Special thanks to Anh Ðào for her contribution. From the day I learned of her hike across Việt Nam, she’s had my admiration. A talented photographer, she shared much of her trek with rich, poignant photos. Girl’s a powerhouse of talent and spirit. Go Anh Ðào!
In Search of Lan Bui Thi, the Orchid Dust Girl
I genuinely wonder if I would be understood better if I hadn’t been robbed of my native tongue. I wonder what kind of thoughts would pour out. I wonder if I would see the world through my almond eyes very differently. I wonder what words would leave my mouth. And even more, I wonder if more of the world would sit up and listen.
As a transracial/transnational adoptee, we are forever trying to find our mother tongue; our true voice. So what would I say first if I woke up one day and out came Việt Namese? Would I be seen differently or the same me with just a foreign voice?
I was born somewhere outside Sài Gòn, Việt Nam in the 1970s. My passport which is Việt Namese does not belong to me and has a foto of me when I was six. I still cannot make the connection of why such an old picture of me exists on my allocated Việt Namese passport, when I came over when I was eighteen months. It just doesn’t make sense. Somehow the dots are disconnected. When did they change the foto to one of me? What happened to the little girl on the passport who is the true owner? Who removed her foto? Who gave them that permission? What did she look like? What does she look like? In search of Lan Bui Thi. Lan meaning Orchid, Bui a typical Việt Namese last name and Thi, the extraneous word in between.
My Dearest Lan –
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of you. I wonder what you are doing right now; where are you in this world; what you are eating – are you even eating? What smells are around you; what you are looking at and even more, what you are feeling, if you even have that privilege. What luxuries am I taking for granted now that we have swapped places? Where do you sleep at night? Are you warm and save? Do you even care about these things at all? Do you feel whole or lost? Is your life simple or complex? Again, do you really care? Are you even alive?
I was born somewhere outside Sài Gòn, Việt Nam in the 1970s. My biological mother had me and left the next day from probably Tu Do Hospital. I was put into an orphanage, To Am aka Warm Nest. Months later, I find myself at An Lac, but for some reason Betty Tisdale, the Operation Babylift “Angel”, says she can’t find me on her list. HER list – does that mean I never existed? Or that all she cared about were the children of Operation Babylift? Like the rest of the world, Viet adoptees that were left before and after 1975 seem to be insignificant, though we were bought and sold just like the rest of them. Maybe I should ask her about you. Maybe you are on her list. Maybe she can reunite us – then again, maybe you are dead, like my biological mother (I do not know if this is true – it’s always been speculation that I created at a very young age). They say that’s how I got your passport. That you were just a name and I was just a face, so they paired us together with the only logic reason for doing so was that we looked the same age. But how can we look at the same age if you are faceless and I am ageless?
There is a foto that my adopted mother has of me – one of the first ones taken of me. I am being held by another child. Next to her is another child holding another baby of similar age. I can’t remember which one I am supposed to be – I think the one holding the balloon. But I wonder if that’s you. That I was the “lucky” one to leave and you were not. If we both knew what the other one had, would we have traded places? I am sorry that I haven’t written sooner – what’s my excuse? Surviving life.
So would you and I ever be friends or would our paths never cross – or would they cross and I would have no idea?
I think no matter how much love you have been given, to have your birth rights taken away from you, leaves you still craving some sense of validation in this world. I used to say that I could be in a room full of people who know, love and respect me, but still feel alone. I now truly understand why. To look at someone who has some sort of remote biological connection to you speaks volumes. To have been left behind to be rescued to be shipped off to return as an adult, yet still a child to be seriously alone to be united forever has offered me no sense of closure. Not as I thought it had or would.
When I left Việt Nam in 2003 after returning and seeing it with my adult eyes for two months, alone, I felt I had closure – that there was no need for me to be looking back over my shoulder to a life I had left behind – not by choice mind you. But there is a stirring in me and again I find myself misplaced and displaced – lost again, all over. Hopeless, craving something more – that something I my life is missing – a severed connection between past, present and future – aimlessly wondering with nothing in sight ahead of me.
I imagine you to be laughing right now – tying your long black hair back, coyish smiling at some boy you have a crush on – somewhere at some café in the sun; your almond eyes glistening. I call out your name under my breath – “Lan” – and I see you turn to see who has said your name. I can’t believe how possible that it would be for you to hear me, as I am on the other side of the world whispering your name. Are you still alive? Please tell me that you are. You are very popular and make friends easily. When you smile, the left side of your lips raise first – opposite to mine. You lack the hot under the collar temper I can’t seem to get rid of, but your passion for life is as intense as mine. The only difference is that you have ambitions and somewhere along the way mine died. And of course the biggest telling difference is that you are all imaginary, while my life is real; too real at times, that’s its vividly overwhelming. Am I allowed to get overwhelmed Lan? Or is that one only child syndrome issue I still need to work hard on shedding? Tell me, would be good friends or sworn enemies? Who’s the ying, and who’s the yang? I know you do and or did exist. I just don’t know how or where…
A fellow adoptee once said to me when I was struggling to see the point of my life, since we all survived a war we can survive life. In deconstructing this a little further, I have realized that I didn’t survive a war, I escaped it. And now I want to escape life.
Sincerely, Anh Ðào
Born outside Saigon, Vietnam, Anh Ðào Kolbe came to the United States via New York City in 1972. She left two years later and grew up with her Greek and German parents in the Middle Eastern countries of Qatar and Oman. She came back to this country via Boston, but didn’t exploit her starving artist talents until after college. At the beginning of 2003, she returned to her motherland for the first time since her adoption and backpacked solo for two months around the beautiful country with camera in hand. For a sample of her portfolio, go to www.adkfoto.com