Twelve years ago, Dustin Nguyen walked into an eighth grade class knowing only a few words of English, many of them learned from "Sesame Street." Last month, when "21 Jump Street" filmed its Christmas episode, he needed a translator to help the Vietnamese who were playing bit parts.

Nguyen, 24, fled Vietnam in 1975 with his younger brother and his parents. The family lived in a refugee camp on Guam and then in Fort Chaffee, Ark., until a Methodist church sponsored their move to St. Louis.

Nguyen remembers that first day in eighth grade as "scary. I went in and at that particular time I only had three months of English. Basically, I think I didn't have a normal report card -- they pretty much let me go through the motions. I remember the first day: I was only the first Vietnamese kid in the state. The first year was really rough ... I sort of skipped my adolescence."

Nevertheless, he managed to win the Midwest Championship Tae-Kwon-Do competition and received a black belt at 17. He also wrestled, studied boxing and competed in kickboxing.

Nguyen's story is the basis for the "Christmas in Saigon" episode airing Dec. 20. "The finished product is very, very good," said Nguyen

The episode also acknowledges that Nguyen's character, H.T. {Harry Truman} Ioki, is not Japanese at all, but Vietnamese: He lied to get the job.

Nguyen said that after he settled into the role, executive producer Patrick Hasburgh decided to change the Ioki character to a Vietnamese. "It was only five days before we started shooting and everything would have to be rewritten. I felt I had an obligation as an actor to do the role as written."

During the series' hiatus, Nguyen said, Hasburgh tried again, calling him from a car phone and relating the plotline for the holiday episode.

Originally, said Nguyen, a Vietnamese-born actor was to be cast as Nguyen as a child. But the spector of the John Landis trial, involving the deaths of two children and actor Vic Morrow, hovered. "We had some trouble with the California child labor laws, and a lot of scenes shot in explosive settings. The director couldn't compromise using dummies."

So, thanks to the makeup and wardrobe crews and to Nguyen's talent, he plays two roles: himself as a 14-year-old trying to get out of Vietnam as the country fell, and as his character on the show, an undercover cop.

"The things that are different in the script is that my real parents are alive and I have a younger brother," continued Nguyen. As in the script, his real grandmother remains in Vietnam. "My mother writes -- a letter takes three months," he said.

"I personally would not want to go back there. I have no protection. They would definitely imprison me."

Nguyen said his father, Xuan Phat, whom Hasburgh described as "a Vietnamese Johnny Carson," had become involved with a Saigon radio station broadcasting "basically propaganda to encourage North Vietnamese to defect. He wrote some of the scripts."

"When we came here, my father had two kids' future to worry about, not knowing the language and basically starting over again, so he pretty much threw his life away ... I'm sure deep down he would still like to act ... {but} he'd have to start again in terms of auditioning and things; it would be hard on his ego. The other is practical: He's a machinist in a company that makes parts for heating and air conditioning units." His mother, My Le, was an actress in Vietnam. In St. Louis, her son said, she is in charge of the seamstresses in a clothing store.

Nguyen said that his father opposed his son's plans to act. "He was very against it in the beginning. I was puzzled because he had been in the business for 30 years. His philosophy was that I should get a degree ... My second year I dropped out {of Orange Coast College} -- it was a very big blow to him -- and didn't get a degree. He was very angry. I dropped out four years ago. I decided I really wanted to act.

"I started working a year after, a role in a 'Magnum, P.I.' After that I landed a contract with 'General Hospital.'" He did guest spots on "Shell Game" and "The A-Team," where he met "Jump Street" creator Hasburgh.

After the holiday episode was finished, he said, "It really hit me: You never know what's in store. Fate is a funny thing. I'm glad to be here."