You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2008.
posted by Kevin Mînh Allen
[NOTE: The following is a work of fiction.]
I stand before you in this courtroom prepared to defend him against being cast back into the vagaries of history. There was a time when I too saw him as a foreign occupier and inveterate killer. But, as his only son, I must give him the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many years he’s been on the run.
I never knew my father because, in a way, he barely knew my mother. They met at a local hospital where the wounded were tended to, but who eventually went insane from looking into frozen eyes. My mother had been a recent graduate from nursing school. Her patients were of every size, color and age. They loved when she came by to coo to them as she undressed and re-dressed their bandages and increased their morphine drips.
When lucid enough, her patients would tell my mother about their wives or girlfriends with whom they’ve lost touch or the children back home they were not likely to see again. They would lament the little children they shot, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not, while securing yet another hamlet. They writhed in guilt when they told her of the captives they bayonetted and the women they doused with gasoline and lit on fire because, they laughed, Buddha wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. My mother would pretend to listen right up until her patients choked back tears and sucked in their last, lonely breath.
One afternoon, my father caught my mother’s eye while keeping one of his buddies company by reading this fellow’s letters from home to him. They peered at each other from across the room, neither one able to disengage from their locked-in stare.
My father told me that my mother was very handsome, not exactly pretty, mind you. However, he said her voice seemed to float outside her body whenever she sang to him. He made it a point to return to the hospital again and again, even outside of visiting hours, to read letters from home to any random dying buddy. Even when no letter came, my father became an expert at memorizing important details about each soldier’s background and fashioning a believable account of life back in the States.
My mother slowly noticed my father’s specious talent. She would hear him read aloud about the harvesting of pumpkins or the painting of massive walls inside massive homes with yards that seemed to take up a whole city block. Sometimes the head nurse would catch my mother listening intently to my father and yell at her to get off her duff and administer more morphine to quiet the screams filling the ward.
In time, my father, in his broken Vietnamese, started asking my mother to go out with him to the nearest phơ stall after her shift. My mother was no demure daisy and readily accepted his invitations. But, she was also no prostitute, and never asked him for money when she headed to his place for a night cap. My father refused to talk about those nights because he said that’s between my mother and him. Fair enough.
And then, like the last drop of wine, my mother was gone. She never returned to the hospital. The head nurse had no idea where she could’ve gone when my father asked around about her. He was heartbroken. He stopped coming to the hospital to ease his buddies’ grief with entertaining stories of mashed potatoes so smoothe and girlfriends so true. My father left Việt Nam never knowing about my birth, nor my mother’s death in the market where a mortar landed and ripped through flesh and fruit.
My father returned to work at the local tire factory and finally married his high school sweetheart. But, after trying to conceive a child, and failing each time, his new bride blamed his herbicidal sperm and left him for another man. This other man happened to be his shift supervisor at the tire factory. This turn of unfortunate events left my father dejected and unable to make the monthly mortgage payments on the new house he had built for his future family. As if things couldn’t have gotten any worse, he was laid off from his job and had to move in with his sister’s family where he became the default nanny to her two kids.
Later, my father came down with pneumonia and thought he would never make it out of bed again. After this extended illness, he found that whenever he tried to speak his mouth filled with an iron-rich liquid that would dribble down the front of his shirt and he would be forced to run to the nearest bathroom to throw up the detestable taste in his mouth.
His subconscious became a tape recorder and kept looping the playback of nonsequitor murder. Every bazooka round he shot at nondescript enemies standing in his peripheral vision missed its target. It wasn’t long before he finally engaged one of the faceless demons who tried to ambush him. That night he was in the middle of furious hand-to-hand combat with this impish foe when he suddenly awoke to find his sister lying limp on top of him because, as he quickly realized, he knocked her out as she was trying to comfort him.
Without a job and without a home my father found himself staying with a sympathetic friend. One night, as he turned on the closet light to get a coat before going out to grab a beer with the guys, a heavy, knotted net fell on top of him. His body was scooped up and lifted into the air and set down in an even darker place than what he was accustomed to.
Not seeing any presence of light, my father feared that his heart had just stopped beating and he had keeled over in the coat closet. A feeling of embarrassment struck him and he wanted so much to go back to his pasty old body, drag it out of the closet and prop it up on the couch, in order to give his corpse the proper dignity it deserved.
After what felt like an endless sleep, my father’s eyes adjusted to the dim light that eventually pulsed from above and below. Slowly, layers of yellowing paper blew in and landed in front of him. My father started reading the writing on them and recognized his Army buddies’ names that appeared on the parchment: “Robert”, “James”, “Adam”, “Matt”. Every time he read those names aloud the men’s groans would grow louder and my father would feel their icy hands clutching at his elbows.
My father grew apprehensive each time another long curled piece of paper fell into his lap. The breezes that brushed past his damp skin picked up in intensity. The air swirled all around him, buffeting him until he felt nauseated from the pendulum motion of the enclosure he found himself in. In the still dark, his ears detected the sound of rope strands twisting and then snapping.
Without food or drink, my father would dream that he saw me. He could see himself working in an electronics store and standing in the home appliance department, schmoozing a young couple to buy a washing machine/dryer combo, when suddenly he saw me pass by. He tried to reconcile the reappearance of a lover with the missing memory of a child. I looked nothing like my mother nor my father, but held a striking resemblance to their own parents.
In earnest, my father tried convincing me that when I passed by I was clearly humming the martial melody of the national anthem of the Republic of South Vietnam. I apparently struck every note and every chord as if I had been singing this song my whole life, from sun up to sun down:
Này Công Dân ơi! Quố Gia đến ngày giǎi phóng.
Ðồng lòng cùng đi hy sinh tiếc gì thân sống.
Vì tương lai Quốc Dân cùng xông pha khói tên.
Làm sao cho núi sông từ nay luôn vững bền.
Dù cho thây phơi trên gươm giáo.
Thù nước, lấy máu đào đem báo.
Nòi giống, lúc biến phǎi cần giǎi nguy.
Người Công Dân luôn vững bền tâm trí.
Hùng tráng quyết chiến đấu làm cho khắp nơi.
Vang tiếng người nước Nam cho đến muôn đời.
Công Dân ơi! Mau hiến thân dưới cờ.
Công Dân ơi! Mau làm cho cõi bờ.
Thoát cơn, tàn phá, Vě vang nòi giống.
Xưng danh Nghìn nǎm giống Lạc Hồng.
O People! The country nears its freedom day.
Together we go forward to the open way.
Remembering our centuries of history,
Brothers from North to South reunite,
With hearts young and pure as crystal
Multiply our efforts and do not spare our ardent blood.
No danger, no obstacle can stop us.
Our courage remains unwavering in the face of a thousand dangers.
On the new way, our look embraces the horizon
And who can repress the soul of our youth?
O People! Going until the end is our resolution.
O People! To give all is our oath.
Together we go forward for the glory of the Fatherland.
We fight for the immortality of the Lac Long race.
There was only one person who could have sung the anthem as beautifully as that – the mother of his child. Crying out in joy, my father threw himself at me and gave me such a bear hug. I stood still like a pole, not fully comprehending that this man was revealing himself to me as my father. This couldn’t be, this is all a mistake, I thought to myself. All my life I had been told the only father and mother that counted were the ones who fed, clothed and housed me. The first set of parents were dead and would never come back. My father, reading my thoughts, exclaimed that as long as I was alive, he and my mother were always with me.
He flipped back the salt-and-pepper bangs that hung over his pasty forehead and gazed at me in amazement.
With tears welling up in his eyes, my father took out a yellowing sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and handed it to me to read aloud. I looked down at his hand holding the piece of paper, took it from him, sighed, and read: “The bond between mother and child may be indestructable, but the bond between a father and his son is irreplaceable.”
posted by sume
*Má didn’t exist
before my fourteenth birthday.
Unable to accept that my blood
flowed in another direction,
my American mother never spoke of Việt Nam,
but the maternal compass
that had first mapped my veins
left markers that kept Sài Gòn
firmly imprinted in the corner of my eye.
Forgive me, Má, for letting over thirty years pass
before I lit incense for your ngày gió.
I have nothing of substance
to entice her back among the living,
only my words as I rewrite her
Ghost mother…imaginary mother…elusive mother
There were times when I’d picture Má as a spirit watching over me. A faceless apparition made of vapor and a child’s imagination, Má was a source of comfort and mystery. As I grew older, I remade her several times adding details; long dark hair and eyes like my own. Still, despite my vivid imagination, Má refused to reveal herself in her entirety. Perhaps I wasn’t nearly as creative as I’d thought.
Not knowing anything about my Vietnamese parents or the circumstance under which I’d been adopted left too much room for speculation. Confused and disturbed by so many unknowns, I sought to fill in the blanks. Just as I’d created and re-created Má, I wove intricate scenarios for my adoption.
Born January 1st, 1970, I was adopted and arrived in the US in July. My parents divorced in September of the same year. I don’t think I consciously associated the events at the time. All I knew was that I seemed to have a problem with losing parents and didn’t understand why. Because Má was such a mystery, I fluctuated between longing for her and being angry with her depending on whether I thought she’d died or abandoned me.
I’ve yet to explore why I put so much emphasis on Má and thought so little of Ba. Perhaps it was because my mom provided a constant reminder or maybe it was a manifestation of the traditional gender roles I’d learned. There is also the possibility that it was because as a daughter, I simply wanted to know my mother. Besides, fathers were inconstant beings that came and went every other weekends and holidays. Further still, some part of me feels that Má was just easier. Ba may not have been Ba at all, but Dad, 爸爸 or even 아빠 .
According to my dad, my foster mother lived in Cho Lon, and he’d had gotten the impression that I’d been born there. How he had gotten the impression that I had been born in Sài Gòn’s Chinese district is still not clear. Given Dad’s habit of revising of my adoption story, I can’t be sure of anything. He’s honed re-writing my history, including stories of Má into a fine art – mistress, wife, prostitute, dead, probably dead, possibly alive, unknown.
Ghost mother…voiceless mother…unreal mother
I wonder if she ever pictured me growing up in her mind. Did she see my face in other children, other daughters? If Má’s alive, does she consider me as a ghost child? The thought of someone stripping away my substance feels demeaning, dehumanizing. I am here. I am real. I’m alive.
But Má and I have no way of knowing that about the other, do we? Some part of me knows I must except the possibility she tried her best to put me out of her mind. War and poverty can make people stretch their principles to the breaking point. Like my veteran adoptive father, perhaps she too, just wanted to forget the past – and me along with it. I understand this. I accept this. Experience has taught me that possibilities can become a burden of truth.
In the end, it’s only for Má to say. Therein lies my dilemma as I “rewrite her into existence.” Dad and I are both guilty of creating and re-creating Má at our own convenience. For dad, she was a tool for manipulation. For me, she was both a refuge and a whipping post for my rage. But Má is just Má, and I don’t know who that is. What that means for me is that I must be willing to accept without passing judgment that all things are possible.
I can’t judge on a possibility or even a probability. Who am I to judge anyway?
Chapter four of Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book, “growing girls” is entitled “meeting the ghost-mother.” After assessing the seeming malnourished condition of her newly adopted daughter, Laskas questions the treatment Sasha received at her orphanage. She goes on to write that she tried “to sympathize, to understand the ghost-mother and all the ghost nannies,” but that “forgiveness was so far away now.”
Laskas later goes on to describe Sasha’s lack of responsiveness. She then expresses her feelings about there being “something wrong” with “our baby” going so far as to place blame on “those monsters.” Who are the “monsters” she refers to? The ghost-nannies? The ghost mother? China as a society?
Surprisingly, I can sympathize with Laskas – not with her sentiments but with her seeming need to ask, “How could you let this happen?” I posed similar questions when thinking about my own situation, “What have you done? How could you?” But exactly who was I asking and upon whom could I rightfully place the blame? I sought to forgive Má, but who said I was in a position to forgive anyone?
That’s the convenient thing about ghost people. Without substance, without an independent voice, they become whatever we need them to be. We can read stories of others in similar situations. We may even understand their circumstances on a personal level, but the results will more than likely be the same. Without all the things that make them equal in their humanity, they become little more than amorphous puppets.
We don’t even have to feel guilty about it because without substance, they aren’t real.
Ghost mother…my mother…Má
I can never rewrite or remake my mother as the person she was or might have become. The best I can do is place emphasis on the significance of her existence, hushing the voices of those who would presume to speak for her. The inner one is the hardest to quiet. It’s the voice of longing – the need to have my questions answered, to know Má, to understand her, to love and be loved by her.
*The wisps of smoke hang suspended
before an alter that’s still craving a face.
The empty picture frame holds nothing
but questions and laminated adoption documents
The need to fill a void can be overwhelming when dealing with so many significant unknowns. It has stretched my imagination to its limits, but I refuse to repeat the mistake Dad and I previously made. The emptiness isn’t for me or anyone to fill. It’s a space reserved only for Má no matter what that may mean.
*exerpts from The Feast of First Mourning.
posted by Kevin Mînh Allen
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me
– Small Town, John Mellencamp –
American soldiers nicknamed the country of my birth ‘The Nam’. As far as the average joe was concerned, it was a country filled with VC, free fire zones, kill ratios and POW/MIAs. As far as a Vietnamese adoptee like myself was concerned, that same country became a fairytale kingdom where I could act out all my forlorn fantasies of a black-haired mother who missed her son and only wanted to welcome him back into her arms one day. However, America came to see me as the cast-off, the war orphan, the dust of life; the war trophy, the charity case, the Saigon street urchin. Before I knew it, I was given one mission and one mission only: prove my worth.
As I look back on my youth, my status as an adopted person from Vietnam was very rarely announced in public. Subtle remarks or comments about my anomalous genealogy probably floated through my ears, but the hardened perception of myself as a normal red-blooded American kid smacked away any doubts or inconvenient truths about the mismatch between me and my community. My adoptive parents were very adept at concealing reality from me (when it was convenient for them) and avoiding drawn-out discussions about my past that could have resulted in meaningful dialogue which, in turn, would have strengthened the brittle bond between us. I guess it was less taxing for them to convince themselves and me that I was simply their son and had always been a part of their family. I was stuck with them, and they to me, for better or worse. Just one more happy family in the ‘burbs.
However, my vision sharpened and I started seeing cracks in everything around me – cracks in the mirrors, cracks in the kitchen table, cracks in friends’ faces, cracks in school walls and cracks all over my body. Layers of paint and polish started sloughing off of the identity in which I had been locked. I began holding people accountable for my shitty attitude toward feeling displaced and disoriented. It felt as though I was not only confronting missing chapters in my life, but whole volumes of history that encompassed innumerable stories and facts about momentous events connecting me back to my adoption. Inexplicably, the bottom fell out and I was left with a contemptuous void, down which I kept throwing question after question. No traceable answers ever seemed to crystalize.
Today, as I orbit the core of my existence, I am coming full circle, coming back around to the beginning of one teensy little life that was born somewhere in South Vietnam in December 1973. No longer am I content, no longer am I at ease. As I take account of lost time and memories of an era that I dare not relive, and yet am inextricably drawn to, one undeniable truth no longer eludes me: It was in Vietnam where brutish violence, angelic redemption and pure indifference had blended together and created me. It’s now up to me to piece together this self-portrait. What it may reveal about myself is still anyone’s guess.
Far be it for me to tell other war-era Vietnamese adoptees what to think, but I do believe that each one of us will eventually be made to face the facts and long-term effects of that specific time period in American and Vietnamese history, as intertwined as they are in our cultural and political consciousness. As we embark on our own personal journeys of self-realization, we shall hear more and more proclamations about how we had been saved from a lifetime of deprivation and wretchedness. Especially from elders who lived through that war, we will hear how much gratitude we owe them for not abandoning us to languish in the chaos, violence and retribution meted out to those who were left behind, and how lucky we are to be alive in the greatest nation on the planet.
Yet, these platitudes work. No matter how rebellious or contrarian I wish to appear, sometimes I must admit that our benefactors’ words strike at a layer of truth, however thin it may be. For the sake of argument, let’s give the people who facilitated my departure from Vietnam their just due. I will concede that they held an on-the-ground perspective that caused them to clearly act on my behalf. Knowing what they knew, they could foresee that any delay in my removal from the perilous situation unfolding before them would result in a five-fold increase in my imminent death. To think of the odds stacked against me and the high likelihood that I could have been just another corpse for fleeing people to step over on their way to planes, helicopters and boats still weighs on my shoulders like anvils. When I contemplate just for a moment the death toll among children my age at the time and the wasteland awaiting those who survived, pangs of guilt wrack my conscience and I have to second guess my attempts at raising doubts about the institutionalized myths of the Vietnam War and our insistence that they be maintained. I have to pause and ask myself whether I would want my life any different than it is now, considering all that I’ve been given, all that has been offered me and all the years I’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate. The sense of betrayal of everything I’ve known and loved grows stronger with each step I take toward the dark unknown. The choice becomes starker between accepting the comfort and ease of just letting go or the sheer grind of pursuing enlightenment. It doesn’t seem fair that I would have to choose between these two outcomes which I know are not guaranteed.
That brings me to my younger sister. She was one of the hundreds of children flow out of Vietnam on the wings of Operation Babylift. From what I know and what I’ve experienced, my sister belongs to the majority of adult Vietnamese adoptees because she refuses to discuss her adoption or anything tangential to Vietnam. Thus, out of a sense of protectiveness I shield her from my struggle for the truth and understanding of the circumstances that caused me to be an orphan. Instead, I actually admire her resolve not to contemplate what was done to us in the name of “saving” us. She has the remarkable ability of putting disappointing ventures behind her and appreciating her accomplishments and the people she gathers around her. She lives for the here and now. In the same vein, my sister has never implied that my writing is a betrayal of our parents or the country that took us in and raised us. When I told her of my decision to return to Vietnam for a visit, she was genuinely happy for me, although she knew she probably would not contemplate such a trip.
The relationship and understanding my sister and I have developed with regard to adoption serves to remind me that adoptees of differing opinions or outlooks can remain compassionate about each other’s decisions to search or not to search, to wrestle with the past or not bother with it, to step out of our skin or remain comfortable within it.
Keep in mind, though, that these stages of coming-to-terms with our adopted selves are not static. The desire to explore our adoption stories can wax and wane according to many factors and with the passage of time. I may get to the point where I feel I’ve done enough probing and finally put down my hammer and chisel, exhausted, and yet feel all the better for it. My sister may very well come along and pick up her own hammer and chisel and start working on that sheer cliff face. Our interests and motives may intersect and we could come to the same satisfactory conclusions. Or, our viewpoints could diverge so sharply that we will never see eye to eye.
All I know, right now, is that I am not content with letting bygones be bygones. People can say that I was saved. But, I’ll be damned if I let them have the last word.
posted by Kevin Mînh Allen
You would be glad to see that I’m still alive at 34 and doing what I’m doing to get by. It has been a struggle to mature into the person I am now, but I keep gaining wisdom every day and I’m trying to make a name for myself. Every time I write one of these letters to you I feel like I’m plotting out my past and future lives in the context of the present. There’s nothing left for me to do but bear witness to your memories and enjoy this life you’ve given me.
Incredibly, my first American name wasn’t ‘Kevin’, it was ‘Dominic’. Isn’t that funny? Wouldn’t it sound better if I were called ‘Dom,’ ‘Nick’ or ‘Nicky’? I found out this information when Evalyn, my other mom, gave me all the documents she had saved concerning my adoption back in 1974. She explained to me that she and her husband, Bob, were not the first couple to adopt me. It seems that a young couple from Springfield, Missouri brought me home first and took care of me for a couple months until their marriage fell apart. According to the adoption agency’s rules, they had to give me back. I was sent to a good foster family somewhere in Colorado and within a few months Evalyn and Bob waited for me to arrive at the airport in Rochester since they finally adopted me. Imagine taking on three different names – ‘Nguyên Ðúc Mînh’, ‘Dominic’ and now ‘Kevin Keith Allen’. I’ve even changed my name for a fourth time to ‘Kevin Minh Allen’.
People say that I should just move on and get on with my life, as if nothing had happened between you and dad; as if my life didn’t start in Sài Gòn but in western New York. Even though I have no memory of you, no pictures of you as a girl, as a woman, and no stories about you, the bond between us, however faded, is still there. When I lay awake after a long sleep, I can hear a woman singing to her child in her arms; the words I don’t understand, but the song is meant for me. It’s imploring me to come back to the place where you were born and where you may have died.
It’s hard going through the world admitting to people that I don’t know what you look like and I don’t even know your name, that in the end I was simply adopted by a nice American family. If only I had a picture of you or perhaps at least a picture of your grave; something that can prove you were here. But, what if nothing of you exists? What then? Then, it should become obvious to me that all the proof I need to show that you were the one who gave birth to me, is me. I am your proof.
Sài Gòn is the city where I was born. Webster is the town where I was raised. They probably couldn’t be more different from each other. Society told our parents to give us American names, American homes, American food and the American Dream. But, after all these years of denying it, I am one of many who have decided to come back and visit that other part of my life in Vietnam, the origin of my birth. It’s like Mecca to a Muslim: if you are able bodied and have the means, you must come back and pay your respects. I don’t know what to expect, though. I know you won’t be waiting for me, and neither will dad. Although I think of you, I’ve convinced myself that you are not alive. The opposite could very well be true, but why ruin the surprise, or better yet, why ruin a good thing.
My other parents were very happy to receive me on that November day in 1974. Many times I’ve looked at the photo of my reaction as that large group of people gathered to see the new arrival. My face was plump and flush. My natural curls looked tousled from uneasy sleep. My eyes were wide with a bit of surprise and fear. I had no idea who was holding me and I didn’t know I was being handed over to new parents.
It looked like I was in desperate need of an explanation.
I’ll see you when I get there. Until then, I’ll be here.
posted by sume
This photo is one of my first memories of another Vietnamese…Viet Namese…face other than my own. I can’t remember where I saw it, maybe on television or in a newspaper. I must have been seven or eight years old. I can’t remember what I thought when I saw it. I’m not sure I thought anything. He was a stranger.
I had no memories of my birth country, only a strange longing for something I couldn’t define.There were the smells; scents that whispered in a language that I couldn’t quite understand. The feelings of nostalgia would hit me unexpectedly, like some random flashback; sandalwood, lemon, certain spices, the automotive department at Sears (?!).
I left Saigon…Sai Gon before my mind’s eye had fully opened, its lens still unfocused. The war was not yet over but I was too busy being a child to notice. What did I care of war? It wasn’t until later that I learned about the war, about Ho Chi Minh, Viet Cong and still later My Lai. When I’d asked, “who won” an adoptive family member replied, “we did”. Who was “we”? Who was I? And why the lie?
The 1970’s American version of the war in Vietnam…Viet Nam was the only one available. I was saturated with it and breathed it in where it stuck to my insides like sticky soot. The old war stories became part of my memories. Sometimes, I overheard them talking on the streets or in the cafe. “The ugly little bastards were tricky. They could melt into the environment, burrow down like tunnel rats…yeah…tricky little shits.” Some forgot to distinguish between north and south.
Later on, Rambo was the hero of the day. He’d supposedly killed lots of Vietnamese…Viet Namese. I applauded in the theatre, then cried myself to sleep at home. In 1989, Michael J Fox taught me about the Casualties of War and gave me a hint of what “we” did to “them”. I asked, “Did we do things like this to them?” “No, we went there to save them,” said the educators. The war had been a perpetual dancer through my veins though its meaning was as lost to me as light to the eyes of the dead strewn among the fields of My Lai… Me Lie.
It was a different time, now covered over with memorials, anniversaries, trade agreements and diplomacy. The country I knew…never knew is gone. When people talk about history…my history, I think, “My history is here…buried there.”