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[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?


pic by sume

Reflecting

I don’t know how long I stood there, in front of the mirror, looking for my father’s features. There must be something there, a hint in the shape of my nose or the curve of my jaw. Surely I’d be able to find some distinguishable feature that would verify at least half of my genetics could be be accounted for. He was my father and fathers do not lie. At least that’s what I told myself as I traced lines upon my face, the tip of my finger growing numb to the touch of my own skin.

The breakdown of trust between my father and I and its unintended consequences have been one of the most emotionally draining to explore and convey. I used to think that love and trust between parents and their children was all you needed to build a solid relationship between the two. All else, whether it be communication, respect, loyalty or honesty could be built upon those two elements. It was also my thinking that if one, either love or trust, were ever challenged or even totally destroyed, the other would help to repair the damage. Sadly, I’m finding that this is not necessarily the case.

I still love my father, but it has done little to help re-establish the level of trust I once afforded him. Knowing and understanding the depth of his deceptions and the manipulative intentions behind them, has irreparably damaged my perception of his integrity. Furthermore, discovering his manipulative use of my mother’s “memory” filled me with such shock and disgust that it destroyed any sense of admiration I might have held.

At this point, I’m aware that some elaboration is necessary, but feel that doing so would bring too much focus upon my father’s actions. Writing about this will inevitably point fingers at him, however, at this point, I’ve chosen to put more of my energy into trying to understand the consequences rather than the actions themselves. Trying to further explain why he withheld the truth and flat-out lied about my adoption would require a great amount of speculation on my part. The exact reasons behind his choices are ultimately his to tell, and he has chosen not to explain himself.

I’m not sure I’d believe him even if he did suddenly decided to elaborate on what he meant by, “I had my reasons.” People keep telling me I shouldn’t let it take away from the good things he’s done. They say I should find some way to forgive and let it go. “It was a long time ago, and I’m sure he meant well,” seems to be their main defense. I don’t know how to get it through to them that I’ve already forgiven his actions. It’s not a matter of forgiveness now, but of trust and how its absence negatively affects our relationship.

The loss of faith in the only father I’ve ever known feels comparable to the sense of loss I feel when I think of Má. I was never allowed to know her and suddenly feel as if I never really knew him. He has widened the distance between us, and the resulting sense of betrayal has given me little cause to bridge the gap. The search for more meaningful relationships has taken me in the opposite direction as I search to fill the vacuum. Fortunately for me, I was able to establish and maintain relationships without trust becoming an issue. That is the amazing thing.

The ability to trust can prove surprisingly resilient even after repeated bombardments of disappointment. The resilience seems born from necessity since the growth and solidifying of a relationship, whether between parent and child, friends or lovers, depends on at least some level of trust. In very early childhood, one would think it’s just natural to trust one’s parents but these days, I question whether it could truly be called trust as I know it today.

While bonding with my parents may have been an early indication of my growing in that direction, the concept of trust wasn’t a conscious idea. Even then, I don’t think you could really call it trust in the way you’d refer to it with an adult. To me, real trust requires some amount of judgment, knowing who you can and cannot trust and understanding why. What I had with my parents in those early days was based on naiveté. I simply didn’t know anything better. Was it nothing more than attachment?

There were many reasons the subject of trust interests me. One was that I wanted to understand how my relationship with my parents might have contributed, if at all, to my own concepts of trust now. Another was spurred by reading an article in which an adoptive parent stated she felt her daughter thought she needed “permission” to express her feelings about her “birth” mother. There was something about using the word “permission” that angered me.

Thinking about it in terms of granting permission suggests that the adoptive mother exercised her power over her adopted daughter and allowed her to express her feelings. Talking about their adoptions is something every adoptee has the right to do, and that should be made clear from the beginning. I thought back to my own experiences and wanted to suggest to the author that an adoptee’s reluctance to discuss their adoptions should often be thought of in terms of trust.

I didn’t share that level of trust with my parents. It wasn’t because they were awful people, but because I didn’t think they could deal with it. I didn’t want to hurt them, didn’t want to make them feel bad or make them think of me in a negative way. Their approval and acceptance was important to me, and I didn’t want to endanger that. I didn’t trust that they would be able to just listen rather than tell me how I should think and feel.

My solution was to turn to people I thought I could count on, the result of which further isolated them from that part of my life. I think that was the beginning of that “dual existence” many of my fellow adoptees refer to when discussing their “adopted selves” and their “normal selves.” That’s not to say that I think adoptive parents should pump themselves up with enthusiasm and rush their children to talk about their feelings.

I think adoptees should be made to feel empowered to speak about their adoptions. Too much parental pushing would seem to have the opposite effect. Besides, one would hope that if a deep level of trust is first established as simply parent and child, the bond would naturally extend to one between adoptive parent and child. By that, I mean one need not overly stress adoption in very early childhood but rather concentrate on establishing and maintaining a solid parent/child bond as a foundation.

I think if my parents had stressed my adoption too much, I would have felt more like an outsider than I already had. Too little gave me the impression my adoption wasn’t open for discussion, that I should somehow be ashamed of it. All that said, I don’t think I would have been comfortable sharing everything with my parents even under the most idea circumstances.

Sometimes, parents whether adoptive or not, have to give their children room to grow on their own. We have to trust that our children will figure out some things for themselves. Within reasonable limits, isn’t it only right to have the same faith in our children that we ask them to have in us?

photo by Anh Ðào Kolbe
A dog tag is the informal name for the identification tags worn by military personnel, because of their resemblance to actual dog tags.
Anh Ðào Kolbe
Re-writing my story with personalized dog tags to identify who I’ve become in this war we call life. A perfect stranger can then remember who I was if for some unfortunate reason I fail at surviving the battle.
* * *
Kevin Minh Allen
Identity. Mine. I am. Product of war. Product of circumstance. Tag. I am. American yet Vietnamese. See this tag. Wear this tag. Who you are. Who I am. Proud.
* * *

Sumeia Williams

Identity Replacement Conditioning.
It begins with the changing of a name.

Erase. Replace.
Lê Thị Bửu Trân was preserved only as text on a page – the right to replace it with a Western name purchased for a few thousand dollars. Mismatched but easy for Americans to remember and pronounce, my new name served as a testament to the alien-ness of the environment that was to be my home.

First impressions.
“Bonding” was essential to successfully imprinting upon me the graph of my new family’s identity. This psychological process, so vital to human beings, served as a kind of primer-coat. It covered my undeveloped consciousness, smoothed it over for easy transferral and later sealed in any objections or doubts as to its validity.

Indoctorinization Initialization.
Identity restructuring often occurs under the guise of acceptance and belonging. When my parents changed my name, they intended it to be a sign of acceptance and a means through which I might “fit in.” In actuality, it was a kind of branding. Neither my adoptive parents nor my environment could accept me as I had been.

Like a mark of ownership, my new name helped us all to believe I belonged to and with them. The cutting and pasting of my identity was cast as being a good thing and I was none the wiser. Belonging was a necessity and that reduced the value of my original heritage even more.

Gratitude Adjustment.
Give me adoption or give me death. “Forget the past,” society says, “but if you must remember, do so in light of the fact that all you have lost is nothing compared to what you have gained. Be grateful to be alive. Be grateful for your opportunities. Be grateful you weren’t left in Viet Nam. See the orphanage. Look at the poverty.

Understand from where you came. Be witness to what could have been. Aren’t you glad you didn’t grow up like that? Take what we have given you without questioning, without complaint. God bless your adoptive parents. God bless America. Pity the country that couldn’t take care of you.”

It was rarely said aloud. The suggestions were subtle, subliminal, almost automatic.

Ethnic Subversion Immersion.
Movies, television, school and church all worked together to convey the message that Lê Thị Bửu Trân brought with her little, if anything of importance.

“Life is here and now. She was then and so far away. Let’s bow our heads and pray, be thankful for our blessings. You cannot fight destiny. Respect authority. Respect your parents. God. Country. Family.”

The struggle to fade into the landscape of racial ambiguity, pop culture, fashion and teenage trends trumped everything. To truly become something, you have to know it, study it, lose yourself in it. You’re told how to speak, what to eat, what to wear, what to like, what to believe until you forget to wonder if there was ever anything else.

Ethnic Equations
Face and race were the first of many clues that something of was out place. Beyond nothing “matching,” the isolation and feelings of dislocation, there was the secret knowledge that I could never go back. Even if face and race matched, culture did not. The way “others” saw me would rarely be the way I, the other, saw myself. Face(x) + Race(x) + Culture(y) ≠ Ethnicity(y) or (x).

Society seemed to offer me only three directions in which to go. I could stick with what I knew and continue in the direction that my parents had laid out for me. I could break from my comfort zone and try to become “fully” Vietnamese. Or I could try to cut straight down the middle and carve out some existence in-between. All would later prove problematic. The first two would send me down paths that I could never fully explore. The third down a path that could never be tangibly defined.

To refer to it as a kind of “third space” proves inaccurate. That suggests a place in which I inhabit when in fact, there is no tangible place with which to identify my hybrid ethnicity. It seems more appropriate to say I carry it within myself. It is who I am and up to me to define. I write the equation, determine whether the answer is correct or not while reserving the right to revise.

Excerpt taken from Turn My Eyes Away (Rosemary Taylor, 1976):

“We were primarily a salvage operation in a time of warfare. We were there to help gather up the debris while mightier powers laboured over ultimate solutions. One foreign company concentrated on collecting the mountains of scrap metal that littered the countryside and marketed it profitably in Korea. Our very small war effort was to collect the human litter, too insignificant for the concern of the military strategists, the newborn mites who were abandoned daily throughout the country in the maternities, orphanages, hospitals, and scrap heaps. Their feeble whimper held little shock value when the blood of a nation was screaming to heaven.

“But while some optimists wanted to believe in the usefulness of their scrap metal, we wanted to believe in the possibility of man’s redemption. We wanted to believe that every life is unique and has its contribution to make to the enlightenment of mankind.

“Perhaps it is naive to sustain this belief when mankind seems to be plunging toward a chaotic hell. Wherever one looks, selfishness, lies, greed, ambition and irresponsibility are all woven by man’s ingenuity into a system so complex that the individual emerges with his conscience pure as the driven snow. And saddest of all, he is convinced of his innocence.”

posted by Kevin Mînh Allen

marigold her name
yellowing bracelet slipped off
her tiny wrist bones

April 4, 1975. A C-5A military cargo plane took off from Tan Son Nhut air base near Sài Gòn, carrying hundreds of Vietnamese babies, as well as their escorts and other military and civilian personnel. Operation Babylift had officially commenced. However, due to a mechanical failure, the backdoor to the plane blew out at around 23,000 feet. The pilot turned the plane around in an attempt to return to the airbase, but had to crash land in a rice field. Out of those hundreds of infants and young children on that plane, only 40 survived the crash.

But, the beat went on.

Regular airliners stepped in and, when all was said and done, by April 26, 1975, over 2,000 Vietnamese children were carried out of the madness and chaos of the former Republic of South Vietnam and re-settled in foreign lands.

One of those kids was my sister, nicknamed ‘marigold’, only two months old then. My parents used to tell me that when she came to them she was extremely thin, sickly and couldn’t keep any food down. They were so afraid that she would die before they could get her to the hospital for emergency treatment. But, she made it.

And, one of these days – I can only hope – my sister will want to know more about why people continue to commemorate the lives lost on this date.

But, my sister’s a survivor. And, perhaps that’s all that matters to her.

mother & child parting ways

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

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Anh Ðào Kolbe

Kevin Minh Allen

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RSS Borrowed Notes

  • First blog post May 8, 2016
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RSS Ethnically Incorrect Daughter

  • 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.