My Huong has kindly shared her story. The original document is here: Myhuong_story09.doc (61KB)
My Huong writes Sept 2009: “I share my story with the AVI as I feel that it is also necessary to share some of my thoughts and feelings on adoption in general, also on my reunion experience and my work at the orphanage. As I began writing I realised that I have a lot of thoughts and really it could fill a book. What I have written is rather long, but hope others will find it helpful in some way…”
My name is My Huong and the purpose of sharing my story is in the hope that it may help others in some small way.
My story is different from many because I was five years old when I left and had many memories and recollections of my mother, some relatives and events that occurred. I was never in an orphanage and was blessed to have spent the first five years of my life with relatives.
I was born in 1970 during the middle of the Vietnam War, in a village called Truong Long – Phong Dien, about 45 minutes from Can Tho. My father was an Australian soldier and my mother is Vietnamese. My parents were not married and my father returned to Australia when I was one month old. A year later my mother had a relationship with another married man whom was a Scottish engineer working in Can Tho. In 1972 my mother gave birth to a son. Life in Vietnam was difficult because of war, poverty and disease. My brother almost died from Dysentery and in 1974 both my brother and I contracted Polio.
In April 1975, the killing fields were in full swing in Cambodia where the communists had taken over, following the American desertion. The North Vietnamese Army was advancing on Saigon and the Americans had withdrawn all help for the Saigon government, leaving them to their fate. Everybody thought the same thing might happen in Vietnam as was happening in Cambodia, where all foreigners and their friends were being killed. Fortunately that did not happen. Instead, the foreign civilians were expelled and their Vietnamese friends were sent to “re-education camps”.
My mother feared for the safety of my brother and myself and after much deliberation she decided to let her children go in the hope that we would have a better future. Her decision was to change the course of my life. On 21st April 1975, with many tears my mother kissed her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son goodbye. She did not know if she would ever see them again. On the day I left I was driven to Saigon airport in an Australian embassy car and was flown to Bangkok in an RAAF Hercules. I have been told that the other people on our flight were Australians from the embassy and some Vietnamese escaping the country. We were one of the last to leave.
Nine days later, Saigon fell to the Communists. Six month’s later my mother’s house was confiscated and she was imprisoned for three months. After her release she suffered much grief. In 1978 she gave birth to her third child.
My brother and I lived with a Scottish couple who had been working and living in Vietnam and knew us as children. We were officially adopted in Canberra on 12th January 1977.
As difficult as it was for my mother it was equally as difficult for me. Leaving my mother caused great pain and it is a memory that will always be etched in my mind. Living in Australia and being adopted into in an extremely dysfunctional family added greatly to my pain. My adopted parents told me that my mother had died, but I knew this was not true. I remembered my mother well and all I longed for was to be with her. On one occasion I mentioned my mother and my adopted father got very angry. As a result I never asked him anything about her again. On a number of occasions I asked for a photograph of my mother and was always told that one day he would give them to me. I am still waiting!
My adopted parent’s (I do not want to provide names to protect their identities) had two sons who were much older than myself and who were both drug addicts. I suffered sexual abuse at the age of six from one of my adopted brothers, who committed suicide when I was thirteen years old.
When I was seven, my brother and I lived in Tanzania for a year with our adopted parent’s. There I developed a love for the African people and saw the suffering of many poor women and children. As a young child Africa impacted me greatly and I made a promise to myself that I would one-day return to Africa to help the poor.
After my time in Tanzania I returned to Australia and finished my schooling in Canberra. My adopted father usually worked away from home, so my adopted mother mostly brought me up. She showed me little love and on numerous occasions told me what a bad person my mother was. I often wanted to run away from home and wished that I could have been sent back to Vietnam. When I was 15 she died. At that time my adopted father was working in Tasmania and my brother and I were left alone having the neighbours look after us.
A few month’s after my adopted mother died I was going through a filing cabinet in the house and found several letters that my mother had written over a two year period after my brother and I had left Vietnam. I then decided to write to my mother and about a month later received a fax stating “Mother still alive and very happy to hear from you”. Contacting my mother from this point onwards became an emotional roller coaster. I received many letters over a ten-year period, but I was never sure if they were genuinely coming from my mother or not. Many letters requested that I send money and one letter stated that my mother was not alive, but I should help the family. At times receiving letters caused me great distress and I decided that it was better to forget about my mother and Vietnam. I was not emotionally ready to deal with it.
It was also at this time that I was to discover that my adopted father was actually my half-brother’s biological father and then the pieces started fitting together. I then understood why he had lived a life of lies and deception not wanting anyone to know that he had had an affair in Vietnam. Everyone thought he and his wife had so kindly decided to adopt two orphaned children. This also explained why my adopted mother constantly told me what a bad person my own mother was. It also explained why whenever I mentioned my mother or Vietnam it was shrouded in secrecy and they would get angry with me.
Although I had made a decision to forget about my mother and Vietnam, it was not possible. A day never past that I didn’t think about her. In 1999, I wrote again and received no reply. I then figured maybe it was true that she had died.
After leaving school I joined Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, for three months. There I worked with those addicted to drugs and who were prostitutes. The short time I was there I learnt what total service was about. I was not prepared to serve others whom I believed we should have been educating, to help them improve their own lives. For this reason I left the order feeling very disillusioned. Nonetheless, it was a time of growth and an experience that I will always treasure.
I then went to University and started a nursing degree. I later transferred courses and completed a degree in Health Education.
In 1999, I made the decision that it was the right time to fulfil my childhood dream of helping the poor in Africa. With hardly any money I bought a ticket and set off to Zambia, where I had been told there was much need of experienced help. I established a Non Government Organisation and within a few months had a feeding program feeding hundreds of orphaned street children every week. This expanded and eventually I opened a house for orphaned boys. On top of this I also worked for a local church on two community development projects in rural areas setting up mobile medical clinics. When I left, the project was handed over to a local church and today it is still operational under a different name.
Returning to Australia was very difficult and daily I struggled to adjust to life back in a western country. After working for a year I decided to return to university and completed a post-graduate course in counselling. This led to employment coordinating a counselling program for Drug Arm, Brisbane. There I enjoyed my work immensely and was privileged to be able to counsel those that have been sexually abused, those that are suicidal, those that feel unloved, those that are wounded and hurting, those who have turned to drugs to dull their pain. Although I loved my job, I knew my heart belonged elsewhere and that I was called to work with underprivileged children.
Early in 2004 daily I thought of returning to Vietnam, and even though I was unsure of what lay ahead I had a peace in my heart and knew that it was the right timing. I went with no expectations at all of finding my mother, but of course it was the desire of my heart.
On 7th March 2004, I began my journey to Vietnam. I invited my closest friend to go with me for moral support. The moment I landed in Vietnam I felt a great sense of joy and excitement and even though at this stage I had seen nothing of Vietnam in some strange way I knew I had arrived home and that my life was to be permanently changed. On 10th March, I caught a bus to Can Tho with my friend and was also accompanied by a translator. We then went to the house I had lived as a child. Surprisingly, after 29 years the neighbours were still there and recognised me the moment they saw me. There was so much excitement in the air that I felt overwhelmed by it all and felt very emotional. My mother was contacted and I was told to sit on a cold cement bench. Sitting there seemed like an eternity, but within ten minutes my mother arrived and we embraced each other again for the first time in 29 years. My mother wept as I held her and I just kept saying to myself, “Thank you God, thank you God.” As I embraced my mother the image of her hysterically crying the day I left Vietnam reappeared in my memory, so I tried to keep myself composed, but could not control one large tear running down my face. In many ways it all seemed surreal.
During those 29 years my mother never gave up hope that one day she would see her children again. She was desperate and had tried many times to leave Vietnam. On one occasion, she caught a refugee boat, which sank. She was fortunate enough to swim to land while others died. On another occasion she made it to Cambodia and stayed there one month, but unfortunately was unable to leave Cambodia, so returned to Vietnam. As each attempt to leave the country failed she contacted the Australian Consulate, Red Cross and other organizations in the hope that they could help her trace her children. But this too was to no avail. My mother was told that if her children cared for her then they would return to find her.
In September 2004 I returned to Vietnam for one month, where I met up with my brother, who now lives in London. He too was then reunited with our mother. He was three years old when he left Vietnam but had never desired to find our mother. Nonetheless he was happy to meet her and our relatives again and his life has also changed as a result of it.
I moved to Vietnam in December 2004 and have not left the country since then. Vietnam is very much my home and I intend to remain here. My mother lived with me for the first four years and last year returned to Can Tho to care for my niece and nephew. My grandfather is 89 years old and is still in good health. I also have many Aunts, Uncles and dozens of cousins. Over a year and a half ago I adopted a five year old boy from the orphanage I work at. My son is the joy of my life and I love him dearly.
The first year back in Vietnam, I lived in Can Tho. There I worked for an international language school and in my spare time provided free English lessons to children in my village. I also provided food and clothing to poor children and organised the gift of bicycles, and sponsored as many children as I could to attend school. I also did volunteer work at the local orphanage for disabled children. As a result of the language school in Can Tho closing down I had no option but to move to find work. As I had lived in Vung Tau in 1974, my mother suggested that we move there as she has a number of close friends living there. I have now been living in Vung Tau for almost four years. It isn’t the Vietnam that I know and I miss the village, but nonetheless have made it my home and return to the village a few times a year to visit my relatives. They too enjoy being able to come to Vung Tau for a visit as most of my relatives only know village life. I continue to support children in the village by giving bikes when I can and thanks to the assistance of some friends I currently provide school sponsorship to 40 children. I hope to be able to increase this as many children in the village do not attend school simply because they cannot afford the fee that is required.
Trung Tam Bao Tro Tre Em Vung Tau (known as an orphanage by foreigners and referred to as a centre by the local people)
Eight months ago I was asked by the director of Trung Tam Bao Tro Tre Em Vung Tau (orphanage) to represent an organisation called Pour les Enfants des Rizieres (APER). This charitable organisation was established by a Frenchman who came to adopt a baby from Trung Tam Bao Tro Tre Em in 2002. With the approval of the board in France, I accepted the role knowing that it was a full-time voluntary position. I had already been carrying out volunteer work at the centre and had assisted in some of the work being done by APER, so was already familiar with a lot of the work. Working with underprivileged and orphaned children has always been my passion and I could not have been more excited to take on such a role. We have three centres, two in Vung Tau, which between the two accommodates 150 children and a third centre in Long Hai which has just been built and will open towards the end of October.
In my job working for the centre I support families who come to adopt babies, work daily with underprivileged, orphaned and abandoned children, assist poor children in the community, oversee our sponsorship program, and oversee the work of the volunteers and a myriad of other jobs. Since being involved in this work I have seen so many lives touched, and can recount numerous stories, but would just like to share three of them.
Last year a young woman, 21 years of age, came to the centre with her baby. She asked that the centre take her baby because she could no longer take care of her child due to a life threatening heart condition that had weakened her so much and would inevitably claim her life. Since she came from a very poor family she was resigned to the fact that the only way she could help her baby was to give her up before she should die.
In January an eleven year old boy was brought to the centre by the police. His mother died when he was very young so he was left to live with an alcoholic father. In order to survive, he had no option but to sell lottery tickets which at best provided a meagre existence. His father beat him if he didn’t bring enough money home, so he ran away.
In Long Hai a little girl’s future, like so many others, held only poverty, and with no chance at receiving an education she stood little chance of improving her life. Through our sponsorship program we were able to assist her to remain with her family and receive an education.
The 21 year old woman has since had a successful heart operation, has gained weight and her health is improving daily. She now works as a waitress. The baby she gave to the centre was adopted to France, but she will be able to care for and see her three year old daughter grow up. In hospital prior to her operation, she wept with joy as did her family that someone would care enough to provide her with a life giving operation. $7000 was raised for the operation, a small price compared to the gift of life.
After coming to the centre, the boy, with tears streaming down his face, shared with us how he now feels that he belongs to a large family that cares for him and that he has many parents who love him.
The little girl from Long Hai told us how she can now go to school and that even though she comes from a poor family, she knows there are people struggling even more than she is. She hopes that when she is an adult she will be able to help poor people in the future.
There are many more happy endings to stories like these, but of course there are so many more people with tragic beginnings.
It is thanks to the generosity of so many that we are able to provide vital services to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. My hope is that this work will not only continue, but will expand as there are so many people needing our help.
One of the greatest needs I have is to set up a website for the centre. If there is anyone reading this that is able to assist in doing this, please let me know. Also, if there is anyone visiting Vietnam and you would like to do volunteer work, visit the centre or contribute to the work in any way please contact me.
Searching for a birth mother
Searching for a birth mother is by no means simple. There are many issues involved, psychologically, emotionally and financially as well as practical issues of language barriers, distance, other family member’s interference or involvement, plus just the physical exhaustion of having to deal with emotions that you never even knew existed.
From my experiences of talking to people who are searching for their birth mother, and from speaking to birth mother’s themselves who gave up their children during the war, I have one very important point that I would like to share. For someone wanting to find their biological mother this cannot be done purely from a selfish viewpoint of wanting to know one’s history, and finding some sort of closure for themselves. There must be a lot of consideration given to how it will affect the birth mother and her family. I have spoken to women here whose children have found them, then, left having nothing to do with them again, but of course feeling better within themselves because they now know their roots. Doing this leaves these women absolutely heart broken and it would be better for them if their child had never returned to see them. My heart breaks for these women.
I believe that if the motive of wanting to be reunited is done out of a heart of love, then regardless of cultural misunderstanding, there can be a positive outcome for all concerned. Not to say of course, having some cultural education is helpful. For 29 years I wanted to be back with my mother and I could have returned much earlier, but knew that I wasn’t emotionally, mentally or spiritually ready. Most importantly I did not understand before that I had to do it out of a heart of love so that the reunion would be beneficial and positive for both parties. I suggest that no one should set out to search for their biological mother (parents’) until they are at this point.
I am fortunate that I myself am a counsellor, and have spent a lot of time on self-development. I am also a Christian and know that without God I never could have made it alone without Him. I thank God for giving me the strength, courage and wisdom when I needed it and for making the reunion with my mother possible. It truly was a miraculous reunion.
Being reunited with my mother and relatives
I moved to Vietnam not taking any difficulties into consideration, purely because I knew how much I loved my mother and dreamt of nothing better than being able to live with her again. I was just so excited to have found my mother and relatives and never imagined the emotional feelings and issues I was yet to face. My thinking was proven to be naive and as much as I had always longed to be back with my mother the first year was extremely difficult.
During the years I spent working in Zambia I faced many difficult situations and daily faced poverty, but when it is your own relatives that you see suffering because of poverty it puts a slightly different light on it. When I arrived in 2004 most of my cousin’s children did not attend school, simply because they could not afford to send them. My relatives lived in the village, had dirt floor houses, few possessions and worked hard simply to eke out a meagre existence. When I arrived in Vietnam I didn’t have much myself, so was unable to help them as much as I would have liked. My brother and I discussed the problem and had to prioritize the needs of the family and for us other than caring for our mother and grandfather who was 85 at the time, providing an education for our cousins’ children was the priority.
Living with my mother, half sister, her husband and their two children at first was not easy. Firstly there were huge communication problems as I spoke no Vietnamese and my mother’s English was minimal. When discussing anything of importance we had to use a translator. The first month living with my mother I had so many unanswered questions surrounding her giving my brother and I up. All these issues required sensitivity on the part of the translator. Then there were cultural issues (that really one does not discuss family matters with someone outside of the family) and I was making my mother reveal her life and motives behind her past actions to a total stranger. The greatest issue that arose for me was one of anger towards my mother for having given me up and for her this added to her own feelings of guilt. Unexpectedly, I found myself angry, and on occasions this was expressed through physical aggression in which one day I remember throwing an ice-cream at the TV and on another occasion smashing a glass against the wall. I had never expressed anger in this way ever in my whole life. I was beginning to find that the person I claimed to love, was the very person I was blaming for my sad childhood, all because she chose to give me away, not taking into consideration that her actions at the time of giving my brother and myself up for adoption, were totally unselfish and for our own benefit and safety. Another problem I had is that I grew up being very independent, and now, I found myself being mothered and often treated as a child. In some ways I felt as though I was regressing and wanting all the love and attention I could get from my mother. She constantly went out of her way to take care of my every need and cooked for me as though she were making up for the previous 29 years in which she hadn’t been there to provide for and love me.
Everywhere I went people in the village talked about me, wanted to touch me and just stared at me. Many times I felt overwhelmed by it all and wished that the earth would open up and that I could just run away and hide. In many ways for these people it was as though I had returned from the dead. One incident that affected me greatly was when I was walking in the village near my grandfather’s house and a man stopped and spoke to me in broken English. He told me that he had worked with my father. That evening as I lay in bed in my grandfather’s house, the first house I had ever lived in, I thought about my life and cried uncontrollably like a baby.
As time passed communication between my mother and I improved to the point where we no longer needed a translator and our relationship in general improved. Even though in my mind I understood why my mother had given me up, my heart could not accept it. I made a decision that no matter what, I would not judge my mother’s previous actions and that I was to love her regardless.
Another issue that caused many arguments for me was that my mother wanted to control how I spent my money. In Vietnamese culture this is very normal as children who live with their parents hand their total salary over to them. I was not accustomed to doing this, nor was I accustomed to telling anyone where and when I would be home and what I was doing every minute of the day.
My mother had many unresolved issues of her own which she had to face head on as a result of my being there. Guilt was a huge issue for her, as well as holding resentment towards her family for not assisting her after the war. In all fairness though, all families struggled then and my Aunts and Uncles had their own large families to provide for. Now I had returned, my mother saw my brother and I assisting our relatives which at first she resented and wanted to control.
I don’t want to paint a bad picture of my mother or of our reunion. Being reunited with my mother was one of the happiest days of my life. I have now been in Vietnam almost five years and it is my home. I could wish for nothing better. I love my mother dearly and today have a very good relationship with her. She lived with me for four years, and is presently caring for my niece and nephew who live in Can Tho. I speak to her several times a week and travel to Can Tho to see her and my relatives when I have time. In two weeks my mother will be 60. She has had a difficult life, but is now being well cared for by her three children.
My grandfather is now 89. He loves me dearly, so too do my Aunts, Uncles and cousins. I am more than happy to be able to assist them in any way I can and at times I feel providing for my family is a burden, but really that is just a selfish thought. I am very blessed and live in a comfortable house, earn a very good salary for Vietnamese standards, love the work I do, have a wonderful son and am grateful for the education that I received in Australia. This has enabled me to do to the work that I do, so how could I ever complain about helping my relatives who have never received an education and work tediously every day in the rice fields just to survive.
My views on adoption
It can be debated as to whether being removed from war torn Vietnam was a good or bad thing. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. So, the fact is I was removed and placed in a foreign country and there experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained. What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in any given circumstance. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.
Being adopted for me was far from being a positive experience. My adopted mother was forced into a situation that she did not choose and as a result held much bitterness towards me because of my mother’s actions of having an affair with her husband. As an adult now understanding the situation and reflecting upon it I know that my adopted mother was basically a good person and I feel immense sorrow for her. My adopted father was an emotionless man whose actions were shrouded in secrecy and lies.
As a child I thought being adopted was the worst thing ever. This viewpoint changed in high school where I befriended someone else who had also been adopted. This friend’s mother was so kind and loving. Nonetheless, this person shared with me that even though his mother was so good to him, he still wanted to someday find his own biological mother, but wouldn’t do so until his adopted mother had died. He had a fear of hurting her. Over the last few years I have had the privilege of meeting adoptive parents who have been totally supportive and understanding of their child’s needs. Meeting these people has bought healing to my own heart, yet there is no question that adoption is rooted in loss and grief for the adopted child.
In my work I meet many families coming to adopt. One of the requirements of international adoption today is that adopted parents must try to foster some kind of connection to their child’s motherland. Regardless of this, children adopted to a foreign country will struggle to various degrees with racism, cultural loss, racial isolation and coming to terms with having a dual identity. As I was growing up in Australia, everyone said I was Vietnamese. When I lived in Africa, everyone said I looked Chinese. Now that I am living back in Vietnam everyone thinks I am either American or Russian.
I witness first hand the joy of adoptive parents when they come to collect their long awaited child. In my heart I know that their child will in time face many issues that I and so many adopted children have faced. Yet, I would much rather see these children be placed in a family that truly loves and cares for them, than have them remain at the orphanage for many years to come.
Yes, if we were to live in a perfect world there would be no need for adoption. The reality is we don’t. For my own adopted son, I will always remain one hundred percent honest with him about his background. Should he wish to someday find his birth mother, I will be the first person to assist him in doing so. Should his birth mother ever come to my door, I would be the first person to open my heart and home to her.
A final word for adopted Vietnamese
Like my own mother, most of our mothers were poor, uneducated and illiterate. During the war they did things and made decisions that otherwise they may not have done. Due to war and poverty many mothers had nowhere to turn for assistance and being unable to care for her child, giving her child to an orphanage or abandoning her child for someone else to find and care for was done in the hope of providing a better life. It was not a matter of a mother not loving or not wanting her baby, but rather a desperate act to hopefully provide her child with a better future knowing that the mother herself would be unable to do so. For adopted Vietnamese who were fathered by foreign men, there was much prejudice and racism and it was feared that these half cast children would be killed and at best treated very badly by society.
Since returning to Vietnam I have spoken to a number of women who gave up their child during the war. This is something that all of these women have had to live with, with much grief and sorrow. They could wish for nothing better than to hold their child in their arms again and be able to wipe away every tear that their child may have shed as a result of feeling unloved and unwanted by their mother.
by My Huong Le
If you would like to assist My Huong in her work with orphanages, including volunteering when you visit Vietnam please contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org