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COLUMN ONE : Vietnam's Castoffs Come Home : At least 30,000 Amerasians are casualties of America's national ambiguity about the war. Many end up in Little Saigon, looking for threads from the past.

AMERASIANS IN AMERICA: Dianne Klein This Week in View. * Tuesday: Jim Stewart--Searching for the children he left behind. * Thursday: Trang Nguyen--The joy of finding a father who accepts her. * July 7: Bang Quoc Nguyen--The pain of rejection from a father he's never known.

June 30, 1991|DIANNE KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — Her mother sent her here, she says, fidgeting a little, breaking into a grin, not quite sure if happiness is called for or not.

People around her are speaking in English, a language that she recognizes only for its incomprehensible sounds. When she speaks, her words are in Vietnamese.

Thu-Ha Le has been in Little Saigon a week. She was born in Bien-hoa, on the outskirts of that other Saigon, the one that no longer officially exists. It was the Year of the Chicken, 22 years ago on Christmas Day. This makes Thu-Ha proud.

Here in America, she knows that Christmas is a big day.

"My mother told me to come and find my father," she says. "She says that finding my father will mean that I will have a better future."

Then Thu-Ha pauses, looking down. Her father is a black American, just a story from the war. Her mother is Vietnamese. The mosaic of cultures shows on Thu-Ha's face and in her walk. She says her father was an engineer.

"I'm afraid to find him," she says, more softly now. "I think he might have a family and not want me."

The flash of sadness, however, soon fades. Her smile, reflex mixed with trust, lifts her eyes once again. Thu-Ha says she will search for her father nonetheless--because it is her mother's will. There is hope, she says. She knows her father's name.

It is John. Nothing else.

Mary Payne Nguyen, at the end of a very long week, sighs loudly, making a face. She has heard this too many times before.

She is coordinator of Amerasian services at St. Anselm's Immigrant and Refugee Community Center, one of 48 so-called cluster sites across the nation where volunteers and near-volunteers work against time and odds to acculturate the often-unwanted offspring of an unpopular war.

The Amerasians--at least 30,000, maybe more--are casualties of America's national ambiguity about Vietnam.

Never in the history of U.S. warfare has the nation undertaken such a mammoth effort to own up to fathering so many. But the effort took 13 years.

The Amerasians are too old for childhood now but not quite old enough to understand exactly why it passed them by. Derided as "half-breeds" in Vietnam, beaten down by discrimination and hate, they arrive here with the expectation that their American blood will quickly restore a future denied.

It is cruelly untrue.

Since the Amerasian Homecoming Act took effect in March of 1988, more than 12,000 Amerasians have entered the United States from Vietnam, three times as many as had arrived since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The State Department estimates that up to 20,000 more--accompanied by 60,000 Vietnamese family members--will arrive by the end of next year.

Thousands of them are expected to settle eventually in and around Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community in the United States. So far this year, more than 600 have registered for help at St. Anselm's, and that number is expected to double, at least, by the end of this year.

And the story, perhaps not quite as dramatic as in Little Saigon, is much the same throughout the rest of the nation as well.

A few studies about what this means, in human terms, have already been completed; others are under way. The key phrase seems always to be that the Amerasians are "at high risk"--for drugs, dependency and despair.

They've grown up feeling abandoned by their fathers and, at best, neglected by Vietnamese society at large. In America, they feel out of place too.

They all need education. They need jobs. They need fathers, and sometimes mothers as well. They need their childhoods restored and, failing that, they need luck.

Yet they show an amazing capacity to survive. And to forgive.

"There is no way to harden yourself to this," Mary Nguyen says. "There is just no way. I come home emotionally battered every night. . . . What we need is a group home, someplace where they could all live and learn. Except that they are too old for that."

Almost all of the Amerasians hope to be reunited with their fathers someday. They want to see how they look, how they move, and maybe connect with something inside them that will make them whole.

Odds are that maybe 1% will ever get that chance.

Dai Nguyen, 19, clings to a letter that his mother, Kim Lan Nguyen, pressed into his hand moments before he stepped on the plane that took him from her and Vietnam. They were both in tears.

Dai kept his promise and did not open the letter until he reached his father's land. It tells him everything that his mother knows about his American father--a man that his mother married--and includes two photographs of his father's friend, her English teacher in Kien-hoa province.

"To Nguyen Kim Lan," the back of one snapshot reads. "A very good student and fine human being." The date is Oct. 11, 1969.

Dai, who has been in Little Saigon a month, says his mother burned anything connected with her husband within hours of the Communist victory in Vietnam. Keeping the material would have been too much of a risk; already, their lives were very hard.

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