Tuy’s parents abandoned him after the Vietnam War. The couple adopted him in the U.S.

He later returned to Vietnam seeking serenity but discovered much more.

Nguyen Quoc Tuy was born in Sa Dec, a tiny village in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam, in either 1970 or 1971. Seven days after his birth, Tuy (pronounced two-ee) was given to the local church, which also served as an orphanage.

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In the delta region to the south of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon at the time), the protracted and violent Vietnam War — termed the American War by the Vietnamese — was still raging.

Tuy got polio from drinking tainted water when he was a year old. The virus he was exposed to weakened the muscles in his legs.

After moving to a better Ho Chi Minh City orphanage when he was three years old, he was swiftly put on an adoption list due to his good health.

In contrast, a couple on the west coast of the United States was making preparations to welcome him into their home thousands of miles away.

The police had reported him as an abandoned child.

Kristin and Thomas Buckner, Tuy’s future American parents, wanted to adopt a child from another culture to show that even “lost” kids can have a chance at a happy life.

In addition to their biological son, Paul, they started adopting kids from all over the world.

Thomas explains, “We wanted a large family, but at the time, there was a lot of concern about the planet’s expanding population. We choose to have only one child because there are so many kids without homes.

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Kristin claims that the large size of their family was the result of “blind luck” rather than any overarching concept or design.

“It’s a little-known reality that you can unintentionally adopt, just as you can unintentionally get pregnant and have a surprise baby,” she joked.

Tuy was considered an orphan in Vietnam. They claimed nobody had visited him at the orphanage since he had been admitted.

She recalls her contacts with a U.S. adoption agency from more than 40 years ago and shares, “He was thought to be about three years old.”

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According to Thomas, the family’s adoption arrangements for another Vietnamese kid were delayed in the fall of 1974, which is how Tuy came to live with him and his family.

“Unfortunately, there were setbacks in our plans to adopt a child we were going to name Robin because of his mental condition. During this time, we made the decision to foster another child; his name is Tuy.”

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Tuy was the fourth child in the Buckner family. It was expected that two more kids, including Robin, would be along soon. With a wink and a nod to the iconic American sitcom The Brady Bunch, Tuy says, “We were the Buckner Bunch.”

Mad Scientist-level brainpower.

Tuy did not have an easy time of it during his early years in Berkeley.

The orphanage workers were aware of how anxious he was, and placing him in a new setting didn’t help. Tuy had a natural inclination to hoard or secret away any food he was given.

A friend of the family made him a bag to carry extra food in, and he always had it with him. Toys he wanted to keep track of were hidden in the air ducts of the heater. For nearly six months, he did this because he felt more secure.

Tuy gradually warmed up to his new family and started to trust them. He gained self-assurance as he conquered the physical obstacles brought on by his condition, particularly his weak legs.

Kristin remembers taking Tuy and his family to a park in the Berkeley hills, where Tuy watched his siblings play on the playground equipment. She watched as he crawled over to the slide’s ladder, went up on his own, glanced around, and then slid down on his own.

“It was then that I realized Tuy’s difficulties were merely hurdles to be solved.”  Kristin recalled.

Tuy’s legs started to expand, but his muscles and nerves did not. This necessitated extensive remedial surgery.

By age 6, he could use crutches, leg braces, ski, mountain bike, and climb with outriggers.

Tuy faced new challenges as he entered the California school system. Those he attended school with regarded him as a slacker. Tuy claims, “I would read a phrase in class, and then I would be done.”

Kristin and Thomas couldn’t figure out why Tuy was falling so far behind in reading fundamentals.

During a particularly sleepless night, Tuy’s mother “had a theory,” he adds. “She walked into my room and gave me one of my books, but it was on its side. That was perfectly readable for me. The fact that I was extremely dyslexic was uncovered in this manner.”

His siblings think he’s “diabolically clever,” and they mean that in a good way.

The other kids went outside to play, so I had to find something else to do, as Tuy puts it.

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“In a nutshell, I improved greatly as a chess player. I picked up a knife and chisel and began shaping wood. Just so I can talk about something other than the weather over dinner, I read almanacs like you wouldn’t believe.”

Tuy’s high school grades began to suffer as his focus shifted from studying to his hobbies of creating and solving problems.

Bar puzzles (the kind you had to physically move to complete) were his favorite, so he would sneak wire coat hangers from his room and use them to avoid math class. His accomplishments in the classes he missed made an impression on his peers, but not on his teachers. Large public high schools were unable to provide him with the individualized attention and educational opportunities he required.

Tuy attended a private high school in Oakland for a while before leaving home.

He moved his family and himself almost 2,000 miles to the Big Island of Hawaii so that he could attend a far more intimate private boarding school there.

Tuy gained his independence on the island, and he found himself thrived there. He felt so at home with Hawaiian culture that he once pretended to be native to Hawaii. In order to generate a little more money, he even opened a store in the student hostel where he sold instant noodles, candy, and soda.

Bonjour, Vietnam!

Tuy freely admits that as a young adult, he wandered and was easily distracted. However, in 1991 he had the opportunity to take Kristin on a trip to Vietnam.

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His parents had always been honest with him about his origins, and Kristin had taken him to Asia on several occasions, but this was the first time they had been able to visit Vietnam as unarmed American civilians since the war ended.

Kristin was a key organizer for Vietnam’s first peace walk, a demonstration against the U.S. trade blockade. On the tour, there were Veterans from the United States, peace activists, and returning Vietnamese.

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“Vietnam today is a very different place than it was in 1991. There’s just something special about going back home that words can’t explain. I hadn’t given any thought to Vietnam before that point. But as we touched down, the whole thing became too much.” Toy later added.

“The airport in Hanoi was very modest when it first opened. Getting from the plane to the terminal required some foot travel. At the halfway point, I stopped and kissed the earth. I just felt obligated to do it.”

Among the 1,600 islands that make up Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site, a march in front of two families of curious monkeys on Monkey Island stood out as the oddest.

Tuy recalls that that night, everyone ate dinner together on Cat Ba, the largest island in the bay.  “Our Vietnamese hosts, who included a general of the armed forces, sat down to eat and invited me to join them. After a while, we all drank quite a bit. I owned a cassette tape of the score to Good Morning, Vietnam, starring Robin Williams. I sat with this general and some cheap Russian alcohol and talked them into playing.”

To paraphrase, “It was strange and awesome at the same time.”

After the peace walks concluded, Tuy and Kristin wanted to visit the Mekong Delta, where Tuy was born, but they were unable to do so due to travel limitations for foreigners.

Tuy’s life was profoundly altered by his trip. A fresh horizon of possibility appeared before him.

More questions remain unanswered.

Once Tuy returned to the United States, he immersed himself in Vietnamese culture as much as possible, even getting to know the Vietnamese children adopted by friends of his parents.

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Another famous American family situated in the north of the state of California raised a brood of crippled Vietnamese orphans: the DeBolts.

They were among the thousands of infants and young children transported out of Vietnam in the conflict’s final days. They were eventually adopted by families from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

Tuy blended in seamlessly. His friendships with Ly, Tich, and David deepened. They got together to eat Vietnamese food, drink Vietnamese coffee, and play a Vietnamese card game called Tin Lin.

Ly’s wedding in Vietnam was scheduled for 1993, and Tuy wanted to be there, so he decided to spend three months there with his pals. In contrast to his time in Vietnam with the peace marchers in 1991, he would have more freedom of movement this time around. He had some loose ends in the Mekong Delta as well.

While in Ho Chi Minh City, Tuy, Tich, and David were offered the opportunity to see the rural Mekong region by the hotel’s owners, a retired army colonel, and his wife.

Due to terrible road conditions and washed-out bridges, the journey proved more challenging than they had planned.

The difficulties of navigating Vietnam were compounded for a person with a disability. Hotel management made the decision to travel to Sa Dec by boat in order to check on Tuy’s orphanage.

They went missing for a few hours and then came back with the information.

Sister Desiree, the nun who signed Tuy’s paperwork, had moved to Can Tho, a city not far away. It was simple to track her down.

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She offered to be his godmother but had no insight into who his parents were.

‘Sister Desiree was great,’ Tuy exclaims. The fact that I tracked down the nun who signed the birth certificate after giving up hope of ever finding anyone else was miraculous in and of itself.

Da Nang is a beach city in central Vietnam, and Tuy decided to spend the next two and a half months there with his pals. He enjoyed himself immensely, but was conflicted.

A tremendous want to visit Sa Dec for himself persisted, so he made one last attempt to get there before departing Vietnam.

Tuy had departed Ho Chi Minh City with his companions and the hotel owners again three days before his return departure to the United States. They finally arrived after more than five hours of travelling on deteriorating roads.

There was immediate talk about the entrance of this rare group of crippled Vietnamese-Americans. Market vendors nearly went out of business as customers flocked to the orphanage’s entrance. Tuy recalls greeting the youngsters and sitting on the broken concrete benches to examine the peeling orange paint on the walls.

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A ledger listing all of the orphans who had left with the nuns was given to Tuy. Tuy flipped to entry 313 and saw a newborn photo of himself labeled with the name Nguyen Quoc Tuy, which matched his official birth name.

That they still had these records and the Vietnamese version of his name was the right one surprised Tuy.

On the street, people were getting more and more energized.

Some of the onlookers from the street had made their way into the churchyard for a closer look. 

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A woman entered the church, and it was immediately obvious that the nuns recognized her. They gave her the name Phien and showed Tuy the portrait of her as a baby written in the logbook. According to what Tuy was told, the older kids in the orphanage were responsible for supervising the younger ones. Phien, then only seven years old, had actually looked after him.

Having her in town at that particular time was a complete and utter fluke. She had intended to visit a sick relative at the hospital but instead paid a visit to the orphanage’s nuns.

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Phien started talking animatedly to the nuns, but Tuy couldn’t understand her because he wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese. Tuy’s DeBolt family friend and fellow Vietnamese, David, started translating. And Tuy claims, “my head felt like it was boiling” as a result of what he started to divulge.

It turned out that Phien knew something about Tuy’s biological mother.

As far as everybody knew, she had not died yet.

Phien assured him that even though it would take some time because she lived so far away, she could bring her back to meet him.

Numbness was setting in, Tuy explains. “I didn’t know how long I’d be standing around. At once, I felt joy, terror, and grief.”

Who is she?

For what reason did she act this way? How much convincing will she need before she accepts me for who I really am?

Do you think I’m being taken advantage of? If so, how should I proceed? What am I going to do if it isn’t?

Tuy waited with his pals, and during that time, he observed them while they consumed their lunch. After that, everyone gathered on the church’s steps.

Tuy describes the passage of time as gradual and yet simultaneously a blur. “I kept glancing around at the many different people in the crowd.”

As time passed, unrest started outside the fences. The town’s whole populace appeared to be making way for the slowly progressing group. As the group neared the front, a little old lady in glasses stepped out in front of Tuy.

Tuy, in a panic, spewed out the Vietnamese phrase his pals had been patiently teaching him.

“Con trai của mẹ đã xa nhà 20 năm nhưng bây giờ con ấy đã trở về.”

“Your kid has been gone for 20 years, but he’s back” is the literal translation into English.

After a short pause, those in the front of the throng began making gestures toward Tuy.

According to him, “people started pointing at a second lady who had stepped out from behind the first one.” “I spoke to the wrong woman at first!”

Until someone in the throng exclaimed, “So which one is your kid?” the room remained silent, as Tich, a friend of Tuy’s, explains. “There was some levity, and the stress disappeared.”

The other woman approached Tuy, grabbed him behind the head, and lowered him to her height. At the time, he had long hair, and she parted it down the middle.

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Tuy explains, “I was born with this birthmark on my head.” “That’s why I let my hair grow so long; I needed to cover it up.”

After she saw the brand, she let go of him and slapped his arm, saying, “This is my kid!”

“Everyone clapped,” Tuy says. “Because I still didn’t understand what was being said or done, David and Tich stepped in to translate.”

Without a shred of doubt, she was my mom, and I was her kid at that very moment. “Only a mother could know that,” he said.

What about my dad?

“Through the sobs, I questioned who my father was and whether he was here too,” Tuy recalls.

She informed me that he was Filipino.

“It hit me. When folks in Hawaii commented that I looked Filipino, I felt frightened. I believed I was the only one who identified as Vietnamese, but they were correct.”

Tuy claims that he and his biological mother, Nguyen Thi Be, sat down and had a conversation, with the help of his friends who translated.

“I was fully feeling what she was saying. I wanted to say a lot but couldn’t. I was so socially awkward that I felt humiliated and shy. After I was born, she became quite ill and was unable to take care of me, she said. She made arrangements for me to be escorted to the church out of fear for her own safety.”

She stated the nuns warned her that once a child was given up, it could not be retrieved, and she tried to get me back when she got better.

“My mother gave up all hope of ever seeing me again when the war ended.”  Tuy could feel the pain.

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When asked about his father, Thi Be told Tuy his name was Fantaleon Sanchez and that he was from the Philippine city of Calamba.

Tuy and his adopted father, Thomas, flew to Manila six months after their mother and son were reunited. They were on the hunt for Tuy’s biological father.

Baritone vocalist Thomas had a gig with the national philharmonic orchestra, so he decided to use the chance to go on a hunt. It was 1994, the internet was just getting started, and they had no idea where to even begin looking in Calamba, which had a population of over 200,000 at the time.

The taxi driver who took them the roughly thirty kilometers from Manila recommended they see the city hall on the way. Thomas recalls, “Right as you enter the building, there’s a missing persons bureau.”

A photo of Tuy’s Vietnamese mother and older sister was taken by the officer at the front desk, who introduced himself as Benito, despite the fact that nobody was actually missing.

Benito assured us that he would meet with each barrio, or “neighborhood captain,” to discuss the state of events in his community. That settled the matter, then. To put it simply, we departed.

Tuy: “It was like reliving all those memories, but in a nice way, since we found that area, and it felt so right.”

From the heights of optimism to the uncertainty of waiting and wondering. It was important to me to track him down, but I didn’t think it was going to be possible. Following his scheduled performances, Thomas returned home via airplane. Tuy had a few days to kill in Manila before he had to leave as well for the United States.

Then Benito made a phone call.

“My father,” he said, “was among the things I’d found. The man was 65 years old, and his name was Pantaleon Mance, which sounds similar to the Fantaleon Sanchez my mother remembered.”

“The next morning at 8am, I was told he would come to see me in Manila.” Tuy’s cold sweats from six months ago in Sa Dec had resurfaced. After a restless night, Tuy waited patiently in a traditional Filipino blouse he had purchased.

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The experience “was really different than meeting my Vietnamese mum,” he recalls. “I wanted him to prove to me that he was my biological father, therefore that was my main objective. He knew that if his responses were wrong, the meeting would be ended.”

In the course of their conversation, it became apparent that Pantaleon shared their goals. The questions were posed, and the responses were given. The fact that they were father and son eventually became obvious.

“That’s how it was with Dad; just the two of us. Two talking human beings; both men. We rented a car and drove to Calamba to see my half-sisters, Tess and Faye, before continuing the celebration at one of Pantaleon’s friend’s homes.”

“His kids and I said our goodbyes at the airport two days later. As a result, I was faced with some very important decisions, and my life was turned upside down.”

This is the beginning of the rest of your life.

The Philippines weren’t the only place where Tuy discovered he had long-lost kin. There was a large branch of his family in Vietnam. His birth mother, Thi Be, was the oldest of six children; he also had one full biological sister, Phuong, and five half-siblings.

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Last month, Thi Be’s second husband passed away after being bitten by a snake while working in the rice fields. The family was deeply indebted and had to make do with very little.

In contrast to his family, who were “living in a hut with a dirt floor and no electricity,” he was “living the jackpot life,” attending art school in California.

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The emotional ties that Tuy had to Vietnam and his relatives there deepened. This pattern of travel continued for the next few years, with Vietnam eventually taking precedence in his life over the United States.

He and his new Vietnamese pals opened a budget hotel close to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Also, he settled down in Da Nang and made it his mission to become fluent in Vietnamese.

Tuy claims that he was a helpful and loving brother and sister whenever he visited them in Sa Dec. Over time, Thi Be and her family were able to pull themselves out of extreme poverty.

Alongside David Dang, a fellow adopted from the DeBolt family who chose to keep his birth surname, Tuy shared an office. David started the nonprofit organization Ablenet to ship second-hand personal computers from the United States to Vietnam. Additionally, a school was established to train disabled Vietnamese citizens in computer use and programming.

There was a time when disabled people were considered a financial burden on their families. Workshops for the disabled were limited to bike repair for men and sewing and craft making for women.

Ablenet acted as a broker in US relationships with major players in Silicon Valley. David closed the business a few years later, in part due to the increasing amount of bureaucracy in Vietnam.

Tuy was harmed in an automobile accident in the United States in 1996.

Before his vehicle accident, Tuy could use crutches and leg braces to get around despite his weak legs from a lack of exercise.

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However, the accident left him permanently confined to a wheelchair.

Tuy tore a major tendon in the rotator cuff, which is a collection of four muscles that work together to keep the arm and shoulder joint stable. Tuy was unable to leave the country for two years as the full degree of his shoulder injury became apparent.

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On the other hand, David Dang called Tuy one afternoon in October 2000 and offered him an offer he couldn’t refuse. They were invited to accompany a group of IT experts on a trip to Vietnam to observe former US President Bill Clinton because of their work with Ablenet.

If Clinton were to visit South Vietnam, he would be the first sitting US president to do so since Richard Nixon in 1969. Since the mid-1990s, Tuy has been welding, manufacturing wheelchairs, and designing jewelry, all of which stemmed from his innate creativity as a child.

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He wanted to give several members of the presidential delegation commemorative pins he had prepared before leaving. Tuy looked up to Bill Clinton, and it had always been his goal to shake the president’s hand. However, as their vacation came to a close, Tuy hadn’t even had a sight of Clinton outside of television.

Tuy, on a whim on the last day of his trip, rolled up to Ho Chi Minh City Hall in his wheelchair. They were having a business lunch for people in the IT industry, and Tuy was able to wangle his way in. He dragged his chair while he crawled up the stairs as there was no elevator. After mingling for a while, he eventually left the event in a wheelchair and exited through the rear room. The senators John Kerry, Loretta Sanchez, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta all appeared before him at once.

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Naturally, Tuy made an introduction and struck up a conversation. He learned a speech by President Clinton about to begin, and he would be giving it in the lobby below. Tuy finally had his chance. He hurried to the compact space next to the main staircase, where a platform was being set up. He stopped waiting for someone and waited in his wheelchair.

The lobby was buzzing with anticipation when Bill Clinton entered. Tuy remembers the president saying that he hoped relations between Vietnam and the United States would “normalize” and that the internet will be useful for the development of Vietnamese industry in the future.

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Tuy reports that he gushed over the Vietnamese noodle soup known as pho. When he was done, the president made his way to the front of the audience to shake hands. He smiled broadly as he extended both hands to shake hands with the president, as is customary in Vietnam. As a return gesture, Bill Clinton similarly clasped Tuy’s hands in his own.

“I had a speech hastily drawn up in my head,” Tuy admits. “I told him that I’d been seeing Vietnam’s transformation for nine years and appreciated his efforts to improve ties with the country. I said that I had been born in this country but had been adopted by an American family after contracting polio and raised in Berkeley. As quickly as possible, I recounted my entire life, from my participation in the peace walk in 1991 to the discovery of my Vietnamese family in 1993. I explained that many more Vietnamese living abroad may now come home to reconnect with family, culture, and their motherland because he decided to normalize relations with Vietnam. At this point, I was expecting him to let go of my hand, but instead he said, “I’m pleased I got to experience this because of folks like you.”‘

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President Clinton reportedly sent his official photographer over to take a photo with Tuy after asking if he might have one taken with him. The long handshake was featured on the evening news that night in Vietnam.

Like on the day he saw his biological mother in Sa Dec, Tuy was a minor star once again.

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After dinner, the whole family usually gathers in the living room for some casual conversation. Tuy and his family (brothers, sisters, and parents/aunts) share their experiences of overcoming adversity. Tuy’s younger half-brothers and sister talk about how they were terrified of him at first and how challenging it was to get to know his personality.

Every member of the family sheds a tear as they recall their past together.

Whether they’re happy or sad tears, I want to know. I ask. They all react in unison and without hesitation, “vui.”


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