Jenna Lambertz (left) and her older sister, Dieu Ly Nguyen, walk with other family members through the small village in Vietnam where Lambertz was born.
Jenna Lambertz (left) and her older sister, Dieu Ly Nguyen, walk with other family members through the small village in Vietnam where Lambertz was born.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about a Carroll alumna’s journey to meet her birth family in Vietnam. Read part one here.

Parked outside a small blue house in a village in Vietnam about a year ago, Jenna Lambertz wrestled with a sense of unreality.

How had she gotten here?

Jenna, now 22, was adopted from Vietnam by Jim and Cindy Lambertz when she was almost 2 years old. She had grown up in Carroll and then moved to Ames to study landscape architecture at Iowa State University.

She was an American. An Iowan.

But she was Vietnamese, too, and joining an educational tour of Southeast Asia early last year had given her the opportunity to see the country where she’d been born.

But then she tried to track down her orphanage.

Then she found her birth family.

Then she found out her birth mother had died five years before.

For several days, the emotions had swirled, but the fact remained that Jenna wanted to meet her birth family, those who were left.

And they wanted to meet her.

She’d had just days to prepare herself, and she wasn’t sure if she was ready, but the time for misgivings was past.

Because the man tumbling out of a car to greet her was her uncle.

And that little blue house was where she’d been born.

———

Her uncle was just the start.

In moments, Jenna was meeting her grandmother — a tiny woman who made Jenna, diminutive herself, feel tall. In an unbridled moment when they first met, both their faces lit up with matching expressions of delight. Jenna still remembers that moment.

She met her birth mom’s older sister.

“She knew me my whole life,” Jenna said. “They were there when I was born. They remembered me.”

She met aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.

And she met her older sister — a sister she’d never known she had. She cried.

That meeting, in particular, was difficult at first. The sister, Dieu Ly Nguyen, remembered Jenna leaving when she herself was just 5 years old. Meeting again, like this, was unsettling.

By the end of the one day they had together, though, the sisters were rarely far apart — balancing together, giggling, on a motorcycle and walking arm in arm through the village’s streets during a quick tour.

The family had a week to prepare for Jenna’s visit, and they did: cleaning the little house that’s near Vietnam’s capital, and pulling out their best floor mats. One aunt flew from central Vietnam for the occasion, a trip she wasn’t able to make often because of the expense.

And they cooked, all week.

They all sat cross-legged on the floor to eat, crowded around a red, orange and green rug scattered with small bowls of colorful food.

They played kick the can.

Jenna’s uncle, a popular musician in Vietnam who makes his own instruments, performed.

They cried some. Laughed a lot.

They celebrated.

Jenna doesn’t speak Vietnamese, and her birth family didn’t speak much English.

They used eye contact and hand gestures and made it work.

“You don’t need to exchange words to have a connection,” she said.

A translator helped, too, as Jenna posed the questions she’d been writing in a notebook for days — about her family, and their lives.

About her birth mom.

Thi Du Nguyen, soon after placing 5-month-old Jenna up for adoption, moved to China.

Her youngest daughter was gone — but she needed to support the rest of her family, and this was the best way she could find.

She worked in a factory in China and sent money back to her family in Vietnam.

But that work came with a price. She, and two of her siblings who did similar work, got lung cancer.

Five years before Jenna found the rest of her family, her birth mom was gone.

But her family’s memories of her remained — and they became Jenna’s memories, too.

———

It’s been a year since Jenna met her birth family.

Today, their connection is still strong. The time difference — Vietnam is 13 hours ahead of Iowa’s time — makes it difficult, but they talk as much as they can.

“They were very excited I was alive, healthy and going to school — that I turned out OK,” Jenna said with a laugh as she sat with her parents, Jim and Cindy, in their Carroll home recently.

“You’re pretty decent,” Jim chimed in.

Meeting her Vietnam family only reinforced her bond with her Iowa family, Jenna said.

“Growing up, I never doubted that they’d be there for me,” she said.

It wasn’t necessarily easy for their daughter to meet an entire other family, her parents said afterward — but it was vital.

“For her to come full circle — she needed to,” Cindy said. “I think most adopted children, they need to fill that void.”

Today, Cindy is a food service worker at Adams Elementary School. Jim does video editing and computer work from home. Jenna’s older brother, Jason, works for the U.S. Postal Service and Carroll Area Access Television.

Their family has grown, too.

Now, when members of Jenna’s Iowa family have a birthday, they are inundated with online greetings from Vietnam.

Sitting around their dining room table, Jenna and her parents revisited a familiar narrative they’ve shared for years as she grew up.

They often wonder what could have been and sometimes fall into a “what if” game.

Jenna could have grown up in the orphanage.

She could have ended up somewhere far from Iowa.

She could have lived her whole life in that little blue house in Vietnam.

“I always tell her, ‘You could have been adopted by a doctor or a movie star, but you got us,’ ” Cindy said.

But Jenna said she’s not wasting time wondering anymore.

“I don’t want to say ‘should have’ or ‘what if,’ ” she said.

And her family wouldn’t do it any differently, either.

“I wouldn’t give her back,” Cindy joked. “If she tried to run away, we’d follow.”

———

Jenna wrestled with the fact that she wasn’t able to meet her birth mother.

To ask her — about everything.

But she feels that she knows Thi Du Nguyen a little better after meeting her relatives, hearing about who she had been and looking through photos of her.

There’s regret, but there’s comfort, too.

“I thought, maybe she’s been with me during the last five years, leading me to this trip,” she said. “It reassured me I was where I was supposed to be.”

Indeed, the reunion with her birth family had fallen together with staggering ease.

During a brief visit to the orphanage where Jenna had spent some time, she learned that the likelihood of someone returning there and actually reuniting with birth relatives was incredibly slim. Usually, connecting the dots was almost impossible.

“They said things like this never really happen,” she said.

But, for her, it did — and in almost no time after Jenna had given Kevin, the trip guide who helped track down her family, a starting point.

“It was almost a miracle,” Cindy said. “When we found out her birth mom had passed away, I was sad that she didn’t see how Jenna grew up.

“But she could have been a little angel on that Kevin’s shoulder.”

———

A year after meeting her birth family, Jenna was at peace.

She had accepted her birth mother’s decisions and the fact that she hadn’t been able to meet her.

She felt she’d reached a measure of understanding for the woman who’d birthed her — as much as she could, at least.

Then, in November, Jenna found out she was pregnant.

The news was a shock.

And for the first time, she found thoughts running through her head she believes her birth mother must have had, too.

I can’t believe it.

This wasn’t in my plans.

“What she went through, it’s a remarkable thing,” Jenna said. “It’s something I can share with her.”

I’m too young.

What am I going to do?

Then, she heard her baby’s heartbeat.

“I was in awe,” Jenna said.

She is expecting a boy in July.

And she’s keeping him.

It’s not the choice her birth mom made. And she’ll never be able to ask her why. To ask her anything.

The questions are always there, circling in her mind.

How am I going to do this?

Will I be a good mom?

What if I mess up?

But instead of bitterness, there’s the example of the mother who raised and loved Jenna since she was 2 years old, the mother who prayed for her even before she was born.

And there are the memories of the woman who let her go in the hopes that she would have a better life.

Jenna is choosing differently.

In a letter she wrote online to her son recently, she attempted to put those feelings into words.

I have loved you with all my heart from the very beginning.

You will be and have been one of the greatest things to happen to me.

Nothing was ever your fault.

You saved me.