Vietnam is where Doug and Cindy Young fell in love more than 40 years ago, and it was Vietnam where they met the daughter they never knew they needed – 31-year-old Trang Phan – 10 years ago.
The family made it official in an adoption ceremony March 4, but the feeling has long been mutual.
Ten years ago, Trang was a junior at Hue University, where the Youngs taught English. Most of the students had never spoken with a native English speaker, and they’d come over to the Youngs’ house after school for English Club or to visit or watch an American movie. Trang and then freshman Aí Nhân Ngo were regulars at the Youngs.
Phan said when she first met the Youngs, Doug was interested in Hue culture, so she brought him books on the subject. In return, she said, she wanted to learn “Cowboy culture.”
For years, the Youngs have called Phan and Ngo their daughters, and Doug has a photo taken last year of him with an arm around each wearing a shirt that reads, “You can’t scare me, I have two daughters.”
Phan was in Doug’s American culture class, and he compared her to Hermione from Harry Potter, always in the front row raising her hand. Phan had an undefinable quality, Doug said, that showed she was strong and could handle life in the United States.
“Even though we had other students who were just as smart, they (Phan and Ngo) had that special something that says they could survive in the American culture, which is so very different from theirs,” Doug said.
Phan’s Vietnamese dad worked for the Americans during the war and spent three years in a communist reeducation camp – a concentration camp. He now walks with a limp and cannot work legally, so the family’s income comes from his wife’s business.
Three days a week, Phan rode her bicycle from her village outside of Hue four miles to the university. Her tutor was 10 miles away. On the way home, she’d stop at the market to get supplies for dinner. Doug said she took over making the family’s evening meal in sixth grade, having to go out and gather firewood for the stove.
“So seeing Trang in high heels and a sharp little skirt is …” Cindy said as Doug cut in, “It’s really quite a transformation in the last 10 years that we’ve watched.”
Doug served as Phan’s faculty advisor on her final thesis and she graduated just as the Youngs were packing up to return to the States. The idea that Phan could come with them didn’t occur until they were packing. She joked that she wanted to go with them, and they have a picture of her tucked into a duffle bag.
But a lot of international students are intimidated by the high tuition rates in the United States and scholarships are hard to come by, Doug said. Phan went on to get a job with IBM, working nights in Saigon, which meant she could keep up with the Youngs during the day in the United States online via instant messaging.
The Youngs made repeat visits to Vietnam, stopping each time in Saigon to visit Phan. And in 2007, the Youngs came up with a plan and pitched it to Phan after a trip to the zoo. If Phan came to the United States to get her master’s degree, the Youngs would pay for her tuition and books. She could get a job as a graduate assistant, which meant she would qualify for in-state tuition, and with that money she could pay for room and board at the University of Texas-Pan American.
“Our only condition was that when she finished her education, she would return to Vietnam,” Doug said. “I remember saying explicitly, ‘Vietnam needs your brainpower more than the United States.’”
The Youngs remember Phan staring at her toes as they spoke.
“You’re wondering why we’re doing this? What’s their ulterior motive?” Cindy asked her. Phan nodded. “We just said, ‘We’ve had a great life, and we want to give back.’ That’s it. We have no other conditions.”
Phan said, “It was probably one of the biggest shocks for me ever. I thought about it, but I really love to study, and I really couldn’t say no.”
In August 2008, Doug went to pick Phan up to bring her to the United States, and Phan’s father prayed to their ancestors to tell them it was OK for Phan to leave “with this old white man,” Doug joked.
Cindy knew when she was in Vietnam having other Americans around her gave her fresh air from an unfamiliar culture. She aimed to do the same thing for Phan when she came to the United States. Cindy made the Young’s house a safe place for Phan to come on weekends and be herself.
“This wasn’t Vietnamese, but it was people who loved Vietnamese,” Cindy said.
Phan came over on weekends and during breaks at the school, but the longer she was at UTPA, she made friends with three other international students and came over less, but the family’s bond grew. They went on family vacations, and Phan met the Young’s son, Keith, and his family in Florida over a Christmas holiday.
Phan’s family always has been supportive of the relationship. Doug recalled in 2011 meeting the family at a restaurant and through a translator, Phan’s father thanked him for being her “American father.”
“That rocked me back in my heels for a man to say that,” Doug said.
Phan said she once told the Youngs she wanted to take care of them when they grow old.
“They don’t have to give up anything and me neither,” Phan said. “They regarded me as their child and that’s quite special to me. To me, it feels like when I’m far from home, I still have a home.”
Under the student visa, Phan could stay an additional year after she graduated because she got a job in her field of study. She and two of her friends got jobs as lecturers in English as a second language at UTPA.
When Phan left the U.S., Ngo came, “So they were never here competing with one another,” Cindy said.
And Doug said the affection between Ngo and the Youngs is the same as with Trang. When Ngo announced she was getting married, Cindy jokingly asked if they were invited to the wedding. Ngo turned stone-faced, they remembered, and said of course they’re invited.
“You’re my American parents,” she said.
And when her father died before the wedding, Ngo asked them to be in the wedding as part of her family.
Family in Vietnam is a different concept, Doug said.
“To them, there’s no such thing as having too many parents,” Doug said.
When Phan returned to Vietnam, an assistant dean at the Hue University told her to consider getting her Ph.D. in something besides English because there already were a lot of English doctorates at the university.
Phan said she considered going to a university in the United Kingdom, and the Youngs offer to pay for a third of the costs.
She emailed “Thay,” her nickname for Doug meaning teacher, and asked for advice. He suggested educational technology, which was his field of study. Phan had taken a class in it as a graduate student and had considered changing her major to it before.
“My real father in Vietnam said, ‘If you have to decide between U.K. and U.S, I would support U.S. more because of Doug and Cindy,” Phan said.
In her culture, it’s OK for someone to have more than one set of parents, Phan said. And she said the Youngs know Vietnam culture and respect it.
The Youngs have a son, but they said they soon found out having a daughter is very different from having a son.
Phan is in Houston getting her Ph.D in educational technology and recently got her license in a car. The first time she drove to the Valley, both the Youngs were nervous.
“He was beside himself,” Cindy said. “And he said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ I said ‘It’s because it’s a daughter.’”
If their son, Keith, broke down on the side of the road, Doug said he would have told him to figure it out. If Phan had broken down, he would have told her to lock the doors, he’s coming.
And for his part, Keith welcomed his new sister, Doug said. Phan said he invited her to his daughter’s graduation ceremony, telling her his daughter has fond memories when she first came to visit in 2008 and they went to Disneyworld.
After the adoption ceremony, Phan described her day to her Vietnamese parents in a long email. She sent Doug a translated version of her father’s reply stating it was an honor for Phan.
“I also believe this happened because the way we Asians and Vietnamese carry and regard family values in our hearts,” he wrote. “But I also want you to be thoughtful about the way you treat Thay and Cindy. Just imagine when a married couple has a child, one of them might feel neglected if the other gave too much attention to the child, so it’s your responsibility to take care of them equally.”
It choked Doug up to read the words.
“Here he is, a man with a fifth-grade education, there was a war going on. Trang’s mother has a first-grade education and taught herself to read and write. Now they have a daughter who is a year away from having a Ph.D.,” Doug said. “It’s really quite remarkable the job they did in raising her.”
Doug came up with the idea to formally adopt Phan and Ngo after a trip to Alabama in December to visit his sister. Her daughter lives across the street and came over to introduce her most recent adopted child, an 18-year-old girl from the Philippines. He’d never heard of adult adoptions, but most states allow it.
When Doug told Phan about the idea, he said her shriek was so loud it hurt his ears. Ngo, too, said if she were in the United States, she’d want to go through the process. Ngo is now married with a 10-month-old baby in Vietnam.
“The law is upfront, and it says this is primarily for emotional purposes, there’s not any real legal benefit to it, and it doesn’t change immigration status,” Doug said. “It’s just saying to the world, “She’s not only like my daughter, she is my daughter.”
The Youngs have even given Phan’s boyfriend, a Vienamese-born French citizen, their stamp of approval. They’ve said they’ll head back to Vietnam for the wedding should the two decide to get married.
And Doug had to rescind his condition of American schooling only if Phan went back to Vietnam. She took that promise seriously, Cindy said.
“I hadn’t understood what I was really saying,” Doug said. “I had no idea that she was going to turn into this daughter.”
“I think when you are given the responsibility of taking care of a being – most of the time it’s a baby, but not always – in caring for something, then you get protective, and that is reciprocated and appreciated, and it turns into love,” Cindy said. “That’s what happened.”