Critic's Choice

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"No doubt about it. I had the greatest job in the world," declares Katie Kelly, the former entertainment critic for two New York City television stations who was known for her snappy bow ties and lively humor. "I actually got paid to watch TV, go to movies and go to the theater. "So it came as a shock to many of her colleagues when Kelly, then 53, announced in 1989 that she was giving up her six-figure salary to go to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to teach English to Amerasians—the half-Vietnamese, half-American children born in Vietnam between 1962 and 1976. Among the saddest legacies of the Vietnam War, they number an estimated 30,000 and, because of their mixed race, remain outcasts in their own country.

A seasoned traveler with a taste for exotic destinations, Kelly became interested in these teenagers when she went to Vietnam on a vacation in 1988. Kelly grew up poor in tiny Albion, Nebr., and lived in a house that had no heat or plumbing. But, she says, those hardships pale next to the Amerasians' experience. "Nothing could help me understand what these kids had been through. They were born in a war, were abandoned by their fathers and sometimes by their mothers, and then by society." (This year's Broadway hit Miss Saigon is based on their tragic story.) Kelly, divorced since 1967, decided to go back and put to use the skills she had acquired as an English teacher during the '60s. "It was the easiest decision I ever made, "she says.

After a year in Ho Chi Minh City, Kelly returned to her Manhattan brownstone last February. Still living off her sizable savings, she now spends much of her time helping Amerasian refugees, including several of her former students who are struggling to make it here. "I wanted not only to be part of their past," she says, "but part of their future." In her own words, Kelly recalls her moving experiences.

KIM WAS THE FIRST AMERASIAN I MET on my trip to Vietnam in 1988. I was walking in downtown Ho Chi Minh City when someone asked me if I wanted to buy postcards. I looked up, and there was this small American face. Kim had short, brown, wavy hair, freckles and green eyes. She was 18 and spoke a little English. She told me that she wanted to come to America. She knew only that her father was a serviceman and that she wanted to live with him. These mixed-race children know they have no future in Vietnam.

When I returned to New York City, I thought I'd look at my slides and bore my friends and I hat would be it. But I could not stop thinking about Kim and all the other kids. I wanted to help them. It wasn't that anything was lacking in my own life. It was just that as a privileged American, I could see how much was lacking in their lives.

I hooked up with a program in Ho Chi Minh City run by a Vietnam vet, but when I arrived in February 1990, it had been closed down. I volunteered for a second program, run by the Vietnamese, that was also eventually shut down. By this time there were about two dozen kids whom I'd become close to. Among them: Huong, an 18-year-old who lived under a building's staircase; Tai, blond as a California surfer, and Bryner, whose front teeth had been knocked out by the police in 1985 for talking to an American reporter.

So I started a program of my own. The mother of one of my students gave me a corner of her dark, cramped living room. We met every weekday for about five hours. We had no blackboard, no books. Each morning I would photocopy that day's lesson, which I had written myself. The first was, "Hello, my name is Katie. What is your name?" After that it was clothing, hair color, body parts and any verb that I could act out.

One day I was trying to teach lie down by throwing myself on the floor. Before I knew it, there were 25 people saying, "She dead? You okay, teacher?" We'd have breakthroughs all the time. Once we were sitting in a restaurant and Tarn, 21, a black Amerasian who had been adopted by Buddhist monks, blurted out, "I am wearing shoes." Actually he was eating a chicken leg, but who cares? It was his proudest moment.

There were after-school activities too. Some of the kids didn't have enough to eat. So I'd feed them. The rule was that if there were more than 10, we had to go to a street stall where meals cost about 50 cents each. Otherwise we'd go to a restaurant: Indian, Japanese, French; the food is great and averages $1 a person.

My hotel was cheap, centrally located—and bat-infested. My nighttime ritual was running up to my room wearing a cone hat, waving a broom, screaming like a banshee and thinking, "Would Jane Pauley do this?"

My social life revolved around my students and their families. Going to their homes was unbelievable. Kim's house looked like a cage. The front was heavy wire mesh. Inside was a long room divided in half. Kim's family, which numbered seven, lived on one side. There was no running water, and cooking was done on a charcoal cooker on the floor. It was the best food I ever had.

I had planned to stay in Vietnam one year, then reassess my situation. In 1987, to facilitate resettlement in the States, Congress had passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act. Nearly all the kids and their mothers whom I was close to had left the country or were leaving by the end of 1990. I knew that coming to the States was going to be difficult. They try so hard to make themselves into Americans over there, wearing T-shirts, trying to learn English. But here they're seen as another bunch of refugees.

A month after I returned home, I agreed to be a sponsor. It entails meeting the kids at the airport, then arranging for their food and shelter until they can fend for themselves. It's all overseen by charitable agencies. Bryner arrived in April and is still with me. Linh, who is Vietnamese, and his black Amerasian half-sister, Thanh, arrived in May. They've since moved to Massachusetts. Having another person around was like becoming a parent at age 54. Oops, there went all my space and privacy. I have only one extra bedroom. And there were times, say, sitting down to dinner, when I'd suddenly realize that we were two people who couldn't talk to each other very well. But Bryner is so much like me—introverted, hardworking—it was easy. He hadn't been in the house 10 minutes when he asked when he could start going to school. He's now enrolled in an English class at a nearby YMCA.

Sometimes I get angry because these kids have been so cheated. Bryner is 24 and one of the brightest kids I've ever met, but he'd had only four years of school. He came home one day almost in tears because he couldn't understand the reading exercise. It was about the sinking of the Titanic. He'd never heard of the Titanic. He didn't know what an iceberg was. The first time we went to a supermarket, he walked right back out. It was too much. I'd write shopping lists so detailed they'd be like encyclopedias. Let's say we needed milk. Well, do you want whole milk or skim? One percent fat or 2 percent? A pint, a quart or a gallon?

There have been joyous times too. Bryner got a job as a porter in a Manhattan movie theater. When his first week's paycheck came, I'd never seen a happier human being. It was for $150, one year's salary in Vietnam.

I can't see myself going back to TV now. I'm writing a book about my Vietnam experience. And every morning I help out at St. Rita's, an Asian-refugee center in the Bronx. I also want to have a reunion with the kids I know here. There are 13 of them. Tarn is in Tennessee. Tai's in Georgia. They're both studying English. Huong, who lived under the staircase, is in Washington State and is about to enter high school.

And Kim. By God, didn't her father go back to Vietnam and walk the streets until he found her! He was willing to sponsor her whole family. They're all living in North Carolina now. That was the biggest success story. Kim and Bryner and all these kids now have a future. Finally.

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