Barrington woman shares her life in 'Crossing the Bamboo Bridge'

Memoir offers vivid details of Mai Donohue's struggles and victories

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Mai Donohue said she was a bad little girl while growing up in Vietnam many years ago.

"The first time I run away, I was six years old," said Mrs. Donohue, who moved to Barrington in 1974. "My mother sent me out to pick a stick that she would use to whip me. She watched me as I go. So I ran all the way to the bamboo bridge."

Young Mai stopped short of the bridge, she recalled. She had been told that if she fell into the river, she would drown. Afraid and angry, 6-year-old Mai stood at the base of the bridge and stamped her feet in the dirt, shouting at her mother to leave her alone. 

"My mother whack me so hard, that night I could not eat. I was so bruised," she recalled.

The painful memory is one of the many told in vivid detail in Mrs. Donohue's recently-published book "Crossing the Bamboo Bridge: Memoirs of a Bad Luck Girl." The book is the final product of 20 years of hard work — starting as a essay she shared in an ESL class at a local community college and finishing as 300 pages of polished stories.

"I'm very excited about it," Mrs. Donohue said.

For years, Mai worked on her book. Late at night, when the Donohue house in Hampden Meadows grew quiet she would write the stories of her past.

She wrote about the time her mother married her off to a man she did not love. Mai was 13 years old and would soon give birth to a son. 

She wrote about the abuse she endured and the feeling of hopelessness that consumed her. She wrote about running away time and again, and finally making it to Saigon. 

And she wrote about meeting Brian Donohue, a US Naval officer whom she would marry and start a new life with.

"She's triumphant," Brian said of his wife during a recent interview. "Her life was like my life in combat… but wars end."

In 1974, the Donohues settled in a handsome cape just off Bowden Avenue in Barrington. They had six children and lived a life like many other families in town. Their children went to the public schools and performed well in class. They played sports and engaged in other activities. 

Mai worked hard for her family — she sewed her children's clothes and cooked all their meals from scratch. While many children in town opened their lunch boxes to find store-bought Ring Dings or Devil Dogs, Mai and Brian's children were treated to the homemade equivalent. 

"The best thing that ever happened to me was living in Barrington," she said. 

For many years, Mai would not speak of the details of her early life in Vietnam, but eventually that changed. As the years passed, more and more people learned about the first chapter in Mai's life. 

Meanwhile, Mai continued to embrace her life in Barrington. She began taking college courses and eventually earned her degree. She later worked as a teacher's aide at Barrington High School. 

Soon her students learned of her past and embraced the lessons she shared.

"At Barrington High School, the kids say 'If I have a bad day Mrs. Donohue, I think of you,'" she said. "I want to share my story. I want them to know that there are consequences for their decisions."

Mrs. Donohue retired from teaching after 15 years, but still sees her former students from time to time. She said she does not always remember them, but they always remember her. 

Understanding herself

As a young girl, Mai wanted more than anything to go to school. Her cousins would sneak books to her and she would practice her writing with a stick, scrawling in the dirt. But eventually her dreams of education disappeared, replaced with a nightmare arranged marriage. Desperation and fear overwhelmed young Mai, who longed to run away from her painful life.

"There (in Vietnam), they train women to be submissive," Mrs. Donohue said. "But I would not submit.

"One hundred thousand years of tradition, and I broke it."

Mrs. Donohue said it was not until she stopped to read her own book that she began to better understand her own mother.

"Every time people ask me 'Who is your hero?' 'Who is your role model?' I don't have a role model, I say," Mrs. Donohue recalled. "When I sit down and read it (her book) I know it's my mother. My mother is my role model. She was brutal… she was not ideal mother, however she is strong. She had to survive in a world of men.

"When I was reading it, I learned a lot about myself."

Mai Donohue said she is happy to have completed the book, but initially was very concerned about sharing her story. After working for two decades on her story — including years of editing and publishing chores — Mai finally received a finished copy of her book. She held it in her hands and was suddenly overcome.

"At first I was excited I could not contain myself," she said. "Then I was very nervous."

Sharing her story has not been easy, she said, but already people have written to her with overwhelming praise. Neighbors and strangers alike have told her how moved they were by her memoir.

"I'm very excited. I'm looking forward to the feedback."

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