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Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

I don’t come out of my cave very often.  Life’s kept me running too fast to pause for very long.  However, when I heard that Miss Saigon was attempting to make a comeback, it infuriated me enough to come out of my shell.  I thought to write a long essay/rant listing  the many reasons why I hate this musical, but there are members of our community who are far more eloquent.    Instead, I opted to add my voice to the many who are speaking their own truths on Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project.

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“A photo and story project to counter the racist, sexist, colonialist musical Miss Saigon, in our words and through our eyes.  More info on dontbuymiss-saigon.com.”

missedsaigon

18MillionRising is hosting a petition as well as more information about the campaign.

As a Vietnamese adoptee, an Asian woman and as a Vietnamese American,  Miss Saigon scrapes across my still healing identity.  Old memories leap into the present every time I see these tired, old stereotypes replayed.

“Me love you long time, little girl?”  I was in fifth grade when a high school student chanted this at me on the school bus.

“You probably don’t want to know the truth.  What if your mom was a prostitute?” said a family member.

While watching one of the many Vietnam War movies, cut to scene with prostitutes:  “Hey, Sume, your mom’s on tv!” says my ex-SO.

“You’re should be grateful your dad saved you,” said another, “If he hadn’t, you would probably have ended up as a prostitute or dead.”

I could go on and on right up to the present, because this stereotype is so ingrained in the heads of American society that the assumption is almost second nature.   The default excuse seems to be, “Well, there were prostitutes in Vietnam during the war.”  Lame.  That is a scenario that’s been played out in almost every country that’s had to deal with war.

As a young child, the stereotype was already being fed to me through movies, television and by my wonderful “white saviors” on a regular basis.  When they wanted to “educate” me about “my people,” the lessons always somehow involved how lucky I was not to be among them.  I slowly internalized the sense of shame and the indoctrination of self-hate/guilt/gratitude took root.  Some actually meant well, however, none of them were aware or understood that I viewed the world through TRA eyes.   Friends and family may have viewed “my people” as “the other,” but some part of me also saw myself as “other.”

My environment didn’t provide positive references to contradict all those negatives plus the ethnocentric, racist, stereotyped ideas were often packaged as cute, romanticized bundles which made them easier to digest.   As a result, I built my identity around the way my environment viewed me which contradicted the way I was told to view myself.  On one hand, I was “one of them” and expected to view myself as being the same as any other family member.   On the other, I was suppose to be aware of my “lucky” status in being rescued from Vietnam and a people that promised nothing but prostitution and death.

In 2006, I wrote a piece for Nha Magazine which explains in more detail:

Stored in the very darkest corners of my mind is the picture of an embassy. A deflated American flag is being withdrawn from atop a flagpole. Scores of frantic men, women and children are crushed against the gates desperate to get out before the Viet Cong claim control of Saigon. Mothers are crying, holding their children high in the air amid the smells of smoke and diesel fuel pleading for someone to take them to safety. I hear the thumping of a helicopter over the cries of despair. It’s the sound of angel-wings beating hope into the air, promising salvation if they could just get past the gates.

I left Vietnam five years before the end of the war but those images have become like memories.  Since early childhood, scenes similar to the chaotic evacuation sequence in Miss Saigon have been beaten into my brain by television, movies and photographs.  For most of my life, Vietnam was a war, Saigon an evacuation, Tet an offensive, and I had escaped it all.

Born in 1970, my caretakers at Hoi Duc Anh orphanage in Saigon referred to me as Le Thi Buu Tran before my father adopted me.  He had just completed his second tour as part of the American occupation.  When my adoption process was complete, I had a new American name.  Before I’d reached my first year, all traces of my Vietnamese heritage had been erased except for my adoption papers and my genetics.  As my father boarded a plane destined for the U.S., I’m sure he envisioned new lives for us free of the country and the conflict we’d left behind.  Years later, he would recall how I wailed the entire flight from Saigon to Honolulu.

My new home was a small town in East Texas where I would grow up the lone Asian for the next decade.  The population of little more than a thousand was mostly white with smaller African and Mexican American minorities.  A set of railroad tracks served as a loose dividing line between black and white while brown lived mostly on the rural outskirts of town.  Though I lived on the “white side” of town, I was at the bottom of the racial hierarchy as the only Asian, the only Vietnamese.

Like most children, my world in the beginning was very small and rarely breached the safe boundaries of family.  That would change when in 1975 which also marked the end of the war; I began my first year of school.  My first clue that I was different from other kids was finding my green card in my mother’s purse.  “Oh,” she replied matter of factly, “you’re adopted from Vietnam.”  It meant nothing to me at the time but would later become a source of shame and embarrassment as I learned about Vietnam and its people through the eyes of post-war America.

“Gook!  Go back to Vietnam!”  I was still in elementary school when classmates first screamed those words.  They held little meaning for me other than the obvious insult intended.  Their true meaning was beyond my understanding.  The majority of my access to Vietnam or anything “Asian” came through movies, television, history lessons in school, war documentaries and “war stories” told by those around me.  Aside from stereotypical portrayals of Asians in the media, movies like Uncommon Valor and Full Metal Jacket only deepened my negative perception of myself.  Unconsciously, I would harbor a sense of shame until my early thirties for my nationality as well as my race.

Unlike today, there were no culture camps or adoptee support groups to lift me from my isolation and instill knowledge of and pride in my birth country.  Adoptees were considered as “blank slates” upon their adoptions and little if any importance was given to national, ethnic or familial origins.  Given the environment in which I’d grown, I probably would have turned away from such opportunities even if they had been available.  My need to blend into my surroundings took precedence over my longing to know.  Such pursuits would have only reminded me that I was an ethnic chimera belonging nowhere.

Around the time I turned ten, another family adopted an older boy from Vietnam.  I’d heard the news through the grapevine of my little town and wondered what he’d be like.  It seemed fate might not be so cruel after all.  I would no longer be the only one and perhaps he would be at the very least a friend, a doorway to my lost heritage at most.  When he finally arrived, I could only stare at him fascinated from afar.  Maybe I’d just grown too use to suppressing my loneliness, to closeting my curiosity or had been too concentrated on trying to assimilate and forget.  The result was that we didn’t talk about either Vietnam, adoption or our experiences with racism and prejudice until almost twenty-seven years later.  Our painful experiences closely paralleled yet we had suffered alone.

I eventually moved away to Bellevue, Nebraska which was a far cry from the tiny community in which I’d grown.  It would be my first real interaction with people from the Asian community but I still found it difficult to relate.  Being neither white nor feeling fully Asian, I felt no true sense of belonging even in such a diverse community.  Shortly before my high school graduation, my family moved back to Texas where I would graduate and begin attending college.  Having matured and feeling released from the social shallowness of high school, I began to seriously consider trying to make contact with other Vietnamese.

I was thrilled when approached by the representative of a Vietnamese student’s organization.  “Are you Vietnamese?” he asked.  “Yes,” I replied.  “Do you speak Vietnamese?” was his next question to which I answered, “No, I was adopted.”  He stared for a moment then smiled and said, “Thank you,” as he made a quick exit.  I could do nothing but stare feeling as if I’d just been summarily rejected without reason.  That moment would put an end to any thoughts of trying to reconnect to “my roots” for over a decade.

With the birth of each of my four children, the need to know grew until I could no longer ignore it.  My childhood longing grew from a need to fill an emptiness left by my lost heritage and birth family.  After my own children were born, filling in that vacuum became even more important in order to have something to pass onto my children.  They had a right to know about Vietnam, its rich history and culture and to feel proud of that part of their heritage.  Being such a later bloomer and already in my thirties added a sense of urgency.

I began researching through the library, newspapers and the internet looking for other adoptees and adoptee resources.  At the same time, I started writing about my story and reaching out to others with similar experiences.  It was surprising how much was actually out there.  My desk became cluttered with books as I submerged myself in Vietnam’s history, vibrant culture and deep traditions.  I revisited the war from other perspectives and learned about Vietnam through the eyes of its people.  It was an overwhelming and sometimes painful experience.  I felt like an amnesiac trying to reconnect to a family through old letters, photo albums and home movies.  My journey back has only begun but by moving backwards, I’m also moving forward.

Saigon is no longer the abandoned city of my childhood.  I am proud to claim it as my birthplace.   Reaching beyond the narrow perspective that imprisoned me, Vietnam now is more than a war.  Tet has become a special time to share what I’ve learned about Vietnamese food, culture and history with my children.  Beyond that, I hope to pass down a deep commitment to family and pride in knowing who they are.  I will probably never be able to fill in all the gaps or fully reconnect with the Vietnam of my past.  That is gone, but I’ve come to realize that just as Vietnam begins to heal and move forward, so must I.  The past is only part of the picture as I also come to terms with what it means to be a first-generation Vietnamese American.

So much for not writing a long essay/rant…

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Would LOVE to see this project successfully reach completion.  Please help support this very promising endeavor.

About the Project

My name is Deann Borshay Liem and I’m a documentary filmmaker and Korean adoptee. While traveling around the world with my previous films, First Person Plural and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I met hundreds of Korean adoptees from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Canada. I’ve had the tremendous privilege of hearing countless stories from adoptees of all ages – sometimes heartbreaking, oftentimes funny and ironic, always inspiring. These stories cover the gamut of life experiences – from stories about searching for identity and belonging; to stories of love, loss, and discovery; to questions about “who am I” and “how did I get here?”

Geographies of Kinship presents a small handful of the amazing stories I’ve heard from around the world. We meet, for example, Estelle Cooke-Sampson, a bi-racial adoptee who revisits the orphanage where she grew up until she was adopted by an African American soldier at the age of seven. She wonders how the nuns felt about having a black child in the 1950s. Emma Anderson is a Swedish adoptee who visits Korea for the first time and unexpectedly reunites with her birth mother, discovering family secrets along the way. Meanwhile, Michael Holloway is in San Francisco when he meets his birth family via webcam on a live television show. He is shocked to discover he has an identical twin. These, and other riveting stories, serve as a springboard for exploring the history of transnational adoptions from Korea, from the 1950s to the present.

We have already started development of the project, collected some archival material and shot some interviews. I was thrilled recently to receive development funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities which is now enabling us to complete archival footage research, write a script, consult with scholars and experts, and edit a fundraising reel. We will be done with these important steps in the Fall.

We are now asking for contributions via Kickstarter so that we can continue our momentum and complete the production (shooting) phase of the film by following our film’s participants on their individual journeys. Your support will help us get all the elements we need for the film so we can actually start editing and make what I know will be a fantastic film.

Continued…

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Description:LGA monthly contributor (and mild mannered) Shelise Gieseke talks about her recent, not-so-pleasant and frustrating experience with Eastern Social Welfare Society (ESWS) and Children’s Home Society & Family Services (CHSFS).

Topics Covered: Birth family search, GOA’L, Korea Central Adoption Resource (KCARE), Eastern Social Welfare Society (ESWS), Children’s Home Society & Family Services (CHSFS), responsibilities of adoption agencies.

Additional Note: A couple of weeks ago we reached out to the Children’s Home Society & Family Services (CHSFS) leadership, offering the agency the opportunity to respond to conversations like this podcast.  Believe it or not, but we here at LGA want to be fair.  The leadership declined the invitation.

It’s so frustrating and discouraging to listen this.  Since my adoptive parents didn’t go through an agency, I’ve never had to deal with them.  Long ago, I use to think it might have made my own search easier if they had.  I guess that just depends, now doesn’t it?  Maybe I’m over-simplifying it, but to me, it’s just common sense that adult adoptees (whether domestic or international) should have access to and control of their own records.  Duh?

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It’s been a while, so I guess the first thing I should do is update the identity timeline.  Once again, I find myself laughing and crying  at how many times I’ve had to adjust my personal history.  This year, I took the leap and sent in a sample to FamilyTreeDNA.  I figured at best, I would find a match that might lead me to my birth family.  At the very least, my DNA might tell me whether I was of mixed race or not thus finally, irrefutably revealing which of my adoptive father’s “truths” were true.

But before I continue, let me see if I can break this down:

  • Orphan (Vietnamese) – both parents dead
  • Possibly not a true orphan (but still Vietnamese) – parents’ deaths never verified
  • Biological daughter of adoptive father (Vietnamese-Amerasian) – allegedly adopted to hide that I was his bio daughter
  • Daughter of a prostitute (possibly Vietnamese-Amerasian) – supposedly adoptive father was approached by a prostitute who claimed he was the father
  • Possible Orphan again (genetic origin unknown) – found in orphanage and purchased for approximately “$1000 dollars in bribes”

Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with my story will know the many times I’ve questioned the accuracy of my personal history and had to change major details.  Each time I pulled out the shovel and uncovered a little more, the story changed.   With each edit, I felt I had to let a part of myself  (and the attached perspective)  die so that the more recent incarnation could take its place.  During the latter half of my identity adventure, the changes happened so quickly, I felt like a T-1000 in its final death throws.   On top of everything, there were more immediate matters to attend.  Exhausted to the core, I felt I had to step away or risk a serious meltdown.

Fast forward a couple of years or so. 

I heard about Operation Reunite and the efforts of Trista Goldberg to assist Vietnamese adoptees in finding their birth families using DNA tests.   I had fought and faltered my way to a half-decent place in my life.  While still hectic, the element of chaos had lessened enough to allow me time to breath and reflect.  Why not dig a little deeper into the mystery?  A couple of cheek scrapings and a trip to the post office didn’t require a lot of effort.  All I had to do was sit back and wait for the results.

I tried to put the test out of my mind, all the while, fighting off those old fantasies of finding my birth family.  Uninvited, they would push themselves into my consciousness while I ate, in the middle of work and into my dreams as I slept.  I was determined that I would not be crushed again and so, tried to keep my expectations extremely low.  But who was I kidding?  I needed this test to be the key to my lost origins.  Time to shift into survival mode.  Using my adoptee superpowers, I turned off the psycho/emotional switch.

After a couple of weeks, I came home from work to find an email stating that my results had been posted:

Matches – 1 remote cousin match

Population finder – 83.95% Lahu; 15.56% Han; a margin of error that roughly equals plus or minus 30-something percent.

Initial response:  WTF?  Does not compute.

I’m still researching and trying to digest what those results could mean.  I sent an email to my remote cousin match in hopes discovering another clue.  I know it’s a long shot, but when it’s all you have, anything can turn into something.  As of yet, I have received no reply.  The test did verify that my adoptive father was not my biological father.  It also told me that I was not Amerasian.

Still the question remains:  Then what am I?

And the search continues…

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I’ve been following this series over the last week and applaud NPR’s initiative to go beyond the usual fluff pieces.

 

Nearly 700 Native American children in South Dakota are being removed from their homes every year, sometimes under questionable circumstances. An NPR News investigation has found that the state is largely failing to place them according to the law. The vast majority of native kids in foster care in South Dakota are in nonnative homes or group homes, according to an NPR analysis of state records.

Years ago, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where the motto of the schools’ founder was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Children lost touch with their culture, traditions and families. Many suffered horrible abuse, leaving entire generations missing from the one place whose future depended on them — their tribes.

In 1978, Congress tried to put a stop to it. They passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which says except in the rarest circumstances, Native American children must be placed with their relatives or tribes. It also says states must do everything it can to keep native families together.

But 32 states are failing to abide by the act in one way or another, and, an NPR investigation has found, nowhere is that more apparent than in South Dakota.

“Cousins are disappearing; family members are disappearing,” said Peter Lengkeek, a Crow Creek Tribal Council member. “It’s kidnapping. That’s how we see it.”

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Vietnamese people whose children were evacuated on flights by the US in April 1975 when the Vietnam War was coming to an end had samples taken for DNA tests on Monday with hopes to find their kids.

continued

For more information, please check out Operation Reunite’s website and please consider donating to this worthy cause.


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Charlie (Lisa) posted some info in my comments.  I’m moving it here, plus adding a little from their website.

Thank you for your words!

I am the Vice President of Korean Adoptees of Hawai’i (KAHI).

I am working on a Research Project on transnational adoptees and their American parents. Please visit our website to find out more about this study, access the surveys, or send requests to be interviewed:

http://transnation…al-adoptee-paren…t-study.webs.com/

Or follow us on Facebook:
to http://www.facebook.com/Stories.Adoptee.Parent

Of access our on-line (anonymous) survey for adult transnational adoptee (age 18+) by clicking on:
https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Stories_Adult_Adoptee.

From their website:

We are a mother-daughter team of researchers. Lisa (daughter) is full Korean by birth; she holds both a BA (American University of Paris) and an MA (University of Washington) in International Studies, with focus on Korean Studies, and currently lives in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. Karen (mother) holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University and lives with her second husband (Navajo by birth) in a rural community in the northeast corner of Arizona, on the Navajo Nation.

Our mother-daughter adoptive relationship has been complex. Although we have worked through many of the challenges that have faced us, we’ve done so “by the seat of our pants,” experimenting along the way and often feeling quite lonely and confused in the process. Together, we have become interested in other transnational adoptive family relationships, in part because ours has at times been strained. Like many transnational adoptees, Lisa has needed to explore issues related to her identity as an adoptee, as an Asian, and as a Korean American. Like many white adoptive parents, Karen’s “color-blind” point of view tended to minimize the significance of race and racism in American society; she thought that “love would be enough.” Our differences in perspective have sometimes felt like a major chasm. Until recently, we assumed our experiences were unique, shaped by circumstances particular to us. The research literature suggests, however, that many of the issues that we faced are quite common among families that include children who were adopted transracially and transnationally (e.g., Freundlich and Lieberthal 2000; Pertman 2009). Barb Lee’s poignant film, Adopted (2007), captures the sense of deep loss that both adult transnational adoptees and their adoptive parents feel when this chasm has not been bridged.

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