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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Me at 2 months of age, supposedly taken at
Ta Kim Cuc’s home in Cho Lon

Events that have occurred since I began my search ooze through my brain like globs of hot molasses.  They pool together in the center of my consciousness, searing, smothering.   My mind wants to shoot off in a hundred different directions, but synapses refuse to fire.  I have to fight with myself to stay focused.  And here is where I default to my outlet of choice – writing.

This is the only tangible clue, other than my adoption papers and a few old photos, neither of which have played much part in my search.

At first, I was reluctant to publicize it out of respect for Ta Kim Cuc’s privacy.  I sent it to a few people who I thought might be able help, but they kept coming up against a wall.  The address, it seems changed over time or is incomplete by today’s standards.  No one seems to know where this place is.

After writing those posts for the NY Times, I was contacted by a television show in Vietnam that specializes in searching for missing people.   The show would probably have been my best resource, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be THAT public.

Fear is the mindkiller…

How far was I willing to go and was I willing to take all of this on with almost no support from family members?  Could my already strained relationship with my adopted family withstand the impact?  Frozen by my own indecision, I could not force myself  to move forward with my search.   The universe, however, never seems to let me rest for too long – or run very far either.   It gently pushes, prods and sometimes outright throws you wherever it deems necessary.   “Psssst, hey look at this,” it seemed to say, “Isn’t it exactly what you were needing?”

DNA test beckons.  As mentioned before, I happened upon Operation Reunite’s DNA project.  Voila, two questions were answered.  My adoptive father was not my biological father, and I am not Amerasian.  After some further research, what I could determine was that my genetic roots traced back to Asia, not Europe.  I am most probably Vietnamese with trace amounts of Chinese ancestry.

The only other partially tangible clue was a letter my father had written.  I say partially tangible, because I’m am not sure how much I can trust its accuracy.  It’s not just because of his previous edits to my personal history.  Memories fade and change over time.    In the letter, he wrote:

“…You were lying in the center crib on the aisle to my right when I took this picture of the cribs.  I had not seen you yet.  I was still in my jungle fatigues, because I had just returned from three months in the jungle.  I was stationed at the army outpost close to Way Phu Bi on the DMZ.  There was someone with me (at the orphanage).  This person knew of you and she was leading me to your crib.  Her name was Ta Kim Cuc.  We stopped at the foot of your crib.  She said smiling, ‘This is the baby you want, Mun.  Her name is Le Thi.’  ‘Mun’ is the nickname Cuc gave me which in Vietnamese is short for ‘Munoi’.  You were so tiny.  I fell in love with you instantly.  I nodded and the orphanage nanny who was with us, picked you up and gave you to me.  Cuc exchanged information with the nanny and we left.  We took you back to Cuc’s home in Cho Lon.  I started the adoption process at the American Embassy in Saigon immediately.  Cuc cared for you in Cho Lon during the next six months while I was away at my duty station.  I would fly or drive down to Saigon every week or so to see you and Cuc.  We went to the airbase Ton Se Nuc in Saigon to fly home.  Cuc asked for two of my business cards and a pen while we were waiting for our flight.  As she held you, she began to diligently write on the back of the business card.  She was writing symbols as she hummed you a lullaby.  When she had finished, she handed the cards back to me and said, ‘When Le Thi is big, she will understand.  Give this to her to write to me.’”

This is the other card he is referring to:

I’m not sure what the second card means, but it looks like she was trying to figure out how to write out the address.

Time passed.  Life moved forward.  Frustration had reached a peak again as I ran into brick wall after brick wall.  Eventually, I took the leap and posted the address and a plea for help on Facebook.  Thankfully, some very wonderful VN adoptees stepped in to assist.  One was able narrow the location down for me and pointed out how the address was specifically lacking in information.  The address really was incomplete and there were misspellings.   It seemed my only options were to either hire someone to search for me, go there myself and search, none of which were very viable options…and there was the television show.

So I began to fill out the application trying to cobble my very confusing story into something that made sense.  All my frustration had hardened into determination to see this through to its end – whatever that might be.  I had barely begun to write when I received an email from someone who claimed my mother was looking for me.

I stared in disbelief at the short email.  After several exchanges (with the help of some wonderful people who volunteered as translators), I was given enough information and a few photographs to seriously consider the possibility.  There were discrepancies here and there, but enough similarities to try a DNA test.  With the help of Operation Reunite, a DNA test is on its way to Vietnam.

My search abruptly came to a halt as I awaited the results.  The universe would again have its way, however, as it sent another nudge.

But that is a story for another day…

I am still searching, still hoping.  There is no other choice.  For me, there never was.

More than anything, the one thing that has touched me most is the kindness, support and generosity I have received from complete strangers.  I’ve held back their names out of respect for their privacy, but they know who they are.  Thank you.  I am forever in your debt.

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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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A moment…

Some days, I wake up and realize how small I’ve let my world become.  It’s easy here.  I don’t get out of this small corner of the world often, either mentally or physically.  Work keeps me busy, keeps me exhausted as I’m still striving to exceed my own expectations.   Failure is imminent most of the time, but I expect it.  What keeps me going is the singular ray of hope that someday, I’ll be able to look back on this part of my life and be glad it’s behind me.  Done.  On to the next thing.

As long as I feel I’m moving forward in some way, I can deal with the setbacks, the disappointments.  In many ways, this has been my time to shine even as I have retreated back into the shadows.  Contradictory, as always, my existence in this life is as least, consistent.   Despite my isolation, I am surrounded and feel deeply loved by those who remain close.  In spite of the chaos, life has never felt so stable, so…mundane.

This is the first time in my life that I feel able to say, the choices I’ve made in the last couple of years were correct.  Of course, that’s only because things turned out the way they needed to be for the time being.  My choices were limited but at least they were mine to make.  I think I’d been so use to others controlling my direction that I’d grown afraid to try it myself.  This truly is the first time I can call my life my own.

Ah, but what to do with what remains?  Time will fly by.  The children will grow up and leave home.  Given I don’t die before that happens, what to do when I’m alone again?  Eh, I guess I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.  Until then, onward into the nothingness until it become something recognizable.

Of course, I say all of this in full knowledge that it could all change tomorrow.  Life has taught me that it only takes a moment.  A singular twitch of the universe can change everything.  Something significant can become intangible or nothing at all.  “It is what it is,” seems to be the motto of my immediate circle of friends.  I would never have expected to find so much stoicism here, and yet, somehow I’m not surprised.

No wonder so little has changed.

Part of me appreciates the stability and part of me abhors the stagnation and seeming lack of progress.  The moments I force myself to stand back remind me of why I came here and why someday, I must leave.

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Sleepless

5am

Insomnia decided to pay a visit.

Thinking…thinking…thinking.

Random thoughts popping off like little flares in the back of my mind.

Behind at work, always behind.  How do I even begin to catch up?

Date on Saturday?  Do I really want to go?  Not really.  I feel like being a hermit this weekend.

Time to spring clean again.

Before anything, need to spend time with the kids.  *sigh*  I miss the days when I could spend all day with them.  Would be nice to check out the Korean restaurant and pick up some supplies from the Asian grocer.

I miss NC.

Wonder how my parents are doing.

Wonder if I should start looking for Ma’ again.

The Vietnam Vet I spoke to today said I should keep trying.  He told me stories.  They always have stories.  I was more interested than I let show.  Hearing their memories strikes a chord with me these days.

Still kind of freaked out about the guy who approached me to ask me if I was from Vietnam.  He broke down into tears, grabbed me in a big bear hug and then drug me by the arm to his wife.  “She’s from Vietnam,” he exclaimed, “Isn’t she beautiful!”  He hugged me, held on and just sobbed on my shoulder.  Not sure of how to react, I hugged him back.  It seemed to be what he needed.  I looked at his wife curious as to her reaction.  She was looking at her husband and smiling sympathetically.  She looked into my eyes and mouthed, “Thank you.”

So there I was standing in the middle of a department store with an older, African American Vietnam Vet whom I’d never met before clinging to me and sobbing like a child.  I suppose I should have felt awkward.  Maybe I did and just don’t remember.  But he’d reached out to me for some reason.  If all he needed was a little human kindness, who was I to deny him something so simple?

He took my cheek in his hand and whispered, “May you have a good life, child.”  As I watched the couple walk away, I wondered about his story.  I wondered about all their stories.

My perceptions of the men who had occupied my birth country have been shaped by my adoptive father and my early childhood experiences – and not many of them in a positive way.  Perhaps it is something to re-examine.

*yawn*

It’s going to be a long day.


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Epilogue for 2010

It’s one of those moments when I have so much to say, but the right words seem hard to come by.  Lately, there were times my mind seemed so heavy with thought that I feared my brain would collapse.  I’d end up disappearing from sight as I sank into my own personal black hole.  Bye bye, Sume.

The holidays were good to the kids and I this year.  We managed to have a “real” Thanksgiving and Christmas complete with all the trimmings.  It’s not that I’m big on those particular holidays, but I think I missed the tradition.  Having played a major role in providing it for myself and my children added extra meaning.

I crossed into the new year and my 41st year quietly as I had intended.  Instead of celebrating, I preferred to take the time to just relax, spend some time with my family and contemplate the previous year.  The only damper was running into my adoptive father at work on New Year’s eve.

I heard my name being called and turned around to see him and my step-mother standing there.  I smiled and greeted them both.  My step-mother smiled and said hello.  My adoptive father looked at my name badge, pointed at it and said, “What’s that?”

“My name,” I replied still trying to smile.

“No it’s not,” he said coldly.

No longer feeling the need to justify myself to him, I decided to ignore his disapproval and turned to my step-mother to ask how she was.  We had a brief conversation about what and how everyone was doing.  I said goodbye to my stepmother.  They left.

I’d be lying if I said the encounter didn’t bother me.  I’m sure the rift between us will always be a source of sadness.  After they’d gone, I realized I hadn’t really even looked at my adoptive father.  I don’t think I can really look at him anymore – or maybe it’s more appropriate for me to say I can’t really see him now.   After all that’s happened, I no longer view him from the perspective of a daughter.  To be honest, I don’t know how he fits into my world – if at all.

During the short drive home, I tried to shake off the experience.  Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I wanted to observe the arrival of the new year in quiet celebration of having survived the previous year.  It wasn’t the time to hash over my shortcomings, and that’s what my adoptive father always made me think of – failure.

But I’d realized that his disappointment stemmed from whether I’d succeeded at the things he’d wanted in the way he’d wanted them.  Anything outside his expectations was either a failure or not worth noticing.  This might be an issue with many children and their parents; but if I take into account the added layer of my adoption, the hit on my self esteem doubles.  Not only was I a failure as a daughter, but as a human being as well.  It was as if he were constantly saying I had been a waste – not worth the expense, not worth trouble.  Fail.

The day I stopped viewing myself through his eyes and stopped seeking his approval was the day I began to feel my own worth.  It had been the same situation in my marriage.  Twice trapped and lucky enough to have escaped twice, what choice did I really have if I were to keep any sense of self worth?  I ceased to give a damn about what either one of them thought.

Reflecting…

Restless, I walked out and sat on the stairs.  It was 4am, New Year’s day.  I sat shivering in fuzzy, pink plaid pajama pants and a plush, burgundy house robe.  The air had grown colder since I’d come home from work, but it felt good.  It was strange how the cold I once detested didn’t seem to bother me so much anymore.  Maybe it had something to do with my age.  Maybe it was was all the changes.  I mean, after all I’d been through, the cold had become the least of my worries.

It was around this time two years ago that I moved to Texas and around this time last year that I moved out of my adoptive father’s house.  That might explain why I was suddenly feeling restless.  It was as if some part of my subconscious had jumped to attention as if to ask, “What’s going to happen this time?”

My insides felt heavy with emptiness as I thought back over the entirety of my life.  Those old “if only’s” began to scroll before my mind’s eye like an electronic ticker tape.  If only I’d kept my eyes closed and just played along.  If only I’d kept pretending to be the dutiful daughter, the pious wife.  If only I had kept my memory short and ignored the obvious.  If only I’d ignored the lies, the patriarchy, the misogyny, the misuse of religion, the manipulation.  If only I hadn’t learned to see through the hypocritical justifications.  If only I hadn’t learned to deprogram myself.  I could have lived the happy dream in oblivion.

No, not that again.  I should be celebrating.  There was no time for regrets and no room for self-doubt.  But even as I mentally and spiritually renewed my sense of purpose, I knew my heart and mind would (just as they’d always done) repeat this conversation until the day I died.

It’s human nature to ask those “what if” questions and to speculate on the unknowable.  Again, it was about finding a balance.  Questioning to the point of inaction hinders progress, but not to question oneself at all would point to a bloated ego.

This was one of the many lessons I’d learned and in some cases, had to re-learn over the last couple of years.  This was, after all, something I’ve come to think was more important than either “success” or “failure”.   What did I learn?  Had I applied previous knowledge successfully or had pounded into my thick skull once again?

adoption…

My adoption would always, in some sense, flow into my existence, but it was I who chose how it shaped me as a human being.  It’s something so obvious and self-explanatory and yet, was something I had to learn. As a sentient being, I had been taught that self-determination was a “God-given right”, but that had somehow not extended down to my adopted self.  Why?

I could fill pages and pages in an attempt to answer that question, but would rather sum it up by saying, “I allowed it to happen, because I didn’t know any better.”   My brain didn’t possess the tools to recognize what was happening.  Afterward, even though  I had opened my eyes, I lacked the sense of empowerment to do anything about it.

Whether it was due to my parents, society or my own sense of helplessness, the shadow of my adoption seemed to say, “We saved you, and now you must prove you are worthy according to our standards.”  It was never said directly, but was in actions that contradicted words and in words left unspoken.

I’ve jumped from one side of the fence to the other most of my life.  Fear of disapproval and rejection ruled one moment and then outright rebellion when the frustration became unbearable.  Guilt over ingratitude would gradually creep in, and I’d be back where I started.  The cycle would repeat itself over and over again until I could do nothing but sit there and feel defeated.

The decision to end the repetition was like a gradual awakening from a deep coma.  At first, I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep.  In truth, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be awake.  There were times when I wanted nothing more than to keep my eyes clamped shut.  Even so, I could still perceive from behind my closed lids, the luminous reality that I was living a lie.

love…

“Romantic love can be like one of those pitcher plants,” I told my friend, “Once you’re tempted to fall over the edge, it will digest you until there’s nothing left.”

“That’s your history talking,” she said, “So you were in a bad marriage.  It’s not like you won’t find someone else.”

“Finding someone else isn’t the problem,” I laughed, “I’m not looking for someone else.  And yes, it is experience talking.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to give up on the whole thing,” she frowned.

“Just because I’m not pursuing a relationship like it’s all there is doesn’t mean I gave up on the idea,” I argued.

“Whatever.” she huffed.

Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if she was arguing with me or herself.  She hadn’t been in a relationship or had any prospects of one since I’d known her.  I can point to no obvious reason why other than the unapproachable demeanor she wore like a second skin.  Like me, she’d developed a thick hide in order to protect herself – though her circumstances and reasons differed from my own.

She was vocal about her desire for a companion but I wondered if she hadn’t built her defenses up to the point where they were impenetrable even for her.  I had strategically constructed my fortress with a hidden door to be used at will.  For me, the problem had been learning when and how much to open the door.

Of course, I could be wrong.  This was how I perceived us.  Perhaps we were both seeing each other through our own eyes rather than how they really were.  How could she know that all my defenses were strengthened by the kind of love you only find once in a lifetime?  Barely perceptible, yet eternally strong, it was the kind of love that bound souls rather than “hearts” and fused atoms rather than bodies.   How could she know that when she spoke of “love”, I pictured something entirely different than her romantic version?

Perhaps it was romantic in its own way.  It had, after all, helped to set me free from so much conventional thinking.  It had kept my vision clear enough to recognize when I was walking into another trap and likewise when I was inadvertently leading others into one.  It had given me strength enough to cut the rope when it threatened to hang us both.  Love should strengthen and set two people free, and I refused to be the siren just as resolutely as I refused to be lured into the kind of  “love”  that consumed one from the inside out.

But it wasn’t that I had written off romantic relationships altogether either.  As I told her, I just wasn’t looking.  I didn’t share her sense of urgency.  I have yet to fully become “my own person” and until I do, any romantic relationship would be a threat to my sense of self.  My adoption had taught me that I needed other people to validate my existence.  That had translated into needing another person to make me feel complete.  TRA Survival 101 – Learn to recognize your own worth.  You do not need a savior.

To lose is to gain…

The one question I never took into account which I wish I had just for the sake of being prepared was, “Am I willing to pay the price?”  My adoption had also taught me that in order to gain something, you have to give up something.  Life is like one big flea market where the prices are never set and what you think you’re getting and receiving aren’t necessarily what they seem.  Perhaps it’s better that way.

Had I actually thought about it too hard, I might never have gone forward.  From the point of view of my comfortable illusion, the price might have seemed too high.  If I made a list of all that I’ve had to give up, of all that I’ve lost in order to reach this point in time, the list would go on and on.  Not only that, but more importantly, the path I chose has affected all those around me.  Will we all be the better for it later?  Who can say?

What I can say is that I am immensely proud of the way my children have adapted and remained strong throughout all the adversity.  Just like any self-critical parent, my one regret is the negative affects their parents’ choices have had on their young lives.  If I were to humble myself before anyone, it is to them that I owe a great debt of love and yes, apologies for my shortcomings as a parent.

Likewise, I hope they gain something positive from watching their mother struggle against her self-doubt, her fear and against the odds to simply…become.  The world out there can be cold and harsh, but sanctuary can be found from both within and without.  I hope they come to understand that you may need the help of other people along the way, but first, you need to learn to rely on yourself.

I hope they know that they aren’t and never have to be alone; that they are and will be truly and deeply loved.  Sometimes, that will feel like a good thing and sometimes a bad thing, but they should know they are worthy of love as they are.  Respect is something you earn, but love is something that grows.

For all the adoptees out there still struggling to be. Much love to you all.

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pic by sume

For the first time in what seemed like forever, we took time to breath.  Life had suddenly gone into overdrive for my daughter and I.  She was in the beginning of her senior year of high school.  I was at the very beginning of my newly found independence.  We were both standing at similar crossroads in our lives with many paths opening up before us.  It was an exciting time in our lives, full of promise but demanding so much of our focus that there wasn’t much time to slow down.

We decided to meet a a couple of family friends and take them along on our monthly pilgrimage to a Vietnamese mall.  I was excited and already had my mental shopping list scrolling through my brain.  We go there as often as we can to restock our supplies of rice, meat, favorite spices and sauces.  We always take the opportunity to try something new as well.

When finances allow, my daughter and I shop for new áo dàis.  My son is more interested in the candy aisle of the Vietnamese grocery store.  He always finds something new and interesting to try.  Our day isn’t complete until we stop by one of the restaurants in the mall to treat ourselves to our favorite Vietnamese dishes.

We took our friends to almost every shop in the mall and laughed as they tried their first cups of bubble tea, dried fruits and jerky. It was nice not to feel like the “new guy” for once and be able to show someone else all the new things I’d discovered.  Having someone there who knew less than I knew made me feel less like an alien.

We paused to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant.  My daughter and I ordered our usual bowls of pho and summer rolls.  One of our friends was a bit squeamish about trying new things.  I was happy that he braved the menu, ordered a meatball dish and then actually enjoyed it.  The other ordered a version of fried rice and summer rolls.  He gobbled everything down with obvious delight.  I felt pleased and more than a little proud to be able to share our experience with them.

So that’s what it’s like?  Did I finally get a taste of Vietnamese pride?

“So Sume,” one of our friends asked, “if you were raised by Americans, how did you learn about Vietnamese culture?”

“Like this,” I said, “going out and just exploring, asking a lot of questions and reading.  Tons of reading.”

“That’s so sad,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose,” I sighed, “but it’s been an adventure catching up.”

I smiled and tried to keep the mood positive.  The day had gone so well.  I wanted it to end on a positive note so that the kids and I would have happy memories of our adventures together.  For them, I hoped our outings would serve as encouragement to explore their heritage and try new things in general.  I’d spent my childhood trapped in my parents’ world of ethnocentric whiteness.

Oddly enough,  it was after coming back to Texas that I realized for the first time, I’d grown comfortable seeing myself as Asian.  But it wasn’t just that, I’d grown comfortable with myself as myself.  The inner awkwardness (for the most part) was gone.  Had I finally grown comfortable in my own skin?

Perhaps the feeling would come and go depending on the situation.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d think I was over a hurdle only to find it right back in front of me another day.  Maybe that’s just the way it is.  Maybe it’s not about conquering anything, but more about facing and then learning from each challenge, one experience at a time.

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