Her story could be a documentary drawn from the last days of the Vietnam War. Yet, today Liem Tran's life shines with that rare glow of kindness, once kindled by a single compassionate act of a stranger.
On a cold Chicago evening on December 16, 1995, a young Vietnamese woman, and her two-year-old son waited overnight in the airport for their connecting flight to Portland the next day. A pilot heading to his boarding gate the following morning noticed her and then realized he’d seen her there the night before. He paused, wondering why she was still there. Immediately, he realized her plight. She must be hungry, perhaps lost or confused in a large, foreign airport. What he did next changed her life forever and today still impacts PDX passengers who may be lost or confused in the country’s best airport.
Recently Liem, who is a PHC janitor at PDX, was recently honored with the airport’s customer service award for her exceptional kindness to passengers. Previously she was named Customer Service Champion for the 1st quarter of 2013 and Customer Service Super Star for 2012.
“She offers a unique compassion to any non-English speaking PDX passenger,” an airline agent said when nominating her for the award.
Liem, who was that Vietnamese girl in the Chicago airport 20 years ago, is paying forward the kindness she received from that pilot when she, and her son, Thanh, were hungry, penniless and unable to speak English. That kindness helped blot out a lifetime of misery and is as vivid in her memory today as if it had just happened.
“Oh, No!” she recalled the pilot saying when he realized she’d been there from the previous night.
“Hungry?” he asked her, attempting to speak to her in English. She shook her head. She didn’t understand.
He asked again using an impromptu sign language, motioning to his mouth and rubbing his stomach. She understood and nodded, eagerly.
“I was just starving,” she said, remembering.
“He took me to a coffee shop and bought sandwiches for my son and me. I was so grateful and I’ve always wanted to thank him for that kindness,” she said.
Later, she boarded her connecting flight and arrived in Portland to the warm welcome of a friendly former neighbor from Vietnam. But, she never forgot that pilot. After settling in Portland, she studied for her citizenship exam and began to assemble a new life.
A few years later, Liem began working for PHC, and 13 years ago was assigned to PDX where Thair Khan, her supervisor then and now, had just begun as project manager.
“Liem is a very good all-around worker. She goes above and beyond the requirements of the job,” Thair said, smiling proudly.
“Liem now spends every day attempting to make a difference in a lucky traveler’s day. She is proactive, friendly and knowledgeable. But even more important, she is compassionate and helpful and always has a smile on her face,” the airline agent said, noting that her exceptional customer service skills have not gone unnoticed by fellow PDX employees.
Liem remembers what it felt like to not speak the language or read the signs and feel lost in a large metropolitan airport. Her job at PDX has given her the opportunity to give back for that pilot’s single act of kindness. Her life has been touched by his generosity and has unfolded in unimaginable ways, which includes doing a great job for PHC.
“I have a family now with two more children and a house, and my car is paid off,” she said, expressing her gratitude to PHC for the opportunity to work in a place that holds so much meaning for her.
“Whenever I see someone looking confused, I always help them. I help direct them if they seem lost,” she said, adding wistfully, “It’s me from before – dazed, worried, sad.”
“I put myself in their shoes. I can imagine. I speak a few words in Spanish and if they’re Vietnamese I speak to them and they are happy that someone can speak Vietnamese.”
And, while her new life is bright with a meaningful job and a thriving family, darker memories still drive her private mission to help other world travelers who may not speak English, feel lost or are sad. She has never forgotten the hard times before that day in Chicago and expresses her gratitude for her new life each time she helps a weary traveler.
When Liem was only a month old, she was placed in a foster home by her Vietnamese mother living in An Khe, Vietnam. Her parents had been together for more than four years and had children together. But it was wartime, which apparently bends the usual rules between loving couples.
Liem’s American father was in the Army’s First Calvary 545 Military Police unit which had initially been stationed in An Khe in 1965 where he met Liem’s mother. By 1971, the war was wrapping up and his unit was transferred back to Fort Hood, Texas, just a few months before Liem’s birth. Unfortunately for Liem, her brother, her mother, and for many thousands of children born to Vietnamese women and American servicemen, the military would not allow servicemen to bring their Vietnamese wives and children back to the U.S. The servicemen were often unable to locate them even long after they’d been discharged, if at all. Liem, who knows her father’s name, has always hoped to find him.
When she was 15, she met her natural mother, who she describes as “a nice lady who was always buying her things and giving her candy.” Her mother died in 2012. She also met her older brother, who the townspeople told her looks just like her father. Today, her brother, who was born in 1968, is 6 feet 2 inches tall and lives in Louisiana.
Liem’s rough start in life worsened as her adopting parents began having their own children. At first they were kind, but gradually they became unloving. In Vietnamese society then, mixed children, those born to Vietnamese women and American servicemen were unwelcome. It would be many years before the U.S. government would institute legislation protecting them as American citizens, but by then the children were adults often with children of their own and had taken the hard road to becoming citizens and finding a place in their fathers’ country.