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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.

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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 sume

Amorphous
Amorphous 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

into existence

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.

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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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© 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.