Salt Lake City’s Lượm Làm tries to forget her tough past

Story and slideshow by CHLOE NGUYEN

View a slideshow of Làm’s memories as she talks about her tough past


Pictures of smiles hang on the wall. It’s a nice home, comfortable with green indoor plants. She arrives to the interview two minutes late. She’s just gotten home from her job as souschef at the Little America Hotel. It’s 8:02 p.m. and she probably hasn’t had dinner. Within seconds of walking into her house, she takes her coat and boots off and says, “We can start.” She takes a seat on her tan coach next to one of the plant pots. The recorder is pushed to “record.” She tells her story.

Abandoned by her parents shortly after birth in the city of Dĩ An, Việt Nam, Lượm Làm, 41, was the offspring of an affair between a married Vietnamese woman and an American soldier during the Vietnam War. Her name, Lượm, was given to her by her adoptive mother, Hương Vũ. “It means I was ‘picked up,’” Làm said. In Vietnamese, lượm means to pick something off the streets or something that no one else wants.

Làm’s birth mother, Tôi Lê, kept her pregnancy a secret. And when Làm was born in 1969, she became a secret as well. “I was told she hid me,” Làm said. “She tied her stomach so no one would know she was pregnant. I was always sick as a child.”

Vũ thought Làm wouldn’t make it past childhood, so she and Lê signed an agreement: if the baby died of illness, Vũ wouldn’t be held responsible. But if Làm grew strong and led a healthy life, she would no longer have any connections with her birth mother. Làm would only have one mother, her adoptive one.

“[My birth mother] agreed right away,” Làm said. “I guess she didn’t want her family and friends to know she had a daughter like me.”

Like a miracle, Làm’s health improved. She grew up without memories of her birth mother. Làm’s adoptive parents loved her, and so did their son, Làm Văn Phước. They gave her a family to come home to every day after school; meals were present on the table each night. The family of four lived a happy life in the countryside of Dĩ An for the first few years through Làm’s childhood. But school for Làm was a different story.

“People looked at me different, but I didn’t know why,” Làm said. “I was always lonely.”

Others could see that Làm looked different, and so could she. Làm didn’t have the dark hair that others had; hers was light brown. Her skin looked paler than her other classmates; her eyes, not dark. Làm stood out. The 8-year-old girl was called names and bullied. Classmates threw centipedes at her and teachers didn’t care. Not only did she look different from her classmates, she also looked different from her parents and brother.

Làm slowly realized that the parents who loved her since she could remember were not her biological parents. Làm started to wonder who her birth parents were. The face of one woman kept coming to mind. Làm had seen her a few times in Dĩ An when she went to the market with her mom. She had seen her for the first time at 5 years old; a second time at 8. “I didn’t know who she was,” Làm said. “I just knew she gave me money to buy some clothes and food.”

Làm recalls the moment when she was 10 years old, when she realized who her birth mother was. She remembers sitting at the stairs outside of Lê’s shop one day. Her adoptive mother was talking to the woman whom she would soon know as her birth mother. She didn’t hear the conversation, but a “feeling” told her the truth.

Làm recalls Lê as being somewhat happy and excited the first few times she went to visit her birth mother. But after a while, annoyance and bother replaced the happiness and excitement. Làm limited her visits.

Because of the country’s poor economy after the war, money and food became limited. At 14 years old, Làm stopped going to school because her family could not afford to pay her tuition. “It was a cup of rice to four people a day,” Làm remembers. “I went to bed hungry because we didn’t have enough food to eat.”

Làm had to eventually seek financial help from Lê in order to survive. Tears ran down her cheeks as she remembers the pain of humiliation when she asked for money. “Every time I took her money, I’m crying inside,” Làm said. “But I told myself, ‘the family needs it to survive, don’t just think about yourself.’” Làm said her parents’ love was her only motivation to stay strong.

But their love wasn’t enough to keep life going. Làm worked hard as a farmer, but received little pay. Eventually, she gave in to her adoptive parents’ wishes for her to return to her birth mother. They could no longer provide for her what she needed in order to stay alive.

Làm was, however, looking forward to moving in with her birth mother – it would give her the chance to get to know the person who brought her into this world. But Làm’s dream of a happy reunion quickly turned into a nightmare. From the moment she walked into the wide doors of the big house that belonged to Lê, Làm wasn’t her daughter. “I was a slave for her,” Lam said. “I was her housekeeper.”

Làm had to keep her identity a secret. But as the Vietnamese saying goes, giấy không gói được lửa, meaning, paper cannot hold fire – the truth will come out sooner or later. In Làm’s case, it came out sooner.

Suspicion quickly ran through the house and rumors that Làm was actually part of the family spread like a wildfire. Her birth mother looked her in the eye and asked her if she had spread the rumors. Làm remembers that she didn’t know how to answer the harsh questions. Both she and Lê knew the answer to the question. But Làm told her stepsister, “No, I’m not your sister. Don’t listen to the people talk. I am just a daughter of your mom’s friend. My family is too poor, so I’ve come here to work for you; your mom gives me food to eat.”

That night Làm made the decision to return to her adoptive family. “I was OK with going to bed hungry every night, but I want[ed] to live with someone who loves me and I loved them,” Làm said.

When Làm turned 18, she began dreaming about going to America. “I wanted to go over there and make money,” Làm said. “I have to work hard, make money, and take care of my dad and mom and brother. I cannot let them live hungry every day and let people look down on them.” She also had hopes to find her biological father.

Làm’s dream for a better life came to a halt when her paperwork got denied. She resorted to an option that she still regrets to this day – she agreed to an arranged marriage that would, as she thought, bring her to America. She thought wrong. Her paperwork for America was on a long hiatus with no approval date in sight.

Làm married Tuấn Nguyễn on March 19, 1989, in Dĩ An. She acknowledged that there was no love in the relationship, so she didn’t say anything when he cheated on her repeatedly. He also physically abused her. “If I was lucky, 25 out of 30 days a month I got beat[en],” Làm said. “Normal months, I get beat[en] every day.”

On March 10, 1990, she had her first son. When he was 4 months old, she took him and fled. But her in-laws found them and threatened to take her son away from her. With her son in mind, Làm swallowed her pride and continued to stay in a house where she was being physically and mentally abused.

Làm was offered a miracle when her paperwork for America was finally approved. In 1991, after spending 20 years in Dĩ An, Làm, with her husband and son, traveled to the Philippines and waited for the final departure to America.

On Aug. 15, 1992, the three made it to America. Her second son was born on May 18, 1993. “I heard doctors say the word ‘baby’ and I started crying,” Làm said. “My life was hell, how was I going to take care of another baby?”

After moving from Ohio to Utah in 1995, Làm found a job working at Fashion Tech Windows Curtain in Salt Lake City, but was soon let go. She was constantly late to work because she had to rely on her husband for a ride. Without a job and no income for food, she reached a dead end.

Làm tried committing suicide by overdosing on pills. “I didn’t die the first time, so I tried again.” Làm recalls. “The doctors thought I was crazy, they put me in the hospital for crazy people.”

Làm said she remembers the moment before she fell unconscious. The only sound she heard were the crying calls of her two sons. Làm says that her sons’ crying was what kept her from attempting suicide a third time. She couldn’t leave them without a mother, not with the type of father they had. When Làm returned home after being released from the hospital, she filed for divorce.

The divorce would be finalized after a three-month separation period. Nguyễn didn’t want to move out of their current apartment, so Làm and her two sons moved out instead. She remembers the very spots where they slept: 1000 N. 300 West and 1300 S. Main St.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go. I drove around the city for about two weeks, no, it was almost one month,” Làm said. “I took my two sons and slept in my black Mazda while it was snowing outside.”

One of her few friends at the time offered them a place to stay. Shane Christensen, 40, Làm’s present boyfriend, stood up for her when her husband unexpectedly came looking for her. “No one’s done that for me before,” Làm said. “It meant a lot.”

After realizing he could no longer control her, Nguyễn left and never came back.

With her husband finally out of her life, Làm was ready to start fresh. She says she found her first love in 1996. Christensen helped her get welfare, a place to stay, find a job and apply for school.

In 1999, Làm realized she was ready for another marriage, but Christensen wasn’t. He was diagnosed with kidney failure. Although Christensen’s health is stable now, the wedding date is no longer something the couple aims for. “[We’re] comfortable with the way we are now,” Làm said. “I don’t want to marry again. But I’ll always remember Shane helped me 15 years ago. I’ll always be there for him.”

And she has. “She spent time with me at the hospital; she’s there after I came out. She’s taken care of me; she’s helped me through many problems I have with my own life,” Christensen said. “She’s always been there for me; I appreciate her quite a bit.”

Christensen said Làm is one of the kindest people he’s ever met. “Many times we’ll be driving down the street and she’ll see a homeless person,” he said. “She’s gonna stop to give them something. She’ll even come back later if she missed them the first time. You can tell that she cares about everybody.”

Làm simply says, “I was homeless, I know the feeling.”

Still, as comfortable as she may be now in her life, there is one thing Làm says she will never be able to let go of. “I still dream about my real father,” Làm said. “Even if he is dead, I want to find him.”

She also wants an apology from her birth mother. “I want my mom to come to me, look at me and tell me she’s sorry for what she did do me,” Làm said. “I will definitely not be mad at her. I will definitely understand.”

Làm plans to write her a letter that explains how she has felt all these years, how she’s lived, how she wants information about her birth father, and about how she finds it unfair that her step-siblings got to lead a happy life while she led a miserable one.

Her close friend, Sau Ngô, 54, finds it troubling as well. “I think had she been born at a different time, things would be different,” she said in Vietnamese. “It’s the Việt Nam culture back then. Anyone who was mixed was looked down upon. But it’s different now.”

But Ngô believes Làm’s past made her the strong person she is today. “It’s wrong to leave your daughter, it’s very wrong. She had a sad past, so it’s encouragement to do better for her future,” Ngô said. “Sometimes, people will say harsh words to her, look down on her and say she’s not smart or can’t do this, can’t do that; so it’s her strength to do better with her life.”

Làm says she will be finishing her high school diploma at Horizonte Instruction & Training Center in April 2011. She plans to go to college and become a chef. But first, she would like to improve her English with more ESL classes.

“I’m proud of my mom for fighting to survive and I know that she’s gone through everything for me,” said Ming Nguyễn, 17, Làm’s youngest son. “I love my mom. She’s my hero. I’ll do the best I can to be the son she wants. I’m going to make it in life and be successful for her.”

Ming Nguyễn had little to say about his father. “I have a lot of hate for him.”

Làm admits she cries often. Coming home from work each night, she’ll sit in the driveway until her tears are dried because she doesn’t want her sons to see. She says that only those close to her know her story – but not all of it. She keeps the whole story to herself. “I’ve only told half my story,” Lam said. “There’s too much to tell.”

As she wipes the tears from her eyes, Làm smiles. “Thank you,” she says. “You’ve helped me by listening. I needed to tell it to someone.” She gets off her coach and continues to the kitchen of her present-day house. It’s 10:26 p.m. And although it’s late, she can now say that she no longer goes to bed hungry every night.

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