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.