Global Health Nexus, Winter 2003
War Victim to Best-Selling Author: Dr. Kien Nguyen
Dr. Kien Nguyen, Class of 1998, is the author of The Unwanted, a best-selling memoir of his years growing up Amerasian and ostracized in communist Vietnam. The book has been optioned by a major movie studio, but Dr. Nguyen has not “gone Hollywood.” He continues to practice dentistry and recently returned to his alma mater as a newly appointed Clinical Instructor in General Dentistry and Management Science.
Kien was just seven when Saigon fell to the communists in 1975. The lonely son of an American father who had abandoned him and a socially prominent Vietnamese mother, Kien, along with his mother, brother, sister, and grandparents, was forced to move into a cramped compound with his mother’s sister and her 14 children. He was relentlessly ridiculed by his cousins, who called him “half-breed,” and kicked his puppy to death. Eventually he was taken with his mother’s best friend, Mrs. Dang, on a small fishing boat headed for the Philippines.
After boarding another vessel, they were suddenly confronted with weapons and pushed overboard. His “Auntie Dang” drowned. Kien was nearly killed, but after days at sea made it back to shore, where he was arrested for trying to escape and imprisoned in a slave-labor camp. Kien finally left Vietnam in 1979, when the communists struck a deal with the United Nations that allowed 50,000 Amerasians to enter the United States through the “Orderly Departure Program.”
In 1991, Kien met Frank Andrews, the tarot columnist for The New York Post, who became his adoptive father and helped him pursue an educational path that ultimately took him to NYU Dentistry. Kien says that he was “always a dentist at heart.” After graduating from NYU Dentistry and waiting to receive his license to practice, Kien began to suffer from horrible nightmares. He began to record his bad dreams, and what started as a therapeutic outlet turned into The Unwanted. By this time Kien had established a successful practice in Manhattan. However, he realized that his writing, the route to his emotional and psychological salvation, had to come first. So he gave up his solo practice, but not dentistry. He continued to practice one day a week in someone else’s office.
Kien’s second book and first novel, The Tapestries, was released in October. Based on the life of Kien’s grandfather, a professional embroiderer in the court of the last king of Vietnam in the early- 1900s, The Tapestries has been so well received that the state of Minnesota selected it as a month- long, official, statewide reading project.
Kien says he has enough stories in him to keep busy for the next 10 years. But he has no plans to give up dentistry. He is especially committed to helping underserved children, with whom he identifies, and plans to use his literary earnings to eventually open a free dental clinic for poor children. In the meantime, Kien has found a new home at his alma mater, which takes great pride in his literary achievements.