Richard Jerome
May 01, 2000 12:00 PM

On a Friday evening in March, the Donovan family of Cascade, Iowa, runs the supper cleanup drill, falling seamlessly into their assigned roles. Mike fills Tupperware containers with leftover minute steaks and au gratin potatoes while his wife, Judy, and 13-year-old daughter Andrea rinse the dishes. Abruptly an interloper appears: the shirtless figure of Sam Donovan, now 5. Assuming an exaggerated bodybuilder pose, he flexes his scant biceps, wincing in feigned exertion. Seconds later he’s down on the floor playing a dog, barking and sniffing on all fours. Then the phone rings and Sam leaps to his feet. “I got it!” he screams to his father. “Daaddd, it’s for you!”

Variations on that scene play out nightly across the country, but here in rural Cascade (pop. 1, 812), a half-hour from Dubuque, Sam’s antics are anything but ordinary. Just five months ago he was living in an orphanage 18 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. His name was Phuoc, and he spoke no English. But last November, Mike Donovan, a 42-year-old paramedic, and Judy, 41, office manager for the Cascade Pioneer, traveled the 8,600 miles from Iowa, adopted the boy and christened him Samuel Michael. He was wary at the start, but after a remarkably brief period of adjustment, Sam is a card-carrying Donovan. He speaks only English, wears denim overalls, crosses himself when the family says grace and nurses passions for The Lion King and McDonald’s.

“When we first met him, he had a blank look, but now he’s all bubbly,” says Judy. “It’s amazing how well it’s gone.” Social worker Fred Barrionuevo of Holt International Children’s Services of Eugene, Ore., the agency through which Sam was adopted, is impressed. “It’s almost like he’s been here a couple of years,” he says. “He’s being completely absorbed by American culture.”

That, of course, would have been unthinkable a quarter century ago. But last fiscal year, 712 Vietnamese children were placed in U.S. homes, lifting Vietnam into sixth place among foreign countries providing kids for U.S. adoption. For some Americans the lure of Vietnam is tied to history. “It is a place people think about with an emotional connection,” says Susan Cox, a vice president at Holt, one of the nation’s largest adoption agencies. “Usually it’s the first country they ask about if they are a Vietnam vet.”

The war was just ending when the Donovans met back in high school in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1993 that they began dating. By then, Judy was divorced with two children—son Adam, now 17, and Andrea. She was managing a pizzeria next to Mike’s favorite bowling alley. They renewed their acquaintance and wed in 1995.

Mike, never married before, was eager to start his own family. But when he and Judy couldn’t conceive, they contacted Catholic Charities about adoption. Because of their ages, they were relegated to the low end of the waiting list, but a representative of the organization suggested international adoption, which typically requires shorter waiting times. The Donovans’ search led to Holt. “They told us our age didn’t make any difference,” says Judy.

Unlike many couples, she and Mike put few restrictions on the child’s gender or age. “We knew that the more we left the door open, the better the chances were,” Mike explains. They focused on Vietnam chiefly because of the liberal ground rules—previously married parents are accepted and adoptive mothers can be up to 52 years of age. The Donovans were interviewed twice by Holt social workers and in November 1998 were recommended as adoptive parents. “I don’t know what we would have done if they hadn’t approved us,” says Mike.

They waited anxiously for five months. Then in late March of last year, Holt called to say that Ta Dong Phuoc, age 3, was available. The agency sent photographs, cursory medical records and details of his brief biography. Phuoc came from An Linh, a village about 37 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. His mother was dead, his father unknown. His grandmother, unable to care for him, had placed him in a foster home. Judy cried at the sight of the spare little boy in a striped shirt. “The Lord put him in front of us for a reason,” she says. “I don’t think it was to pass him up.” Adam and Andrea were less certain. “I wasn’t used to the idea at first,” Adam admits. Adds his sister: “It was weird, that I’d have a brother from another country.” But a look at Phuoc’s photo changed her mind. “He felt like my brother right away,” she says.

It is Sunday, Oct. 24, and Mike and Judy are flying from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City. In 24 hours they will meet their new son. “My head is swimming. I need to lie down,” says Judy. “My first instinct is to hug him, but I don’t know if I should. What if he doesn’t want to stay with us?” The next morning the couple are in a van heading for Binh Duong Province and the Holt orphanage, where Sam was transferred pending his adoption. Passing rice-paddy fields and grazing water buffalo, they pull into the tidy facility, which houses about 60 children. Greeting the Donovans is orphanage director Pham Thi Yen, 38. “How is our little guy taking this?” Mike asks. Yen smiles. “Sometimes he gets scared,” she answers. “But he’s excited about his new family.” She sounds one cautionary note: “Phuoc is a quiet boy and slow at socialization.”

With that, the child walks in, wearing a striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt and khaki pants. Judy wraps her arms around him, kisses his cheek and hands him a black-and-white teddy bear. Then Mike scoops up the boy, who smiles faintly. “Who’s this?” a staffer asks in Vietnamese, pointing at Mike. “Ba” (Vietnamese for “Dad”), Sam replies. “And this?” “Ma.” Beaming, the Donovans cling to their new son. “He’s full of wonder,” Mike says. “Cuter than the pictures.”

Next the couple and several officials head to the nearby Justice Department for a final bit of paperwork and, under a huge painting of Ho Chi Minh, the Giving and Receiving Ceremony of an Adopted Child. Solemn words are exchanged, then an official presents the Donovans with a bouquet. Sam chooses to stay at the orphanage when Mike and Judy visit his foster parents, retired teacher Mai Van Ngu, 65, and his 55-year-old wife, Po Thi Khoa. “He’s a gentle and handsome boy,” says Ngu, a Viet Cong veteran with a goatee. “He doesn’t respond well to shouting.”

After a toast with Ngu’s home-brewed rice whiskey, the foster parents return with the Donovans to the orphanage for Sam’s farewell party. As the afternoon wears on, the boy grows despondent. When it’s time to depart, Sam bursts into tears as Mike carries him to the van, screaming in Vietnamese to Ngu and the orphanage staff, “Come with me! Don’t leave me!”

Shaken, Mike and Judy drive Sam to the Ho Chi Minh City apartment where they must stay two more weeks while awaiting a Vietnamese passport for their new son. “I felt like I was kidnapping him,” Mike says. Sam sleeps with the hall lights on that first night. The next day begins a time of discovery. Communicating with hand gestures—mainly thumbs up—the Donovans learn that Sam hates milk and dry cereal and that he’s afraid of the shower. On the second day the boy’s worried look softens into a smile; a few days later he’s playing hide-and-seek, leaping from a closet for a piggyback ride from Mike. Clearly, Sam feels closer to his father, often holding his hand or jumping into his lap. “Sure, at times it bothers me,” Judy concedes. “I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, come on, give me some.’ But I know it will come.”

On Nov. 10 the family leaves for Iowa. While the Donovans can’t wait to bring Sam home to Cascade, they feel some lingering anxiety about bringing a child from the Vietnamese countryside into their almost entirely white, middle-American town. “I’m worried about the closed-mindedness of people,” says Mike. “Yeah,” adds Judy. “Like the first time he comes home from school and tells us how some kid called him a name his mother taught him.”

Landing in Cedar Rapids the next day, Sam smiles shyly at sister Andrea and hugs brother Adam’s leg. “I think he likes me,” Adam says. Sam has his first meal at Hardee’s (chicken strips, fries and a Coke), and by 1 p.m. the Donovans arrive home, where Judy walks her new son to his room, decorated with fish decals on the wall. “You like this?” she asks. Sam thrusts both thumbs up. Gingerly he explores the four-bedroom house, then sits on his bed with the teddy bear. “He has his feet crossed,” Mike says. “That means he’s comfortable.”

In the weeks that follow, though, Sam seems subdued. When Judy sends him to daycare after she returns to work in December, he is uncommunicative with other children at first. Then one day another child asks him a question. “No,” replies Sam firmly. “One of the kids came running up and said, ‘He can talk!’ ” recalls Stacy Takes, 25, who runs the center. The only hint of racism surfaces not in the schoolyard, as the Donovans had feared, but at a restaurant, courtesy of an inebriated adult. “Is he yours? Where is he from?” the man asked brusquely. Mike brushed him off without incident. Otherwise neighbors greet Sam warmly, be it at Sunday mass or the supermarket, or while watching Adam play forward for the Cascade High basketball team. The brothers are pals and can often be found wrestling on the living room floor. “The hardest part is constantly setting examples,” Adam says. “Because he copies everything I do.” For Andrea, however, bonding with Sam took more time. “At first I was worried [Adam and I] wouldn’t get enough attention,” she says. But after three months or so, “she’s become a mother hen,” Judy says, “reminding him to put on his pajamas and brush his teeth.”

This month social worker Fred Barrionuevo will make one last visit to the family, then write up a report—the final hurdle in the adoption process. His evaluation will almost surely be positive. “The quality of love is there,” he says. “They are treating him like a birth son.” Still, Mike and Judy try to ensure that Sam doesn’t forget his Vietnamese roots. He made a big step toward reconciling past and present when he declared recently that he had “two moms.”

Soon the family will begin the two-month naturalization process leading to Sam’s becoming a U.S. citizen. But every time the boy shares their table, watches videos with them or throws his arms around one of their legs, Mike and Judy Donovan know the hard part is over. “It feels,” says Judy, “like he’s been here forever.”

Richard Jerome

Joanne Fowler in Ho Chi Minh City and Cascade

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