Timothy J. Hoye
VN Adoptee – Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, USA
From Cribmates to Soulmates
This article was published in a magazine called “VIETNOW” in 1996
I was once an orphan. I am almost certain of that. But the airlift out of Viet Nam was so chaotic and maybe my mother just dropped me off on the front steps at Hy Vong orphanage so I could be sent away from there. The American adoption agencies panicked because there were so many infants and so little time to airlift them out of Saigon before the Communist onslaught. There had been one instance where a C-5A cargo jet was ordered to leave Saigon with 300 babies and volunteers. This enormous aircraft had no seats so children were placed in cardboard boxes to be lined up single file along the walls. The plane crashed. Even after twenty years the disaster remains a mystery. Maybe the cargo door opened because of a malfunction or perhaps the Viet Cong sabotaged the jet. How tragic it must have been for those women and children to be sucked out of the rear like a vacuum cleaner.
These visions are so real like I was a child suffocating or I was one of those individuals who sacrificed their oxygen masks to save every last infant. I long to have been on that plane telling those children: “Do not be afraid, I will give you my mask; I won’t let you fall out.” But, I can do nothing except stand in this small chapel at the Vietnamese twenty-year reunion. As an adoptee, I am grateful t have been flown on a later flight, a United 747. But on this day, we light a candle to remember those who died before us.
This year, the adoptees celebrate twenty years of life in America with those individuals who risked everything to bring them over. Today is the third day of the reunion and this memorial service reminds me how fortunate I am to be alive, especially being in the presence of some C-5A survivors. They stand in front of me, holding those white candles so tightly that the wax forms the contour of their hands. A bittersweet aroma of incense makes me sneeze and someone whispers, “God bless you!” from the back. Gazing around the chapel, I realize how fortunate I am to share these moments with people I now call brothers and sisters. They were just strangers to me at first, and as we pray, I begin to reflect upon the feelings I had during the past two days of this reunion.
After nineteen hours, five gas stations, and three potty breaks later, my family finally arrived at the reunion site in Granby, Colorado. It was the first day and I spotted two people sitting under a park gazebo. One raised his arm signaling me to join them. He had long hair and dark sunglasses and he asked me, “Are you here for the Chinese reunion?” I quickly answered, ” No, I’ve come for the Vietnamese reunion.” The other guy took a puff off his cigarette and when he laughed, smoke blew out of his nostrils. He said, “You fool, we are Vietnamese too.” For a moment I thought they were Chinese and I felt my face become warm. It is difficult for many Americans to distinguish Asian faces, but by now I thought I had known better. The three of us sat on the picnic bench and watched the other families arrive. Who were these people who had come from places so far away like I had? I could not remember them from the last reunion.
The reunion ten years ago seemed more like a vacation because I was so young and naïve. My family did all the usual tourist things like visiting Pikes Peak and going shopping. I ate a Vietnamese dish, which disgusted me and I ran around the auditorium while the parents read captions underneath photos of orphanages. Later, I constructed a lantern by gluing green and blue cellophane paper to hanger wire. An adult bored me with the traditional significance of these lanterns, but I didn’t pay very much attention because soon all us kids would parade around during some type of ceremony and show off these art projects. I was having so much fun, but my mother seemed to be crying too much. There must have been three hundred other adopted kids and we stood on the stage singing, “We are the world! We are the children! While camera flashes sounded like pushing keys on a typewriter.
I met a boy named Michael and I did not believe he was Vietnamese because of his black skin. I think we hung out together the entire trip and we went swimming all the time. We promised to write each other when it was all over, but I never heard from him again.
I looked around for Michael this time, but all these faces were unfamiliar. Nobody would ever guess we were there to embrace the Vietnamese culture. We had black skin, white skin, yellow skin and some were mixed-Asian or pure. As far as I could tell, my short height, dark skin, straight, black hair and slanty eyes made me pure Vietnamese. But if anyone else glanced closer he or she would notice one dominant feature common among all of us: Asian eyes. And behind those almond-brown pupils was a yearning to be embraced by a single group with unique experiences and one question out of thousands: Who am I supposed to be?
On the second day we tried to find answers to life-long questions. The circle appeared to be a cultural melting pot and emotions boiled. There were only fifty of us this time, and when we said our names, “Jason, Emily, Kim, Chris, Mike, Kate,” the situation seemed awkward. It was so strange to see these Asian faces and I almost expected to hear their Vietnamese names instead. My name is Ngo Van Tai. I know this because that is what the birth certificate says. However, I have never preferred to use this name. I cannot even pronounce it.
One girl was given the name “Ann” whose parents joined it with a Vietnamese name to form a combination I could not pronounce. This seemed like a caring gesture on their part in order to keep some culture within her. I became curious as to what strange combo my parents would have invented.
However, I was lucky to even have information such as a birth name. Many others did not even possess a certificate and for those who did, there was an uncertain validity to this piece of paper. After twenty years, what if I was supposed to be a Libra and not a Sagittarius because somebody chose a date just to fill in the blank? There were so many orphans; birthdays must have been like picking lottery numbers.
My knowledge of some birth information may have been the one thing distinct from the other adoptees. But take Chris, for example who was Amer-asian. He asked, “What race do I belong to? I look African, but I was born in Viet Nam and I’m American too, all because some black soldier made love to some Vietnamese woman and now, here I am.” The only other person in the circle who was black was the girl whose name I could not pronounce.
“I hate that too!” she interrupted. “Who am I supposed to hang with? I have white friends and black friends and even some Asian friends, but my mother seems to disapprove of them all.” The girl whose name I could not pronounce had run away from home five times, only to return each time because she needed money. Now, I do not believe adoptees are faced with problems of any higher degree that biological kids are, but for her it seemed like much of the hate was in frustration. “Where are my roots, and who do they come from?” she cried.
John had problems too, but what for? He looked Caucasian. He stood tall with paler skin and blond hair. “Kids in high school would call me ‘gook’ even though I was white. I guess they found out my birthplace and so they just yelled stuff,” John said.
“How did you even know you were Vietnamese then?” I asked.
“My Mom told me. But can’t you tell? It’s in the eyes.”
I nodded and so did the others because he was right. John had those black olive, oriental eyes. And what would we do had our parents not told us something about adoption? Sure, they could not give us all the answers because information like the address of a birthplace was unknown, even to them. I was raised up by American parents who taught American values and told me to play nice with friends. Exposure to any part of the Vietnamese culture was scarce during school because I grew up with American kids.
My friends and I played on the basketball team in grade school because everyone did it. Of course, I was always the shortest, but I could run fast. One time, I was in the play, “The Mikado,” where the cast needed to look Japanese. This was perfect because another boy and I did not even need make-up to look oriental. The other boy’s name was Aaron and not only was he Vietnamese, but he was the first adopted kid I ever met. One day, we were playing on the jungle gym when he asked, “Do you remember the day of your naturalization? Because I think our families met each other.”
“How do you remember that? I asked. “We were only six years old.”
“You were chewing a big wad of gum and offered me a piece. Then we both blew huge bubbles.”
Aaron was right. I had met another boy that day and I remembered him clearly because those pink bubbles popped all over our faces and into our hair. Our mothers scolded us.
The rest of the naturalization process was a blur to me, but I never forgot the reception at our house. My grandmother made a delicious cake, which resembled the American flag. She striped it with bright, red strawberries and used blue berries for the stars. She gave be a small, pewter music carousel of a girl carrying the American flag and a boy playing a drum. I twisted the cap underneath and it played, “God Bless America.” Whenever I see her gift on the mantel it reminds me of the day I became an American citizen.
I saw myself in every one of the adoptees sitting around the circle who had similar experiences as my own. None of us knew what it was like to live in a Vietnamese family and to speak the Vietnamese language with Vietnamese friends. This was a life we would never experience, but always be curious about. I was still proud to be alive in America. Those adoptees that survived the C-5A crash were especially grateful.
On the third day, we are lighting candles in the chapel to remember those who died before us. The final pray is said and now the candle must be extinguished. As I approach the altar, I notice the survivors in the front row who look frightened and helpless, so tightly huddled together. Their sobbing is telling me, “Don’t do it! Don’t blow out the candle!” as if they are afraid something terrible might happen. I hesitate, bend down, and quickly blow out the flame. A thin line of smoke rises from the wick and disintegrates into the air.
Glancing into the crowd, I find my mother sitting among the other parents. There is no greater gift in the world that a mother’s love for her child. Twenty years ago, a Saigon woman loved her child so much that she put him in the hands of fate at an orphanage, hoping that he would have a better life some place far away. He was delivered to an unknown American woman who would raise this child up as her own in the most caring manner she could. I smile at her and she winks back and I think to myself, “Thanks Mom, you’ve done a find job.”
Tonight I share a brief moment in time with my brothers and sisters. We were once cribmates and now we are soulmates and I never want this night to end. Some people are going outside to star gaze, but I will stay in for now because Mike is teaching me how to play “Sheep’s Head.” By dawn everyone is together, still awake and still laughing.
The day of farewells has arrived and every last minute is so precious. The closing ceremony ends with a song about the circle of life, which seems truly appropriate. My father cries very rarely, but as the song ends, I can see the tears well up in his eyes. These tears were shed once before when I was carried off the plane by those two nurses in their gentle arms. My tiny fingers were clasped so tightly together as if I was giving thanks for the greatest gift I would ever receive. This circle has finally come around after twenty years and I will never forget the tears I shared with this unique family.
Over in the corner I spot Jason hugging Emily, and Chris is snapping last minute photos with the girl whose name I still cannot pronounce. Suddenly, there is a soft hand on my right shoulder and as I twist around, the embrace of my mother’s hug overwhelms me. I am in such a daze. I imagine that my birth mother is standing in front of me. Her long, black hair reaches down to the middle of her back and she smiles a gentle smile. My little brothers and sisters are hanging on tightly to her white aó dài and staring up in wonder, “Who is this stranger standing before us?” The other side of the world does not seem that far-if I could only catch a plane back to Viet Nam now!
My vision is broken up by the sound of Dad’s car horn and Mom and I walk outside, hand in hand. As I climb into the car, Elton John is sing that song about the circle of life and it causes the rear view mirror to shake a bit. Slowly I shut the door and I think I will keep the window rolled down because it is such a beautiful day.