Vietnamese Find No Home Here in Their Fathers' Land

Date: 1991-05-28


After two years of heavy migration to the United States, more and more abandoned Vietnamese children of American servicemen have retreated here to the refugee community called Little Saigon, the final stop in a sad journey in which they have discovered that they are neither truly Vietnamese nor truly American.

With the blue eyes or the black skin of their fathers but with the language and upbringing of the land of their mothers, many of these new immigrants, who are now young adults, have been unable to find a niche in the cities and towns of America. Now, some are finding from the Vietnamese in this city, about 40 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, the same rejection that first drove them from Vietnam.

"This is their last hope, and nobody has welcomed them here, either," said Dr. Jean Carlin, a psychiatrist who has found a high level of depression among these Amerasian offspring of servicemen. "In the end it seems they really don't belong anywhere."

Officials involved in the resettlement process point out that there are many success stories among the Amerasians. But their larger story is one of rejection and disillusionment. Though many of them guardedly deny it, Dr. Carlin said, almost all the Amerasians have come to the United States not only in search of a fatherland but also of their fathers.

Some bring with them only a first name or a photograph, others an address and a history of unanswered letters. But resettlement workers say almost none now succeed in their search.

It was not until most of the Amerasians were already young adults that the United States set up a mechanism to welcome its Vietnamese children. Since the Amerasian Homecoming Act took effect in March 1989, more than 12,000 Amerasians have entered the country, three times as many as had arrived over the previous 14 years since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Pam Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Refugee Programs in the State Department, said about 10,000 Amerasians and their Vietnamese relatives were being interviewed each month in Vietnam under the program.

Ms. Lewis said that the interviews might be completed by next summer and that as many as 60,000 to 80,000 people could enter the United States under the Homecoming Act by the end of next year. Of these, she said, about one in four would be Amerasian and the others would be relatives accompanying them.

As the years have passed, the average age of the Amerasians has risen to 20, about the age of many of their fathers at the time of their birth. Some now have their own children, and under immigration rules that until recently forced them to choose between bringing a mother or a spouse, some also left behind their own Amerasian offspring, the grandchildren of Americans who served in Vietnam.

"These children are doubly orphaned," said Dr. Mark C. Johnson, a psychologist at Dartmouth who participated in the most complete study of the Amerasians. "Not only did their fathers not want them, but until now the country of their fathers didn't either."

Mary Payne Nguyen, who directs a Government-financed social services center here for Amerasians, said: "They grew up in Vietnam thinking that they were Americans and that all their problems were because of that. They get here believing that they are Americans and everything is going to be O.K. and then -- surprise -- they don't even speak the language."

One recent arrival at the center, Nguyen The My, 19 years old, said that he had always been confused about his identity but that now he was more uncertain than ever.

"In Vietnam, when they shouted behind my back or when they taunted me -- half-breed, half-breed -- I began to think that maybe I am not really Vietnamese. Maybe I am more American," he said. "I thought that some parts of me must be American, though I don't know what that means."

He said he felt more comfortable in the United States, where he could lose himself in the racial mix, but he said, "I'm not sure whether I am becoming more American or more Vietnamese."

Amerasians who arrive under the Homecoming Act are sent to scores of sites, selected cities and towns around the country. Although no count has been made, officials in the program say a growing number have begun to migrate to the Vietnamese community here.

Mrs. Nguyen said about 600 Amerasians had registered for programs at her center. About 40 percent of them had recently arrived from other parts of the country, she said. Again, Ostracism

Le Kim Dinh, a writer who lives here, said Vietnamese residents in this country often ostracized the Amerasian arrivals just as they did in Vietnam.

"The other day in a Vietnamese supermarket I saw a Vietnamese woman who looked like a peasant with an Amerasian daughter who looked strikingly Caucasian," he said. "Everyone in the supermarket, the customers, the manager, the cashiers, all stopped and stared at her. They were staring -- it was horrible -- at the poor girl. And she kept looking at the ground, like looking for a place to hide, but there was no place to hide."

Lam Minh Hung, an unemployed 23-year-old Amerasian who has been here for two years, said: "We have experienced the same isolation here that we experienced in Vietnam. Among Vietnamese-Americans, if the discrimination in Vietnam was 100, the discrimination here is about 50."

Resettlement workers say that here, as in Vietnam, it is the children of black servicemen who suffer the worst discrimination.

Nguyen Thi Phuong and Ton Nu Minh Phung, both 19, whose fathers were black men, were given up by their families when they were small girls to be cared for by a Buddhist nun.

They were raised with the knowledge that there was no place for them in Vietnamese society. And with litle schooling, few skills and almost no understanding of English, they have found themselves bewildered by an even more alien culture in America. Selling a Living Passport

In a very direct brand of rejection, some Amerasian children were sold in Vietnam to other families as a form of living passport to the United States. Once here, the counterfeit family, having obtained entry to the country, sometimes compounded the rejection by abandoning its Amerasian child.

One of these is Nguyen Dinh Dai, 19, who now lives with the faint hope that his true mother might join him from Vietnam, or that he might find his American father, whose name he thinks is Bill.

Like others who have dealt with Amerasians, Mrs. Nguyen said that while some were energetic and creative, their hardships had often resulted in troubled behavior that contributes to their rejection.

"I have to say that Amerasians in general are a difficult bunch," said Mrs. Nguyen, who has adopted 12 Amerasian children herself. "They're impolite. They're impatient. They're impetuous. They're demanding. They're pushy. They're easily angered. They're defensive. They get into fights easily. They haven't really had any good sense of moral values taught to them."

Telling a similar story in more academic language, a 1989 study by Dr. Johnson and Dr. J. Kirk Felsman of the psychiatry department at Dartmouth Medical School found Amerasians to be "at high risk for serious problems in long-term adaptation," given backgrounds that commonly included the loss of one or both parents, poverty, discrimination and little education. Problems of New Arrivals

"The majority are virtually illiterate in Vietnamese and arrive with no transferable job skills," the study found. Among its sample of 259 Amerasians, 13 percent had no formal education, as against 2 percent of full-blooded Vietnamese refugees. Eighty-five percent had less than nine years of schooling.

One of these is Bang Truc Giang, 23, who until her arrival here two years ago was one of the toughened Amerasians who gathered on the former Tu Do Street in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, selling peanuts and besieging foreign visitors with pleas for visas to the United States.

Now living with relatives in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, she works at a garment factory while she studies to be a beautician. But she still speaks almost no English, and her life remains focused within a Vietnamese community.

Miss Giang said she did not know who her American father was, and she seemed to have limited knowledge about the country that is her new home. Still she said firmly, "This is the land of my father, so it is my land."


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