My name is Jeffrey Nguyen and I was born in Vietnam in 1973 and FedExed to America in 1975. My Vietnamese name was Vu Tien Nguyen, which basically indicated to the baggage handlers (volunteer nurses, aid workers and army staff) that I was Vietnamese and male. I have no concrete memories of Vietnam; the official story was that I was left with no return address at the An Lac orphanage in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) when I was a day old. There were no birth certificates to verify who my parents were and during the hectic days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army, U.S. officials scrambled to verify (forge) records of the babies being airlifted to the U.S. in an operation termed, wait for it…Operation Babylift. I have been told that An Lac means happy place in Vietnamese but since I don’t speak the language and currently have no Vietnamese friends, I cannot verify this translation. For all I know, An Lac could mean the orphanage at the end of the universe. I wouldn’t necessarily describe my stay at An Lac as happy, more like ambivalent; the orphanage was run by Madame Ngai, a wealthy woman who fled the North and stayed in Saigon to take care of the orphans during the war.
Little did my new German-American family know that even though I arrived strapped into a C-130 cargo plane at Ft. Benning, GA, with nothing but the clothes on my back, I had a lifetime of emotional baggage stowed away in the overhead compartment. For most of my younger life, I avoided thinking or talking about my Vietnamese past. For me, it was a source of blind alleys and dead end streets. But my internal struggles were really a crisis of identity, because I did not understand where I came from, I did not know who I was and I certainly had no clue where I was going. This was a recipe for alienation and angst that few in my life at the time could comprehend or relate to. I remember going out to eat with my mother, sister and grandparents and seeing the host clearly baffled as to how I fit in to the Eckert-Behmer party of five. The look on people’s faces when my blue eyed, blonde haired sister introduced me as her brother: priceless. But it was my own insecurities that led to me deny who I was for a long time. I instinctively knew that the Vietnam War was still an open wound for many Americans, and I could feel the cold stares and silent blame from some. “But I lost family in the war too!” my rational self wanted to cry out to my perceived accusers but instead I withdrew and detached from the part of me filled with tension and stress so I could be more like my fellow Americans.
To this end, I got good grades and was the stereotypical, good Asian student at least until high school. If people asked my background or nationality, I began to make it up; my go-to identity was Native American, specifically Seminole, since I knew a little about the tribe from living in Florida. When I met a Cherokee girl in PA, I was Cherokee and when I met other people, sometimes I was Hawaiian. If people told me what they thought I was first, I sometimes would just go along and agree with them. My wife was convinced I was Eskimo when we met. Underlying this deception was an acute case of self-loathing. As I traversed the stages of grief for being abandoned as a child, I spent many long nights at the denial terminal. I learned that one of the first Babylift flights crashed in a rice paddy after takeoff and 134 people died. This added another layer to my damaged psyche. I now was not only angry about being left by my birth parents, but also felt guilty for surviving it. I could not hear the people who tried to tell me that my birth mother gave me up out of love and concern for my future well being. I could not feel grateful that I survived when others did not. Most of all, time was not healing all wounds and my spirit was curled up in the proverbial fetal position, not wanting to give up completely but afraid to live.
There were a series of fortunate events that helped me to finally begin the healing process, which is still ongoing. Perhaps, I’m getting closer to the final draft of me. In 2000, I attended a reunion of Vietnamese adoptees who were mostly in their twenties, like myself, and heard their stories and related to their struggles. Like an addict who’d found his support group, I felt like I was finally finding my way home. I met other adoptees from An Lac and other Vietnamese orphanages as well as many mixed race adoptees that were clearly not pure Vietnamese; some were black, white, brown, it was a veritable rainbow convention. Part of the government narrative told to me was that orphans and especially mixed race babies were considered outcasts in Vietnamese society. At 5’ 10” and 199.99 pounds, I’m fairly certain I won’t be mistaken for a Vietnamese thoroughbred anytime soon. Another important milestone was having kids of my own. It was no longer just about coming to grips with my past but also about giving them their past. I became determined to tell them what little I could about their Vietnamese heritage and to instill a sense of pride in their Vietnameseness, that I had lacked. I will leave others to debate the political facets of the war; readers of my blog know that I’m especially fond of Monsanto’s contribution to the war efforts. Here, I’ve tried to avoid steering the discourse in that direction in hopes that others reading this with similar experiences may find some measure of solace or kinship. In the end, I think we can agree the war brought few victors and left many holding the short end of the fairness stick.
This post appeared as a guest post at O hi, Asia!