Back to the Future

No one pays much attention as the black man in an oversize ball cap walks into the Vietnamese restaurant on Phoenix's west side.

A woman wrapping egg rolls on a table near the kitchen tells the man to sit where he wants. She and everyone else in the tiny joint perk up when he responds in perfect Vietnamese.

His name is Dung Van Chau, and he's the 32-year-old son of a Viet mother and African-American father, the latter whom he never knew. He's here to tell his mostly cheerless life saga, which began in Vietnam during the last years of the U.S. war effort there.

"I want to tell you some things," he says softly in English, amid the din of dishes and chatter.

Though his accent is thick, Dung Chau (pronounced yoong chow) has a more-than-passable command of his second language.

Just then, a couple walks into the restaurant and catches Chau's eye. The man is another black Amerasian, Jerome Pham. The pair hasn't seen each other in years. They hug, laughing.

Pham is a few years younger than Chau, and he recalls how Chau used to protect him when they ran the streets of Phoenix in their teens.

"He was a real good guy then," says Pham, a friendly, dapper fellow who also never has met his U.S. serviceman father. "He looked out for me, watched my back."

Pham says proudly that he became an American citizen in 2000, and still recalls the names of many U.S. presidents. He's doing well, Pham tells his old friend, with a good job and a house in Mesa.

Someone asks Pham if he thinks of himself as a Viet or an American. "American, of course," he says quickly, as if the question was inane. "Vietnam is my past. America is my present, my future."

Dung Chau's present and future, however, seem just as bleak as his past.

For starters, the U.S. government wants to deport him to Vietnam because he's been convicted of two felonies since he turned 18. Freed from custody last May after nearly five consecutive years of incarceration -- first in state prison, then in an immigration detention center -- Chau is just scraping by, trying to stay out of trouble, working here and there.

He came to this country as a 13-year-old in 1984 with his mother and half-brother, part of an immigration program that specifically was designed for Amerasians. Technically, he's living here as a "permanent resident alien."

In Vietnam, Chau was a pariah, a walking reminder of the American enemy that had retreated in 1975. There, he was one of thousands of children known as bui doi -- the "dust of life" -- who were treated as second-class citizens or worse.

In the States, Chau instantly became a triple minority -- black, Asian and an immigrant who didn't know English.

Add to that his lack of any formal education in Vietnam -- Amerasians weren't allowed to attend schools -- and a troubled, complex relationship with his mother. It doesn't surprise anyone who knows Chau's story that he's struggled mightily to find his niche in anything legal.

Chau quit school at 17 without learning how to read or write. He's dabbled in illicit drugs, ran with gangs, stolen cars and, in 1991, was convicted of stabbing someone. He spent about half of his 20s incarcerated.

Though Chau is pleasant and polite, and enjoys a good laugh, an undercurrent of depression colors his conversation. He says he thinks often about his two young children, a girl and a boy, who live in Philadelphia with their mother. But he's never even met his son, who is 4.

Chau says he taught himself how to read and write in prison, and that he's finally comfortable using English after almost two decades in the States.

He seems lost in himself as he considers the question about national self-identity that Jerome Pham just answered so easily.

"I was born in Vietnam," Chau says, "and now I live in the U.S., in Phoenix. I don't think I know the right answer."

Dung Chau is the definition of the old saw: a man without a country.

Because of his two criminal convictions, the U.S. wants to deport Chau -- but it can't. Currently, the U.S. has no agreement with Vietnam allowing deportation of native Vietnamese, and immigration officials suggest such an agreement may be years away.

So Chau is in the same boat as about 4,500 other aliens in the U.S. -- most prominently, natives of Cuba -- that the government wants to deport, but can't.

If Chau loses his court appeal of the government's standing deportation order, he faces the likelihood of being reincarcerated indefinitely at the sprawling Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Florence, where he spent the 15 months previous to last May.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin