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A Belonging of Looks - An Adoptee Returns to Vietnam

By Julie Hessler

Vietnamese Adoptee Visits Vietnam

When Holly Wells saw the ad for the 25th anniversary tour to Vietnam for children adopted in the orphan airlifts, she knew she was finally going: "I knew I was going to do everything to go on that trip, even though it was just two months away."

Twice before, Wells, an adoption social worker at Children's Home Society of Minnesota, had made plans to travel to her birth country, but they had fallen through. As time passed, she says, her longing to travel to Vietnam intensified. Now the time was right. Wells' parents were unable to accompany her on the tour, so she decided to go alone. "I wanted to go to Vietnam at 21," she says, "but at 25 I needed to go." This feeling of urgency helped push her to quickly get the shots and paperwork necessary to travel to Vietnam. In April, Wells and 14 other adoptees returned to Vietnam for a two-week tour, the first time any of them had returned to Vietnam since they were adopted near the war's end in 1975.

Friends for All Children (FFAC) in Denver, Colorado organized their tour. FFAC and other adoption agencies, including CHSM, airlifted nearly 2,700 orphans out of Vietnam. On April 14, 1975, Wells arrived from Saigon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where her new family met her. Wells was one of the youngest children on her airlift: "The name written on my wrist and leg band didn't match the name on my paperwork, which said I was four months old," she says. "Later on a doctor told my parents that I was probably closer to two months."

Wells wore a similar wristband when she landed at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). As the plane descended into Vietnam, each tour member was given a wristband with his or her birth name written on it. "I couldn't believe that it was finally happening," says Wells. "I was nervous, anxious, excited-all of us were talking to each other as the plane landed. I started crying and wished that my parents were on the trip. I couldn't believe that this was really Vietnam.I was just in amazement that I was here, and I was so happy."

After passing through customs, Wells and the other tour members looked out at the Vietnamese people waiting for arrivals outside the airport. "There were so many people looking at us, and I kept thinking that one of these people could be related to me. I had never seen that many Asians.I felt like I belonged here-not that I don't belong in the U.S.-but more of a belonging of the way I look. I didn't have to say anything; I fit in."

The possibility of discovering someone or something related to her past was heightened the first night Wells was in Vietnam. She says, "Several of the FFAC caretakers were reunited with many of the adoptees, and the caretakers recognized them!" Wells was thrilled to watch these reunions take place and she photographed some of the adoptees with their caregivers.

Later on, Wells visited what she describes as "the province of her paperwork" and met Sister Sylvie, the woman who had signed the adoption paperwork that came with Wells to the U.S. They had their photo taken together. But given the discrepancies between the name on her wrist and ankle bands and the name on the paperwork, Wells is not convinced that she really is from this province, so her connection to the Sister is uncertain.

Meeting Sister Sylvie proved painful for Wells. "Not until a few days later did it sink in that I wouldn't experience this kind of reunion with a caregiver, like the adoptees from FFAC," she says. "It was very difficult to finally face the fact that I may not ever know who took care of me when I was a baby and where I was from. I've always been very up front about my adoption, but facing this head on was really hard to take. I was crying uncontrollably. I realized this was something that I needed to face and I needed to grieve that loss in my life."

Despite this pain, Wells believes that her trip was highly rewarding and full of realizations. "Before I left," she says, "I was nervous. I worried how I would react in Vietnam and I wondered if I would feel unhappy with my adoption and my life. During my trip I realized that I'm very happy with the person I am. A certain portion of me was opened up that I didn't find until I traveled to Vietnam."

Though Wells did not discover much concrete information about her past in Vietnam, she has since made some discoveries in the U.S. She recently contacted a woman now living in the U.S. who had worked as a caretaker in her orphanage. And at the end of June Wells will travel to Denver to meet Cherie Clark, director of International Mission of Hope, who was responsible for organizing Wells' own airlift and many others.

Wells emphasizes that her story is personal and that every family's story will be unique. But she does offer advice to adoptive families. When she was growing up, events such as culture camps, tours and programs for adoptees were simply not available to families. "It's important for adoptive parents to realize why those resources are available now," she says. "Connections to other adoptees on a day-to-day basis are crucial." She urges adoptive parents "to take advantage of traveling to the birth country, meeting caregivers and directly experiencing the culture for themselves," if possible.

She also encourages adoptees to make similar journeys to their birth countries, but believes that personal timing is essential: "If you were feeling lost and didn't know who you were, it could be really difficult. I needed the time to grow and know myself beforehand to fully appreciate Vietnam." Wells is happy that she chose to make her first visit to Vietnam with other adoptees that understood the many emotions she experienced during the tour.

Throughout her trip, Wells' family was in her thoughts: "I have a wonderful family. I was thinking of them the whole time. Even though I was born in Vietnam, it's my family who has shaped me into what I have become. For me to be able to go over to Vietnam by myself shows how much support I have at home. My family is a part of me and always will be."

Julie Hessler is the editor of Heart to Home and the Vietnam Adoption Coordinator at Children's Home Society of Minnesota. "A Belonging of Looks" was published in Heart to Home, July/August 2000. Heart to Home is a bi-monthly publication of Children's Home Society of Minnesota.