From ‘Dead Road’ to the classroom
Lei Williams has had quite a journey since being airlifted out of war-torn South Vietnam as a 5-year-old who, along with her younger sister, had to leave her mother behind.
As Williams, a high school English as a Second Language teacher in the Eastern Lancaster County School District, tells her incredible life story, it’s clear she still feels the pain. At times, tears well in her eyes and her voice halts, and as a visitor listening to her, it’s hard not to do the same.
Then a glimmer returns to her eyes, and a beaming smile lights up her face, when talk turns to her work with immigrant students at Garden Spot High School.
Her story starts on April 29, 1975, in Saigon, then the capital city of the former South Vietnam and now Ho Chi Minh City. On what the locals still call “Dead Road.’’
The Viet Cong (communist North Vietnamese) were near the city, and the Americans had designated the rooftops of various buildings for helicopter landings to evacuate South Vietnamese citizens and others.
“The Viet Cong were closing in, and people were so frantic to get to the airlift sites that they just abandoned their cars and bicycles and personal belongings along the road,’’ Williams said. “Dead Road.’’
But the most horrifying thing for Williams, and her then 3-year-old sister, was that there was no room for their mother, and all alone they headed to a ship in the South China Sea and eventually the United States. Their American father had returned to the United States in 1974, but had passed away. There would be no familiar face awaiting them in the U.S.
“Our mother was supposed to come later but she never made it,’’ Williams said. Her mother told a visitor recently that, as she walked away from the airlift site after leaving her daughters, she approached a bridge and thought of jumping.
Becoming an American
It would take 23 years, but the family – mother Mai Thi Xem and her now adult daughters – did reunite. Williams has regularly returned to Vietnam since that reunion in 1998. And together with 28 students, two teachers, and five other adults, she made her 14th trip there this past summer.
The evacuation from Saigon and leaving her mother behind was heart-wrenching. But more daunting challenges awaited.
There was the relocation to military bases in the United States; the culture shock after being adopted by a family in Nebraska; having schoolmates in her early school years taunt her; wondering about her mother.
Williams overcame all of that. She was a successful high school and college student-athlete. She married and started a family, and eventually found her mother and other family members in Vietnam. She has also used her experience to become a well-respected teacher who works with immigrant children facing some of the same acclimation issues she did. She works with them outside of school, and recently had one young man stay at her house with her and her family.
“Lei is awesome. She is a model teacher who cares and takes interest in her students,’’ said Robert Hollister, Eastern Lancaster County superintendent. “Her determination to succeed and give back is remarkable. It is a tribute to immigration and the power this country has to create opportunity.’’
Impacting students’ lives
Jeff Martin, a social studies teacher and president of the Eastern Lancaster County EA, said that Williams’ work with students inside and outside of the classroom is remarkable. He noted that for a rural school district, Eastern Lancaster County gets a fair number of immigrant students, given its location between the cities of Lancaster and Reading.
“A lot of these kids don’t speak English. She was in the same shoes once, and she connects very well with them,’’ he said.
In addition to this summer’s trip, Williams also took 22 students to Vietnam in 2015, and Martin said those students describe it as a life-changing experience.
“Those kids have graduated, and they will tell you that trip changed their perspective on life and the trajectory of their lives,’’ he said. “She makes that kind of impact.’’
The fall of Saigon
April 29 and 30, 1975 are dates etched in Lei Williams’ mind.
Not only did they change history in Southeast Asia – the Viet Cong of North Vietnam had withstood American and South Vietnamese forces and seized control of what is now just Vietnam – they changed the lives of Williams and her sister.
Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, was falling to the Viet Cong and frantic South Vietnamese citizens and others – fearful of what was to become of them – were desperately trying to catch an American helicopter to evacuate.
Williams, then 5-year-old Mai Thi Tuyet Nhung; her sister, now Amy Gray of California but then 3-year-old Mai Thi Tuyet Mai; and their mother, Mai Thi Xem, were among those trying to catch a flight run by Air America, a covert CIA passenger and cargo operation.
“Things were tense in Saigon. The Viet Cong were closing in,’’ Williams said. “Air America went around the city and marked an ‘X’ on buildings tall and strong enough for a helicopter to land.’’
Didn’t understand war
Before the war took a turn for the worse and the Viet Cong captured Saigon, Williams knew there was war but described an otherwise normal home life.
“I remember being happy. Our home was a happy place,’’ Williams said. “I didn’t really understand what was going on in our country, but I remember tanks and soldiers on the streets. There were times when we had to run to a bomb shelter, but you didn’t really understand as a small child what was going on.’’
Any semblance of normalcy would vanish as the fall of Saigon neared in April 1975.
Williams and her sister may not have realized it, but her mother, other citizens of Saigon, and the United States government could see the end coming. Her father, a pilot for Air America who died in 1975, had encouraged her mother to leave.
“One of the buildings with a large ‘X’ was near our house. A friend of my dad’s had contacted my mother to see if we could go,’’ Williams said. “She said no at first but then things started getting worse. I think she knew Saigon was going to fall, and she agreed to go.’’
As they headed to the airlift site, there was chaos on what the locals still call “Dead Road’’ – cars, bicycles, and personal belongings abandoned as people realized the only thing they could hope to save was themselves.
At the airlift site, Williams said there were hordes of people trying to cram through the gates. There was room for her and her sister but not their mother. So, their mother pinned money to her children and bid them a heartbreaking goodbye.
Williams and her sister got out of Saigon just in time on April 29, 1975. The city would officially fall to the Viet Cong the next day.
“I remember crying on the helicopter – just being scared and not having my mom, and having my sister to take care of,’’ Williams said. “But we were expecting her to come later.’’
It wouldn’t happen, and the two young girls found themselves on a ship with thousands of other refugees in the South China Sea. There would be a stop in Guam, and then on to the United States and the unknown.
“When we got on the boat, we had cots to sleep on,’’ Williams said. “But we were so scared we just slept under the cot and hugged each other.’’
Growing up in America
The Great Plains are a long way from Vietnam.
Yet, that is where two young girls, ages 5 and 3, who had barely escaped Saigon at the climax of the Vietnam War in April 1975, found themselves a short while later – adopted by an American family and living with them on a farm in Nebraska.
“We ended up in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas,’’ Williams said. “There was a Vietnamese lady who was on the boat who kind of took care of us.’’
But destiny would soon call.
Before his death in 1975, the girls’ American father – realizing the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam was likely – made contacts with a friend in Nebraska regarding his Vietnamese family.
The girls would be transferred to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and there a woman who would become their mother met them, and took them to the family farm in Nebraska.
There was little in Nebraska to remind the girls of their native Vietnam.
“It was culture shock,’’ Williams said. “We went from a big city to a farm. Then winter came, and we got our first experience with cold.’’
She spoke a little English, but not enough to prepare her for the start of school. And there were no English as a Second Language classes like the ones Williams and many other educators now teach to immigrant students.
“I was the only kid in school who didn’t speak English,’’ she said. “It was scary. I remember not knowing the rules; I didn’t know if I could ask to go to the bathroom or not, and I wet my pants.’’
Then there was the bullying.
“As I started to go through school, kids would ask me if I was a communist,’’ Williams said. “They told me to go back to where I came from. The cruelty would eventually stop, but it doesn’t stop in your head.’’
Despite the early struggles, school and life would settle down, and Williams would go through high school seemingly the same as other students.
She and her sister bonded with their adopted parents, who would give them their American names.
“We called them Mom and Dad, and their children were our brothers and sisters,’’ said Williams, who along with her sister is still close to her adopted family.
She said she had a social group with “great friends,’’ including boyfriends. Her parents encouraged her musically, and she took piano, violin, and clarinet lessons. She also played volleyball and ran track (she coaches both at Eastern Lancaster’s Garden Spot High School).
But her past still burned within her.
“I would dream about my mom, but I didn’t know anything about her during those years,’’ Williams said.
College and the beginning of adulthood have a profound effect on many. And it was no different for Williams.
“It was probably college when I really felt assimilated,’’ she said.
Williams enrolled in LeTourneau University, a small liberal arts college in Texas. She started with a major in accounting, but realized she “didn’t want to sit at a desk all day.’’
After moving to Ohio and then Indiana with her husband, Williams would eventually receive a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Southern Indiana.
Children would come, and her husband’s job would take the family to Tennessee and eventually to Pennsylvania.
A career of her own would wait, but those dreams about her mother would become real.
An emotional reunion
Although she settled in with her adopted family in the United States and her life became that of an American, Lei Williams never stopped thinking of the woman who courageously put her and her younger sister on a helicopter to escape Saigon.
She longed to reconnect, but neither she nor her adopted family in the states knew anything about her birth mother.
In 1990, a break came.
“I got a letter from my biological father’s oldest son. He said he was my half brother and executor of my dad’s will,’’ Williams said. “We met on Father’s Day in 1990 in Nebraska, and he had two boxes of things my dad willed to us.
“There were photo albums of us when we were little and photos of my mom. I had always had these memories of what she looked like and when I saw the photos it was, ‘this is exactly how I remember her.’’’
A burning desire to find her birth mom ignited.
Williams knew of a friend of her biological father’s who lived in South Carolina. She discovered he had passed, but his wife was still alive and Williams went to visit to see if she could get any leads.
The woman had some files, and while flipping through them Williams found a letter from her mother that had a return address.
“I wrote to my mother at that address, and she wrote back,’’ Williams said.
But at the time Williams was finishing up college, was pregnant, and she and her husband found it financially difficult to make a trip to Vietnam.
Letters would be the only contact for eight years. And then …
‘Nhung come home’
In 1998, Williams’ husband had an opportunity to go to China for a year with his job.
“I said, ‘yes, let’s go. This is the opportunity,’’’ Williams said. “We went to China that May and planned to go to Saigon that November.’’
Her sister and her half brother in America went with them.
“The reunion was pretty incredible,’’ Williams said, her voice breaking and halting with emotion. “I was really nervous. Not all reunions are great. What if it didn’t work out?’’
The worries were for naught.
To her birth mother, she was not Lei Williams. Rather, she was the little 5-year-old desperately put on a helicopter 23 years earlier – Mai Thi Tuyet Nhung. Nhung was her first name in Vietnamese.
Her mother kept saying, “Nhung come home. Nhung come home.’’
Many more visits
There have been many more visits to Vietnam since that reunion – Williams tries to go back every 18 months to two years.
On one, Williams’ mother went upstairs and came back with the lunch box she had as a young child.
“It was the only thing my mother hadn’t burned,’’ Williams said. “You had to burn things because it was dangerous if the Viet Cong knew you had associated with Americans.’’
Her mother had married and had three other children, and Williams and her family connected with them. She has met other family members in Vietnam through the years, including her grandfather who fought for the Viet Cong.
“There was my mother, who is not a communist; me, an Amerasian; and my grandfather, who is a communist and is very proud of his service,’’ Williams said.
Taking students back
Lei Williams’ life in and of itself is a historical and cultural lesson.
And like any good educator, she knows teachable moments.
Only she doesn’t just bring that culture and history to the students in Eastern Lancaster County; she takes students to Vietnam.
In 2015, Williams took her first school trip with 22 students. This past July, 28 students and seven adults – two teachers, four parents, and her son – made the journey.
Trip of a lifetime
For the students, it was a trip of a lifetime, and some of their experiences are shared on a blog they did while in Vietnam – blog.elanco.org/vietnam.
Their stops included a visit to Ho Chi Minh Trail, a famed Viet Cong supply line considered one of the military logistical marvels of the 20th century; an overnight boat trip in the Gulf of Tonkin, where an international incident involving attacks on American ships led to the United States’ more direct involvement in Vietnam; a visit with a former North Vietnamese pilot who is considered a war hero; a six-mile hike through the mountains to observe rice, sugar cane, and hemp farming; a stay with a Vietnamese family in the Mekong Delta; touring the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon, which the Viet Cong used to hide first from the French, and later from U.S. forces during the war; cooking classes where Vietnamese dishes were prepared; and a visit to Reunification Palace, South Vietnam’s former Presidential Palace in Saigon.
And of course, they visited with Williams’ family.
Soaking up knowledge
The students did more than sightsee, learn the culture, and study a key time in world and American history. They got involved.
The trip included a visit to an orphanage that is home to children with disabilities. Williams’ students helped them with eating and therapy.
One of the biggest moments was a tour of a wheelchair factory as part of a project the recently graduated seniors on the trip were required to do while in Vietnam.
They partnered with a local Vietnam veteran who provides wheelchairs to those in need in Vietnam, and the seniors did a fundraiser before the trip that raised enough money to purchase 15 wheelchairs at the factory. The students then took them to their recipients.
The students returning to Garden Spot High School this fall for their junior and senior years will be doing PowerPoint presentations and videos for classes. Some students are linking their visits to the history curriculum at Garden Spot.
Williams said any educator interested in organizing a trip to Vietnam can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I was so proud of my Garden Spot students on this trip,’’ Williams said. “They were pushed outside of their comfort zones and exposed to so many things. They were fully engaged, and it was fun to watch them.’’
Finding her life’s work
Although she had her degree in elementary education, it took years of being a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher before Lei Williams realized what she truly wanted to do professionally.
While substituting for an English as a Second Language teacher one day in 2002, a conversation with a student turned on the light.
“I remember sitting with this boy and him saying, ‘this is so hard,’’’ Williams said. “I told him I understood. That I had to learn English, too. He looked at me like, ‘really.’ I told him my story, about coming to this country when I was 5.
“I realized then what I wanted to do – I wanted to work with kids helping them to learn English. I took evening and summer classes to get my ESL certification.’’
Administrators and fellow teachers rave about Williams’ ability and passion in the classroom. So do her former students – one of whom she recently took into her home, and others she has helped learn to drive a car, and to integrate into American life.
Williams doesn’t just help them. More importantly, she understands them.
“Mrs. Williams is such a great teacher,’’ said former student Rio Roces. “When I moved to Pennsylvania two years ago, she was the first person who I opened up to. She helped me with school stuff and my personal life. She is like a mom to me.’’
Meshak Mavanga, an immigrant from the Congo, was taken in by Williams and her family.
“She has a kind heart, and she’s so sweet,’’ Mavanga said. “She allowed me to live with them for free – almost a year as their son.’’
Williams also relates to how immigrant children can be torn between allegiance to their former country and their new one.
“I used to think how can I love this country when I’m from another one?’’ Williams said. “I came to realize I didn’t have to choose. I tell my students, ‘you will always love your first country. I don’t want you to lose that, or your first language.’’’
She also imparts another important lesson – not forgetting the people in America who are helping them, and how someday they can help others.
“I tell them all the time I want them to be givers, and not just takers,’’ Williams said. “There is a time when you need help, but there is also going to be a time when you are able to give back some day. That is the best thing – you can give back.’’
Admires Vietnam vets
Much of Williams’ personal gratitude is directed at U.S. military veterans, particularly those from Vietnam.
Jeff Martin, a social studies teacher at Garden Spot and president of the Eastern Lancaster County EA, said there were a lot of teary eyes when Williams gave the main speech at a school Memorial Day assembly a few years ago with Vietnam veterans seated front and center in the audience.
“She gave such a moving speech, and at the end she came off the stage and hugged them,’’ Martin said. “Some of them started sobbing. They said it was the first time anyone from Vietnam had thanked them.’’
The veterans invited her to speak to a larger group of Vietnam veterans, and she is active in getting Vietnam vets to speak to students.
Williams said many Vietnamese, both people who are still in Vietnam and those who migrated to the United States, received opportunities from the American presence that have really helped them in life.
“These veterans didn’t get a warm welcome when they returned,’’ Williams said. “But I’m so grateful to them. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.’’