A Place to Call Home
"My journey to Vietnam and the subsequent treasures it left me with have enabled me to accept that I am Vietnamese and American."
I was sitting at a table eating with four other women this summer when a waiter came up and, while refilling my water glass, asked, "Where are you from?" I was the only one at the table who was not Caucasian and so clearly he assumed that I had to be foreign. For years I have been asked to answer such rude and intrusive questions; sometimes I oblige with the expected answer but other times I give a response which is indeed the answer, although only partially and certainly not what is expected. I chose this encounter to use the latter. "Oregon," I replied with a smile on my face. Taken aback and confused he went on to inquire further, "No. But where are you from?" he said again, only this time, to clarify his intent, gestured to the slant of my eyes. Amused and equally agitated, I said, "Oh, you mean where am I from?" Relaxing his face and smiling, relieved that I finally understood what he meant, he nodded. "I was born in Vietnam," I responded in a tone which also said, "now get away from me and leave me alone," and went back to conversing with the other women at the table.
This is a question that has haunted me for years. As a teenager in a predominantly white community, I struggled to fit in; my greatest desire was to blend in with everyone else, to go unnoticed. But the reality was that this would never happen. My olive skin, Asian eyes and Asian nose forever betrayed me, constant reminders that I was different.
In college, I was forced again to find a way to fit in. Out from under the protective blanket of my hometown where everyone knew I was adopted and did not expect me to be Vietnamese, I was faced with the paralyzing realization that like it or not, society expected me to be a member of the Asian-American community. My family, the only one I had ever known, was suddenly being questioned-both by outsiders and by myself. The question "Where are you from?" began to matter a great deal to me. Where indeed was I from? What did it mean to say I was from Vietnam when I couldn't describe the town I was born in, the people or the culture?
My junior year in college, I decided to find the answers to those questions by returning to Vietnam through a semester abroad program. Through this trip I believed that I would finally be someplace where I fit in, where I could blend into the crowd and go unnoticed. I could finally answer the question of "Where are you from?" with confidence because I would finally know; the spot on the map would finally become tangible. To my surprise and disappointment it wasn't so easy. I quickly discovered that twenty years of Western cooking, regular vaccinations and moderate sunlight had molded me into a Vietnamese of gargantuan proportions. It was as if I were the Incredible Hulk gone terribly wrong. At 5' 5", I towered over people. I found myself stooping to pass under umbrellas and signs; nothing fit-bikes were too small and my feet were too big. I feared that I would break furniture and became keenly aware of each and every one of my movements. My body rejected the food, the heat, the noise. But the stark reality that I was not Vietnamese went far beyond the physical.
The only words of Vietnamese I spoke were those that we had learned for survival during orientation in Bangkok. Time and again people approached me speaking in Vietnamese, expecting a reply and the only thing I could say in response was, "I don't speak Vietnamese" in clear and perfect English. I found myself clinging to the Vietnamese-American students who could speak the language, waiting for them to explain my "situation." After a few weeks of intensive language class I learned how to explain my predicament myself, though I still felt extremely uncomfortable speaking to people without other students around for support. It wasn't necessarily because of the responses I got when I told people, which were for the most part positive, but inside I felt inadequate and ashamed that I had lost my culture. Each time it tore at my heart, reminding me that I would never be completely Vietnamese and forced me to question, yet again, where I belonged. I had no family here (that I knew of), I didn't know the customs and did not find the sense of home that I was expecting to wrap around me the moment I arrived-nothing was familiar.
During a three-week tour of the country we had taken as a group, one of our stops was Qui Nhon, a coastal city between Danang and Nha Trang. This was my chance to return to the city in which my orphanage had been; this was my chance to find out where I had belonged once, years ago. Even though I didn't know the city at all, I felt a sense of confidence and security I hadn't felt in any of the other cities we had traveled to. In some way, I had come home; perhaps somewhere nearby I had family. It didn't matter if I would never find out who they were, it was comforting enough just to believe that they were close. I had no information on my past beyond the name of the orphanage and directress, and I had no memories of my own as I was not even a year old at the time of my adoption. Because I didn't know who could possibly be a part of my family, I felt a bond with the entire city. Because of this uncertainty about my family, I didn't want to exclude anyone on the off chance that they could be relatives. I found myself searching the faces of every person I passed on the street and in the restaurants for a familiar facial feature or gesture. A part of me was hoping that I would come across someone who looked so much like me they would have to be family. It didn't happen.
The final assignment of our program was a three-week research project which enabled us to do anything we wanted to, anywhere in the country as long as we had a mentor. I returned to Qui Nhon for my research project where I was invited to stay at a convent in the heart of the city and explore how the role of the Catholic church and, in particular, how the role of the nuns as caretakers had changed after 1975. It was during this stay that I finally felt I had found a home in Vietnam. I was neither raised Catholic nor did I know anything about religion, and yet they took me in and made me feel welcome. They accepted me as Vietnamese despite the language and cultural barriers. To them I was no longer Jessica, I was Cuc-the first time I had ever been called by my Vietnamese name. I spent my time practicing my Vietnamese, conducting interviews with parents and nuns, and teaching English to both the sisters and young boys and girls from the community. I was finally able to interact with Vietnamese people on an intimate, more personal level, quite the opposite of what I had experienced amid the chaos of Saigon. It was here that I fell in love with the country...my country.
The orphanage that I had been in no longer existed. It had been destroyed near the end of the war and had been rebuilt into a center for the disabled. We visited the new site of the convent but I felt no connection. Everything was new and it was even in a different location. Somewhat disappointed, I walked around the grounds and peeked in on the day care classes that were being held during my visit. The directress, Sister Emeliene, who had come to represent any family I might have in Vietnam, had just moved south a few weeks prior to my arrival. I could speak with her only by telephone.
The last week of my stay the nuns took me out into the countryside to a small convent just outside of Qui Nhon. We had visited several other convents during my stay and this was to be just another routine stop.
Upon arrival I was introduced to Sister Adeline, a serious yet friendly nun who appeared to be in her late fifties. The nuns I had been staying with introduced me by my Vietnamese name and explained to her that I had been an orphan at the Ghenh Rang orphanage in late 1974 and early 1975. Sister Adeline looked at me for quite some time and then, rather matter of factly, said that she knew my mother. Previously in the week, I had spoken with Sister Emeliene on the phone and she had told me that she had found my uncle in Phan Rang, only to find that she had been mistaken. I was not taking Sister Adeline's remark too seriously and remained skeptical. But she insisted she was right and set off to prove herself. She said that I reminded her so much of my mother twenty years ago-my size, gestures, and mannerisms-that there was no doubt in her mind.
All of the nuns were excited by the possibility, but I refused to let myself get caught up in the feeling. I had spent my entire life believing that my birth mother was dead and I didn't want to start believing she was alive now only to be disappointed if it wasn't true. After all, I had done fine so far without her in my life and I wasn't even sure whether I really wanted to find her. It was one thing to have fantasies and entirely different to be faced with the potential for reality.
On the morning of Wednesday, May third, just two days after visiting the convent, the bomb was dropped in my lap. They had found my birth mother and she wanted to meet me. This news came as such a shock that all I could do was cry. I had come to Vietnam to find out where I belonged, and in just a few hours I was going to be face to face with my birth mother. In my wildest dreams I never would have imagined I would discover my birth mother's identity, and now I had not only discovered her but also that she was still alive and living nearby. The first thing that came to mind was that 1 needed to go home to America and tell my parents. But everything was happening so quickly, I felt as if the world were closing in on me and I barely had time to catch my breath.
At three o'clock that afternoon I was summoned to the living room. I knew that I would be meeting my mother that afternoon but I had been under the impression that we would go to see her, and so I wasn't prepared for the emotional scene that followed the moment I walked into the room. I didn't know what I was expecting, but the woman I saw sitting in the chair, startlingly thin and weathered, wasn't what I had anticipated and it took me a moment to process that she was my birth mother. The nuns asked, "Do you know who that is?" Of course I had a hunch, but how could I say that I knew who she was when I had no recollection of her at all? She took one look at me and then burst into tears. Once she was able to speak, she told the nuns that I looked like my father and she knew immediately that I was her daughter.
In my mind I had imagined our reunion would be a very loud, chaotic, and emotional encounter. But instead, the first few moments involved many tears and then an awkward silence. What do you say to the woman who gave birth to you, but whom you've never known? We just sat quietly, holding hands. Touch was enough for the moment.
My mother stayed with us at the convent for the few days I had remaining in Qui Nhon. It was so strange and wonderful to be able to look at my own flesh and blood, face to face. Even though I had only known her a short while, I felt a sense of comfort and safety around her and I realized it was going to be very difficult to leave. I hadn't been expecting to feel such a strong bond so quickly. In just a few days I had come to love each and every member of my newfound birth family, which included uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmothers and a younger brother, and the morning I was leaving it felt as if my heart were being ripped from my chest.
My younger brother came to spend the morning with me and my mother. The morning was spent in a relatively somber state, broken up with occasional laughs. It was as if we had just heard the world was about to end and now all we could do was wait. It had taken twenty years but our family was whole at last and now I was leaving again.
Finally, it was time to catch the bus. One of the nuns was accompanying me to Saigon and several of the sisters with whom I had become particularly close, came to say good-bye as well. In typical fashion, everything happened in such a frenzy that I barely had time to say good-bye to my brother and mother. One moment we had been smiling and chatting, and the next moment I was being hastily ushered onto the crowed bus. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, the bus was pulling away from the curb. I had just enough time to reach out the window and grasp my mother's hand. My brother grabbed our hands and we all held onto each other for one more brief second. But then they were gone and I was speeding down the street, unsure of when I would see them again.
I returned to the United States two weeks later. My parents were shocked and amazed at my discovery and have been unfailingly supportive. It has taken the distance and time for me to begin processing what all of this means to me, which I have only just begun to do. I suddenly have answers to questions that I am not sure I was even ready to ask about my past. Many more questions have yet to be answered; but I take comfort in the fact that I finally know where I belong. My journey to Vietnam and the subsequent treasures it left me with have enabled me to accept that I am Vietnamese and American. I belong to both, and today I am enormously proud to stand out in a crowd.
Published on 6/1/97