Whisked away to a glamorous, but frightening new world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

As he snuggled up his new mother on board the Gulfstream jet taking him from his native Vietnam to a life of unimaginable glamour in the US last Wednesday, there was every reason to consider Pax Thien Jolie one of the luckiest little boys in the world.

A little over three years ago, he had been dumped on the steps of a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, an unwanted baby in a country where poverty and hardship remain depressingly widespread.

Ten days ago, his life changed forever when Angelina Jolie arrived at the Tam Binh orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City and, within 30 minutes, whisked him away to join her partner Brad Pitt and their three other children - two of them also adopted - in Hollywood.

Through their overseas adoptions, stars like 31-year-old Jolie and Madonna, who last year adopted a boy from Malawi, have transformed individual lives and also promoted the need for overseas adoptive parents to help orphans in countries like Vietnam. But the unusually abrupt manner in which Pax Jolie was removed from his environment in Vietnam and taken away to a radically different existence overseas has raised concerns, not least from the woman who played the biggest role in raising him.

Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, 40, mothered the boy as his chief carer at the orphanage but was told only the night before Jolie arrived that he was to be adopted and barely had time to say goodbye.

'It all happened so quickly and there was nothing I could do,' she said. 'I am so worried for him. He's surrounded by strangers now. I'm worried that he will be asking for me, but no one will understand what he's saying.'

Mrs Tuyen, a mother of two young children herself, cared for Pax Thien since he was brought to the orphanage in 2003. She looked after around 25 children as one of a group of women who work as substitute mothers to the Tam Binh orphans. Despite her close bond to the boy, it was only the evening before Jolie arrived that Mrs Tuyen had any inkling what was going on, as she explained in an emotional interview two days after the boy's adoption.

Referring to Pax Thien by his real name, Pham Quang Sang, Mrs Tuyen said: 'The orphanage director told me to prepare Sang's clothes because he said someone was going to be coming in the morning to take him away. When I asked who it was he told me it was going to be Jolie.

'I tried to talk to Sang about it as I got him ready for bed. I told him he was going to go on an exciting trip and that he was going to have to go far away, for a long time.

'He didn't understand. He just looked at me. Normally, Sang is such a lively boy but when I told him, he was silent. He didn't know what I meant or why he had to go away. He just got into bed, turned over and went to sleep.'

The next morning, Mrs Tuyen again tried to talk to Sang as she dressed him ready for his meeting with Jolie. 'I tried to joke with him although I was feeling very sad,' she said. 'I told him 'You're so lucky. You've got a movie star who's going to be your mother'.

'He didn't answer me. He didn't understand,' said Mrs Tuyen, who earns around HK$150 a week caring for children at the orphanage.

Jolie arrived at the orphanage at 9am and was there for only half an hour before taking Sang away with her. When she first approached him following a welcoming ceremony by all the children, he burst into tears.

Sang backed into a corner, sobbing, until Jolie got on her knees, edging towards him and handing him a toy - a furry pillow in an animal shape - and saying to him in Vietnamese 'khong sao, khong sao' (it's all right, it's all right).

Minutes later, Jolie left with her new son for the Park Hyatt hotel in Ho Chi Minh City where they would spend the next four days dodging the paparazzi, sorting out the boy's passport and documents and apparently arranging a photo shoot with Hello magazine.

'There was no time for me to say goodbye properly,' said Mrs Tuyen. 'As he was about to be led away, I went up to him and said 'Goodbye Sang' but he didn't answer and I don't think he understood what was happening.

'I don't understand why they did it this way. There was no time to prepare him for what was going to happen.'

The adoption came after a visit to the orphanage by Jolie and Pitt in November.

The haste of the adoption of Pax Thien Jolie, however, raised the question of whether his sudden removal from an environment that was poor but clearly loving will have a long term impact on him.

Jolie adopted Pax Thien with the help of US adoption agency Adoptions From The Heart which on its website says the process to adopt boys takes five to nine months. The agency insists there has been no fast-tracking of Jolie's adoption, saying the process began in secret last summer. Orphanage director Nguyen Van Trung denied there had been any financial donation from Jolie. Asked about the speed of Pax Thien's adoption, he insisted: 'Everything was done in strict accordance with Vietnamese laws.'

However, the manner in which Pax Thien was removed from the orphanage was sharply criticised by British-based Transnational and Transracial Adoption Group which counsels families involved in overseas adoptions.

Founder Chris Atkins, who was adopted from a Hong Kong orphanage as an infant and taken to live overseas, said: 'It appears to have been done very quickly regardless of the legalities or the effect it will have on the boy.'

Adoptions by foreigners needed to be handled with great sensitivity to avoid a negative emotional impact on the child, she said.

'Here, you are taking a child very swiftly and putting it in a completely alien environment to the one he is used to. He will have suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of people who act differently, smell different and who don't understand what he says.'