Tracing the roots: Vietnamese-American woman's quest to find biological mother

By Pham Nga   January 4, 2022 | 10:09 pm PT
After finding out she was adopted, Jenny Nguyen Ashley was able to find her American father after years of searching. Now she hopes to find her birth mother.

On Dec. 12 the 50-year-old shared her life story in an online group that tries to connect relatives in the hope of finding her biological mother after a previous failed attempt.

Jenny, also known as Nguyen Thi Xuan Hang, was born in HCMC.

Her adoptive mother, Nguyen Thi Xuan, and her family had showered so much love on her that even the thought she might be an adoptee never crossed her mind.

When she was 16 she accompanied Xuan to the U.S., and it was another 12 years before she discovered the truth. Xuan was hospitalized with severe illness and doctors examining her discovered she had never given birth.

She says: "I wished my mother would awaken from her coma so that I could ask her what had really happened. But that opportunity never came." Xuan died the very day Jenny found out she was only her adoptive mother.

The agony of not knowing who her biological parents were persuaded her to try and trace her true roots.

She returned to Vietnam and asked her aunt, Xuan's sister, and learned that her real birth mother was called Hanh and was from the Mekong Delta.

In the 1970s her mother had worked in a bar owned by Xuan on HCMC's Nguyen Van Thoai Street (now Ly Thuong Kiet Street in Tan Binh District).

Hanh had asked Xuan to raise her child, but when she reclaimed her daughter later on, Xuan had refused, claiming the girl had been baptized, and promised to look after her well.

While searching for her mother, Jenny discovered her father, Frederick Ashley, 72, through a DNA test in 2017.

Jenny Nguyen Ashley meets her biological father for the first time on February 2019. Photo courtesy of Jenny

Jenny Nguyen Ashley meets her biological father for the first time in February 2019. Photo courtesy of Jenny

He had been an American soldier stationed at Tan Son Nhat Airport in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

He had fallen in love with Jenny's mother, a college student who worked in the bar to earn some money.

"When I returned to the U.S. in 1971 I could not tell her and I had no idea she was pregnant," he claimed.

He admitted that every time he went to the bar he called himself Buddy, making it impossible for Hanh to find him later.

Jenny has asked him repeatedly about her mother, but he is unable to answer after all these years.

After Jenny shared her story on VnExpress in 2019 many people all over the world helped spread the word, making her more motivated than ever to find her mother.

In June that year a woman in HCMC contacted Jenny and said she was her biological mother.

"Because the information she gave me was so convincing, I assumed it was my mother," she says.

The woman said in the 1970s she had used the alias Hanh and met an American soldier while working at a bar. She was even aware he was Jewish, the second of three siblings and the only son.

Jenny spent an entire day sending photos of the woman to relatives and friends, asking them if she resembled each other.

She spoke on the phone for hours and though she had an "emotional connection" with the woman.

When her husband, Dang Thien, visited Vietnam for a business trip in August 2019, Jenny told him to meet the woman.

"She doesn't resemble you," he said.

"But, like you, she is outgoing and enjoys some of the same hobbies."

However, Jenny's trust increased after seeing both of them liked to eat boiled duck and listen to the same music.

During Tet (Lunar New Year) that year, she and her father traveled to Vietnam to visit her foster mother's grave.

Jenny and her father returned to her adopted mother's house, and she asked that woman to sit among her aunts then turned around and asked her father: "Do you think you've met any of them before?"

When he shook his head, she asked him again and again.

Slightly exasperated, he said: "I've already said no three times. I believe I'll know who I've met. Is there anyone special here I should know about?"

Jenny's heart sank.

As a last resort, she turned to DNA testing.

But because the samples she sent were of poor quality, the testing company in America said it could not provide a proper result.

Jenny returned to Vietnam in February 2020, and this time wrapped the DNA sample in three layers of boxes and took it back to the U.S. with her.

Due to the pandemic it took her two months to receive the results, and when she did her heart was shattered: the woman was not her biological mother.

But there was to be a twist.

Amazingly, after she posted the woman's DNA test result on a website, another woman was identified as the woman's long-lost daughter.

Jenny sent that woman several messages to tell her about her mother, and she read them but never responded. Later she blocked Jenny.

Jenny says with a sigh: "I've spent years looking for my birth mother. She was aware but refused to meet with her biological mother. Life is so unfair".

In 2021 a man contacted her and said he believed they were related.

Their stories were similar and they spoke every day over the phone. She asked him to send his DNA sample to the U.S. for testing.

He did so but again the sample quality was poor and could not be tested. The same day, March 10, the man died of cancer back in Vietnam.

She then had to do the test with his son, but the results showed they are not related.

Jenny is even more determined to find her biological mother after witnessing how precarious life has become in the two years duration of the Covid outbreak.

She posted articles on many online social groups and solicited support from domestic and international media.

Despite being knocked out for two weeks by Covid, her motivation remains strong.

"I have to live to find my mother," she said. After she regained consciousness and flipped through old articles to read the comments of others. Whoever said she is one of her long-lost acquaintances, she is eager to reconnect with them.

She said on Dec. 12, after re-sharing her story online, she added that she would pay $5,000 if anyone is able to find who her mother is.

"Finding my true relatives is a priceless gift that cannot be bought with money. But, after exhausting all other options, I've decided to try hanging rewards," she elaborated.

"I need to move quickly because if my biological mother is still alive she will be 71-72 years old. If I have the opportunity to meet her, I will not inquire as to why she abandoned me. I just want to look after her for the rest of her life," she stated solemnly.

go to top