De-Twinned by Intercountry Adoption

My twin sister and I were born in 1972 in Gia Dinh, Vietnam. In Saigon we were admitted to Nhi Dong Hospital (children’s hospital) in 1974 by our biological mother because of malnutrition. She reported to the hospital that we were twins however, there were no tests or genetic studies done to confirm this. After taking us to the hospital, she did not return. She apparently was very poor and this was her way of getting help for us. The hospital social worker attempted to locate our mother but was unable to. After waiting for our mother’s relatives to visit for a long time but receiving no news, the director of the hospital, due to its lack of facilities, Mrs. Thuy (Holt social worker) took us to Holt Reception Centre for care and adoption. There, Andy Noe M.D. was our physician and he called me Gai Lien.

The placement agreement between Holt and our adoptive parents was signed on Dec 30, 1974. We flew from Saigon on April 5, 1975 during Operation Baby Lift on Holt’s Pan Am 747 chartered flight number E93405. We landed in Seattle on April 6, 1975 and were adopted by the Crapuchettes family of California, USA.

In order for us to be flown out of Vietnam, I was named Tuyet Trang Nguyen and my sister was named Thuy Trang Nguyen. It was common to be given a birth date as well. Our birthdate was Jan 1, 1972 which coincidently is the same for many other Vietnamese war orphans. Our adoptive parents told the court we were about a year apart and I was to be named Natalie Tuyet Crapuchettes and my sister was decided to be the older sister and named Michelle Thuy Crapuchettes.

My adoptive parents had two biological children of their own when we joined their family. Both brothers, who are older than us, were 7 and 5 years old respectively at the time of our adoption. They were delighted to have little sisters and have always acted very loving and responsible toward us.  We lived our childhood in Altadena, CA. It was obvious we were adopted since we were Asian and our adoptive family were Caucasian. We were told they adopted us from Vietnam because they were against the Vietnam war. However, they also told us that Michelle was about a year older than me. She went to different private school for most of our childhood.

The extended family welcomed us and we weren’t isolated racially because my adoptive parent’s best friends had also adopted a Korean girl. She was a little older than us but I think I felt connected more to her because she was Asian and adopted too.

To the public, we were living the California dream! We were raised in a middle to upper middle class family. Both parents were psychologists. We lived in a five bedroom house with 4 bathrooms, living room, family room, dinning room/library room, and a backyard with a pool, trampoline and small 3wall basket ball/racket ball court. Our parents loved hosting parties. The other 3 kids (not me) went to private schools. My mom was French so we went to France many times in the summer and for summer camps, vacationed in Hawaii and NY, and had family road trips. My sister and I took gymnastics, played AYSO/YMCA soccer and piano lessons. In middle school I took tennis lessons and cello.

Within the home we had family meetings and a life that was not exactly the Californian dream! These meetings meant our parents made us choose our punishments when we didn’t do our chores or did something wrong, and they told us what we should think instead of truly wanting to hear what we really thought. Us four kids felt we were their patients … they were constantly analysing what we said and did. Something terrible happened to me in my junior year in high school which affected my ability to concentrate and my parents thought I didn’t care about my education. Therefore, in my senior year they sent me to a co-ed Catholic boarding school called Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, CA. My two brothers went to boarding schools in high school too.

I have some good childhood memories of family trips, swimming in the pool with friends and family, our parents attending my soccer games and gymnastic meets, being bought generous presents and fun parties at our house. There was a lot of work done to my teeth and my sister’s too. She had many surgeries to fix her hare-lip. What was difficult was the strictness from my parents. We were spanked with wooden paddles that had holes in them when we were young. We were taught not to be picky eaters. We had to eat everything. We the girls loved vegetables but we hated donuts so every Saturday morning we were forced to eat donuts and if we didn’t eat them, we didn’t eat for the entire day.

When I got too old for spankings, I had to pay off my debt that was accumulated from my parents excessive punishment of charging me for not doing my chores on time or not doing them, or not doing something that was required of me. I was told in life, “if one breaks the rule/law then one would have to pay tickets or late fees”. My debt became so high because if didn’t do what ever I was supposed to do, and if it happened again, the fee would be doubled and so on. In high school my punishment was being grounded for weeks and months. Also, if I was done with my homework, parents would find more work for me to study at home. We could only watch TV shows like CNN, 20/20, and the Cosby Show. The only movies we could watch had to be 4 stars according to a movie book standard.

Standards for the girls vs the boys were different too. For example, Michelle had to wash the car after she drove it but my oldest brother didn’t have to. When one of the brothers wrecked his car, our parents gave him another car but we were expected to be perfect drivers. Our brother would be found in the driveway drunk but we had to be perfect girls.

The most difficult part and realization was that our parents didn’t have any high expectations of us. They expected only that we the girls would get married and have kids. They didn’t help us in any way with our college aspirations. No help in anyway to earn money for tuition and board. Both of us waitressed our way through public college and university while our brother was provided with the means to go to private university by giving him a good job – captain of the boat for commercial fishing in Alaska which made at least $30k for the 3 months in the summer. It would have been a gruelling job though especially given he had no experience.

Later when we were adults our adoptive parents told us we were twins but they had “de-twinned” us because they thought we were too symbiotic and wanted us to be independent from each other and to think apart from each other. We asked for the paperwork and came to find out that they had been looking for twins since1973, a few years before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Finding out that our adoptive parents had been actively seeking twins to adopt, found us and “de-twinned” us and they were both Behavioral Psychologists who sent us to different grades and different schools seems too coincidental!

Before we came to the U.S.A. we could only count on each other, the only thing that was constant in our life. I truly believe that our bond as twins would have made us stronger as individuals too because when one has a strong connection with another human being, the stronger we are as an individual. I remember my adoptive mom pulled my hair once and I threatened her not to ever do it again. Later when my sister and I were adults, she confided that our adoptive mom was scary and used to pull her hair so hard it made her pee in her pants. I cried so much and had dreams of protecting my sister from her. Deep inside I wish I could have been there in real life to protect her. It was too late, just like it was too late to take back our birth right of being twins.

In hindsight … our childhood, our bond as twin sisters, our personality, our confidence, and our relationship with others would have been better and stronger had our adoptive parents not separated us. If we were truly symbiotic, it was only because we came from the hardship of war, poverty, and abruptly brought into a strange new land in America.

I still recall my childhood dreams of having to dance naked in front of strangers. I think subconsciously I felt we were being watched and expected to amuse/entertain/perform even though we were uncomfortable. Later as adults my sister and I shared to each other the same dream. We felt like we were an experiment – separating us from being twins made us feel unnatural and uncomfortable in our own skins. Subconsciously we had a feeling something was terribly wrong but it wasn’t until they told us as adults that they had “de-twinned” us that we understood. For us now, it’s too late to do anything to reverse the legal, emotional, and psychological damage! Not to mention the loss of childhood of being twins. All in the name of science to question nature vs nurture. What my adoptive parents did makes me sad and tear up!

Before she met her husband to be and I met my husband to be, we tried to recapture our twin bond by spending every week-end visiting each other as adults. However, due to the harm of “de-twinning” us caused by our adoptive parents, I believe indirectly this is the reason my sister and I live in different States, me in CA and she in CO. We have both struggled with controlling, manipulating relationships and it’s a constant battle to survive and thrive.

One thing I would have liked while growing up is to have been exposed to Vietnamese culture. I was raised to be American with no clue to anything Asian. I have not learnt to speak Vietnamese and I feel so disconnected with everything Vietnamese. I did have a Vietnamese boyfriend in college but always felt a disconnect because I wasn’t truly Vietnamese nor truly American. My husband jokes about me being a banana – yellow on the outside looking Asian but white on the inside. Most of my friends are Asian married to caucasians. My son’s friends are mostly Asian. Deep inside I yearn Asian culture and I’m drawn to Asian people. Many of my friends are Asian women who have Asian-American sons or mixed race children. I am thankful that I am in America and have a family of my own. I am very connected to this family.

I have very little thoughts and feelings about my biological family so far only because there is very little to go by. I recently found the documents my adoptive parents gave me when I became an adult but there are many discrepancies. All along I have only thought positive feelings about my biological mother. Something must have happened to her and the rest of our relatives since it was war time. I couldn’t fathom that our mother abandoned us nor that she didn’t want us.

Being a mother myself now, it would be too difficult for me to let my son go unless there was a dire extreme reason for me to do so. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for my bio mother to admit to herself that she had to ask for help and let someone else care for her girls. I believe she had no choice if she wanted us to get medical help. We suffered from malnutrition to the point it did affect us later in our childhood – it stunted our growth and we were supposed to be 6 inches taller. If she did leave us for good at the hospital, it was only because she believed the hospital would find a way for us to have a better life than she could ever provide thus far. I think and feel that this is the epiphany of mother love. Unfortunately our documents indicate nothing about our bio father nor other siblings.

I love being a mom to my son and my step-daughter. When I met my husband to be he was a divorced man with a 7 year old girl from his first marriage to a Japanese woman. People thought I was her mom. She didn’t like that. I told her I would never take her mom’s place. I encouraged her to see her mom. Since her mom was still alive, I didn’t legally adopt her. In a sense I did adopt her as my daughter in my own way. I was a mother figure to her and supportive of her. I let her know that she could count on me to be there for her. She has for the most part felt she could find understanding and empathy from me more than with her dad. On her cell phone she has me as ICE, an acronym for In Case of Emergency. She could always call on me when she needed help. There’s no way I felt I could turn to my adoptive mother for help.

Having been adopted, I know what it’s like to want to be heard. I have been there for her to lend her my ear. With 8 years of being a mother figure I have learnt and grown more. I think I have subconsciously followed my favourite quote, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice” by Peggy O’mara. She has become a confident independent young lady. I am so proud of her and I tell her that. I continue to keep this quote in my mind as I raise my own son, Jonas. Other parents tell me he is a very happy boy with confidence, humour and thoughtfulness.

As a child, I was never funny, always serious and not confident. My son is 10 years old now. I let him know that I believe in his abilities and making sure he knows he has a voice. We take turns deciding where we dine and what we do on the week-ends. During my childhood, I didn’t feel I had a voice. I was expected to obey and cooperate. I think being a mom has helped me heal my childhood wounds. I know I am not perfect. I make mistakes as a parent. I apologise to my son.

So based on my experience of inter-country adoption, I have a few thoughts on preventing history from repeating itself.

First, my adoptive parents adopted us under false pretences. Documents clearly indicate our biological mother told Nhi Dong hospital that my sister and I were twins. Just because there were no tests or genetic studies done to confirm we were twins, doesn’t mean we weren’t twins nor does it mean that the adoptive parents be given the ability to change our ages to fit their needs or their agenda. I don’t know if DNA testing was available in 1975 but as adults we took a DNA test and it indicates we are identical twins. Twins should never be separated or de-twinned legally by adoption!

Second, I believe social work should not stop at the completion of adoption i.e. the arrival of the child/ren into the adoptive family. There needs to be more ongoing post adoption social work reviews on the adoptive parents with adopted children. In my situation, due to lack of information from Vietnam or possible lack of transparency or even worse the deliberate withholding of information among the participants of the adoption agency, adoption agency and adoptive parents, the adoptive parents were allowed to mentally, emotionally, and psychologically damage us by “de-twinning” us with no repercussion for them and no redemption for us.

Third, the adopted child’s birth culture & heritage should not be lost or ignored in the focus and process of assimilating into his/her new country and new family. From my own experience, I feel I had to adapt to my surroundings because I was expected to. However, I had no knowledge of my Vietnamese culture until I became an adult and sought for it. Growing up, I was never introduced to Vietnamese culture such as the food, the language, music, art, etc. I was only told about the Vietnamese War. Therefore, I have a disconnection with Vietnam and it’s culture despite my desire to embrace it. It’s very difficult for me to try to learn it now as an adult and it’s hard to understand and embrace Vietnamese culture because it is foreign to me.

In conclusion, as an international adoptee I was not listened to. I had no say, no voice… It’s one thing to be adopted but another to be robbed of my birth right as a twin and robbed of my birth culture! The adoption agency, adoptive parents and the courts didn’t ask if I wanted to be “de-twinned” from my twin sister. I wasn’t given a choice and today, I again I have no voice because I can’t legally undo the harm done to me. Legally I am forever not a twin even though my DNA proves I am an identical twin with my sister. My adoptive parents didn’t ask if I wanted to learn about Vietnamese culture. The adoption agency and the courts didn’t make a clause in the adoption to include that I be exposed to Vietnamese culture. There is no repercussion for the adoption agency, for the adoptive parents, nor for the court. There is no accountability either for them. There is no redemption for my sister and I as adoptees.

As a result of the lack or absence of adoption transparency, the harm inflicted on me by my adoptive parents along with the lack of extra precautions taken by the adoption agency and the courts and no post adoption social work reviews with adoptive parents and adoptees, I didn’t feel loved or that my needs were considered. I feel my sister and I were an experiment.

My adoption papers are sealed yet to it only costed my adoptive parents $5 to get them made up. I know it was legal back then but again this is another example of what is so wrong all in the name of adoption. I don’t know how difficult it will be for me to get access to my adoption papers but as the adoptee, I shouldn’t have to go through hoops to ask for papers that sealed my fate.

It would be hard to screen out adoptive parents like mine but that’s why I would like to see post adoption social work reviews with adoptive parents and adoptees – someone (at least the courts) should have flagged and questioned the absurd idea of legally “de-twining” us. There needs to be repercussions and accountability among the adoption agency, the adoptive parents, and the courts who did this! So very unfair! Mishka and I wish we could have a do-over in regards to being raised as twins – our childhood has been lost as identical twins!

How marginalised and disempowered are adoptees in adoption?! I hope my experience highlights that it really is a system which favours the needs and desires of our adoptive parents and isn’t at all about the “best interests of the child”. The fact that inter-country adoption is a multibillion dollar industry which has made so much money from children of vulnerable and disadvantaged families – these are poignant realities that I can truly relate to!

One Reply to “De-Twinned by Intercountry Adoption”

  1. Michelle, we grew up on the same street and I never knew you had such a hard time. You were a little younger, but I feel so badly that I did not know that your parents (especially your mother) beat you. I mainly remember your brother Dominic, and he seemed maybe a bit damaged. I hope you are doing well now

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