Archive for March, 2008

Ghost Mother

by sume

*Má didn’t exist
before my fourteenth birthday.

Unable to accept that my blood
flowed in another direction,

my American mother never spoke of Việt Nam,

but the maternal compass
that had first mapped my veins
left markers that kept Sài Gòn
firmly imprinted in the corner of my eye.

Forgive me, Má, for letting over thirty years pass
before I lit incense for your ngày gió.

I have nothing of substance
to entice her back among the living,
only my words as I rewrite her

into existence

Ghost mother…imaginary mother…elusive mother

There were times when I’d picture Má as a spirit watching over me. A faceless apparition made of vapor and a child’s imagination, Má was a source of comfort and mystery. As I grew older, I remade her several times adding details; long dark hair and eyes like my own. Still, despite my vivid imagination, Má refused to reveal herself in her entirety. Perhaps I wasn’t nearly as creative as I’d thought.

Not knowing anything about my Vietnamese parents or the circumstance under which I’d been adopted left too much room for speculation. Confused and disturbed by so many unknowns, I sought to fill in the blanks. Just as I’d created and re-created Má, I wove intricate scenarios for my adoption.

Born January 1st, 1970, I was adopted and arrived in the US in July. My parents divorced in September of the same year. I don’t think I consciously associated the events at the time. All I knew was that I seemed to have a problem with losing parents and didn’t understand why. Because Má was such a mystery, I fluctuated between longing for her and being angry with her depending on whether I thought she’d died or abandoned me.

I’ve yet to explore why I put so much emphasis on Má and thought so little of Ba. Perhaps it was because my mom provided a constant reminder or maybe it was a manifestation of the traditional gender roles I’d learned. There is also the possibility that it was because as a daughter, I simply wanted to know my mother. Besides, fathers were inconstant beings that came and went every other weekends and holidays. Further still, some part of me feels that Má was just easier. Ba may not have been Ba at all, but Dad, 爸爸 or even 아빠 .

According to my dad, my foster mother lived in Cho Lon, and he’d had gotten the impression that I’d been born there. How he had gotten the impression that I had been born in Sài Gòn’s Chinese district is still not clear. Given Dad’s habit of revising of my adoption story, I can’t be sure of anything. He’s honed re-writing my history, including stories of Má into a fine art – mistress, wife, prostitute, dead, probably dead, possibly alive, unknown.

Ghost mother…voiceless mother…unreal mother

I wonder if she ever pictured me growing up in her mind. Did she see my face in other children, other daughters? If Má’s alive, does she consider me as a ghost child? The thought of someone stripping away my substance feels demeaning, dehumanizing. I am here. I am real. I’m alive.

But Má and I have no way of knowing that about the other, do we? Some part of me knows I must except the possibility she tried her best to put me out of her mind. War and poverty can make people stretch their principles to the breaking point. Like my veteran adoptive father, perhaps she too, just wanted to forget the past – and me along with it. I understand this. I accept this. Experience has taught me that possibilities can become a burden of truth.

In the end, it’s only for Má to say. Therein lies my dilemma as I “rewrite her into existence.” Dad and I are both guilty of creating and re-creating Má at our own convenience. For dad, she was a tool for manipulation. For me, she was both a refuge and a whipping post for my rage. But Má is just Má, and I don’t know who that is. What that means for me is that I must be willing to accept without passing judgment that all things are possible.

I can’t judge on a possibility or even a probability. Who am I to judge anyway?

Chapter four of Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book, “growing girls” is entitled “meeting the ghost-mother.” After assessing the seeming malnourished condition of her newly adopted daughter, Laskas questions the treatment Sasha received at her orphanage. She goes on to write that she tried “to sympathize, to understand the ghost-mother and all the ghost nannies,” but that “forgiveness was so far away now.”

Laskas later goes on to describe Sasha’s lack of responsiveness. She then expresses her feelings about there being “something wrong” with “our baby” going so far as to place blame on “those monsters.” Who are the “monsters” she refers to? The ghost-nannies? The ghost mother? China as a society?

Surprisingly, I can sympathize with Laskas – not with her sentiments but with her seeming need to ask, “How could you let this happen?” I posed similar questions when thinking about my own situation, “What have you done? How could you?” But exactly who was I asking and upon whom could I rightfully place the blame? I sought to forgive Má, but who said I was in a position to forgive anyone?

That’s the convenient thing about ghost people. Without substance, without an independent voice, they become whatever we need them to be. We can read stories of others in similar situations. We may even understand their circumstances on a personal level, but the results will more than likely be the same. Without all the things that make them equal in their humanity, they become little more than amorphous puppets.

We don’t even have to feel guilty about it because without substance, they aren’t real.

Ghost mother…my mother…Má

I can never rewrite or remake my mother as the person she was or might have become. The best I can do is place emphasis on the significance of her existence, hushing the voices of those who would presume to speak for her. The inner one is the hardest to quiet. It’s the voice of longing – the need to have my questions answered, to know Má, to understand her, to love and be loved by her.

*The wisps of smoke hang suspended
before an alter that’s still craving a face.
The empty picture frame holds nothing
but questions and laminated adoption documents

The need to fill a void can be overwhelming when dealing with so many significant unknowns. It has stretched my imagination to its limits, but I refuse to repeat the mistake Dad and I previously made. The emptiness isn’t for me or anyone to fill. It’s a space reserved only for Má no matter what that may mean.

*exerpts from The Feast of First Mourning.

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This is a lengthy article, so I’m just going to post a few excerpts.

Hundreds of other families in North Carolina and around the country are discovering that it’s no longer so easy to take in the world’s neediest children.

adj. need·i·er, need·i·est
1. Being in need; impoverished. See Synonyms at poor.
2. Wanting or needing affection, attention, or reassurance, especially to an excessive degree.

Just as international adoption has become a mainstream way to build a family — helped by celebrity adoptions such as those of Angelina Jolie, who has children from Cambodia and Ethiopia — the practice is in crisis. Allegations of baby-selling haunt some countries, and some say international adoption’s popularity may be creating a worldwide backlash.

What would any article on international adoption be without a plug for Angelina Jolie?

Those awaiting Vietnamese children are facing months-long delays as the U.S. government investigates each case. The government is threatening to deny some adoptions because investigators can’t get the children’s hospital records.

In the meantime, families who have invested as much as $20,000 or $30,000 are wondering whether they will ever see the children they hope to adopt.

That is such a bad choice of words.

“It seemed like a good thing to do in the world,” said Zuercher, 36. “There are these kids out there that need love, that need families. We thought, if we could give that, what a great thing that would be for them and for us.”

With that sentiment came an added benefit: International adoption was generally easier than domestic, which often requires foster parenting or years on a waiting list. Until recently, applicants to foreign countries frequently had their children before their first birthdays.

Ahhh, altruism at its dreamiest, but only for foreign babies.

Stern, who runs the Mandala agency, said she believes corruption exists only in a tiny portion of cases. While investigations drag on, she said, children suffer. In the past month, Stern said, six babies set to be adopted by Americans died when a virus swept a Vietnamese orphanage.

Isn’t that a bit like asking Bill about the glitches in Windows Vista? Upon what exactly is Stern basing her opinions? Yes, it’s awful about the babies, but imagine what kind of medical care $20,000 or $30,000 might have gotten them.

“Lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes center stage,” UNICEF states in a position paper on its Web site. “Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents and bribery.”

However, among U.S. adopters, those allegations have gained little traction. They focus on the benefits.

Wait. If I were an AP/PAP, I’d be offended by that. Doesn’t “the sale and abduction of children” refer to child trafficking and kidnapping? Is she suggesting that adoptive parents don’t care about the possibility that their child might have been kidnapped and/or sold illegally on the adoption market? Exactly what benefits is she talking about and for whom?

Foreign orphans come with scant chance that a birth parent will attempt to reclaim the child or seek a reunion. And some say that foreign-born children, relinquished most often because of poverty, are less likely than U.S. orphans to come from mothers with substance abuse problems. Without adoption, many foreign orphans face a future without governments that will save them from starvation or ensure medical care.

Again, imagine what $20,000 or $30,000 might have gotten them. But I keep forgetting. We’re talking about selective altruism and charity.

My point is that attempting to use poverty and “what’s best for the child” as counterbalances against being vigilant about ethics in adoption is not necessarily a good idea. I think articles like these do very little for portraying international adoption as a good thing. It might have been better if the article had focused more on APs/PAPs who are aware of the issues and are working towards ensuring that international adoption doesn’t become a home for the baby market.

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I’m very excited and pleased to announce the opening of Misplaced Baggage:


The first of its kind, Misplaced Baggage is the collaborative effort of three Vietnamese adult adoptees from diverse backgrounds. We were brought together through our interest in contributing to the Vietnamese adoptee community. Noticing a lack of critical representation, we came together to offer an alternate perspective on Vietnamese adoptee history and experience.

The title Misplaced Baggage is the brainchild of Anh Ðào Kolbe. Although it may hold a different meaning for each of us, collectively it represents our transient existence and the uncertainty through which we navigate.

For anyone who doesn’t know by now, it’s been a dream of mine to find and work with other Vietnamese adoptee bloggers. Being able to work with two people I can both admire and respect, Anh Ðào Kolbe (welcome to blogosphere!) and Kevin Minh Allen makes this all the more meaningful. Each of us share many parallels yet bring something different to the table because of our individual talents, diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

I think it’s the beginning of great things to come!

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This photo is one of my first memories of another Vietnamese…Viet Namese…face other than my own. I can’t remember where I saw it, maybe on television or in a newspaper. I must have been seven or eight years old. I can’t remember what I thought when I saw it. I’m not sure I thought anything. He was a stranger.

I had no memories of my birth country, only a strange longing for something I couldn’t define.There were the smells; scents that whispered in a language that I couldn’t quite understand. The feelings of nostalgia would hit me unexpectedly, like some random flashback; sandalwood, lemon, certain spices, the automotive department at Sears (?!).

I left Saigon…Sai Gon before my mind’s eye had fully opened, its lens still unfocused. The war was not yet over but I was too busy being a child to notice. What did I care of war? It wasn’t until later that I learned about the war, about Ho Chi Minh, Viet Cong and still later My Lai. When I’d asked, “who won” an adoptive family member replied, “we did”. Who was “we”? Who was I? And why the lie?

The 1970’s American version of the war in Vietnam…Viet Nam was the only one available. I was saturated with it and breathed it in where it stuck to my insides like sticky soot. The old war stories became part of my memories. Sometimes, I overheard them talking on the streets or in the cafe. “The ugly little bastards were tricky. They could melt into the environment, burrow down like tunnel rats…yeah…tricky little shits.” Some forgot to distinguish between north and south.

Later on, Rambo was the hero of the day. He’d supposedly killed lots of Vietnamese…Viet Namese. I applauded in the theatre, then cried myself to sleep at home. In 1989, Michael J Fox taught me about the Casualties of War and gave me a hint of what “we” did to “them”. I asked, “Did we do things like this to them?” “No, we went there to save them,” said the educators. The war had been a perpetual dancer through my veins though its meaning was as lost to me as light to the eyes of the dead strewn among the fields of My Lai… Me Lie.

It was a different time, now covered over with memorials, anniversaries, trade agreements and diplomacy. The country I knew…never knew is gone. When people talk about history…my history, I think, “My history is here…buried there.”

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Taken from:

Christopher R, Hill, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Statement before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
March 12, 2008


Another challenge to our bilateral relationship is inter-country adoptions. Hundreds of caring Americans parents have adopted children from Vietnam since the United States and Vietnam resumed processing inter-country adoptions in 2006. This renewed interest has put great pressure on a Vietnamese social and governmental infrastructure that, in our evaluation, simply has been unable to respond adequately. We have observed a disturbing trend of fraud and illegal activity in recent months that threatens the integrity of the program by denying birth parents their rights and placing the lives of infants at risk. Our goal is to work closely with the Vietnamese government and other interested parties to reform the international adoption process in Vietnam while facilitating cases that meet the requirements of Vietnamese and U.S. law and regulations.

We have raised these concerns at high levels with Vietnam and urged their government to accede to the Hague Convention on Adoptions. We have offered technical assistance to develop the institutions that would enable them to become compliant with safeguards in the Hague Convention. Our goal is to work with Vietnam to fix the system, so that we can process adoptions from Vietnam while ensuring the protection of the children, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents.

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