I can relate to parts of Mary’s story a lot more than I care to admit.
Written by Andres Chavez, Sun Contributing Writer
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Mary Mustard Reed returned to her alma mater California State University, Northridge a much different person than the 18-year old runaway who enrolled as a freshman. Today she is a proud, successful Vietnamese mother of three grown children. Then she was an abused child who told people she was Hawaiian because she was too embarrassed to admit she was Vietnamese. The story of her transformation is told in her autobiography, “Oceans Apart: A Voyage of International Adoption.” It is a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to answer “Who am I?” by examining her life: She was the first Vietnamese child adopted by an American couple during the Vietnam War, had an abusive childhood, and experienced cultural conflict and separation from her mother whom she believed died in Vietnam. It is also the story of triumph, how her years at CSUN enabled her to have a successful career, discovering her mother was still alive and being reunited with her and coming to terms with her Vietnamese heritage. “Oceans Apart,” Reed said, “is a way for me to preserve my background, my ethnicity, my culture, and preserve my family life for future generations, my grandchildren.”
It’s Saigon in 1964, when Americans were “just advisors” in Vietnam. A young Vietnamese mother, Nguyen Thi Thanh, takes her dying daughter to an American friend who’s CIA. Little 7-year-old Hein had contracted small pox. Nguyen Thi was a street vendor and couldn’t provide the medical care she needed. She asked Sam Mustard to save her daughter. He took the dying child to the American Embassy where the doctors cured Hein. “When I got strength and was doing better, instead of going back to the village where I lived, Sam Mustard wanted me to live in his home. They had servants, cooks and all that, so I could regain my strength even more,” Reed recounted.
The Mustards had been living in Saigon as part of the American presence in Vietnam. Although it was never confirmed, Sam was in the CIA. His wife, Margaret, was a teacher. After Hein had lived with them for 3 or 4 months, Sam wanted to adopt her. “My mother thought that it would be a better life, better opportunities to go live in America with Sam and Margaret Mustard,” Reed said. So she gave Hein up for adoption to the Mustards and Hein became Mary Mustard, the first Vietnamese child adopted during the Vietnam War. The last time she saw her mother was September 3, 1964. Two years later, Mary heard that her mother had been killed in a bomb attack in Saigon. Margaret Mustard was very unhappy about Hein living in her home. She had accused Sam of having an affair with Nguyen Thi but in the end, she was forced to accept the adoption. But every time Margaret looked at Mary, it conjured images of Nguyen Thi. This was the cause of the abuse Mary would have to live with for the next 11 years. “She just hated me. She called me, when I was 7 or 8 years old, a slut and a whore,” Reed recalled.
As Mary got older and resembled her mother even more, the abuse got worse. ” She would get scissors and cut off my hair, she would hit me many times, my eardrums were busted, in my right ear, she’d always call me names, referring to my mother,” Reed said.