Archive for the ‘Adoption’ 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.


“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.”


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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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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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.


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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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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.


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