Finding my Birth Mother

Emails sent from Catherine Turner upon returning for the Second time to Vietnam

08/03/2003 – Guess What?!

I FOUND MY VIETNAMESE MOTHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, it’s true. I have found the woman who gave birth to me 28 years ago.

It’s like a dream, it doesn’t seem real. In just a few hours, I discovered my father was a high ranking officer in the South Vietnamese army, and I met my two half brothers! I have inherited an instant family!

OK, back to where it all began.

Yesterday (Friday) I went with my translator, Doan (pronounced Dong) to a police station in Govap in Ho Chi Minh City. For those of you who may not know, the last time I came to Vietnam, I found a woman who I thought was my mother but for some reason couldn’t admit it. When I returned this time, we went to Govap because we heard she had moved there. The policeman there put my mother’s name and date of birth into a computer but it returned no hits.

He then said he had a friend at a place which holds national documents, and he would call him. I didn’t think anything was really going anywhere (we’d been there about 20 minutes, and of course it was all said in Vietnamese, so I couldn’t follow what was being said) until Doan suddenly grabbed my arm and said “They’ve found someone.” Out of 8 million people in Ho Chi Minh City, they had found one woman who had the same name and DOB. The policeman then got her address, and through that found her phone number, just as we would through directory assistance in Australia. Next thing, he was ringing her. The whole thing happened in a matter of minutes, it was hard to comprehend.

Then he was talking to this woman, who was (in typically understated Vietnamese translation) very surprised and very moved to hear of me. She said she had kept my original birth certificate after all these years, and would bring it to the police station so we could compare the one I had to see if they were the same. However, they compared the serial numbers of the documents over the phone and they were the same. She said she would arrive in 30 minutes.

My life suddenly came down to the next half an hour. All the questions I’d had all these years were about to answered. I would be able to see if I looked like her, if I sounded like her, if I had living relatives. Who was my father? what was their relationship? My mum and dad (hereafter referred to as Oz mum and dad to avoid confusion!) were as nervous as me, I think, but tried to keep me calm. I kept my eyes glued on the door she would walk in…and then all of sudden, there she was. She saw me and immediately burst into tears. I did the same. The first thing she did, to make sure it was me, was check to see if I had two crowns in my head, which I do. Then it was all just tears and hugs and smiles and head shaking in disbelief from there. It really was my mother.

Oz mum and dad and I went back to my mother’s place with her now husband to talk some more. This is the story of my father so far: he was a Major in the southern Vietnamese army (ie not the Viet Cong) and he met my mother when he was 50 and she was 20. He was already married to another woman, and had an affair with my mother – quite a long and involved one, I think. She became pregnant with me and my father’s wife demanded that my mother give me up to her. It seems soldiers were sent around to my mother’s place to put pressure on her to give me up. No-one could ever know that my mother was pregnant. However, my mother is a true Vietnamese dragon lady and fought fire with fire and she and my grandmother refused. I had cholera at the time and my mother was also very sick, so she decided she must give me up.  It was also a way to solve the problems of the soldiers. She took me to some sisters (nuns) who took me to world vision…the rest is now history.  She says she has dreamt of me for many years and in her dreams, I was alive.  She went back to look for me a few times at the babies home in HCMC but it closed. She thought I was either dead or had been adopted by Vietnamese family.

I have met my two half brothers – one older, one younger, who each have different fathers, and not the same father as me either. I have also met my grandmother, aunt, mother’s cousin, nephews, sister-in-laws, second cousins…etc etc etc!! Family is a major part of Vietnamese society. Last night we all had dinner at my brother’s (wow, I finally get to say that phrase.. my brother!) place of work, at a hotel in HCMC. My Oz mum and dad came too, and Marnie, my dearest friend. It was amazing. No-one could quite believe it.

Nick flies in to HCMC on Wednesday…he’s already got a lot to live up to!!

The first question most of my relatives ask is “Are you married?” (Age, marital status and income are not considered impolite questions) I have said I will be married soon. It is easier that way rather than trying to explain boyfriend, de facto etc. My Vietnamese family thinks I should get cracking having my own family – I’m almost 30 years old, for goodness sakes!  So…I’ve really dobbed Nick in now!!

I can’t speak Vietnamese and my relatives can’t speak English, so learning the language is a first priority. It’s a very happy time, but emotional too. My turning up has obviously rekindled a lot of memories for my mother, not all of them pleasant. But we will now spend every day together until we leave HCMC.

After thinking about my mother for so long, and having no luck last time, I had resigned myself to never finding my ancestry. Now I have that, and so much more. It really is the fairytale ending.

I will be on this hotmail address for the next two weeks, we leave Vietnam on March 25.

With lots of love and happiness from a very proud and joyful Vietnamese-Australian,

Cath xxxx

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09/03/2003 – More Answers

Howdy all again…I’m writing to you all in a slightly calmer state than before, though the wonderment of the whole situation is no less.

Yesterday my mother and I talked for four hours through an interpreter and I know even more about her, and her heart wrenching life before and after I was born. My father’s name was Bui Quang Luc (loosely pronounced Boy Kwang look). It turns out he told my mother he was divorced when they met, but he was actually still married. My mother and father had a relationship for one year. She describes him as very gentle and kind. I was born in a military hospital which still exists today. I was the first baby born there and the then Vietnamese President and first lady were on hand for a large opening ceremony. I was given a necklace as the first baby. My father’s wife found out about my parents’ relationship when I was 10 days old and demanded my mother hand me over to her. Soldiers were sent to her home, threatening to pour acid over my mother and grandmother if they didn’t obey her. But she refused (god love her!). Although she was sick and poor when she gave birth to me, the main reason she gave me up was to get me away from the soldiers and my father’s wife. My mother says if she thought I would have a better life with my father and his wife, she would give me to them. But she says she looked in her eyes and saw only hate, and thought my father’s wife would kill me. So she took me to some nuns in Ho Chi Minh City, telling them that if anyone came to look for me, not to reveal any information. My mother never told my father what she did with me, and then changed her address and disappeared into the city.  My father was put in the re-education camp after the war (i.e., prison) by the VC and subsequently died of an illness he caught while imprisoned, in 1979.

I found out some very interesting things about some of my characteristics and traits. Physically, my mother says I have my father’s eyes, but her cheekbones, mouth, chin and face shape. She says from my father, I have inherited his intelligence (he was responsible for co-ordinating troops on the ground, but from the headquarters, not on the battle field), and he was also a musician (played the mandolin, was a good singer and dancer) and very athletic and fit (played basketball). She says I have her strong-will (some would say stubborn!), sense of humour, near-sightedness and says “we are more like men, not women”. My mother says she had not cried for more than 30 years, but now, she cannot stop. She says I may have grown up in a foreign country but I have a Vietnamese heart. I am exactly the same height as her (she’s now 50) and neither of us are likely to gain any more millimetres! Although I feel vertically challenged in Australia, I am actually quite tall amongst other Vietnamese!

My mother says she is happy I’m a journalist, because it means I understand other people’s situations and learn to care about people, which has therefore made it easier for me to understand hers. At one stage, with tears in my eyes, she asked me if I could forgive her… how to explain that it is not me to forgive, that she gave me a better life, that in war, people do desperate things?

My mother kept the original of my birth certificate in a box full of important family documents, which is how she found it so quickly when the policeman rang her. It is amazing to think she kept it all this time, and to actually see it for real (I have a photocopy).

I am going to her home tonight (Sunday), where she will cook dinner for me and our family. She is starting to relax a lot more, smiles every now and then and I can see parts of her personality coming through. I can’t even begin to imagine what she is going through. I have had years to prepare for this time, and it’s still a hugely emotional experience. Her world changed in just a short phone call, and she has only had two days to come to terms with everything. But despite the upheaval, I feel so at home with her and my new family. It’s hard getting used to having brothers but I love it! My older brother is quite shy and speaks absolutely no English, while my younger brother is very outgoing and cheeky, and speaks quite good broken English. He has promised to take me for a tour of HCMC on the back of his mo-ped and he insists we go out dancing, although he says he will have to act as my security guard now! How amazing…brotherly love and protection!!

My mother told me that she has nearly died twice again since the war – once from pneumonia and another time she nearly drowned. When I look at her, and see her defiance and determination, her guts and her passion, it does not surprise me in the least that she is still breathing.

All my love to you all,

Cath xxx

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10/03/2003 – The Fun Begins

Xin chao! For those of you uninitiated in Vietnamese (at a guess, most of you!), that means “Hello!

It’s only two days since I found my mother but incredibly, I now feel like we have known each other for years. I guess in some ways that’s true, connected as a mother and daughter in spirit. Last night’s dinner at her home was just wonderful. It was just me this time with an interpreter, and we arrived at her home to find a huge Vietnamese feast. Before chowing down, I had even more relatives to meet – my older aunt, who sat at the table with me with her hand on my leg the entire time, often with tears in her eyes. Obviously, she remembered much of what happened when my mother was pregnant and just after her birth. I also met about 20 neighbours, and

I’m not exaggerating. Every time another woman walked in the door, I thought “Hello, which relation is this now?” But it’s all just word of mouth and gossiping, everyone wants to see the Aussie Vietnamese daughter of their neighbour. (And you thought the old man across the road who peeks out from behind a curtain was bad!)

The amazing thing about last night is that I felt completely at home, like I’d been there for years. The language barrier is there, of course, but there are so many universal traits and things that make people laugh. I spent much of last night learning simple words in Vietnamese – how to address all my relatives (eg you don’t ask someone older than you what their name is, you address them by a common word “elder”.) My nephews taught me how to count to 10 in Vietnamese and I have learned phrases such as “My name is..”, “Hello, I am pleased to meet you”, “More water, please” and the like.

Of course, my mistakes are met with roars of laughter; my successes with smiles and nods of approval. At one stage, I meant to say “I’m full” but I got the intonation of the words wrong, and instead said “I’m fat”, which at that stage was true anyway!

After an emotional, sometimes upsetting and tearful couple of days, my mother is now relaxed, full of laughter, smiles and a real character. Everyone at the table commented on how much I am like her when she was my age. My Oz parents say it’s a fascinating study of nature versus nurture.  All this time, I thought I was an outgoing, friendly, try-hard clown because of my friends and surroundings in Australia; it seems much of it is genetic.

My Oz mum and dad say they’re kind of relieved and it acts as a disclaimer for them, because they never would’ve brought up such a rowdy child! 

The food here is fabulous (you’ll be happy about that, Min!) My mother cooked pork, beef, rice, chicken, noodles, chicken soup, salad – the works!  Much better than all you can eat at Sizzlers! In Vietnam, no sooner have you finished the last bit of meat or noodle in your bowl, another helping appears, so you never really stop to eat and you don’t realise until after hours of eating that you’re bloated and can hardly talk.  I left the dinner feeling so at peace, so comfortable with everything. As we rode home on the mo-ped, with the chaos of Saigon traffic floating around us, I felt so utterly at home. I am becoming addicted to this city, the country, these people. All in just 4 days.

This afternoon, we are going to what used to be the World Vision babies’ home, where I was looked after just before I came to Australia. A little bit of history on the place is that towards the end of the war, the VC somehow came to the conclusion that World Vision was on the side of the Americans (the US had given the company some money to support the babies, which was seen as making it an ally). The VC threatened to bomb the babies’ home, so World Vision quickly divided the babies’ into two groups: those that were so sick they would not survive in Vietnam and those that probably would survive. There were 32 to be flown out of Vietnam – 16 to the US, 16 to Australia. They were all taken to the airport, and the plane carrying the babies to the US took off first…and exploded shortly after take off.  Everyone thought it had been sabotaged and there was a huge delay as the plane destined for Australia was checked. It turned out a mechanical failure was responsible. The plane for Australia finally departed and picked up another couple of hundred babies from Bangkok, and continued onto Sydney for adoption. the World Vision home in Saigon is now derelict, but my mother, Oz parents and I will go there anyway.

I have only another five days until we are scheduled to leave Saigon and go to central Vietnam, although I am now considering changing my flights so I can spend more time with my mother. I have asked her if she would like to come to Australia, but right now, she is the primary carer of my grandmother, who has had a heart attack and has asthma problems. But my mother says once she has no-one to care for, she would like to visit.

I start lessons with a Vietnamese tutor tonight, I’m just going to do an hour and a half a day until I leave Saigon. To truly learnt the language, I think it’s best if I hear it constantly around me, on television, in conversation. My mother says it’s much harder for her to learn English as she’s older and doesn’t have the time, but I’m determined to get a few Aussie words and phrases into her vocabulary!

To answer a couple of questions by some of you: the hospital where I was born is still a military one and is in very good shape. My mother doesn’t have the necklace I was given at birth, she had to sell it to buy some medicine to care for my older brother who was also very sick. My mother doesn’t have any photos of my father because it was safer that way, he could never be identified or linked to my mother. I have another two half brothers somewhere in the world, from my father and his wife but no-one knows where they are, although there are suspicions they are in another country, possibly the US. Hey, maybe that’ll be my next mission! I feel like anything’s possible!

But for now, I want to soak up this time, this unbelievable time in my life which never ceases to elicit a smile or tears, often simultaneously.

Lots of love and happiness to you all,

Cath xxx

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11/03/2003 – Memories

Howdy again to everyone, from ‘Nam!

Day 6…yesterday My Oz Mum and Dad, my mother and her husband and I went to the World Vision babies’ home, as I mentioned last time. It brought back some horrible memories for my mother. She told us that she and my grandmother brought me to the home in February 1975 because she had heard that world Vision was kind and had good doctors and nurses. She was certain I would die if she did not get help. My mother says many Vietnamese families offered to buy me from her she didn’t want to give me away for good. She thought if she could just put me in the babies’ home until I got better and until she improved her financial situation, she would be able to get me back. She returned to the home on 5 May, 1975 to do just that, but by then the place had been evacuated and it was deserted. My mother fainted on the footpath that day. I can’t begin to imagine how she would have felt at that time. No doubt on her way there she was thinking, I’m going to get my daughter back. She arrives to find the place empty with no knowledge of what happened. I had disappeared.

The home is now completely run down, but the guard who lives there (presumably to keep squatters away) let us in inside. My father also has vivid memories of the place, from when he visited the home in November 1974 (before I was there.) The Australian nurse who cared for me there (Joan Potter) now lives in Sydney, and gave us some photographs of the place from the war time. It was a bit spooky looking around and realising how much activity there used to be there, and that we were inside a small part of history from the Vietnamese War.

Just a little more information on my two other half brothers. They would now be 40 and 42 years old. My mother saw them once but does not know their names. My brother’s father supported my mother greatly after my birth, but she does not know what happened to him. She said she will put an advertisement in the local paper to see if he’s still in Ho Chi Minh City.

Last night was my first Vietnamese lesson, and it ain’t easy! I mentioned last time about addressing older people with one term…nope, that isn’t right! There are different words for older man, older woman, grandfather, grand mother, younger man, younger woman, same age man, same age woman…and so on. Not only is it difficult to remember, it is easy to offend someone, because you have to guess their age! The sounds are unlike anything we use in English, but luckily the language is based on the Roman alphabet, so we’re half way there. My tutor is a gorgeous Vietnamese girl who has been teaching English for 10 years, and actually did her degree on Australia – learning about the economy, landscape etc.

I’ve decided to stay in HCMC for a few more days with Nick, while my parents fly on to Danang. It will give me more time with my new family, and give him a few more days to soak up the place. My parents have another sponsor child in central Vietnam who I would like to meet too.

A few of you have asked about video footage and photos…the journalist in me can step back and see that I am in the midst of a rather amazing, unique story. And so, I have already shot more than 1 hour footage and 4 rolls of film. I handed the video camera to my Oz Dad to capture the moment when my mother walked in that door, and it still gives goose bumps – and I was there!

Tonight, I am going around to the home of the Vietnamese policeman who helped me find my mother to give him a (ahem) gift, to thank him for his help. A bottle of whiskey and A$40 will do the job nicely. My Vietnamese translators are very embarrassed that he has asked for some sort of present, but in the scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay for the joy he has brought me. Who knows how much people have to pay in Australia to see or buy certain documents? This man cut through the red tape I would surely have encountered on my own, and called a mate. If he wants something in return, fine by me. My only concern is that he may hassle my mother in the future for more money, but I’ve got a feeling she would tell him exactly where to go!

I want to say a huge thank you to each and everyone of you who has been in touch, for sending so much love and support. This incredible experience, together with my very scary illness earlier this year, has taught me just how many amazing friends and family I have. In some way, each of you has made me who I am today. My Oz parents told my mother that my life could have been very different if I had not had such wonderful friends and family who accepted me, stood by me and played some part in my life. I agree entirely. When my Oz parents were first contemplating whether to adopt a Vietnamese child, they were a little concerned about what it would be like for them, as there were not too many Asians in Australia and a little bit of racism. Eventually, they decided it would be better to have that, than to be dead. Although I have encountered some prejudices and bigotry, borne out of ignorance, through various stages of my life, the rock solid and genuine friendships and relationships I have had render them irrelevant. So…thank you.

Bye for now, from the magic of Vietnam, which until hid so many secrets from me but now holds the key to my identity.

cath xxx

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14/03/2003 – One Last Surprise

A big warm g’day to all,

My mother never ceases to amaze!! Last night was dinner at mum’s for me, Oz mum and dad and Nick (more on his head spins later!). I thought it would just be a nice, intimate occasion, a Vietnamese version of a “lamb roast at mum’s.” Imagine my surprise when we rounded the corner of the lane, and saw three big tables outside, all set up like a restaurant – bowls, chopsticks, glasses with napkins folded inside – and about 50 Vietnamese with beaming smiles waiting for us?!??! It was truly amazing. My mother sashayed down the lane like the superb hostess she is to greet us. I was immediately grabbed and taken to every table and introduced to everyone. My mother had invited the principle, 2 vice-principles, union president and every other staff member to the dinner! There was another table of assorted guests (can’t remember them all!)

Next up, my mother took me into her home, where she had written on her blackboard “Cam Tu (the name she gave me at birth) Catherine 7-3-2003 (the date we found each other).  There was a bunch of roses plus two huge cakes. Written on both cakes, one in Vietnamese, one in English, was “A family reunion. Huynh thi Nga (mum’s name) and Cam Tu. Congratulations!” The second cake was two-tiered, one heart on top of a smaller one. My mother says the big heart is hers, mine is the smaller one…I have always been in her heart. Goddamn, it’s enough to make you sob hysterically!

Everybody loves Nick! He is about twice the height of anyone there last night, there was much craning necks, eyeballs rolling back in the head just to see him. He had to watch himself when walking around the house, so as not to walk into the tops of doors or into the fan on the ceiling! It was a lot for him to take on another set of in-laws (come on, one is usually bad enough!) but he just rolled with the punches and seemed to really enjoy himself. I’m so glad he and my Oz mum and dad could be here for the momentous occasion. I could never have adequately described what my mother and family are like, or the magic and generosity of my Vietnamese family.

My mother has asked Nick and I to go to her place for the last time this afternoon for a little “heart to heart.” My tip is we’re going to get the whole “Get married, get those babies happening” talk. Should be interesting to see how Nick handles the pressure!

All in all, it was a phenomenal evening, there was such a festive atmosphere, with so many people, good food, great beer and much mirth. A definite highlight. At the end of the evening, I handed out a host of trinkets and souvenirs to my immediate family (buying for the entire family would send me bust). The girls will love this…my mother is FULLY into fashion, clothes, shoes, make up – the works! That’s the genes talkin’ baby! I now have someone to blame for my current near-bankruptcy! I bought her a rather luxurious facial and manicure, which average Vietnamese don’t really do.

So tomorrow, we fly to Danang in central Vietnam. I have promised to try and return for Tet celebrations, which are late Jan/early Feb. It feels weird to leave actually, I really want to be able to go around to my mother’s anytime, for a genuine roast lamb. It’s going to be hard, but I’ll obviously write, send photos, the lot. It’s the beginning of a wonderful, joyous new chapter in my life. I am very seriously considering living here for a short time. Journalists are only allowed to work in Hanoi, under the watchful eye of the national government. In fact, in my naivety, I put “journalist” on my arrival card for occupation, which drew the attention of the immigration officer immediately. So, I would probably do something like English teaching or even waitressing…whatever! Nick has also said he would be happy to be here. So…we’ll see what the future holds.

So many questions that have rattled around in my head for years have now been answered. It has been a truly remarkable journey with so many emotions, such extreme highs and lows, both this trip and the last. But it all happens for a reason, I believe it was meant to be. At so many times throughout this trip, one small change or different occurrence could have de-railed the whole search.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. I feel like I am now complete. I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed, and entirely at peace with myself and my dual identity.

All my love to you all,

Cath xxx

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17/03/2003 – Greetings from Central Vietnam

Hi-dy Ho to everyone, from Hoi An in central Vietnam,

After such a huge week in Saigon, the peace and tranquility of central Vietnam is a nice change of pace. It’s given me time to try and digest everything that has happened to me and the more I think about it, the more unbelievable it seems. I never expected to find my mother and even if I had, I was prepared to accept that she may not want anything to do with me.

I didn’t know the circumstances of conception or why she gave me up, so I thought she might prefer not to acknowledge me. That I received the most incredible welcome from the most incredible woman is just phenomenal. Even as a journalist, whose tool of the trade is the English language, I find myself struggling to find the words which adequately convey my feelings about this discovery. Maybe I should just stop trying and just embrace the language of my heart.

It’s been amusing watching the Vietnamese try and work out exactly what’s going on with me, Mum and Dad and Nick. The first question is “where you from?”, the answer of course, is “Australia”. 

“But you look Vietnamese”.

“I am, I have family in Saigon.”

“So who’s that?”

“My Australian mother and father.”

“Oh. I thought they were your boyfriend’s parents. How can you have four parents?”

Good question…just lucky I guess.

Mum, Dad, Nick and I have just been cruising around Da Nang and Hoi An, which are port cities and were crucial strategic centres during the war. 

Yesterday we climbed to the top of the marble mountains, and saw these amazing caves and pergodas on the side of the mountains – quite extraordinary.

Tomorrow we go and visit Mum and Dad’s World Vision sponsor child near Da Nang, then it’s off to Hue, which reportedly produces the most beautiful women in Vietnam. I may have to blindfold Nick, as I don’t handle rejection very well.

We arrive back in Australia on Wednesday morning, March 26. I’m planning to stay in Sydney for a couple of days, then go to Newy Friday arvo, then back home Saturday some time. Obviously, I would love to catch up with as many of you as possible and I will try my best! I’ll be in touch as soon as I can with as many as I can!

Lotsa love to everyone,

Cath xxxx

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