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Mai Finds Home in Paradise

October 23, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

PARADISE, Calif. — 'It's like she's always been my daughter. It all seems very natural.'

--Barry Huntoon, father of Tran Thi Tuyet Mai

\o7 When he walked into Tan Son Nhut Airport in Ho Chi Minh City and saw her for the first time, the Vietnam War veteran thought his heart would burst.

He had waited 15 years for this moment. It had haunted him, consumed him and anguished him almost every waking hour and restless night. It had exhausted his savings, sent him into psychiatric counseling, crippled his career and sabotaged his romances.

But none of that mattered anymore, because standing in front of him in the airport hallway Oct. 12 was the Amerasian daughter he had almost given up hope of ever finding--the girl he had traced to a beach in Vietnam after seeing her photograph in Life magazine.

Tears streamed down his cheeks. But the teen-ager stayed dry-eyed.

Hesitant, slightly distrustful, even a little afraid of this American stranger who had come forward as her father, ready to take her away from the poverty of Vietnam to a new life in California, she hung back from his hugs. Then she looked into his eyes and, through an interpreter, asked him a question:

"Do you love me?"

\f7

Balloons are still tied to the mailbox, "welcome" banners are still hanging from the trees and gift boxes are still scattered about the house--all reminders that their homecoming took place only Tuesday.

Gestures and Smiles

But already Barry Huntoon and Tran Thi Tuyet Mai are acting like they've known each other for a lifetime. Though she speaks no English and he speaks no Vietnamese, they communicate almost effortlessly through hand gestures, stares and smiles. He seems to know what she wants or needs before she's even conscious of it. And she trusts him completely to guide her through the strange routine of American family life.

"It's like she's always been my daughter," says the 36-year-old sales representative, who has taken a leave from his job with a water purification company to help his five-member family expand to six. "It all seems very natural--and I'm overjoyed."

Meeting the Rest of the Family

So natural, in fact, that 15-year-old Mai appears to have developed an immediate rapport with Huntoon's 30-year-old wife, Laura, and their three children: Jonathan, 2 1/2, Amanda, 1 1/2, and 3-month-old Brianna. Without being asked, the newcomer knows just when to rescue Laura from a cranky baby or stay out of the way of a tantrum-throwing toddler. Indeed, things are proceeding so smoothly that it's easy to overlook that Wednesday was a day full of firsts for Mai.

Her first American breakfast: orange juice out of a can and pancakes with maple syrup. Her first video movie: the Walt Disney animated classic "Dumbo." Her first hair ribbon: a green grosgrain bow that matched her new cotton sweat suit.

And her first lunch at McDonald's.

Trailed by a small pack of reporters and photographers, the Huntoons aren't able to ask Mai what she wants. "I just ordered for her what the kids always get"--a cheeseburger, milkshake and fries, Laura explains.

Seated in a back booth next to her father, Mai looks quizzically at the paper-packaged food in front of her. Huntoon, sensing her discomfort, unwraps her burger. She stares at it, gingerly lifts a corner of the bun and pokes a finger at the beef patty.

Completely bewildered, she sends her father a what-do-I-do-now? glance. He patiently shows her how to pick up the hamburger with a firm finger grip and then ease it into the mouth. She picks up the burger, puts it down, picks it up again and puts it tentatively between her lips. She bites off a tiny morsel and chews it slowly. With obvious effort, she manages to swallow.

"It's called a ham-burg-er ," Laura explains. "It's American food. Do you like?"

Huntoon looks pleased. "I'd say she liked it. Wouldn't you?" he jokes with his wife as he gives Mai a playful chuck under her chin.

With the younger children growing restless, the Huntoons are ready to leave. Then restaurant owner Sandy Schlicht comes over and hands Huntoon a stack of coupons for six free sundaes. "I read the article in the Paradise Post and I cried," she says. "It was the saddest story I'd ever heard."

With that, she bursts into tears and flees to the ladies' room.

Huntoon suddenly realizes that he, too, is crying. "She just choked me up," he says, fingering the six cards. "We can really use these coupons."

He is still, by his own account, "a bundle of nerves," even though his ordeal is finally over. "It's been a long time, and a lot of work, and more effort than I ever thought it would be," he says. "I suppose, in the beginning, I thought it would be easy. But then I was worn down by the bureaucracy."

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