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[The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War, The Complete and Unabridged Series as Published by The New York Times, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]

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[Gen. Maxwell Taylor, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, 1964-1965]

p337

According to the embassy’s cable to Washington, the conversation began like this:

Ambassador Taylor: Do all of you understand English (Vietnamese officers indicated they did…)

I told you all clearly at General Westmoreland’s dinner we Americans were tired of coups. Apparently I wasted my words. Maybe this is because something is wrong with my French because you evidently didn’t understand. I made it clear that all the military plans which I knew you would like to carry out are dependent on government stability. Now you have made a real mess. We cannot carry you forever if you do things like this.

Marshall Ky and other Vietnamese generals denied that they had staged a coup and said they were trying to achieve unity by getting rid of divisive elements, the account goes on.

The Ambassador tried to persuade them to support the civilian regime of Premier Huong and apparently to restore the High National Council. The Vietnamese officers would not agree.

The embassy cable describes the end of the conversation:

“In taking a friendly leave, Ambassador Taylor said: “You people have broken a lot of dishes and now we have to see how we can straighten out this mess.”

Ethnically Perplexed by Sume

Years ago my father sent me a folder containing a family tree that stretched back to 1776, an old newspaper article about one of his ancestors and a picture of the family crest.  He is a proud Southerner, and his pride naturally extends to his European ancestry that he’d traced all the way back to Wales.  Throughout my childhood, he’d never failed to impress upon me the importance of heritage.

Even as a little girl, I remember him taking my brother and I to an old family graveyard in Louisiana.  Many of the graves had deteriorated to little more than piles of stones, and the names were no longer readable.  None of this mattered to my father.  He told my brother and I to stand next to them so that he could record our pilgrimage to the old family plot.

He often boasted about his grandmother’s strength of character which he attributed to her French-Canadian/Cajun roots.  During our visits, his ears would perk up as he heard her and his father speaking Cajun, a language he never learned to speak.

I vaguely remember him urging me to ask my great-grandmother to see a sword she supposedly owned that had been passed down from the Civil War. Being a proud Southerner, he impressed the significance of the Confederate flag upon me at an early age.  As a teenager, I proudly displayed it in the corner my room.

Rebel Yelling by Sume

I don’t remember my father ever associating the flag with racism.  For him, it symbolized his Southern roots and nothing more.  I might have had no problem with that except for the fact that my father was racist.  He still is – and this is the part where I get really uncomfortable.

Writing about my family’s racism is always painful for many reasons.  I am ashamed and ashamed of being ashamed.  He is my father, the only one I’ve ever known.  Some part of my conscience kicks me in the back of the head every time I mention my father’s racial prejudice.  I feel the urge to apologize for him and even cover it up, but I’m tired of covering for my family, exhausted from carrying the burden of their deceptions.  No matter how good their intentions, it’s not mine to carry.  Furthermore, as I slowly re-align my perspective to one of a woman of color rather than a white woman, my brain must reject much of my father’s view of the world as unacceptable.

He has mellowed out some over the years, but it’s still there and manifests itself in more – and still occasionally less – subtle ways.  He’s not the only one, but most of my family is less obvious about it.   It always surprised and filled me with such shame and anger when I’d hear members of my family say “nigger” as if there were nothing wrong with it – even more so when I’d confront them about it.  Sometimes I’d get arguments and excuses.  Sometimes, they’d just look at me as if I were crazy.  Except for my father, I’ve since learned to avoid those particular family members.

There was a time when I tried to compartmentalize Dad from his racism just as he seemed to compartmentalize racism from the Confederate South.   Yes, I’ve read the debates, but cannot escape the fact that the South and part of its history included slavery.  It’s not that I buy into the idea that the North was absent of racism and exploitation of people of color, but just as with my father, there are things to be proud of and things of which to be terribly ashamed.

Ironically, the only photo he seemed to be able to find of one of his early ancestors was that of a Union soldier (see first photo).  On it, he’d written: Don’t claim no kin to this one.

On the inside of the folder, my father wrote:

My Dearest:
Forget not from Whence
The lineage in your Vein
Was born of Suffering and Pain
In abeyance of Life’s Penance!

The infuriating thing is that all the while he was impressing upon me the importance of his heritage, he was contributing to the erasure of mine with his lies.  Well intentions be damned.  One does NOT compensate for another.  One does NOT trump the other.  Because there were so many pieces missing, the few remaining fragments became all the more valuable – and irreplaceable.

Despite any wish he might have had to ensure I felt a part of the family, a true sense of belonging is only true when you don’t have to work too hard at it.  The burden of proof felt more put upon me than upon him.  All he had to do was lie, but the responsibility for maintaining the illusion was mostly mine.

And I refuse.

[The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War, The Complete and Unabridged Series as Published by The New York Times, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]

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p255

But behind these foreign-policy axioms about domino effects, wars of liberation and the containment of China, the study reveals a deeper perception among the President and his aides that the United States was now the most powerful nation in the world and that the outcome in South Vietnam would demonstrate the will and the ability of the United States to have its way in world affairs.

The study conveys an impression that the war was thus considered less important for what it meant to the South Vietnamese people than for what it meant to the position of the United States in the world.

Mr. McNaughton would later capsulize this perception in a memorandum to Mr. McNamara seeking to apportion American aims in South Vietnam:

70 pct. – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as guarantor).

“20 pct. – To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

10 pct. – To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

“Also – To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.

“NOT – To ‘help a friend,’ although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.”

It is the proverbial elephant sitting in my room: my circumstantial birth to an American man and a Vietnamese woman during one of America’s most morally ambiguous wars. Just the thought of it brings forth so many loaded assumptions in both Vietnamese and American representations of the Other.

I wasn’t spared the rhetoric of competing political interests, so without any alternative on the horizon I fell into the clichéd storyline of the war orphan whose father was one of the roaming soldiers going around setting fire to thatched huts and raping the native women whenever he got the chance. With all the melodrama of a soap opera, my father became the enemy of my enemy. I demonized the man because he wasn’t here to defend himself and no one could tell me any different. No one presented any evidence to contradict my suspicions. His absence made it easy for me to dress him up in fatigues and stab him repeatedly, jerking his body back and forth, while shouting down at him. With such blinding anger, I went on holding the world up for ransom, demanding answers.

The addition of his DNA in the construction of my physical body subtly sickened me. Some days I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. Then, there were those odd days when I couldn’t stop glaring at myself in that same mirror wondering what parts of me I needed to cut off in order to feel whole again.

And, yet, intermittently, in one incarnation or another, he appeared in my thoughts and dreams as a smiling, doting father bending over to pick up his young protégé. As any proud little boy would do, I wanted to show and tell him what my new hobby was or what sport I was trying out for, or what I was thinking about at that moment. I not only sought his acceptance, but I also wanted to know that I was going somewhere and that I needn’t feel alone while on this journey. Instead, without him in the picture, and no one I could honestly trust, I felt as if I were always going astray and in desperate need of direction.

The appearance of normalcy and then the jarring absence of it affected in a deep way how I viewed and dealt with my adoptive father, as well as how he may have viewed and treated me. Out of respect and a healthy dose of fear, I didn’t want to tell my adoptive father how much I just wanted to be like all the other little boys I knew in my neighborhood who had fathers with looks that resembled their own. I was acutely aware of my illegitimacy among the other boys when I was with my adoptive father, especially when they looked from me to him and from him to me. My mind’s eye started viewing my adoptive father as a surrogate whom I wanted to replace with the man who sired me. I couldn’t stand being a paper son anymore. I vehemently wanted to erase the doubt in other kids’ minds as to whether or not I belonged to a family of my own.

There were times when I thought the only real emotion I possessed was anger. Although I was good at throwing it under the bed and hiding it, it would inevitably swell and regenerate into an inhuman beast that jumped out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times. It also didn’t help that the man who made me call him “dad” my whole life passed down his short fuse and barely tolerated my accidental infiltration into his household. Combine that with the feeling that there always seemed to be swaths of uncontrollable wildfires eating their way through my subconscious, and you can probably guess what kind of rueful young man I had become. I used to attribute some of those infernos to the man who, for reasons only known to him, didn’t come to claim me as his son when I was born.

Finding themselves directly in the path of my rage toward my biological father, my adoptive family simply became collateral damage when the emotional bombs came raining down all around me. My immature mind cut a deal between my pride and my insecurity that if my own father didn’t want me, and I couldn’t have him back, then I refused to allow anyone else to lay claim over me.

This exasperating thought may have been a contributing factor as to why I felt more and more pushed out of the clique that society liked to call my “family”. Looking anxiously back on it now, I believe it was me who was doing most of the pushing of my own Self out of their lives. I rejected their sphere of influence as a direct result of the man who made up the other half of my genealogy cutting himself off from me in order to eliminate me from his life.

Whenever people tried to convince me that my biological parents made the right decision to sacrifice their own happiness, and possibly their own lives, so that I would be given the chance to live a life in relative luxury, I wanted to string that obligatory gratitude around their necks and hang them with it so they could experience just how truly thankful I felt about being alive, as someone else’s property.

On those particularly harsh days and nights when I found myself being punished yet again for one of the myriad offenses I committed, I came to despise not only the family I was sent to live with, but also the very people who condemned me to live out this life without them even there to witness my falling star. With bitter tears running down my cheeks, I would lay my head down on my pillow and take up that whip and start flogging the whimpering mound of flesh I named ‘father’. I cursed this naked specter who filled my mother up with all his hatred for her people and her land. I tortured myself with the awful fake memory that my mother was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got in my father’s way, and so he had his way with her.

I now have to face the probability that my own apple didn’t fall far from my father’s twisted tree. I’m his living legacy, whether I like it or not. But, that certainly doesn’t mean I have to follow in his footsteps. I can now tell the difference between my shadow and his.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m slowly coming to terms that I may never know who my father actually was. There never has been any name, any picture, nor any rumors of an old guy two houses down who is asking about a son he may have left back in Vietnam. The wildfires within me have been reasonably contained, but they still smolder with the thought that no one, and yet everyone, is to blame for keeping my father from me and that I may never find the culprit(s). I’ve been comforting myself with the matter-of-fact idea that his bones could be buried deep in the ground anywhere on this planet, or he could be alive and living a rundown existence in a small town somewhere. The possibilities of his whereabouts or identity are simply endless.

I’ve also come to the realization that I, too, am an endless set of possibilities because my father may not even know about me yet. And, he probably never will.

Thinking out loud…

What exactly defines an “adoptee perspective?” In the most general sense, I guess it could mean “from the point of view of an adoptee,” but is there something more specific that makes an opinion, essay, poem, work of art, etc. particularly “adoptee?” If there is, then what are the characteristics that distinguishes it from that of non-adoptees?

As far as I can tell, there are none except the fact that we are adopted. There are signs we can look for in the case of TRAs. Ethnically mismatched names and faces, photos with racially different family members, but even those are extraneous and could be attributed to other factors.

Unlike the previously mentioned, a sense of rootlessness or not belonging can be conveyed as part of an adoptee point of view, yet even these fall short. While perhaps particular to an adoptee, they are not exclusive. So what the hell are we talking about when we say, “adoptee perspective?” And why am I even thinking about this?

I suppose it’s because recent events have forced me to ask myself some hard questions. The recent scandal and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam, the blog exchange between Kevin Minh Allen and Adam Theodore, recent events in my personal life, and some less than stellar experiences with adoptees and people from the media have all thrown me for a loop. I guess it’s going to take me a while to get my bearings.

There is a new term that’s floating around out there – TRAmbiguity. It was originally coined by TRA writer Bryan Thao Worra. Any number of definitions might be assigned to this term but I prefer to think of it as: a behavior and/or state of being specific (though not exclusive) to transracial adoptees that allows them to remain undefined – ambiguous. The reason I use “TRAmbiguity” is because I am a TRA and that is how I chose to define my existence based on my experience as a transracial adoptee.

I believe living between races and cultures has allowed me to fine-tune my diplomatic skills down to an art-form. That’s not to say I wasn’t sincere. The lens through which I see the world is very gray. At first, I considered TRAmbiguity as more of a tool, but have since come to accept it as a state of existence through which I’ve learned to navigate. There didn’t seem to be a lot of choice in the matter – not if I wanted to avoid getting stuck in the polarized world in which society says we should live. Vietnamese or American? White or Asian? For or against? Pro or anti? Who’s side are you on, anyway?

The nebulousness of TRAmbiguity becomes problematic when faced with situations where I’ve felt pressure to pick a “side” or take a stand on some issue. Sometimes that pressure is internal, sometimes it’s external and at other times, both. The pressure I exert on myself is much easier to manage as I understand its source. The external pressure, however, is outside my control. Dealing with it can be tricky. Of course, one would think neither should matter as long as one is true to oneself, but it’s rarely that simple.

A recent example could be the recent accusations of corruption and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam. I voiced my concerns quite loudly questioning whether it was wise to continue allowing adoptions from my birth country. In fact, I did feel it was prudent not to until things were sorted out.

Some could interpret that as a stance against adoptions from Việt Nam, against international adoption or adoption period. Yet all the while, I supported Ethica’s efforts to try and ensure that pending and any future adoptions from Việt Nam remained ethical. Some could interpret that as a my being for adoptions from Vietnam, for international adoption and/or adoption period. Both interpretations would have been wrong as I have never expressed either opinion and truly cannot think in such binary terms about adoption or anything else. Support, criticism or outright opposition to one thing need not imply generalized support or opposition to another.

Likewise, choosing to embrace one’s ambiguity need not prevent adoptees from taking strong stands on issues important to them. Support for open records and adoptee rights, pushing for stronger support for birth families, exposing corruption and abusive adoption practices and being critical of ones own adoption or adoption itself should not imply that one is against adoption as a whole.

Ideally it really shouldn’t matter, but functionally it does. Whether a person is perceived as either pro- or anti-adoption can influence who that person speaks to in the media and who speaks to that person. It can be a factor in who links you if you blog, determine whether one’s loyalties are questioned and by whom and sadly, determine who trusts whom and with what.

Being too ambiguous or diplomatic can create doubts about one’s loyalties, foster feelings of suspicion and can make it difficult for an adoptee to find a place in which they feel they “belong.” From an “adoptee perspective” that is perhaps the saddest of all outcomes, because many of us are specifically seeking comradery with our adopted peers. To end up isolated or falsely labeled is detrimental to adoptees as a community. Such a split weakens us and could be exploited for any number of agendas other than our own. If I must be against something, it is that.

The blog exchange between Kevin and Adam was encouraging and drove home the importance of Vietnamese adoptees having similar open discussions – adoptee to adoptee. I think it would be a productive venture to continue discussions started a few years ago and spark new ones relevant to current circumstances.

Unlike forums, blogs allow us the liberty of engaging one another in lively discussions from the comfort of our own “turfs” under our own terms. It’s encouraging to see more and more VN adoptees getting their perspectives out there on their own. Hopefully, that trend will continue to expand and deepen in expanse of topic and depth of discussion.

Perhaps once adoptees begin to actively define and broaden the meaning of “adoptee perspective” on our own terms, TRAmbiguity will no longer be a source of suspicion. Hopefully, it will come to be seen as a liberated state of existence that allows us to speak freely without the fear of being labeled. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but it seems like a worthwhile goal – especially if it leads to a greater sense of solidarity among us. At the risk of sounding sappy, that is where I think we’ll find our greatest strength and what will enable us to make some of our most worthwhile contributions.

  1. The Người Việt2 Online series written by Venus Lee about adoptions from Vietnam is but one egregious example out of MANY that demonstrates how the media excludes alternative voices/stories/opinions, which do not conform to the adopt-a-Third-World-infant-at-all-costs program.
  2. The value and merits of a listserve are quite different from that of a blog: A listserve is ostensibly for members of a specific community to post information and opinions and to reply to said information and opinions; a blog is essentially an individual literary endeavor where one person posts private opinions and thoughts. That being said, both mediums use a moderator. In the case of listserves, the moderator’s, or administrator’s, job is to keep group discussion on point and to delete abusive comments and/or (usually porno) SPAM. In the case of blogs, the author reserves the right to allow, or disallow, comments and to publish, delete or modify any of those comments. Therefore,…
  3. I chose to post the Letter to the Editor on VAN’s listserve (as well as several other listserves) in order to expose its content and message to a wider audience. In regard to your suggestion about posting the exchange we had on VAN’s listserve, or any other personal email correspondence we may have had, on my blog, I reserve the right to accept or refuse said suggestion. My blog is not an Arby’s restaurant. With that being said, I allow comments on my personal blog (the Misplaced Baggage blog also allows comments from the public) and do not intend to micromanage them. You had every opportunity to leave your own personal comment about the Người Việt post on either blog. But, you chose to open  your own blog, which brings me to my last point…
  4. Welcome, Adam. You have joined the ranks of adult adoptee bloggers who are pushing their points of view out there and getting heard amongst the din of mass media. Not only that, but you are now one of a very few adult Vietnamese adoptees who decided to stick their necks out there and start blogging.

Now, was getting your “voice” heard really that difficult?

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Kali talks with Kevin Minh Allen about current and past adoption practices in Vietnam. Few know or understand what’s going on in Vietnam, such as its 42 operating adoption agencies. What’s disturbing, but not surprising, is that no one is consulting the daughters and sons adopted out of this country: the true voice and perspective of international adoption.

About Kevin: Born Nguyên Ðúc Mînh in Gia Ðịnh district of Sài Gòn on December 5, 1973, Kevin Minh Allen was adopted at 9 months and flown to the U.S. in August 1974. He grew up in a suburb of Rochester, NY, until at 27 years of age, he moved to Seattle, where he is currently enjoying the view. He has written and published poetry, book reviews, news articles and information panels for a museum exhibit. His work can be found online in Tiếng Magazine, Asian American Movement Magazine, The Fighting 44s and the Poetry Superhighway, and in print as well, such as The Northwest Asian Weekly, The International Examiner and HazMat Journal.

So, there’s a new adult Vietnamese adoptee blogger on the block, Adam over at Permanent Rice. And, one of his first orders of business is to take me on over my critique of the four-part series on adoption from Vietnam in Nguời Việt2 Online.

Apparently, Adam also believes there is not enough balance shown in the media when it comes to adoption. However, instead of taking the media to task for its overly generous deference to P/AP’s concerns, he implies that the status quo is not in need of change and that all viewpoints are equally valid, no matter their intentions or implications.

In fact, his stance on the Nguời Việt2 Online adoption series is quite confounding and confusing, as exhibited below, in reference to our Letter to the Editor:

4. I think the letter makes a great point about the article having a very strong savior feel to it, and while nothing is completely altruistic, I think most agree adoption shouldn’t be as narcissistic as it can sometimes be perceived, or actually be on the parts of families who have children via adoption. Somedays, as much as I like to see happy stories of adoption, I do get tired of the fluffy material out in the world with the Christ Complex…

Well, Adam, is the desire to adopt an “altruistic” or “narcissistic” endeavor, or is it only “perceived” to be that way? And, how do these characterizations affect your view of the practice? A little clarification would be nice, I think.

In the above example, Adam generalizes his critique of Nguời Việt2 Online’s series by writing that it has “a very strong savior feel” and that he gets “tired of the fluffy [adoption] material out in the world with the Christ Complex”. Makes me wonder how closely he read the series. Again, his point of view could have been solidified with the use of concrete examples that bolster his contention that the articles leaned a particular way.

3. I understand where you were coming from on the commodities issue especially in regard to the lists…while adoptions can go horribly wrong because of bad information, bad parenting, bad preparation, et al. – when adoption is good, it can be great – so for those that I would hope have good adoptions I do think it was kind of a nice primer in a way.

As the above excerpt shows, in an attempt to have it both ways, Adam shoots himself in the foot by recognizing one of the major shortcomings of the articles while, at the same time, embracing it. My whole contention was that Venus Lee, the author of the series, betrayed a lack of understanding and compassion by minimizing the adoption of Vietnamese children down to an import/export business. In my assessment, Lee propagated a shortsighted summary of adoption to the detriment of everyone’s understanding of the complicated issues surrounding this human interest story. I actually see an unavoidable correlation between the media’s simplified accounts of international adoption and the public’s poor perception of whom adoption is for and why, thus leading to some adoptions going “horribly wrong”.

The most perplexing part of Adam’s post is when he pinpoints what he thinks the main issue of this debate is. He deduces it to being “simply the lack of views and viewpoints…versus individual representations.” To me, the first part about the “lack of views and viewpoints” sounds redundant because I’ve already pointed out in Misplaced Baggage that the Nguời Việt2 Online series essentially froze out many interested parties within the adoption community, not least the voices of adult Vietnamese adoptees. But in the context of Adam’s post, I think he is going to bat for the majority voice (i.e., P/APs, ASPs and the uninformed public) because of what he writes directly after that assertion:

For instance I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at the good aspects of adoption and not focusing on the trials and tribulations of adoption if that’s the goal, and sometimes it can be. Sometimes it should be.

I still rub my eyes after reading this quote in association with the previous one. It begs the following question: Does Adam honestly assume that there is a dearth of “happy” adoption stories or ones that sympathize with the “plight” of P/APs in their expedited quest for building “forever families”?

Again, this makes me question how much and how closely he read the Nguời Việt2 Online series, as well as whether or not he’s ever taken a serious survey of articles on adoptions from Vietnam, especially in light of the most recent suspension on adoptions placed by the Vietnamese government. For if he did, it would become obvious that time and again the same actors appear, and their stories and viewpoints are featured to the almost entire exclusion of anyone else’s. This continued oversight does a disservice to an honest accounting of the concerns raised by people who are intimately connected to adoption and those who have a passing interest in the issues generated by adoption.

That’s why I wholeheartedly support what Kev Minh is doing, because sometimes you have to take the offensive, especially to get noticed.

At the same time, I do question if that was the right magazine, the right venue to go after.

Thanks for the “support”, I guess.

And, again, Adam leaves too much up to the imagination with his vague suppositions. He makes it seem as if my effort to scrutinize Nguời Việt’s handling of the adoption series was a case of either me being out of line or it being a waste of time because it turned out to be the incorrect target of my ire. What would be “the right magazine” or “right venue”, Adam? And, when exactly would you “take the offensive”?

With his emphasis on equal representation of voices and open dialogue, I get the feeling that Adam wishes to see the expression of opinions without the attendant reactions and critical interactions that normally come with their utterances. When it comes to the conversation on adoption, it cannot be unhitched from the reality of world politics, economics and social mores. From my point of view, one should be both actively engaged in laying out the salient points of an issue and then coming up with realistic solutions in order to make the world a better place.

I freely admit that’s a challenge I have yet to fully meet.

So, now that we’ve had our dialogue, Adam, let’s have a real debate.

“Experiencing social injustices and political corruption during my high school career sparked my interest in investigative reporting,” she said.
- Venus Lee in Người Việt Online -

Sometime in 2007 Venus Lee, a graduate of the University of Southern California (broadcast journalism and social sciences), became the first recipient of the YenDo Vietnam Fellowship, given by the Orange County newspaper Người Việt. She will have received a $5000 stipend because of this accomplishment. It’s also worth mentioning that Lee’s fellowship project is a “study of adoptions from Vietnam”.

Back in December 2007 Lee authored a four-part series on adoptions from Vietnam, which is still online for you to read:

  1. A New Family
  2. Preparing and Waiting
  3. Across the Miles
  4. Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture

Now, if Người Việt had been playing some elaborate joke on the public by publishing these articles under the guise of “professional journalism”, then it couldn’t have picked a better candidate than Venus Lee to act the fool and merry prankster. Because, in my discriminating opinion, the series was a travesty of journalistic objectivity and ethics. It is beyond me that the editors of Người Việt could have allowed such pedantic and cloying reporting represent their well-established news organization.

With respect to Venus Lee, I would have loved to have asked her what her definition of “investigative reporting” is, since her articles demonstrate none of the standards of that distinguished practice. It’s obvious that her writing lacks a variety of sources, a penchant for serious research, comprehension of the subject at hand and will to go deeper than surface appearances. If I had been the editor assigned to oversee her work, I would have had serious reservations about publishing any of it until she demonstrated some of those “investigative reporting” skills she supposedly so admires.

Considering that Lee received a fellowship and two Hearst Journalism Awards (!), one would assume that she would attempt to meet the expectations inherent in such distinctions and prove her worth among her peers. Being given responsibility to write a four-part series in the biggest Vietnamese-American newspaper in the country showed that they had put a lot of faith in her up-and-coming status. However, based on the weak, and very skewed, content of the series I would have to venture a guess that Lee underestimated the complexity of the subject matter and overestimated her talent to tackle it.

For years, China has been the Asian superpower when it comes to adoptions, but Vietnam is becoming a viable option for Americans seeking to adopt a child. Today, Người Việt 2 begins a four-part series looking at the history of Vietnamese adoptions, at the cost and the waiting time of the process, the experience of traveling to Vietnam to pick up a child, and then how the youngsters assimilate into American culture.

Above is the preamble to each of the four articles. In my mind, this implied that the series is going to take a comprehensive look at the history and present situation of adoption from Vietnam and the adoptees themselves. Plus, the fact that Người Việt decided to do a four-part series on adoption from Vietnam made me believe that a lot of information and point-of-views were going to be covered, and that the articles were going to contain a lot of things for their readers to consider.

I was sorely mistaken, as the following three quotes demonstrate:

“I looked into the face of my own daughter and realized how lucky she was that we were rescuing her from a life of poverty and enormous need, unlike most of her orphan mates who may never have their basic medical, nutritional, educational and individualized attention needs met.” [Robert Kalatschan]

Người Việt Online, A New Family, Thur., December 20, 2007, by Venus Lee

“You don’t understand. My daughter’s waiting for me,” she said. [Catherine Nelson]

Người Việt Online, Across the Miles, Wed., January 3, 2008, by Venus Lee

“…For us, it’s a bedtime story that children grow in your heart and not in your tummy.” [Karen Calvert]

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

These quotes represent a major hurdle in facilitating the equitable distribution of voices that should add color to the bigger adoption picture. As I see it, too much deference is shown to adoptive parents, including their interests, their needs and their troubles. As long as the media only focus on one group within the adoption community, the public will remain unaware of the myriad stories out there and start believing that only certain people have anything to say about adoption.

The series is replete with basic information on the process of adopting infants from overseas. The virtual checklists at the end of each article resemble brochures seen in adoption agencies. Thus, Venus Lee created a paradox: by spreading out this information catering to P/APs throughout three of the four articles, she narrowed the subject matter so much that she (perhaps unintentionally) overlooked so many topics that could have elevated the debate on international adoption within Người Việt’s pages. That’s not to say that the information on the adoption process isn’t useful; but, to provide this information to the exclusion of other equally valuable information that would have given the topic of adoption some weight and much needed context seems unnecessarily conspiratorial to me.

If one wanted more proof that the series was stacked in favor of P/APs, then it should be noted that Venus Lee interviewed mainly just five families: the Hacks, the Calverts, the Kalatschans, the Franks and the Noltes. The writing had more to do with these families and their experiences adopting their children rather than adoption itself, with all its logistical and emotional complexities.

The lack of representation in this series presents a serious flaw in its original mission to inform the public about the state and progress of adoptions from Vietnam. Without input from different interested parties, the appearance of favoritism looms large and makes calls of unfairness all the more credible. In fact, so egregious is the pandering to P/APs’ self-interest that the serious ongoing concerns about alleged corruption in the facilitation of adoption of children from Vietnam are glossed over, even though the topic is addressed directly, like so:

Since there were growing concerns of purchased or stolen babies, officials at the USCIS took some time to investigate inconsistencies in the circumstances surrounding the Calvert child before issuing her a visa.

First, unlike most adopted children who are filtered through an orphanage, Ally was transferred directly from a hospital to her new parents’ open arms. Second, the entire adoption process for this child was unusually brisk – a mere six months from start to finish.

The Calverts are not sure how they finally received clearance, but they don’t ask.

Người Việt Online, Across the Miles, Wed., January 3, 2008, by Venus Lee

The failure of Lee to follow up on this extraordinary revelation of likely malfeasance in the adoption of this family’s daughter and the figurative sweeping under the rug of the USCIS’ suspicions speaks unflatteringly of the newspaper’s quality of reporting. Worse, such an omission of alternative (i.e., differing) viewpoints does a disservice to the reading public’s ability to come to its own conclusions about an admittedly confusing (and conflicting) situation.

For me, the most significant example of the series’ attempt to manipulate public opinion in favor of one side over another is the last installment that deals with the adopted children once they arrive in the United States. Lee focuses on the Hack family who, in 2005, took their three children, all adopted from Vietnam, back to their country of birth for, ostensibly, a visit, but which appears to have evolved into a compare-and-contrast missionary junket.

The author singles out Emily Hack because she had the opportunity to meet her biological parents while visiting Vietnam. Her adoptive mother, Theresa Hack, soon sets a gratitude trap for her daughter that will more than likely have her thrashing in agony for quite a long time:

“I think she saw the poverty her birth family lived in and realized her mother gave her up for adoption to give her a better chance at life,” Theresa Hack said.

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

Suffice it to say that the inclusion of the voices of adult Vietnamese adoptees would have provided a more realistic perspective about the turmoil and triumph inherent in return visits to their country of origin, especially if contact with the natural parents is made. If Lee had taken the initiative to do a simple search on the Internet for “adult Vietnamese adoptees”, she would have been able to find a plethora of information on the websites of organizations like Vietnamese Adoptee Network (VAN), Adopted Vietnamese International (AVI) and Operation Reunite. She could have contacted representatives of these organizations and conducted interviews with them, and these contacts could have provided her with even more contacts within the community.

If Lee had done her job properly and expanded her list of primary sources, she could have avoided the following unfortunate passage altogether:

The difference in lifestyle and opportunity was evident by comparing Emily to her twin sister who resided with her birth family. Emily enjoys hearty meals, a generously-sized wardrobe, a good education and the chance to join in extracurricular activities such as dance, choir and sports. In contrast, her sibling lived with parents toiling to buy enough clothes for everyone in the family and put food on the table.

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

This callous comparison of real-life situations between Emily Hack and her biological sister begs an experienced editor’s red pen to cross out the offending text. Lee’s juxtaposition of the girls’ current lifestyles could constitute a form of child abuse because it is a sucker punch to each of the girls’ heads that unwittingly injures any sense of autonomy and dignity that they both possess. To elevate the hegemonic perception of material wealth over the rudimentary stereotypes of poverty serves to oversimplify and then negate any real loss that both girls will eventually have to come to terms with.

The ironic omission of any adult adoptee or first parent voice within the realm of adoption typifies many media outlets’ simplistic dealings with the topic and how little regard they show to people who could possibly have a point of view that upsets the status quo. The Vietnamese diaspora following the Vietnam War not only included the regular cast of characters, but also the thousands of infants and children who were rushed out of the decaying nation-state of the Republic of South Vietnam. To have not included any of our opinions or stories constitutes gross negligence from where I sit. Did not someone on Người Việt’s editorial staff inform Venus Lee that P/APs are not the be-all and end-all in the totality of adoption?

As far as journalistic integrity goes, it’s a foregone conclusion in my mind that Người Việt had the obligation to be all inclusive in its treatment of Vietnamese adoption because it affects so many people and deserves more than just a preoccupation with how to get a child, how to travel to get the child and which culture camp to put the child in when he/she is feeling lonely and needs friends.

Due to Người Việt’s lackluster four-part series, four of us adult Vietnamese adoptees decided to draft a letter to the editor in order to lodge a complaint against the series’ content in order to hold the paper’s feet to the fire and make our presence felt among our peers within the adoption community. The complete letter appears below:

To the Editor of Người Việt2 Online:

When we saw that Người Việt2 was featuring a 4-part series on adoption from Vietnam, we were more than a little intrigued because of our background as adult Vietnamese adoptees. We are just a few of many members of the first generation of Vietnamese adoptees who were flown out of the country to join families around the world during and at the end of the Vietnam War. So, it was with much anticipation that we wanted to read what a Vietnamese-American publication had to say about adoption from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the articles fell far short of any wide-ranging examination of both the history and continued practice of adoption from Vietnam.

Người Việt2 had an extraordinary opportunity to inform the public about issues surrounding international adoption, specifically from the point of view of birth parents, adoptive parents and the adoptees themselves. The series on adoption could have sparked lively and constructive debate about the social, economic and political factors that drive international adoption between Vietnam and the United States, as well as the far-reaching consequences felt by birth families, adoptive families and society at large.

Apparently, Người Việt2 has simply allowed an easy-to-use guide for prospective adoptive parents to be published. As superficial as the content is, it is even more disturbing that the overall message of the series is that Vietnamese children are commodities on the store shelves waiting for American consumers to pick out and purchase. It is regrettable that the author sought no comment or opinion from Vietnamese government officials in charge of adoptions, birth parents or their relatives, social workers or officials from child welfare agencies, or even any adult Vietnamese adoptees. For if she had, a more complex and comprehensive picture of the process and its effects on everyone involved could have painted. The series could have gone beyond the traditionally narrow focus of “orphan” and “savior”.

Although the series mentioned allegations of official corruption and the selling of infants on the black market, which forced the Vietnamese and American governments to briefly halt adoptions from Vietnam a few years ago, the articles appear to treat these crimes as nuisances by highlighting the prospective adoptive parents’ anxiety and anguish as they were forced to put their adoption plans on hold. To seemingly sweep these charges under the rug and forget about them is an offense to journalism.

Perhaps when Người Việt2 chooses to report on adoption again, the editor will keep in mind that its audience will be comprised of many diverse members from the adoption community, and they will expect to be informed rather than ignored.

Soon after we submitted the letter, the former editor of Người Việt, Anh Do, responded and in her own letter to the readers hinted at further constructive dialogue with adult Vietnamese adoptees in order to address just one of many gaps in the series.

Fortuitously, Anh Do personally contacted me by phone and expressed great interest in interviewing me and the three other signatories of the letter for a follow-up piece. To say the least, I was impressed with Anh Do’s act of reaching out to our aggrieved party and seeking to make amends by bringing balance to the discussion on adoption from Vietnam. Each of us were notified that Anh Do was going to contact us with prepared questions and conduct a brief interview with each of us. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, Anh Do stepped down as editor of Người Việt and handed the editorship to a long-time reporter at the paper named Jami Farkas.

And, this is when the goodwill gesture turns into farce. For a detailed recounting of events, both past and present, that have led to unexpected silence from Người Việt’s end, please stay tuned…

[NOTE: The following is a work of fiction.]

The Army man held me on his lap. I have the picture to prove it. This man’s big white hands curled around my plump little baby body so I wouldn’t fall and land on the wooden floor. The tinted reflection of my face looked bloated in the lenses of his sunglasses. The black-haired adults stood around us, smiling broadly, but their sharp brown eyes peered through the helplessness of the situation. Some of them teetered on the brink of exhaustion. Their knees appeared weak with the thought of giving up yet another child to a country that was sending its bombers over to float above their land like seagulls over a landfill.

But, nothing could’ve prepared me for what came next. The black-and-white photo of me entertaining the Army man became a press favorite and my image galvanized people all over the world to save up their pretty pennies to take home a child just like me. Dailies and weeklies saw their circulation jump tenfold simply by slapping my timeless mug on their front pages. The contrasting image of the impressionable foreign foundling sitting atop the knee of the corn-fed saintly soldier played expertly upon the maternal desires of the womenfolk and the predictable protectionism of the men folk. Inquiries flooded the orphanage, praying for our lonely souls and slipping in a few extra dollars to let the local officials know how much they cared about our safe arrival in more appropriate environs.

My mom and dad, the people who had the foresight to pick me out of the tropical bumper crop of 1974, told me that if it weren’t for the photo of me in their local newspaper, they wouldn’t have known to save me from the onslaught heading south. Their tales of ghoulish oriental Grim Reapers knocking on peasant doors and whisking away the young to fight against the doughboy GIs fed my already latent fear of scythes. They repeated over and over the stories of the Red scourge that hid among the reeds and waited for the hazy jungle nights to obscure their crimes against the good people of Indochina.

One day when I was playing on the Tonka earthmover in the schoolyard sandlot a rude boy wearing one boot and one sneaker skipped over to me and pushed me off it. I heard him laugh as I got up and ran to the teacher, crying about the indignity of losing face and losing my turn. The teacher crossed his arms and looked down at my teary eyes and curtly scolded me about wasting his time. He pointed to the painted pony on a spring and suggested I go play on it and stop messing with the other boys. It was going to take time, I told myself, to learn the rules of this new country. My mom’s face appeared to me and reminded me, as she did every morning at the bus stop, that not everyone is going to like me and they will call me names. But, I should ignore their taunts and ignore their shoving because I am above them, I am special. Instead of going to play on the toy pony, I marched over to the kid who pushed me off the earthmover and recited to him exactly what my mother had told me each and every morning, especially the fact that I was special. That’s when the kid with one boot and one sneaker punched me in the face, got off the earthmover and told me that it’s my turn again.

Every evening before even touching my dinner, I was encouraged to clasp my hands and pray for those, who unlike myself, couldn’t make it to our supper table because their legs had been blown off by mines or they had been starving on the street corner clutching clods of dirt. I was fully convinced that my survival depended on my adorableness that had magically warded off the strikes of the rifle butt to the skull or the point blank shots to the chest, which felled the other unlucky wretches left behind. How else could I explain my good fortune of living in such bountifulness and virtuosity? People told me that it wasn’t happenstance that had reached down out of the clouds and plucked me from Death’s hairy arms. It was simply destiny that I and my parents had been strolling down the same path of mercy and meeting at just the right time. People may tell me that this is a strange way to be thankful for the gift of life, but I’m convinced that there is no other way. I must believe that I am special. Don’t you?

About


A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

Contributors:
Anh Ðào Kolbe

Kevin Minh Allen

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  • Call for Submissions: Vietnamese Adoptees November 21, 2013
    I’m so very excited to announce this particular call for submissions.  We are looking for entries from Vietnamese Adoptees across the globe.  Please help spread the word! CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS FOR “Vietnamese Adoptees 2.0: In Our Own Words” Online Submission Deadline: March 1st, 2014 Type: Essays, Poetry, Short Stories, Art & Photographs Theme: Adoptees/A […]

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© All rights reserved, Misplaced Baggage, Sumeia Williams, Anh Ðào Kolbe, Kevin Mînh Allen. 2008. May not be reproduced without individual author's consent. The rights to all referenced content is held by the original owners.
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