Where has the time gone?  It was almost a year ago that I received an email from a television show that offered to help search for my supposed Vietnamese foster mother.  The application requires a large amount of personal information.  I start to fill it out, then stop, start filling it out again, then stop again.  My mind seems trapped in the risk/benefit analysis of giving up my privacy to complete strangers and the slim chance of finding a woman who isn’t even my mother.

During my interview with John Safran, he brought up the subject of privacy rights vs. birth searches.  I wish I’d had the presence of mind to convey the thoughts I’d expressed in an earlier conversation with a fellow adoptee.   Some people seem to focus on the privacy of parents over the need for an adoptee to know, but there’s more to it than that.  Many adoptees have to give up their privacy in order to even begin a search.  Many of us have to trust complete strangers with information of which we’re usually very protective.  We become ripe for exploitation.  Then there’s that devastating disappointment when nothing is found.

Thinking about it makes me want to scream at woman considering giving up their babies to stop.  Do they understand the vulnerable position in which they place us?  Did they ever consider it?   I’m sure many were convinced they were doing what was best for themselves and their babies.    Maybe they were in some situations, but it doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing now.

Part of me dreads another disappointment.  I’ve so far sent out two inquiries.  One ran into a dead end.  The other never got back to me, not even to tell they were still looking or to say they’d found nothing.

So I waffle back and forth, filling out the form a little each day as I continue to weigh the costs against the potential benefits.  I know I’ll eventually send it.  How can I not?

Straight to Hell – The Clash

If you can play on the fiddle
How’s about a British jig and reel?
Speaking King’s English in quotation
As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust water froze
In the generation
Clear as winter ice
This is your paradise

There ain’t no need for ya
Go straight to hell boys

Y’wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say papa papa papa papa-san take me home
See me got photo photo
Photograph of you
Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san
Lemme tell ya ’bout your blood bamboo kid.
It ain’t Coca-Cola it’s rice.

Straight to hell
Oh Papa-san
Please take me home
Oh Papa-san
Everybody they wanna go home
So Mamma-san says

You wanna play mind-crazed banjo
On the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.?
In Parkland International
Hah! Junkiedom U.S.A.
Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove
and rat poison
The volatile Molatov says-


Go straight to hell

Can you really cough it up loud and strong
The immigrants
They wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier
Any hemisphere
No man’s land and there ain’t no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here

Go straight to hell boys

Someone on flickr reminded me of this song this morning.  At first it might look really offensive, but check out the wiki link above.  There is another explanation here.  You gotta love The Clash.

Killers at the orphanage gates. They’ve all come with their blades, their grins and their candy. Everyone in town recognizes their arm sleeve insignia, their flags and their loud, easy talk. To cut off the heads of one’s enemies while sparing the heads of their offspring must be a horrific enterprise. Even if one of these killers were to sever and then burn down his enemy’s bloodline, another line could be traced back to a rubber tree in a plantation on the western edge of town that survived the onslaught.

These mercenaries photograph themselves performing puppet shows or giving the tikes rides in their Jeeps. All the while, their humanity and magnanimity clash with their mission to engage in the sordid business of murdering these kids’ parents. Their wide fleshy smiles seemingly cradle the enemy’s children as if they were their own; as if they had fathered these children themselves.

Life is crowded in by death. It is a bizarre, fatalistic, ritual these Grim Reapers engage in when they hand out food and supplies to the sons and daughters of liberation. They mingle among the living, finicky about whom they take an interest in, searching for the cutest in the bunch. These shadows of death cross in front of the bright, shining orbs of young life lying expectant in their cribs, creating a voiceless void that sucks in both the infants and the soldiers, minute by minute and molecule by molecule.

For the past couple months, as you’ve probably noticed, I posted a series of excerpts from books on the Vietnam War that had an unstated, but clear, purpose (Notes from a Disintegrating Nation and It Was Never About Freedom). I’m more than happy to admit that I can come off as polemic and bit too scholarly for many people’s tastes. But, something must be said for a person who refuses to buy all the bullshit information that society chooses for you to eat your whole life.

No one enjoys being lied to, especially about one’s beginnings in this world. Growing up, it was generally expected that I accept the white baby scrapbook, the photos of little old me arriving at the airport in 1974 and my parents’ awkward silence on the country in which I was born and the unintended consequences of a war from which they tried to shield me. The looking glass into my past was wrapped in plastic and secured deep in reinforced concrete because I was never meant to step out of the amusement theme park that my life had become. For all the relative affluence my parents and this country handed down to me, I was expected to trade in my conscience and critical thought processes that had been hard-wired into me at birth.

The Vietnam War was recorded extensively, both officially and unofficially, and it has been imagined and re-imagined over and over to “teach” us lessons about life and death. In the American mass media marketplace, the war is usually recounted from one vantage point and with one singular goal in mind: To make the United States and Americans look good.

Ever since I can remember, the people of the United States and South Vietnam have been cast as the victims in the war and the twin beacons of freedom who fought for a noble cause. This kind of rhetoric is still used on us older Vietnamese adoptees to help explain how we were exiled from Vietnam and resettled in foreign countries. No one wants to acknowledge, however, the unpleasant paradox inherent in how we ended up in the very same country whose government and citizenry readily accepted waging a war against the very people who conceived us.

As a result of this rhetoric, compliant gratitude was slowly being fostered in me, leaving me temporarily with no defense against emotional manipulation and open to the planting of disinformation. However, no matter how unpleasant the topic of war was, I chose not to escape the devastation caused by other people’s decisions and actions. I wanted to rush back in time and witness for myself the events that likely contributed to my own adoption from Vietnam. Someone had to answer for the reason for my being here, I thought.

The more historical memory is contested with inconvenient facts and the more political propaganda is debunked and then dissolved through critical analysis, the more life seems to have purpose. And, if I can pique even just one person’s curiosity and get him to take a second look at conventional wisdom, then I feel I’ve served my purpose.

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, 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.]



In France in the spring and summer of 1946, in negotiations over the future of Cochin-China, the southern region including Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, I learned with some astonishment, was accorded the honors of a head of state and negotiated with the French on that basis. Jean Sainteny, former chief representative of France in Vietnam, had signed an agreement in March that the decision on whether to include the South in that independent state would be settled by a popular referendum. But the French government had no intention of carrying out that agreement. Its failure to do so, and its clear intention to return Tonkin as well to quasi-colonial status by force, led to the outbreak of hostilities on both sides at the end of 1946. …

… Ho and his colleagues had every reason to feel betrayed in the fifties by France, the United States, and the international community – perhaps above all by their Communist allies, the Soviets and Chinese – because of their failure to enforce the exactly comparable agreement in the Geneva Accords in 1954. These had explicitly denied that the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was an international border separating two independent states. They had called for an internationally supervised election in 1956 to determine the government of a unified Vietnam. … Both internally and to the public Secretary of State Rusk and his subordinates proclaimed over and over that “all we may ask is that North Vietnam leave its neighbors alone” and that it observe the provisions of the 1954 accords. The implicit and often explicit premise was that the accords had created two separate, independent sovereign states, the two “neighbors,” North and South Vietnam. That was … a brazen reversal of the letter and spirit of the accords as written. Equally brazen…was the frequently repeated demand by the United States throughout the sixties for a “return to observance of the 1954 Accords” when the United States had never intended, did not support, and would never permit observance of the central political provision of the accords, which called for nationwide elections for a unified regime.

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, 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.]


[Ton That Thien]


…on U.S. stakes in the coming elections in Vietnam and why our policy should change from Vietnam and why our policy should change from exclusive backing for military candidates, Ky or Nguyen Van Thieu, to encouraging, or simply permitting, their replacement by respected civilian leaders. As an outstanding Vietnamese journalist, Ton That Thien, had put it to me the leadership that the country needed had to have respect, and “for a government to be respected, it must be respectable.” Air Force General Ky, currently serving as premier (by support of the other generals and the Americans), could hardly be further from meeting that criterion. Vietnamese saw him as immature, lacking in strong nationalistic instincts, a playboy, promiscuous, narrowly educated, undignified, impulsive, only sporadically “serious.” And flamboyant (commonly visiting the countryside in a black nylon flying suit with a lavender scarf and a pearl-handled revolver, on which was engraved the name of his mistress). This in a Confucian culture giving highest values to age, dignity, maturity, education, and virtuous example. As Thien said, for America to favor or support a Ky – at the time I wrote this, the only choice of the mission for the presidency – as symbolic chief of state was seen by him and by a wide range of Vietnamese as an insult, a gesture of contempt.

But personality and appearance were the least of it. Ky was a northerner, a military man, a former French officer lacking any record of patriotic opposition to the French, widely believed to owe his position to American support.

As for General Thieu, Ky’s chief military rival for the candidacy, his liabilities were only marginally less than Ky’s. He wasn’t a northerner, but he was still from Central Vietnam, not the South, and he added to his list of liabilities by being a Catholic. He was more dignified, I acknowledged, more mature, more experienced and prudent than Ky, yet for other reasons these qualities didn’t assure him more public confidence. “Where Ky fails to gain the instinctive trust and respect of the Vietnamese because he is so ‘different’ in Vietnamese cultural terms, Thieu fails their trust because he is simply regarded as untrustworthy”: conspiratorial, sly, “too clever,” an impression strengthened by his role in the coups that had displaced a number of his predecessors. “Above all, as he himself admits, Thieu shares with Ky the political burden of being a military man; as he is reported to have remarked some weeks ago, “The Vietnamese people are weary of military rule.” I quoted a young Constituent Assembly member: “Give us anything. Young, old, I don’t care, Central, Southern, Northern: just as long as he’s not military.”

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, 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.]


[Gen. Ngo Dzu]


One night in mid-January 1967 Colonel Chau had me over to dinner at his house to meet his new boss at the Joint General Staff, General Ngo Dzu. … Dzu said that poor morale throughout the ARVN stemmed from lack of confidence in and respect for top GVN leadership. Each level – from squad leader to division commander and above – saw that its superior officers were engaging in corrupt practices or political maneuverings and took this for license to do the same. Until there was reform at the top, the troops would continue to alienate the population by their practices of theft and maltreatment. These malpractices by both troops and officers, he said, reflected directly their feelings that “the long war, of which they have grown very tired, cannot be won by the type of national government and leadership now in place.” … Corruption, he went on, reflected this mood of despair. “When you see, from the nature of our leadership, that there is no hope of any progress, nothing you can achieve in your province or division, militarily or politically … you turn to doing what you can do, which is to take care of your family.”

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, 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.]


[Nguyen Cao Ky]


In the spring of 1966 there was another major Buddhist uprising in I Corps, the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam, including the cities of Hue and Da Nang. …

In the excitement of his strong U.S. backers, Ky decided to dispense with his greatest rival, General Nguyen Chanh Thi, perhaps the best military commander in ARVN. Though both Ky and Thi were Buddhists, Thi, who was in charge of I Corps near Da Nang, had closer relations to the Buddhists to the north. When Ky fired him, Thi refused to go and rallied the Buddhists to his support. They defied the administration in Saigon and joined forces with Thi, pressing for the replacement of the Ky regime by national elections.

At this point Lodge and MACV arrange to transport Vietnamese marines to Da Nang, along with tanks and air support, to put down the uprising. By this time monks, joined by women and children, had erected Buddhist altars in the streets and sat by them. The tanks of the ARVN First Division based in I Corps came up to the altars and stopped. They would not go through them. It appeared that ARVN tank crews were poised to join the Buddhist revolt. But on April 7, the day I was briefing the Mission Council, tanks transported by the United States from a different region rolled right through the altars. All the demonstrators, including the Buddhist monks, were arrested. Many Buddhists now went into the jungle to join the Vietcong, while others were arrested and tortured.

[Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi]

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, 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.]



Chau was a brave soldier as well as an intellectual. He had been decorated by both the Vietminh and Diem for bravery in combat. He was clearly committed to seeing the GVN improve in areas that unmistakably needed improvement, and despite his obvious respect for the courage, discipline, and patriotism of the Communists, he still believed that it was necessary to fight against them and if possible to prevent their dominating Vietnam. …

As I had already learned, one of the things that prevented much progress in the war was the extremely poor quality of leadership in the South Vietnamese army. Most of the officers had either bought their positions or acquired them through nepotism. The problem wasn’t the lack of good officer material but the refusal to promote the good leaders who actually did exist. The officers had to have rich and educated backgrounds; they were part of the landowning class, meaning that they had little empathy or experience with their own troops. The French had favored Catholics, a tradition that Diem and his successors had continued. Chau was one of only two officers of his rank or higher in the army who had had serious experience in the Vietminh. That background, as well as his Buddhism, made it extremely unlikely that he would rise to the rank of general, despite his extreme ability.

John Vann and Doug Ramsey believed that the major “problem” in the countryside was that “the present leaders, bureaucrats, and province and district officials do not come from, think like, know much about, or respond to the wishes of the rural population.” In all these respects, they contrasted sharply with NLF officials.


A friend and I headed out one morning in search of the art district.  I’d never been to that area of town and had to google up a map.  Anyone who regularly uses google maps eventually learns that trying to navigate those things can tricky.  Sometimes it’s like trying to find true north using a needle-less compass.  We ended up heading straight out of town.

Luckily, backtracking was just a matter of getting on the other side of the highway via a u-turn.  So back we went to find the nearest gas station to ask for directions.  Undaunted, we headed out again hoping the gas station attendant knew what he was talking about.   As we continued down the road, I saw the word “Danang” on a store sign and mentioned it to my friend.  We decided to check it out and, wow, it was a newly opened Vietnamese store.

For me, it was a big deal.  Over two years ago, I wrote a post bemoaning my inability to connect with Vietnamese adoptee bloggers and the Vietnamese American community in general.  I couldn’t seem to find an “in” door.  Since then, I’ve made contact with other bloggers and even had the privilege of co-blogging with two of the most distinctive voices out there.  However, my attempts to establish contact with the Vietnamese American community in my area remained halfhearted.

Still gun-shy from previous experiences, my efforts were minimal.  I knew there was a fairly sizable community here, but still did not actively seek them out.  My justifications were endless:  I was busy.  There were more urgent matters to attend to.  The community isn’t really a community and is too scattered.  It’s too hard, dammit.

The truth is I’d turned into a big chicken and didn’t need much of an excuse to lull me back into forgetfulness.  Ah, will I ever learn?  As with my adoption, the signs were everywhere and popping up when I least expected them.  The Vietnamese store served as yet another reminder that there was something I should be doing and wasn’t.

Of course, to reduce my reasons to merely fear would oversimplify and misrepresent the psychology behind my reluctance.  I think the common set of fears did come into play: fear of rejection, fear of judgment, fear of not being able to connect, etc.  However, something that I rarely talk about is the resentment.  Being summarily rejected by a recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization at the college I was attending left a bitter taste in my mouth.  True, I was hurt and felt seriously discouraged, but just as importantly, I felt this blood-boiling rage.

It felt as if “my own” had thrown me to the wolves and then refused to let me back in because I’d been mauled beyond recognition.  I didn’t walk away.  They’d given me away.  I’d survived to seek them out again but rather than welcoming me back among them, they slammed the door in my face. They wanted nothing to do with me, and why should I care?  What had they ever done for me other than relinquishing me to an eternal state of otherness?

I was aware these feelings were unreasonable but felt them anyway.  Because I knew they were irrational, I buried them.  However, I would eventually have to face the truth.  Denial of those feelings numbed my awareness of them but still allowed them to affect my behavior.  It’s weird how the mind works.  I feel weird just writing these thoughts down, but surely I can’t be the only one.

I know as well as anyone that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to resent a whole community of strangers.  They had nothing to do with what had happened to me – either individually or as a group.   Furthermore, I’d met and befriended enough Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to know better.   Why did I harbor such a sense of betrayal?

My mind immediately goes back to my childhood.  Insomnia and I have been joined at the hip since I can remember.  A lot of those late night sessions with sleeplessness involved thoughts of my Vietnamese mother.  As I’ve mentioned before, not all of my midnight daydreams were childish fantasies of tearful reunions.  Many times my imaginary interactions with Má were rendered with classic feelings of abandonment common to adoptees.

Some part of me felt that she’d sloughed me off like so much unwanted hair to be swept away and forgotten.  Of course, now I know that’s not necessarily the case.  There were other options, but to a child with limited knowledge and understanding, the only ones were a) orphaned by death and b) orphaned by abandonment.  To compensate, I waffled between the two scenarios.  Did she die or just dump me to my fate?

Sadly, Má wasn’t around to answer my questions.  She only existed in my head and could neither confirm or correct my assumptions.  Those thoughts never dissipated.  They were never resolved but lay dormant just below the surface of my consciousness.  I guess the recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization was just the trigger.  He’d unwittingly turned on the light behind my skewed optical lens allowing for a whole lot of projection.


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

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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