Jeannie Brown, of West Mt. Airy, adopted Maya from Vietnam when she was three months old. Now Maya is going back to Vietnam to teach English and possibly look for her biological mother . (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

A young Mt. Airy woman is about to go on a voyage of discovery to the country of her birth, Vietnam, with very conflicted feelings. Maya Lynn Brown, 22, was born in Vietnam to an impoverished rice farmer who already had a 10-year-old daughter and could not afford to feed a third family member, although she cared for the newborn deeply and visited her every day in a foster home.

“The mother was a lovely person who lived in a shack,” said Jeannie Brown, 68, of West Mt. Airy, who adopted Maya when she herself was 46 and had no biological children. “I have a photo of myself with Maya’s biological mother. It was very emotional. I cannot imagine giving a child away, but it was a desperate situation.” Maya was three months old when she was adopted by Brown.

In May, Maya, 22, will graduate with a degree in psychology from the University of Redlands in Southern California. She hopes to eventually get a graduate degree in occupational therapy but has signed a contract to teach English to elementary through high school students in North Vietnam for at least one year, possibly longer.

“I keep going back and forth about whether or not I will try to find my birth mother,” said Maya. “I have her name and the village she lived in. If I do look for her and find out she is not alive, I will feel even worse. She was 38 when I was born. But I may search for her. I just can’t say right now. But I always wanted to go to Asia and teach English, and I figured this ‘gap’ year (between graduation and the start of graduate school) would be the best time to do it.”

Maya found an international program on the internet that would have enabled her to teach English almost anywhere in the world, but she chose Vietnam, although she does not speak the language. She will first have to take a course in Hanoi and learn the basics of the language before she can be certified to teach there.

“I want to learn about my own culture and get in touch with where I come from,” said Maya. “I chose Hanoi instead of Saigon because Hanoi is where I was born and because it is more culture-based, whereas Saigon is more business-based. You might say that Saigon is the New York City of Vietnam, with lots of nightlife for young people, but Hanoi is more community-based, with lots of street food and more ease of meeting people. That’s what I am interested in.”

Another reason Maya chose Hanoi is that a friend of hers from Chestnut Hill, Lua Doan, is currently also teaching English in Hanoi and living there with her father, a professional photographer. In Vietnam children are not required to take courses in English, the international language of business, but many do choose to take classes in English after school hours.

After learning the basics of the Vietnamese language, Maya expects to teach in a summer school and then is guaranteed a teaching job. She may also do volunteer work in occupational therapy. She has no return plane ticket to Philadelphia and may even wind up staying in Vietnam for two years if things work out.

“The Vietnamese government pays us about $25 an hour, which is a great deal of money in Vietnam since gas costs only about $5 a month (for a motor bike) and food only about $10 a month. Rent for an entire house will be $250 a month, but that will be split three ways. The cost of living is so cheap that I should be able to save money for graduate school.

“It will be a shock living in a third world country, but I did live in South Africa and helped in an orphanage, and I saw the most extreme poverty, so I do have some background with it, and I do appreciate how lucky my life has been.”

The reason Maya lived in South Africa is that Jeannie, who is divorced and now retired, did live full time in Africa for 12 years — Morocco for six years, Togo for two years and South Africa for four years. She even spent two months in Congo, which has been in a perpetual state of the most gruesome civil war for decades.

Jeannie worked in the nonprofit field with such issues as HIV-AIDS prevention, family planning and malaria prevention and treatment. Many Americans have a stereotyped, monolithic notion of Africa as one large, scary place of poverty, war and terror. However, Jeannie’s 12 years there produced a completely different scenario.

“I have friends who thought I was crazy to go and live in Africa,” said Jeannie, “but I loved every minute in those three African countries. Living there, you gain an understanding of the complexity of their issues. Morocco was my favorite place; the people are absolutely wonderful, but all three were great.”

“My favorite place was South Africa,” added Maya. “I went to an international school in a suburb of Johannesburg. I am an animal lover, so I loved going on safari and seeing all the wonderful wildlife in Kruger National Park and elsewhere.”