Adoptees face a long list of questions as they grow up, not only who their parents were and why they were put up for adoption in the first place, but who they would have been had they not.
Nelson DeWitt, born in El Salvador, adopted in Honduras and raised in the United States, has gotten more answers than he bargained for. DeWitt, who is making a documentary about his experience, learned that he is one of the hundreds of now-adult children who went missing during the civil war in El Salvador, which lasted from 1980 to 1992.
Many of these children wound up adopted after they were torn away from their families by soldiers, who sometimes kept them, other times funneled them into the lucrative adoption industry. DeWitt, who was raised by his adoptive parents in the Boston area, learned that he was one of these children after receiving a phone call from a long-lost family member. He learned that his birth parents were both revolutionary operatives in El Salvador. After his mother found herself hunted for by authorities, she fled with him to Honduras. She was likely killed soon afterward; by age two, he had been adopted out of a Honduran orphanage, en route to the U.S.
Archive for the ‘War’ Category
I can relate to parts of Mary’s story a lot more than I care to admit.
Written by Andres Chavez, Sun Contributing Writer
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Mary Mustard Reed returned to her alma mater California State University, Northridge a much different person than the 18-year old runaway who enrolled as a freshman. Today she is a proud, successful Vietnamese mother of three grown children. Then she was an abused child who told people she was Hawaiian because she was too embarrassed to admit she was Vietnamese. The story of her transformation is told in her autobiography, “Oceans Apart: A Voyage of International Adoption.” It is a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to answer “Who am I?” by examining her life: She was the first Vietnamese child adopted by an American couple during the Vietnam War, had an abusive childhood, and experienced cultural conflict and separation from her mother whom she believed died in Vietnam. It is also the story of triumph, how her years at CSUN enabled her to have a successful career, discovering her mother was still alive and being reunited with her and coming to terms with her Vietnamese heritage. “Oceans Apart,” Reed said, “is a way for me to preserve my background, my ethnicity, my culture, and preserve my family life for future generations, my grandchildren.”
It’s Saigon in 1964, when Americans were “just advisors” in Vietnam. A young Vietnamese mother, Nguyen Thi Thanh, takes her dying daughter to an American friend who’s CIA. Little 7-year-old Hein had contracted small pox. Nguyen Thi was a street vendor and couldn’t provide the medical care she needed. She asked Sam Mustard to save her daughter. He took the dying child to the American Embassy where the doctors cured Hein. “When I got strength and was doing better, instead of going back to the village where I lived, Sam Mustard wanted me to live in his home. They had servants, cooks and all that, so I could regain my strength even more,” Reed recounted.
The Mustards had been living in Saigon as part of the American presence in Vietnam. Although it was never confirmed, Sam was in the CIA. His wife, Margaret, was a teacher. After Hein had lived with them for 3 or 4 months, Sam wanted to adopt her. “My mother thought that it would be a better life, better opportunities to go live in America with Sam and Margaret Mustard,” Reed said. So she gave Hein up for adoption to the Mustards and Hein became Mary Mustard, the first Vietnamese child adopted during the Vietnam War. The last time she saw her mother was September 3, 1964. Two years later, Mary heard that her mother had been killed in a bomb attack in Saigon. Margaret Mustard was very unhappy about Hein living in her home. She had accused Sam of having an affair with Nguyen Thi but in the end, she was forced to accept the adoption. But every time Margaret looked at Mary, it conjured images of Nguyen Thi. This was the cause of the abuse Mary would have to live with for the next 11 years. “She just hated me. She called me, when I was 7 or 8 years old, a slut and a whore,” Reed recalled.
As Mary got older and resembled her mother even more, the abuse got worse. ” She would get scissors and cut off my hair, she would hit me many times, my eardrums were busted, in my right ear, she’d always call me names, referring to my mother,” Reed said.
Posted in adoptees, Adoption, history, Vietnam War, Vietnamese, War, tagged Adoptee, An Lac, Catholic, minister, missionary, Notre Dame, Operation Babylift, orphanage, orphans, religion, reverend, Robert Griffin on September 9, 2008 | 2 Comments »
Several years ago a fellow Vietnamese adoptee had given me copies of articles written before and during Operation Babylift for a project I was doing back then. While flipping through them recently, I came across a rather disturbing, yet intriguing, letter written by a Rev. Robert Griffin back in 1974 that probably expressed a common sentiment at that time. The bulk of the letter’s content is simply Griffin heaping praise upon Betty Tisdale’s work at An Lac Orphanage.
But, what really caught my eye are the excerpts below. Considering that our language has become a little more sophisticated when talking about adopting children internationally, let me know if Rev. Griffin’s words make you raise your eyebrows just a little:
Letters To A Lonely God: the children’s hour by Reverend Robert Griffin
The Observer, Friday, 03/22/74
…I dreamed of life as an adventure of imperishable beauty, the most flawless situation I could imagine for myself was to be a missionary priest, standing in a rice paddy, surrounded by Chinese children.
Now, twenty years after my ordination in 1954, I am again dreaming a young man’s fantasy of going to Asia, perhaps for the summer, looking for the rice paddy of my vision, where the little children have been waiting all the years of my life.
On Sunday mornings, when the children at their Mass bring me nickels and dimes and quarters as offerings, that money will become the gift of the urchins of Notre Dame to the urchins of An Lac Orphanage in Vietnam.
After the tragedy of the Vietnam war, I am not sure what shape the rice paddies might be in, or whether children can go there to play with stout missionaries.
An old photo of Hien (Mary Mustard Reed) with her mother
MORNING READ: As a little girl, Mary Mustard Reed was sent by her mother from Vietnam to America. As a woman, she’s written about making her way home.
By DEEPA BHARATH
Mary Mustard Reed is a grown woman looking for her mother.
She is in a car driving from Little Saigon to the office of the American Red Cross in Santa Ana. It all feels unreal.
Reed times her drive to 601 N. Golden Circle Dr. where the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Information Center is situated.
Exactly 21 minutes, she counts nervously.
She looks at a faded, wrinkled piece of paper with her mom’s name and address written on it: Nguyen Thi Thanh, 376 Phan Dan Phung.
She clutches in her hand a gold treble clef necklace her mom gave her as a parting gift and a black-and-white passport photo of her 7-year-old self – a baby-faced girl with black hair and deep almond eyes.
That was Hien. Little Hien, who giggled, danced and smiled when her mom grabbed her and held her close to her heart, showering her with kisses or singing her a sweet lullaby.
Where is that Hien now?
Reed has asked herself that question much of her adult life.
Reed doesn’t know who she is looking for now – her mom or that little girl who left that little brick house in pre-communist Saigon 29 years ago.
A daughter finds her mother and then her voice
Finding her mother after 29 years of separation made Mary Mustard Reed dizzy with happiness.
The Vietnamese-born, American-raised pharmaceutical rep had found her mother, Dao Thi Thanh, and seven half-siblings. They were alive and thriving in Paris.
But the discovery also left her feeling strange and emotionally exhausted as she attempted to communicate with a woman who had raised her until age 7, but whom she had not seen in nearly three decades.
Their initial reunion, at LAX on Sept. 3, 1993 was powerful. But once they got beyond the hugs, tears and profuse I-love-you-s, mother and daughter realized how different they’d become.
Dao spoke only Vietnamese and French, very little English. Reed spoke mostly English and broken French.
“I’m Christian, she is Buddhist,” Reed says. “The differences in language, culture and religion were just too overwhelming for us to handle.”
Reed didn’t even know how to cook rice, a Vietnamese staple. She watched the shocked expression on Dao’s face when she opened a box of Uncle Ben’s. Reed, who had been sent to America by Dao, had forgotten the aroma of nuoc mam, a pungent sauce she had enjoyed as a child…
An almost fatal bout of small pox. A sobbing farewell to her mother at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. A traumatic flight to the United States with adoptive parents. An abusive childhood filled with neglect and emotional turmoil. Yet, despite these agonizing upheavals, within the lonely child lives an unwavering quest for survival.
Is this the fictitious plot of a best-selling novel? “Certainly not,” says Mary Mustard Reed, author of Oceans Apart: A Voyage of International Adoption. “This is the uncensored story of my fight to overcome and triumph as one of the first Vietnamese children-if not the first-to be adopted in the USA in 1964.”
Beaten and forced to grow up on her own, the author dramatically details every aspect of her harrowing journey from barefoot toddler living in an unfurnished one-room hut to adopted daughter of a nasty, heartless woman-Margaret Mustard, who, from day one, never tried to hide her hatred for Mary.
“Festering in Margaret’s mind,” says Ms. Reed, “was the belief that her husband, Sam, agreed to the adoption because of his ‘special fondness’ for my young, beautiful mother, Yvonne.” Filled with jealousy, Margaret used physical and mental violence to vent her anger, forcing young Mary to negate her Vietnamese legacy.
“This is a big issue in international adoptions,” says Ms. Reed. “The United States handles over 20,000 foreign adoptions a year. I felt it was necessary to write Oceans Apart as a cautionary vehicle to inform parents of the importance of accepting the cultural heritage of their adopted children by encouraging them to keep who they are intact.”
Kim is a Vietnamese adoptee who grew up in Australia. He was kind enough to give me permission to post an article his article which was previously published in an Australian magazine.
Growing Pain – Growing Up As A Vietnamese Adoptee In Contemporary Australian Society:
The Vietnam War, through it’s inception to it’s conclusion has been well documented and represented through media such as radio, television, tabloids, film and literature. The tragic legacy the war left was the countless orphans who were “shipped” out to new lives and families worldwide. Of course, we must never forget those who did not survive.
I was one of those children, a “Product of the war”, and my good friend and “brother”, Dominic Golding has asked me to submit a piece of work to try and explain my individual plight and every adoptees fears and hopes that haunt us as we grow into adulthood.
Dominic (left), Kim (right)
Mount Gambier, in the South East of South Australia was where Dominic Golding, Tran VanHeeswyk, Son Thompson, Nguyen Mathias, and myself found a new life away from the pain and suffering of the war. My origins are unknown to me as my “extraction” from my birth certificate has both mother and father listed as “unknown”. My earlier life was somewhat sheltered and I had a fairly normal upbringing. Primary School went by with the blowing of the wind and until I reached High School, I never thought of myself as being anything other than an “Aussie”.
Of course, everything changed once the first day at Mount Gambier High School arrived and I will remember it for the rest of my life. I was with my friends and playing a game in the quadrangle when I got tripped by a year 10 boy named Jason Booth, because I looked different and he obviously had some problem with the fact that I was “Asian”, or at least “Asian” looking! That was the first day of High School back in 1987 when I was only 12 years old, 16 years ago! That was my first taste of racism, and I will never forget it, as it tasted like concrete!
That same year, a few year 12 students picked on me for the same reason, making racist remarks and actions. One in particular I remember is Brett Carson, the reason will become evident later. The hypocritical part of it was that one of the guys was also “Asian”, or of “Asian” background, David Medhurst, if I remember correctly, who really should have known better.
At first I had no comprehension as to why those people were being like that, but I soon learnt the hard way and when I did, it made me mad and confused. Mad because there were doing this to me, but confused as to what their motives or reasons were. This is the small town mentality that remains with me, as part of me as an adult, and it is what has infuriated me constantly over the years. Back then I was only 12 years old and obviously couldn’t take on a group of year 12 guys, but that didn’t stop me from throwing stones at them and taunting them back!
Shit!, they had me in a murderous frame of mind and I don’t think to this day that they will ever know what an impact they had upon me. It made me feel EXTREME PREJUDICE and HATE within my very soul towards them and others like them.
Then I got a job at Fiddler and Webb as a night filler and had the “pleasure” of meeting and working with the one and only Brett Carson! Of course, everything he said usually ended with a “DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M SAYING?”, as if I were just a simple Fucking “Asian” that couldn’t understand the English language, or “SO WHAT’S THE STORY?”, as if asking for confirmation that this simpleton actually grasped the concepts of what he was saying! This really pissed me off something fierce, and to be honest, if someone had put a gun in my hand, then he would be DEAD. I would have had the Mens Rea and the Actus Reus. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M SAYING BRETT????!!!!!”
In 1989 I thought that I would get a new start by going across the border to Victoria and study at Hamilton College, leaving the small town mentality behind me. Most of the students who boarded there were from far reaching places, some even as far as Tahiti and Hong Kong. I was very much mistaken and realised it when I was about to leave the boarding house to walk to school and there on the notice board, for everyone to see was a proclamation……..”ALL ASIANS EAT DOGS!” Well, this time Matthew Scarlett from Melbourne had really outdone himself! What a Fucking Cock Forrid. Both he and his friend, James Kerr haunted me during my tenure at the College, which lasted only one semester as my father became ill and eventually died of cancer in July of the year.
As if I wasn’t screwed up both physically and emotionally as a young teenager going through a rebellious stage already. That topped it off and really fucked me up. I even felt jealous of the fact that he was able to come home for my 15th birthday for a few hours and all the visitors seemed to be his friends, not mine! It just didn’t occur to me that for some of his friends it would be the last time that they would get to see him alive and that it would be the last time he would venture out of the hospital before his life expired, or that he was there so I could spend some time with him, as a loving father! What a fucking idiot I was! I regret feeling that way in retrospect, remembering that this is the only father I have known and provided me with food, shelter, education, love, compassion, and so on and so forth. I really wish I could turn back time, so that I could say “Thanks dad for coming out of hospital to see me on my 15th birthday, thanks for being a loving father” I think most of all, I would have liked to tell him that I loved him and that he would be my father for as long as I will live, no matter what, before it’s too late.
Anyway, soon after returning from Hamilton, I found that everything had changed and that I had a new arch nemesis in the making named Jamie Pitson, or “Norm”. On the night of Michael (Mick) Lucente’s birthday he tried to start a fight with me, racism based, in the Pizza Hut car park. Since then, he had been dogging me both at home and school, ringing me up at home, taunting me at school, and trying to emulate his big brother, Ricky “Skinder” Pitson, as he was a well known fighter and Norm just wanted to be a good fighter too. I just happened to look different, and I wonder what would’ve happened if I had been an Anglo Saxon Aussie?
I decided to join the Air Training Corps (AIRTC) and that is where I made some other discoveries. Firstly, that is where myself and Dom were “reintroduced”. I saw him, remembered that once when we were children, he had hit me over the head with a rubber mallet, so I walked up to him and hit him in the head! Hence forth, both he and I forged a bond that still lives. A lot of my anger and frustrations just seemed to melt away as the AIRTC taught me invaluable skills to help me through not only my AIRTC career, but through life in general, and I really put my whole life into my training and my betterment as a person.
Kim (2nd from left, 2nd row)
I transferred schools half way in between year 12 as Norm was still picking on me, but by that stage, I had learnt to turn a blind eye to it, yet it was having a detrimental effect on my studies, so I decided to eliminate the bull shit and go to a school where I could put my mind to study, not having any other outside factors to distract me. When I transferred to Grant High, I had no problem adjusting, as my reputation had preceded me, due to the fact that I used to hang around the wrong crowd at Mount (Norms group, before Norm). Therefore, I had no problem with anyone picking on me or anything like that and was able to continue my secondary and AIRTC study in peace.
Whilst at Grant High, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful Contemporary World History teacher by the name of Chris Collins, who allowed me to look into the Vietnam War as my major assignment for the subject. This allowed me to also do some soul searching, because I was curious as to what type of background I was from. I must admit that it effected me in a way I never thought it would. I found myself putting a lot of time into the project and trying to learn as much as I possibly could about this wonderful country that was ravaged by war time and time again. This was the country of my birth…….this was Vietnam.
Now, with a little more maturity and the knowledge and training instilled within from the AIRTC, I was able to evaluate the situation from both a civilian and military viewpoint, but by combining both trains of thought, I found myself getting emotional about the whole situation. Until I began the subject, I hadn’t really put a lot of thought into my origins. In fact, I hadn’t had any inclination to even look, feeling that I was Australian, and that was all there was to it.
However, during my research, I found myself being drawn into a vortex of feelings and emotions as if they had been lying dormant waiting for the right time to surface. Maybe I had to reach a stage in self evolution to enable me to deal with the issues coming to the fore without becoming a gibbering, emotional wreck? Perhaps, perhaps not, whatever – that point is open to conjecture. I found myself beginning to question my whole life until that point. Questions formed in my mind as if they just materialised out of nowhere:-
WHERE AM I FROM?
WHAT IS MY PURPOSE FOR BEING?
WHO AM I?
Many times I found myself going over scenario by scenario as to my specific origins. I became acutely aware of the struggle that my “Vietnamese” ancestors had endured to repel “foreign” invasion over the passing of time since the day dot. The Chinese, Thais, Cambodians, French, Americans and a number of other invaders had all been repelled by my ancestors resisting overwhelming odds. I began to feel a pride within myself. Naturally, the past is the past and will forever remain part of history, yet one cannot deny the spirit of a people such as the Vietnamese who have retained their homeland through centuries of warfare and at great human cost to them. Although I have never stepped on Vietnamese soil, I began to envision myself as being descendant from a race of warriors who fought for what they believed in and felt very proud, yet very sad and angry for the lives lost for that cause. Of course, no adoptee from a similar situation could ever forget that for the very fact that they were orphaned as a result and adopted in the first instance.
As for the second question, I had to do a lot of soul searching to even try and grasp the concept of what my whole purpose of being was, and the AIRTC played a large part in my earlier perceptions of what I was put on this Earth, under this situation, for. Regularly, we would go on weekend camps, or bivouacs, and if we were proficient enough, we would get the chance to go on promotion courses. Most of the training was based around management principles, combined with a broad military education, learning basic field tactics and skills, weapons drill, which involved working theory and practical knowledge of the SLR L1A1 Rifle, which was the weapon used by the Australian soldiers in Vietnam. I felt at home, as if I was born for the military life, as if I was born to be a warrior, to fight, and, possibly die for something I believe in. Nothing could make me happier than using stealth to sneak up on someone in another Flights base camp, even if it took a few hours to get a couple of hundred meters, then proceed to engage that person in conversation, whilst removing their weapon and taking it back to our own base camp without them realising we were even from the enemy base camp, only to realise it in the morning with a swift kick up the arse from their Section Commander! I felt as one with the bush and a rifle, as if it were my destiny, as if I was here to fight for everything that is right against everything that is wrong in this world.
The third question is an ever elusive one and, not unlike a good book, I seem to have twists and turns, plots and subplots, adventure, romance, sensitivity, basic animal instincts oozing in and out of my persona and thus makes it very hard to pin point a definitive answer as to who I actually am. I can only speculate, as everyone will perceive me differently, depending on their own individuality. However, I saw myself as being a young man trying to struggle with inner turmoil as I attempted to answer these questions. To this day, I still have not found a satisfactory answer.
After year 12, a peaceful era of my life began and I have been relatively fortunate enough to have had minimal racist issues to deal with, hence my adult life had begun and I embraced it with open arms. A lot of changes occurred within me. I relocated to Adelaide to study an Associate Diploma of Business and two major events occurred in the two years there.
Firstly, the move gave Dom and myself a chance to really get to know eachother, as adoptees, as friends, as brothers. We had some really great and in depth, intellectual conversations regarding Vietnam, the causes, effects, economics, politics, and so on and so forth. Eventually, however, we came to the same conclusion that the war, when joined by the Americans became a very costly and pointless war, due to the fact the very fear the Americans installed in their countrymen of the “Domino Theory” was not realised, even thought the “Communists” won! What a FUCKING WASTE!!!! We also came to the conclusion that both of us were looking for the same thing, yet differing in perspective. That was someone to talk to who actually knew what it was like to be in our situation and going through a similar identity crisis as we were. Of course, we had the occasional disagreements, yet, through it all, came out better people for the experience.
Secondly, I was able to get the chance to visit America for about two weeks and a highlight of my trip was going to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, with the changing of the guard, as well as the famous Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington. Both of these locations are steeped in history, however, I couldn’t help feeling something…….?! Tragic as the reality is, and there seemed to be an unspoken silence, especially along the length of the wall from one end to another, I couldn’t help but think that for every name on that wall, there were 20 to 30 Vietnamese people dead. Not just soldiers, whose names appeared on that wall, but civilians. My view was that, as soldiers, it was in their job description, by it’s very nature, that death may result in the course of duty, yet the civilians killed by these soldiers need to be considered too. They need to have a tomb for the UNKNOWN CIVILIANS OF VIETNAM! I was overwhelmed by an emotional force that almost sent me staggering to my knees as I mourned not the soldiers on the wall, rather the mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, children, and all other civilians that I would never get to meet as a result, be it direct or indirect, of the actions of these soldiers! It was not their job to fight and die, rather survive pressure from both sides in an unconventional war that will remain in my heart forevermore………….
I am now in my 28th year of life, and have made some decisions regarding my future and present happiness. I have moved to the Blue Mountains in NSW and work in the CBD. I am content with life as it presents itself, and am finally getting past any past misgivings. Growing up in contemporary Australian society as an adoptee from a war torn country, and as a result of that very war, has been for me, quite an experience. I have made friends, foes, and acquaintances. I have got out of the small town that was keeping me stuck between a rock and a hard place and am now making a life for myself. Sometimes I still sit and wonder what the answers to those questions are, but do not dwell on it, for I know that one day I will find the answer. I was once brash and wanted the answers instantaneously, yet now I am wiser for I am older and know the answers will come to me and I will be waiting………………..
Kim Nguyen Edgar is one of many orphaned babies who traveled to a land of opportunity and who found a new life with an adopted family. This is one of many stories about the growth of one such baby from infant to adulthood, and the challenges faced by this particular boy as he faced life to grow into a man.
The first time I watched Daughter from Danang by filmmakers Dolgin and Franco, I was so happy to finally see a film being made about a Vietnamese adoptee. To my relief as well as great sadness, Heidi’s story was proof that there were others out there whose lives had followed a similar path to mine. I could identify with her growing up in the south within an all-white family and trying to blend. Memories began to surface of my own attempts to cover and pass hoping others would forget and allow me to forget my origins.
At the time of my first viewing, I was in a different place and more naive about adoption, the war and my own story. The beginning of the film came as a shock as it brought into question things I’d heard about Operation Babylift. I remember feeling disgusted as I watched a social worker solicit Vietnamese parents for their children saying that it would be “better for everyone”.
“I am not taking them away from you. I’ll send them to good families,” coaxes an American volunteer social worker.
Did the parents she might have repeated this to understand what a contradictory, presumptuous statement she was making?
“I asked her, if she didn’t give me any papers, how could I find my child in the future?” said Heidi’s mother, “She said when the Americans came back, I would have my child again.”
How many of them thought they would have their children returned to them once “the danger” had passed? How many held onto hopes that they’d be able to join their children in the US? The stories of the families left behind seem largely untold. The glimpses we have been offered so far seem to be mostly from within the general context of the war. As far as I know, there has never been a comprehensive report or study done that concentrated on the family unit itself and the individuals within.
As the film progressed, focus became increasingly concentrated on Heidi’s negative reactions to the unexpected “culture clash” she experienced. Naturally, it became increasingly difficult to keep my own bias from affecting my interpretation of the film. To my surprise, I began to have negative feelings towards Heidi despite knowing I was in no place to pass judgment.
In one scene, she was sitting on a bench in front of the camera complaining about constantly being touched. I didn’t know what to make of it. To me, it made sense but to Heidi, it was overwhelming and suffocating. By the time Heidi’s distress reached it peak over her half-brother’s request for financial assistance for their mother, I felt something close to disgust at Heidi’s behavior.
I still don’t know why I felt this way. In her place, I might have had similar reactions, but what exactly was Heidi’s “place” at the time the film was being made?” We are given the expected biographical information on Heidi; country of origin, Vietnam War, Operation Babylift, childhood and adulthood, events leading up to her reunion. We are even allowed a few insights into her mind by way of a few blurbs on her thoughts as a Vietnamese adoptee. What it doesn’t emphasize is how terribly isolated Heidi really was before and during the making of the film.
It wasn’t until I read the Choys’ piece in Outsider’s Within that I began thinking about it again. In talking to other adoptees, I discovered that my initial responses weren’t all that unusual. The general consensus seemed to be that there was definitely something wrong with the film though opinions varied as to the specifics.
The second time around, it was pretty much the same as I’d remembered except that this time, I considered things that hadn’t occurred to me before. I still thought it started off well, though like the Choys, I again noted a shift in the film’s tone and focus.
What began as a critical look at Operation Babylift quickly deteriorated into a bombardment of emotions resulting from an East/West “culture clash.” One becomes in danger of being swept away right along with any previous attempts at critical thought. By the end of the film, some part of me also wishes Heidi had not gone back to Vietnam at least not under the circumstances in which she’d gone.
She was without having prior contact with other adoptees and the benefit hearing their experiences might have offered. She ran headlong into her reunion with her Vietnamese family with little more than her own expectations. I say this not as a criticism of Heidi, but to emphasize that what we’re seeing in the documentary cannot be simplified down to a result of “culture shock.” While that is a reality for many of us as transethnic adoptees, it is still only a small part of a much larger picture. Though the film does take the time to clue us in on Heidi’s search for unconditional love, it soon gets lost in the east vs. west framing.
Romanticizing our reunion with our original families is something I think we all do no matter how much we attempt to equip ourselves. The resulting disillusionment on top of an already stressful situation can be devastating. I can agree that it is nearly impossible to fully prepare oneself or someone else for many of the things we encounter as adoptees. Uncertainty and the unexpected are things with which many of us become very familiar at a young age, but it seems Heidi had not been equipped with even the most basic of tools.
The film is falsely considered an “adoptee narrative” which can make the viewer forget that Heidi is treated as more the subject of the film than the speaker. The filmmakers keep themselves behind the camera to re-enforce the illusion. We hear the words coming from Heidi’s mouth, see her moving from place to place yet what we hear and see is still in control of the editors of the film.
During the documentary, Tran Tuong Nhu who served as translator/guide says, “With Heidi, there was no way of really telling her what she was going to come up against. And I don’t know if it was my job to tell her all of this, I mean I was trying desperately to teach her to say hello to her mother. I tried to warn her about how things were different in Vietnam.”
Again, I agree there is no way to fully prepare anyone, but Heidi’s apparent obliviousness makes me wonder if any real attempts had been made at all. If there were, the documentary fails to show us more than snippets of a language lesson given literally on the fly. For many of us, it would seem common sense that her family might request financial assistance, but Heidi seemed so fixated on her “dream” that it caught her completely off guard.
As for whether it was her job to help prepare Heidi, who knows? I think it should be kept in mind however that Heidi was without a support system of any kind which left her reliant upon her translator for both practical as well as moral support. Imagine yourself alone in an almost completely alien environment with your only link to the familiar being your traveling companions. Who would you pick as your new best friends? That gives an incredible amount of influence and maybe even responsibility to both the filmmakers and Mrs. Nhu.
Perhaps another clue into Heidi’s attachment could be found in what follows, “She gave me this: ‘I have to leave. I have to get out of here. I’m gonna’ go back with you.’ I was going to go home a little early. I tried to comfort her, and I said to her: ‘listen, if you stay, after a few days things will become much less pressurized for you.’”
She was losing the closest thing she had for support and understanding and her link between her two selves. Who wouldn’t want to leave such a strange situation and return to the only support system one had? Is it possible that Heidi somehow felt abandoned by the one person on which she’d come to rely? She was clearly under stress and feeling the need to escape, yet Mrs. Nhu encouraged her to stay. In the following scenes we see Heidi break down before she finally implodes.
The filmmakers want to appear as the non-interfering observers of it all, yet we are reminded of their presence when at the height of Heidi’s distress she says, “Take me away from here.” Who is she addressing and can they not see that Heidi is calling out for help? At this point, her lack of control over the situation becomes even more pronounced. I couldn’t help but feel that Heidi had somehow been set up. If not intentionally, then certainly out of ignorance.
In their contribution to Outsider’s Within, the Choy’s point out that Dolgin and Franco had “virtually no familiarity with international or transracial adoption” yet Daughter From Danang is often referred to as being a “sensitive” portrayal. Being truly sensitive to another’s situation and conveying that to an audience requires at least some knowledge of that situation and sympathy beyond one’s own motives. At times, I’m tempted to conclude that initially, Mrs. Nhu and the filmmakers were so intent upon documenting a happy ending that everything else gets shoved into the background.
All that being said I do take into account the times in which Daughter from Danang was produced. Much less was known or even considered regarding the Vietnamese adoptee perspective and many of us were barely beginning to speak out about our experiences. Just two years prior to the release of the film, the emergence of the Vietnamese adoptee community was marked by the establishment of The Vietnamese Adoptee Network in the US and the launching of Adopted Vietnamese International in Australia.
Since then, many of us have “come into our own” and have begun to tell our own stories. It seems only natural that the documentation of our histories as adoptees should follow suit and make room for our independent voices. We have already been bombarded by the voices of others as they build their reputations and sometimes their incomes based upon our stories. In the meantime, are we supposed to sit back and smile feeling grateful that we were mentioned at all? Once in a while, we are even allowed to speak yet even then, only if what we have to say fits within a framework created by someone who’s not an adoptee.
I think it’s time we step away from documentaries like Precious Cargo and Daughter from Danang as they are outdated and treat us more as subjects and/or victims rather than narrators. As the work of Vietnamese adoptees like Indigo Willing and Dominique Golding illustrate, we are capable of speaking for ourselves as thinking adults. For those who would claim to support the Vietnamese adoptee community, what better way to show that than to support our right to speak as individuals rather than as decoration for someone else’s scrapbook?