what he learned. But his effort was always there, always."

Darla Sebenik is in her classroom during a lunch break at Mountain View Elementary School, where she teaches English As a Second Language to youngsters from around the world.

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