What Dustin Nguyen remembers most vividly about the fall of Saigon in 1975 is the violent death of his best friend. The two had just found each other in the swarm of people on the beach of Vung Tau, near the city, and were waiting to board an American cargo ship that was approaching the shore. Suddenly Vietcong soldiers emerged from the brush and began firing on the crowd. Nguyen, who’d been separated from his family on the beach earlier that day, started running into the water. Turning to check on his friend, he saw him lifted into the air by a storm of bullets, then dropped in a limp pile on the bloody sand. There was nothing Nguyen could do but scream, turn and dive into the water.
That was a long time ago. Now 25, Nguyen is living in a magnificent high-tech penthouse apartment whose wall of sloping glass overlooks the Vancouver skyline. The rent is paid by the producers of Fox TV’s 21 Jump Street, which films in the city. Playing undercover cop H.T. Ioki—part of Jump’s quartet of baby-faced officers who pose as high school students in order to short-circuit adolescent crime—Nguyen has become one of TV’s newest stars.
That’s about as far from Vietnam as it’s possible to get, but in a special, repeat Jump Street episode Sunday, April 24, Nguyen will relive his escape from Saigon and his early years in America. The episode, which received an award from the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists, never acknowledges that the plot is taken from Dustin’s life—which is fine by him. He isn’t looking for sympathy. At the same time, he never wants to forget.
Back in ‘Nam he was called Nguyen Xuan Tri, the elder of two sons of Xuan Phat, a prominent TV producer. “In his free time, my father wrote propaganda programming encouraging the North Vietnamese to defect,” says Nguyen, adding that if his father hadn’t fled he would have been executed. After the slaying of his friend, Dustin climbed aboard the cargo ship with 4,000 other people, twice the boat’s capacity. Several hours passed before he found his parents and younger brother on board.
After seven tense days at sea, the refugees disembarked at Guam, then were transferred to Fort Chaffee, Ark. Three months later, with the sponsorship of the Methodist Church, they moved into the home of a St. Louis woman. Dustin quickly learned English, thanks to a volunteer tutor and Sesame Street. His father washed dishes by day and worked as a janitor at night. Dustin’s mother, My Le, who had been a dancer and actress, became a cleaning lady. After a year, with help from the church, the family bought a simple one-story home in the suburb of Kirkwood. “The war was still fresh in people’s minds,” says Nguyen. “The first thing people thought of was how many [American] kids had been lost over there. So there was a lot of hostility toward us.”
Dustin, who changed his name legally in 1981, just before he was granted citizenship, grew up a loner. During his years at Kirkwood High he found one release through martial arts. At 17 he earned his second-degree black belt in tae kwon do and won a Midwestern championship. At 18, during his first year of college, he found another form of self-expression: While studying communications at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., he took an acting course. “A friend said it would help me overcome my shyness and improve my personality,” says Nguyen. The class did that and more: It gave him career ideas. He dropped out of college after a year and—supported by his parents, who still thought he was in school—went through another year of lessons and auditions before winning the role of a Cambodian anti-Communist in a 1984 episode of Magnum, P.I. In 1985 he did a seven-month stint as a jive-talking Chinese hipster on General Hospital, then landed his 21 Jump Street role in 1986. The show was trashed by critics as a prepubescent Mod Squad when it premiered, but its ratings—by Fox’s standards—have been great. Nguyen can consider himself a success.
His family, however, doesn’t quite agree. His parents, who had wanted him to be an engineer, were “very angry and disappointed,” says Dustin, when they discovered he was acting. “They had worked very hard to put me through school,” he says. “They felt I’d really let them down. It was the first time in my life that I did something against my parents’ wishes. We weren’t talking for a while. It was a very tough time.”
Xuan Phat now works as a press operator in a metal factory; My Le manages a men’s clothing store; brother Andy, 24, is a business student at Southwest Missouri State University. Dustin’s relations with them remain mildly strained. “It’s a big cultural struggle,” he says. “For most Asian-American kids, there’s a lot of pressure to live the old way, the way your parents would like you to live. They see what I do as selfishness. All I have to go on is my belief in myself.”
Nguyen gets moral support from his 21 Jump Street friends and from his girlfriend, Barbara Fix, 22, a student at the University of British Columbia. But Dustin is still adjusting. At times, he says, he sits in his spectacular apartment and just stares out the window. “It’s kind of scary sometimes,” he says, “because you think all this could end tomorrow. That’s fine, though. I’ve lost everything before. So if I lose everything now, I’ll be disappointed, but at least I’m not going to die.”
By Mary Vespa, with Michael Alexander in Vancouver