On Choosing Viet Nam
It's a paradox.
My generation grew up with a particular televised nightmare of the Vietnam War: wounded soldiers, crippled in body and soul, coming home to an America that no longer supported them. No one was innocent; not even the young Vietnamese children who carried explosives, provided by the enemy within their own people, to unsuspecting American troops. The massacre at My Lai still churns guilt within the American belly. And who will ever forget the photograph of a running Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aged 9, with over half her body burned by the napalm dropped at the order of an American commander? With memories such as these, why would Americans want to revisit the nightmare "Vietnam", to discover her people and culture, to adopt children living in her orphanages and to bring them to an America where, by virtue of their ethnicity, they face an old and angry wound?
I was only sixteen years old when the conflict ended in April of 1975. My formative years had been shaped by a divided country, the impact of the films voicing our nation's pain, "The Deer Hunter", "Platoon", "Born on the 4th of July", was yet to come. There was an early encounter with two young men, teenagers who were recently arrived boat people, that left me feeling self-conscious and doubting any Vietnamese appreciation of the sacrifices that had been made on their behalf. And then there were the Vets: Allen, Larry, Frank, and Eric; Viet Nam veterans whom I had dated, psychiatric casualties of Southeast Asia. For me, Viet Nam was sour.
Viet Nam was not even a consideration for me then as I began the process of my second international adoption. China had served me well; my daughter Chloe had been a perfect three-and-a-half month old infant when I first held her in my arms. I naturally wanted to adopt there again, but just at that time China changed its policy requiring a second child to have special needs. I was a single mom, I had limited income, and I felt it would be unfair to Chloe to knowingly take on another child with problems that would require extra attention. After a brief stint with grief over losing China, the people, language and culture, I set my sights elsewhere; everywhere but Southeast Asia. I played with names native to different cultures to see how they would blend with our family: Correl, from the Marshall Islands, where I quickly learned single parents aren't even considered for adoption; Mercedes, from Guatemala, but American adoption there is seen as suspicious and can be dangerous. Until one day my friend Chris, mother of two Chinese daughters, asked me, "Why do you just keep skipping over Viet Nam? It has everything you want.." Just what did I want, anyway? I wanted a healthy, female, infant of Asian descent to give her sister ethnic continuity. Simple enough. Viet Nam did indeed have everything I wanted for my second child, but first I had to have a change of attitude regarding that old and angry wound.
As I walked that proverbial mile in Vietnamese shoes, the sour taste lingering from so long ago was replaced by something more interesting and palatable. Those teenage boys, instead of bullies, became focused into who they actually were: frightened young men who had managed to leave Viet Nam intact, who were having to adjust and adapt to a new culture and language and people. I thought about my former Vietnamese college students and began to appreciate anew their efforts to live in America, as Americans, as speakers of English. There was Mr. Nguyen, who had been a middle-school teacher in Viet Nam, but had become a janitor to put himself through the community college printing program. And there was David, with a speech impediment that just wouldn't wrap around the English language, who was so very lonely and longing for his fiance back in Danang. The lovely Lan, gentle and quiet, devoured every worksheet I could give her in the Writing Lab. I read about Vietnamese history and culture, the tenacity of the Vietnamese people, the beauty and mystery of the land. I watched "Indochine" and "Scent of Green Papaya": anything about Viet Nam that I could rent or check out of the library. Suddenly, the whole prospect of going to Viet Nam became exciting and fresh. I joined the adopt-parents-Viet Nam list serve on the Internet, and read early issues of Destination: Viet Nam. The adoption process took off for me at that point; my wait for Nguyen Lan Phuong, now called Robin, was one of the shortest ever: From dossier-to-Viet Nam until travel-to-Viet Nam: sixty-five days.
When my cousin and I traveled to Hanoi, I was afraid not of the adoption, nor the poverty, only how the Vietnamese people would feel about me. I knew I had been profoundly changed in my attitude, but I had little idea how they felt about us, as Americans, coming to adopt their children. I rather expected some of them to despise me, or to laugh at me: the butt of a joke. It was nothing like that. As we landed on the tarmac, I was amazed at the mist, the colors; every one of my senses was aroused by what seemed surrealistic. Old town Hanoi, two thousand years old, was never silent, everyone smiled and just moved along assuredly because this was their "ordinary". When we drove to Phu Tho City for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony, I had a chance to delight in the beautiful landscape, speckled with a green for which we have no name here in America, the water buffalo carrying children, women standing up to their knees in the water of the rice paddies. The government official who conducted my adoption hearing was serious and firm, thorough in his questions about the life I was about to provide for little Lan Phuong. He wanted to know if I, a college instructor, had studied Viet Nam. Would I teach my daughter the culture and language of her birth?
Later my heart would ache for the tiny woman, so very, very old, as she sat on the sidewalk outside the restaurant we frequented selling little handmade toys cut and shaped from old soda cans. There was the little bottomless toddler who urinated in the gutter with no alarm, no worry, just in a hurry to get back to his game. The employees of the Claudia always smiled, bounced babies while their parents ate, treated us to shopping sprees, a tour of the city, an evening at the water puppet theatre. There was the great worried laughter shared by a small crowd at the zoo as we watched an elephant, straining at her wooden picket fence, when she accepted in her trunk the branch held out to her lifting with it the little boy who was too afraid to let go. And there was the young man, fourteen years old, homeless and selling postcards by the lake for his income, who spoke to us daily, and who ran off when I asked him why he wasn't in school. The next day he found us again, and explained in very good English that he wasn't in school because he couldn't pay for it. And finally, there was the face of my daughter's birthmother -- beautiful, anguished, resigned, as she handed to me, a single, white woman from America, the gift of "our" daughter. These were the images that have created the Viet Nam I now love. I asked about the conflict. They say that they can forgive, but will never forget.They are survivors, and they gracefully encouraged my help in changing the life of one tiny child.
I recently took my daughters to an evening service at the New Life Vietnamese Baptist Church. Being the only Caucasion in the building, I was amazed at my total comfort; how complete is the transformation of my attitude, how well healed is my old and angry wound. Adoption in Viet Nam is worthy of serious consideration and should be encouraged. Through the adoption of our children, through our inevitable interest and study, we gain possession of a salve that can ease discomfort about the conflict, an understanding of the losses on both sides. Through travel to Viet Nam we can walk amongst those who will show us the true face of their humanity. We may now embrace the very culture that once mystified and belied us. Choosing Viet Nam is a life altering experience, one which will enlighten and enrich, one which will provide healing and hope.
© Caroline Daniel
Caroline F. Daniel, MA, is the single mother of Chloe, adopted 7/95, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, PRC, and to Robin, adopted 12/97, Phu Tho City/Province, SRV. "Carrie" loves to discuss international adoption and is happy to answer questions about the process as well as about Viet Nam Heritage Camp held in the Rockies of Colorado. She can be reached at Suxi@aol.com
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