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COLUMN ONE

Raised as outcasts, living as refugees, fighting to belong

Born in wartime Vietnam, offspring of American servicemen seek an identity through U.S. citizenship.

October 10, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer
  • Randy Tran, an Amerasian whose father was a U.S. soldier and who was abandoned by his Vietnamese mother, lives in Hayward, Calif., and travels the country singing at restaurants and concert halls. "I feel like I belong nowhere," he says. Recently Tran led a group to Washington to lobby for the Ameriasian Paternity Act, which would give automatic citizenship to Ameriasians born during the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Randy Tran, an Amerasian whose father was a U.S. soldier and who was abandoned… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Randy Tran walked quickly past the majestic domes and marble statues of Capitol Hill, looking for the Cannon House Office building and the people he believed could help him.

Tran, a Vietnamese pop singer who lives in a Bay Area suburb and sleeps on a friend's couch, flew 2,900 miles to be here. He rehearsed what he wanted to say. His English was not perfect. He was afraid he would have just a few minutes to make his case.

He had a 3 p.m. appointment in the office of a Wisconsin congressman. He was not exactly sure what the congressman did, but he was certain that this was a powerful man who could help untangle a political process that had ensnared him and thousands like him.

Tran came to Washington on behalf of abandoned children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women, born during the Vietnam War and, like him, seeking citizenship in the country their fathers fought for.

Called Amerasians, many were left to grow up in the rough streets and rural rice fields of Vietnam where they stood out, looked different, were taunted as "dust of life." Most were brought to the United States 20 years ago after Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which allowed the children of American soldiers living in Vietnam to immigrate. But citizenship was not guaranteed, and today about half of the estimated 25,000 Amerasians living in the U.S. are resident aliens.

Tran lives in Hayward and travels the country crooning pop songs to Vietnamese fans at restaurants and concert halls. But he feels unsettled.

"I feel like I belong nowhere," said Tran, whose father was an African American whose name he likely will never know, but who gave him the mocha-colored skin so different from other Vietnamese.

"If I go to Little Saigon, they say, 'Are you Vietnamese? You look black.' If I go to the American community, they say, 'You're not one of us. You're Vietnamese.' "

But most wrenching for Tran is his lack of citizenship, a constant reminder of being an outsider in what he considers his fatherland.

"Our fathers served for the country, fought for freedom," Tran said. "I am not a refugee, but I am being treated as one. We are Americans."

Tran and 21 other Amerasians flew to Washington, D.C., for three days in July to lobby for the Amerasian Paternity Act. It would give Amerasians born during the Vietnam and Korean wars automatic citizenship, rather than requiring them to pass tests in English.

Most of them had never been to Washington. Some purchased their first suits for the trip. Some spoke no English at all.

Tran does not know his age. On paper he is 34, but he guesses he is closer to 37.

His mother left him in an orphanage in Da Nang when he was days old. A few years later, a woman in a nearby village adopted him to help care for her cows. She refused to let him call her "mother."

The neighbors gawked at his dark skin; the village children yanked his curly hair. At night he would dream that his hair had turned straight and that he could pour a liquid over his body to turn his face pale. He would hide behind the bamboo mat he slept on.

"They looked at us like we were wild animals, not people," Tran said.

When the Homecoming Act passed in 1988, thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to escape the Communist government used the Amerasians as a device to flee. At 17, Tran was sold to a family for three gold bars. When the family got to America, they asked Tran to leave their home. He moved in with a friend's family.

Like Tran, many Amerasians lacked the English skills, education and family connections that had helped other Vietnamese refugees assimilate. Many did not attend school in Vietnam and arrived in America illiterate. Many migrated to Vietnamese communities where they were once again shunned. Some turned to drugs or gangs.

They received eight months of government assistance, including healthcare, English lessons and some job training. But the government did not help Amerasians locate their fathers, and funding for the program ended in 1995.

In Washington, Tran and the other Amerasians crowded into a friend's house. There was Vivian Preziose from Queens, whose father brought her to the U.S. when she was 10. There was Jimmy "Nhat Tung" Miller from Seattle, who found his father a couple of years before the man died. There was Huy Duc Nguyen from Dallas, whose only clue about his father is that his last name sounds something like "Sheffer."

They mapped out their plans. Preziose passed out 435 folders containing a letter she wrote. The next day they would deliver a folder to every congressional office. They also had appointments on Capitol Hill, so they rehearsed what they would say.

Some stumbled over their words. Preziose encouraged them to speak from their hearts. Nguyen reminded them not to wear jeans. Tran advised them to speak slowly.

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