VN Adoptee – now living in NY, USA
Joshua Woerthwein (Chiem Ngoc)
Baltimore Thoughts: Joshua Woerthwein
Mitchell. M. (2000). Adopted Vietnamese Experiences. Edited for Adopted Vietnamese International.
The weekend of April 28th-30th, 2000, I attended a reunion of the first generation of Vietnamese adoptees. It was held in Baltimore, MD, and was sponsored by Tressler Adoption Services, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and Holt International Children’s Services. Going into this reunion, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had re-visited Vietnam about 2 ½ years ago, in the fall of 1997, and didn’t know what to expect then, either. The trip back to Vietnam is a different story, though. I went back to Vietnam with no expectations on purpose; I didn’t want to set myself up for being disappointed. I remember how I felt in Vietnam, being amongst my people, being in my homeland; I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the culture, and Vietnamese nationals didn’t even believe I was born there. For all intents and purposes, I might as well have been born on American soil; I felt totally out of place. I was wondering if the reunion would have the same feel to it.
I found out about the reunion through Sister Mary Nelle Gage, a nun whom I had gone back to Vietnam with in 1997. Although I knew about the reunion for several months, I was dragging my feet in regards to registering for it. I think the main reason for my procrastinating over the reunion was an item I read about in the itinerary: a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. I’m not sure why it bothered me so much, but it did. When I was in Vietnam in 1997, Sister Mary had asked the 3 other adoptees and me on the trip what we thought about having a trip to Vietnam that had Vietnamese adoptees and Vietnam veterans on the same tour. I think my gut reaction to that question was pure disgust. I can ‘t speak for the other adoptees that were asked, but we all ended up agreeing that such a tour should never take place. And knowing that the reunion participants would be going to the Wall for a ceremony produced the same disgust-filled reaction in me.
I had originally planned on arriving Friday and leaving Saturday, before the ceremony at the Wall took place. Time drew closer and the registration deadline passed. My parents had already registered and unbeknownst to them, I hadn’t yet. About 2 weeks before the reunion, I finally registered. I waited until the last possible minute to buy my plane ticket, and decided to go to the ceremony at the Wall. As much as a part of me didn’t want to go, the other part of me wanted to.
I arrived early on Friday because I had to fly into Baltimore from Cleveland. I got there so early, I think I was one of the first adoptees there. After getting my little packet and name tag (it had our American name, our Vietnamese name, our current residence, and our baby picture), I met Roger Castillo (from Montana). He introduced me to Chris Brownlee (from Boston, MA) and we paged through some scrapbooks and we all found articles about ourselves when we were babies arriving in the U.S. I saw an old article that had my family and the Korver family featured.
And speaking of the Korver’s, Arleta Korver showed up shortly after I did…she’s from Columbus, OH, and I knew she was going, but I rarely see her. She had also been back to Vietnam, but it was about a year after I had gone back. Funny story about her: I get back from my trip in October 1997, and about 2 weeks after I’m home, I get a call from her. She started with, “Hi, my name is Arleta Korver, and you don’t know me”.
As it turns out, she was on the same plane I was on, the one that landed in the U.S. on April 6th, 1975. On the way back from JFK, my parents’ car broke down, and her family picked us up and drove us home (they lived in the neighboring county in PA at that time). 23 years later, she calls me out of the blue and we’ve been friends ever since then. Anyway, back to the reunion…
That first night was a combination of getting registered for the reunion and meeting some of the participants. My first pictures of the reunion are with Brian Hester, Nguyen Thi Ai Loan, and Tim Holtan. Brian is from Columbus…small world. Ai Loan is from the Cleveland area and lives a short distance away from me…even smaller world. If I had registered earlier, I probably would have driven to Baltimore with them. Tim is from Maryland…I met him a few (at least 5) years ago; our respective parents had “forced” us into meeting. It was like, “he’s adopted, he’s Vietnamese, you’re adopted, you’re Vietnamese, and you 2 should get together and talk”. It felt like a bad blind date.
Needless to say, Tim and I hadn’t talked since then, but it was cool seeing him again. We were all moved upstairs to the top of the Tressler building for an informal welcoming reception after everyone had arrived. The media had been present from the get-go, and were pulling select adoptees aside to do interviews. I met a flight attendant that had carried babies off the planes. I met the pilot of the C5-A cargo jet that had crashed (the survivors from that plane crash were put onto my plane)…that was pretty wild. And what was even wilder, I met Kelly Jackson (from Seattle, WA), a woman who had survived the crash, as well. It was all very intense.
I traded contact information with a handful of adoptees. It seemed like everyone became an instant friend. A large group of us ended up meeting at a restaurant in Inner Harbor later that evening for food and drinks. I think we all turned in early due to the next day’s early start, and being exhausted from being so overwhelmed.
We started the next day bright and early at 8:00AM for some breakfast together. I sat with Tim, Catherine, Kelly, Beth, Roger, Chris, and a few other people whose names I can’t recall. We moved to the church for the opening “plenary”, where a few people spoke. I lost my mom while taking seats and ended up sitting with Beth, Roger, Chris, Catherine, and Kelly. I had a hard time stopping the flood of tears while an American general who was stationed at the Ton Son Nhut recounted the day the C5-A crashed. I think that had a lot of people in tears.
After more people who had their hands in Operation Babylift had spoken, another speaker gave a small presentation on some statistics that were taken from a survey that was sent out to the adoptees before the reunion took place. Then we went around the church and introduced ourselves, where we lived, and if we had come with anyone, who they were. It was amazing to see how many adoptees there were, where they grew up, and who they had become in the past 25 years. After all those introductions, we had to move out of the church because there was a wedding taking place later. We had to eat, too.
After lunch, I went down to Inner Harbor with Beth, Heather, Emily, and Tara to take some pictures. I used it as an excuse to get away from the commotion and emotion of what had just happened, too. The fresh air was a nice break. We got back to the center just as the open forum started. There was a panel of people who were involved in Operation Babylift leading the discussion. They all told a story from their experiences during that time, and opened up the floor for questions and comments.
Some things were said during the plenary and open forum that didn’t agree with me. I’m afraid that what I’m going to say will make me sound ungrateful and will totally disrespect my parents, but they know that I love them with all my heart. I guess I should apologize in advance if I hurt anyone else’s feelings, but hey, these are my opinions, and everyone’s entitled to one. During the open forum, an adoptee stood up and said that we should all “thank God” for giving us the “opportunity to live and prosper in America”. Someone else said (maybe it was the same person) that “when God wrote [the] history” for us, he knew what he was doing.
First of all, I don’t need anyone telling me what I should do. Second of all, what a crock of shit! I don’t want any part of that type of god. Sure, everything happens for a reason, but give me a break. Some people thank god for being placed in loving, caring, compassionate homes with great parents and wonderful families (what burns me up even more is people who aren’t adopted, people who don’t even know me, telling me that I should thank God for having such a good life). That’s all fine and dandy, but that god doesn’t need my thanks.
Are the same people who are thanking god for such a wonderful life, thanking god for placing other adoptees in not-so-loving homes, the homes with abusive parents, the homes with parents who didn’t care, the homes where family-life wasn’t the American dream (American dream? More like AmeriKKKan sham), where every day was a struggle to survive? No. When something good happens, we should thank god, but when something bad happens, it’s because he’s testing us? Don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful parents. It’s just that, the reunion seemed to be focused on how thankful all the adoptees should be to god and to everyone who had their hand in getting us from damnation to salvation. But let’s be realistic: how many adoptees would stand up, in front of their parents, in front of the people who were partially responsible for bringing them over here, and tell them all that their life here sucks?
I’ve always hated it when people say to me after they find out I’m a Vietnamese adoptee, “boy, aren’t you glad you got to grow up here instead of over there?” How the hell should I know? The god I should be bowing down to and worshipping plucked me away from my mother, threw me halfway around the world, and stuck me someplace totally foreign to me. How can I and why should I be grateful for that? Grateful that I’m alive? I’m sure I’m not the only adoptee who’s had suicidal tendencies during adolescence, just as I’m sure that I’m not the only adoptee who’s still got unresolved issues from all of this…
After the discussions were over, we all broke for dinner. I went with a group of about 25 people to a restaurant called Amecci’s in Little Italy. I sat with Chris and Catherine, and spent most of the evening talking to Catherine, Karen Walker Ryan, and Judy Cornwall. Karen was a flight attendant during the Babylift, and Judy was the adoptive mother of Saul, who was also with us. After dinner, some of us headed for bed, some of us headed for a club, and some of us went to get some drinks. It was nice to unwind after such an emotionally intense day. I stayed out with Chris and Beth for a few more hours and then we all finally parted ways and went to bed…we had to be up early for the ceremony at the Wall on Sunday.
Chris, Roger, and I barely made it to the bus on time, but made a fashionably late entrance. We got to D.C. in about an hour and made our way to a small clearing above the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Some adoptees, House Representative William Delahunt (his daughter, Kara, was featured in the May 2000, issue of Reader’s Digest, with Karen Walker Ryan and Chris Brownlee), and a spokeswoman for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption all made speeches before we made our march down to the Wall.
We were all given carnations to place at the Wall…it’s hard to say what was going through my head as we made our way to the Wall. I walked arm-in-arm with Kelly Jackson, a survivor from the C5-A crash, along the path to the Wall. We stood there for a few moments looking at it, and I can’t remember if I thought it or actually said it to her: “strange…strange that one of the men on this wall could have been my father…or could have killed one of our relatives…”. As I approached the Wall to lay down my carnation, I could feel my knees give way, and all I could do was kneel down and place my hand against the cold, smooth surface of the Wall. I got up and took a few steps back, and Kelly walked forward and placed her carnation against the Wall. She walked back to me and we embraced for a few moments. I don’t think I cried that much since I met the nun in Vietnam who had signed my birth papers.
After all the adoptees had placed their carnations and the tears had subsided, we gathered for what seemed an eternity for group photos in front of the wreath that was brought to the Wall. And then we headed back to Baltimore. We gathered for a quick lunch, wrapped things up at the Tressler center, and said our good-byes. There seemed to be a mad dash to get as many names, addresses, and numbers as you could before we all went on our separate ways. I cried on my flight back to Cleveland from Baltimore.
We all arrived at the reunion total strangers, but left the reunion with dozens of new brothers and sisters. It took a war and 25 years of solitude to keep many of us apart, but it only took a weekend to bring us all together again. The bonds that were made were instantaneous and hopefully, life-long. I had never been around that many adoptees, let alone that many Vietnamese adoptees, before. It was nice being around so many people who knew. Growing up and living in the area I live in now, there’s no one around me that I can really relate to (well, now there’s one). I couldn’t even relate to the Vietnamese people in Vietnam. But being with other Vietnamese adoptees…I didn’t have to explain anything any more.
When people ask me where I’m from, I always ask them, “originally?” When people ask me what I am, I always answer them, “half-Vietnamese, half-something else.” (What kind of question is that, anyway? “What are you?”) Amongst Vietnamese adoptees, I don’t dread being asked those questions. Besides, the most common questions were “where were you born” and “have you gone back yet”. I met an adoptee that was born in the same hospital I was born in! How awesome is that? I got to share experiences of my trip back with people who have been back, and more importantly, got to share them with adoptees who haven’t gone back yet.
There’s another reunion a few weeks from now at the end of June in Colorado. I’m really looking forward to that one. A few people from the Baltimore reunion will be attending that one, so it’ll be a reunion within a reunion of sorts, for Kelly, Chris, Beth, Tia, Jared, whoever else is going from the Baltimore reunion, and me. I’m excited to see them all again, and am also looking forward to making new friends.