VN Adoptee – UK
Also read Safi’s 35th Anniversary reflections page.
An Adopted Vietnamese Story
by Safi Thi-Kim Dub
The Vietnam War 1965 – 1975. A ten year war fought between the North, (Communists) and the South, (aided by USA and Allies).
One of the aftermaths of that War, were the thousands of Vietnamese orphans that were left behind. I was one of them.
My name is Safi Thi-Kim Felce and I was born in Vietnam during the year of 1974. This is my story of the year I spent in Vietnam, my adoption, how I felt growing up in England and my return to the country of my birth.
My Year in Vietnam
From what I have found out and have pieced together, I was born in the village of Ba Xuyen (Soc Trang) in the South, which is in the vast Mekong Delta. I do not know of my biological parents or family and any reasons as to why I was abandoned, but on the 6th May 1974 I was placed at Khanh Hung Orphanage and looked after by Nuns. (Sisters of Providence).
Unfortunately in those days, no records were kept and no questions asked as to why a baby was left and who that baby belonged to. In order to identify us, the Nuns gave us the date we arrived as our birth date, named us after the care workers and provided us with a false ‘mothers name’ to issue a release certificate.
My nursery name was Bach Thi-Kim Cuong and I now celebrate my birthday as the 6th May, although I now know that I was probably born at the end of April as the majority of babies were only a few weeks old!
I was very malnourished and underweight so I was transferred to New Haven Nursery which was better equipped for such poor babies. New Haven was in the heart of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and it was here where an American Nun, Susan MacDonald took over my care. There were many orphans at New Haven, around 100 from Newborn to nine months. I stayed here until I finally gained weight and then was transferred to To AM Nursery, which was for older children. It is here where I learnt to crawl.
While all of this was happening, luckily for me, a young couple back in England, Colin and Diane Felce were finalising the arrangements for adopting me. They already had a two year old adopted Vietnamese son and were now wanting a daughter. So of course, unbeknown to me I was being prepared for my long flight to meet my new adoptive parents.
Saigon was about to fall and it was time to leave. At that time, the biggest plane in the world the Galaxy C5A had just flown in and was unloading its cargo. President Gerald Ford had ordered for the plane to evacuate as many orphans as possible. “Operation Babylift” it was called. So, on April 4th 1975 I boarded the giant Galaxy C5-A, flight SN 68-218, along with hundreds of other babies and care workers. This was going to be our ticket to our new lives elsewhere.
Tragically, this was to be an ill fated trip. Soon after take off from Tan Son Nhut Airport, the plane crashed in a rice field. Many of the babies and care workers were killed outright. I was lucky. I was placed on the upper deck in the troop compartment, and survived. Although, due to my extensive injuries, I was taken to the Intensive Care Unit of the Saigon Adventist Hospital. I had sustained a fracture to my skull and broke both my hips. Years later, I found out I had minimal brain damage due to the lack of oxygen on board. As soon as I began to recover I was then transferred to the Pediactrics Unit on the 22nd April where a Dr. Weismann put me in a body cast.
I was then medivaced out of Saigon accompanied by Sr. Susan MacDonald, first to Clark Air Force Base in the Phillippines and then to Travis in California. I then flew to Denver, Colorado where I stayed at the life Care Centre for a few days. I was given another nursery name, Elaine after another of the Sisters who kindly took care of me. It is also here where I caught chicken pox, causing another delay to my flight home.
Finally the time had come when I could leave. You could say that in my first year, it was certainly traumatic! I departed Denver on the 20th June 1975 for Heathrow Airport where an excited Felce family were waiting to meet me. My parents renamed me, Safi Thi-Kim Felce. I had a new brother, Paul and two new people who I could call Mum and Dad! So this is how I came to England and to a place where I could finally call HOME
Growing up in England
Northampton was to be my new town and home. I soon settled in and started to bond with my family. When I was old enough to understand, mum and dad told me that I was adopted and I accepted it. I never had a problem with my parents. I love them just as they are my biological parents.
I grew up quite happily like any other child. It wasn’t until I started middle school at the age of nine that I realised that I was different and more over looked different to everyone else. It was around that age that I grew more aware of my ethnic background and suddenly wanted to know more. My brother and I were the only Vietnamese at school. It is here where I found it hard to fit in, I felt like an outsider and I didn’t belong. I also experienced my first racial comments, which made me feel even worse.
It was not until I started upper school that I began to realise that I was not on my own and there were others just like me. I had made friends with a couple of other Vietnamese people and soon learnt that they had come over by boat and were rebuilding their lives in Northampton. So much so that quite a big Vietnamese community had started up. They were interested in me just as much as I was in them. I was soon known as the Vietnamese girl who couldn’t speak the language.
Through getting to know others, I soon began to learn about the culture, their religion and was desperate to speak their language. This made me even more determined to go back to the country of my birth and it eventually became one of my ambitions in life. The other was to have children, ‘someone’ of my own blood and which belonged to me.
I suppose I was quite a mixed up and confused child. I needed a sense of belonging somewhere and I needed to find out who I really was. In my heart I knew I was Safi Thi-Kim Felce, but at the back of my mind was my insecurity of who abandoned me and why. I felt “torn between two cultures”. I know my life was here in England but I tried to imagine what my life would have been, had I remained in Vietnam.
When I was eighteen, I received a letter from Sr. Susan MacDonald who I have always kept in touch with. She was holding a small reunion for the children from the same orphanage as me. This was my opportunity to meet other adoptees and with whom I can share the same feelings with. It turned out to be quite an experience. I came back with friends who I will always have that common bond with and hopefully keep in touch with for the rest of my life. I suppose being young I was also quite naïve as I was hoping that Sr. Susan would shed more of a light on things about my past. I later realised that she didn’t know any more than I did.
I had this dream that when I turned eighteen there would be a knock at my door saying that my biological parents had been found. How wrong I was! My mum and dad showed me my release certificate which had a ‘mother’s name’ on it. They told me at the time that it was false. I suppose I was hoping that they would be wrong. It wasn’t until my return to Vietnam that I found out from the sisters at the orphanage that they were right. That really hurt because it shattered any hope that I had, had.
My interest in my past became so much that I had this desire to marry a Vietnamese. Maybe because I felt it would help me, I don’t know. Anyway, my marriage didn’t work out, so after five years we decided to separate. I think it was partly to do with the differences in our cultures and our opinions always clashed. Two good things that came out of it were my children, Julian and Tia. This was something I had always dreamed of, to have children of my own ‘blood’. In time I will explain to them the different ways on how we both came from Vietnam and why we had to leave. I hope one day they will find our stories interesting and perhaps will be passed down to the next generation.
MY RETURN TO VIETNAM
During the month of December 1996, I returned back to Vietnam. This trip was like a dream come true and it all started like this :-
I got a phone call from a woman working on behalf of Yorkshire Television. She had got my name from one of my friends in America. Anyway she explained that they wanted to do a documentary on adopted Vietnamese orphans and they were going to film three of going back in search of our roots. So to cut along story short, I was leaving for Vietnam and I was absolutely thrilled. You couldn’t imagine how excited I was. All expenses paid by YTV. This trip I had for so long imagined doing, was to become reality.
Our main destination was for Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I also found out that I was going to visit Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta, as this was supposedly where I was born. So on December 4th we left Birmingham Airport, first destination, Paris. It was to be a very long flight in all with another stop in Bangkok, Thailand and then finally to Vietnam. At least though, I had the chance to collect my thoughts and ponder over my many feelings I was having.
Although we were flying through the night, I couldn’t sleep due to my excitement of it all. I kept thinking that it’s only a few more hours and I would finally be there! Believe it or not, just as we were about to touch down I had this horrible vision of panic going through customs. I imagined soldiers standing there with machine guns waiting to stop anyone that looked suspicious…. Oh well, back to reality.
The time had come when it was finally touch down at Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon. We were the last ones off so that the film crew could capture our faces as we stepped onto Vietnamese soil. I felt quite strange. It was almost surreal. I had this lump in my throat but couldn’t shed any tears. It took ages to get out of passport control and of course, nothing like I had imagined!
The first thing I noticed was the amount of traffic, mainly motorbikes and cyclos. It was certainly an eye opener. It took half an hour to get to our hotel and my, what a picture. We were to stay in the Saigon Prince hotel which was beyond five star, more like a palace and which was situated in a street full of beggars and in such a poor district. It was unbelievable.
Due to filming and our schedules, I didn’t get enough time to see the places I would have liked. That was irrelevant though. I just couldn’t believe I was there. It took a while for it all to sink in. Being based in Saigon, I got to visit most of the city. I looked up New Haven Nursery but it was somebody’s house now so instead I had my picture taken outside. It amazed me how many beggars there were and one street would look okay and the next in ruins.
For some strange reason, I felt that I somehow didn’t quite fit in. I thought I would, looking the ‘part’ and all. I know I was with a film crew most of the time but even when I went out on my own in the traditional costume, I got stared and shouted at. Maybe I looked totally foreign to them, I don’t know. I was probably being paranoid aswell.
One of the main reasons for my return was to visit the crash site. It was something that I felt I had to do. It was quite an emotional time but I needed to pay my respects to those that died and to ‘lay the ghost’. A small shrine had been erected from a piece of the aircraft in memory. At one point whilst I was there, a plane flew over right on cue and I found that quite eerie. The whole area was so beautiful and peaceful. Homes had been built around. Back in 1975 it was just paddy fields. I met one of the families who took care of the shrine and kept it looking nice and they told me that the Vietnamese are very superstitious and believe that it is important to pray for the dead otherwise the spirits will haunt them and bring them bad luck.
I think one of the visions that will always be in my mind, was the boat trip on the Mekong River. I couldn’t believe how vastly expansive it was. It was one of the most scenic places I have ever seen and will never forget. Sadly, as we got further into the Mekong, I began to realise just how people were living. Their houses were made from sticks, their living conditions appalling, children bathing in the dirty water. Suddenly the things I took for granted seemed more appealing than ever. I suppose it was quite a shock for me. I remember thinking, that this would probably have been me had I stayed. I would have been working in the paddy field all day and then coming back to this.
At Khanh Hung Orphanage in Soc Trang where I was at as a baby, I met one of the Sisters who signed my release certificate. I had many questions to ask her but she seemed very standoffish and didn’t give me any of the answers I was hoping for. I knew my papers were incorrect but she couldn’t give me any explanation as to why she had made up a mothers name instead of putting unknown. I questioned her as to why she didn’t think of the future and that those children would return some day hurt, angry and disappointed like myself. I left feeling emotionally drained.
In conclusion, although my trip back was an emotional one, it was definitely worth it. I have now achieved what I set out to do. Who knows, maybe I will go back someday!
Safi Thi-Kim Dub, England
AVI is incredibly grateful to Safi for sharing her story here and her positive energy she’s shared with the community.