In order for me to write this letter, I must envision what it must have been like to be you as a young girl in 1977: twenty years old and living in South Florida, newly immigrated from Vietnam with your parents and two sisters, employed at a fishing lure manufacturer and taking English classes at night. I must try to imagine your unease in what must have felt like very alien surroundings, your youthful vulnerability, your desire to fit in and connect, and your tendency as a young Vietnamese woman to lean into the support and wisdom of your family, especially considering all the uncertainty of your new life here in the States. I was able to come to this point only after calling the adoption agency in search of you.
As I write this letter now, I am thirty-eight, which would make you fifty-nine or sixty. I live in Seattle, work for an arts nonprofit, and play the piano when I can find the time. I have a roommate so I can pay down my credit cards faster and perhaps save for a trip overseas one day. Romantic relationships have been infrequent, scattered between bouts of depression, anxiety, and an off-and-on alcohol dependency that dragged well into adulthood. Thankfully, I have friends and hobbies that keep me from completely drowning.
When I entered my adult years, my interest in Vietnamese culture and history became more pronounced despite – or perhaps in response to – having spent my childhood in an environment devoid of any Vietnamese context. I took a Vietnamese language course in college and read books about Vietnam’s dynastic history, books about The War from the Vietnamese perspective, scholarly discourses on popular variety shows like Paris by Night, and of course, an English translation of the epic national poem Truyện Kiều. I attended Tết celebrations and sat through Buddhist services spoken completely in Vietnamese. One year, I traveled out of town to see Lynda Trang Đài perform to an enthusiastic Vietnamese American crowd. These attempts at blending in were propelled by a fundamental human need to seek for and hold onto the knowledge of my origins.
I subject myself to such experiences in order to feel a greater sense of belonging, to feel more than just a bit player in someone else’s cultural narrative. With each step forward in learning about Vietnam and its diasporic communities, I eagerly await some ineffable consciousness deep within me to spark a spiritual and transcendental connection, to be woven seamlessly into the fabric of…something. Yet, so very often, it is an endeavor fraught with more disappointment than hope. All of these cultural experiences which, if they were in the framework of a typical Vietnamese background, would have solidified my existence as a Vietnamese person. Instead, they frequently serve more as reminders that I am merely a cultural tourist, an outsider who struggles just to have others understand my clumsy attempts at pronouncing “Hẹn gặp lại”.
“I subject myself to such experiences in order to feel a greater sense of belonging, to feel more than just a bit player in someone else’s cultural narrative.”
Around my thirtieth birthday, I asked Catholic Charities of Central Florida, the organization that facilitated my adoption, to search for my birthparents, i.e. you. For a fee, they would try to locate your current whereabouts and, once found, inquire if you wished to be reunited with me. It took only one day for the case worker to conclude that you were un-locatable. My disappointment must have been palpable from the other end of the phone line. Perhaps that is why the case worker decided to read random bits of my adoption file to me – they are legally restricted from providing any names. Maybe she felt some compassion for my situation and believed I should know as much as possible.
She told me that you had set up most of the adoption arrangements on your own, but when it came time to meet, your parents, sister, and cousin were present. Although there was a strong language barrier, your father – my grandfather – did most of the talking during the intake interview. The paperwork revealed that the reason for my relinquishment was due to the fact that, when you realized you were pregnant with me, my birthfather admitted to being already married to someone else. It was said that a profound “disgrace” would fall upon the family if anyone found out about me.
I could sense the case worker scanning the interview transcript for something else substantial she could share with me. She mentioned you and my father had been living together before all of this happened. I urged her to read on, whatever she could, but all she said was, “I don’t know, all I can see here is that the word ‘disgrace’ is mentioned over and over.” Even as my head was reeling from shock, all the feelings I had harbored up until then finally started to make sense.
“Birthmother was 21 years old at the time of your birth. She was 5 feet and weighed 92 lbs. She enjoyed sewing and going to the movies.”
At one adoptee support group meeting, I recounted this story to a few women who had also given up their children for adoption. They empathized with pained familiarity and assured me that you were most certainly traumatized from the ordeal and that you still think about me and miss me, probably every day. I cling to those words, even as I have read and heard of many instances where searching adoptee children are rejected by their birthmothers, perhaps directly because of the associated trauma that is triggered by the adoptee’s presence.
“Birthfather was 25 years old. He was 5’6’’ with broad shoulders and a muscular build. He had black hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion. He went to aviation school in Vietnam and wanted to become an electrician.”
As time stretches on, I try to get used to the fact that I may never meet you again. I try to appreciate my life and, as Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches, to make use of my suffering as the earth makes use of the mud to grow lotus flowers. From this perspective, I see that my compassion for others is a direct result of the terminal separation that occurred the day you gave birth to me. I see the endless harrowing ways that the sacred bond between mother and child has been violently severed throughout history: through the oppressive stigma of illegitimacy passed down from Victorian society, to American slavery where family members were routinely and indiscriminately auctioned off separately, to compulsory boarding schools for “re-educating” Native children, to the dubious archetypes of “broken homes” that more or less punish communities of color for being poor and remove so many children from their homes and communities only to be placed into an overburdened foster care system. I realize my mourning is not and never will be mine alone. This sense of compassion carries me through the nights of emptiness and gives the pain its reason for being.
With that said, I will not stop reading books about Vietnamese history and culture. I will not stop attending Vietnamese American events where I don’t quite fit in. I will not stop dreaming of finally finding you. One day soon, I will travel to Vietnam and wonder how close I am to where you were born.