by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.
A mother should not just be remembered for being special on Mother’s Day, but each and every day. Just over two years ago I was miraculously reunited with my mother. Every day with her since then has been amazing, but on this Mother’s Day I want to honour her in a special way.
My heart also goes out to mothers all over the world who have been separated from their child/children for whatever reason. Mothers you are never forgotten!
This is my mother’s story:
My eyes gazed upon my baby with love the moment she was born. As I held her the day she took her first breath, a feeling of immense joy leapt into your heart.
She had no father as he left me when I was pregnant and returned abroad having finished his military service. Regardless, I decided from conception that I would cherish this child as a gift.
As I held her close for the first time, I examined her. She had all her fingers and toes and with that relief came the realisation of her larger extended nose.
Within moments everything turned into a blur as I bled profusely. As I lay unconscious the nurse forewarned my mother that I would die. However, hours later as I drifted in and out of unconsciousness, in a faint voice I whispered, “Where is My Huong?”. In response, I was told, “Two friends visited and took your baby to care for her.”
With a sense of relief in my heart, I was grateful that my newborn was safe and as I lay in bed for weeks in a state of weakness, my thoughts drifted — longing to hold my cherished baby in my arms.
After nearly two months of gaining enough strength, I slowly set off on foot to visit my friends to bring my daughter home ….. but they were not to be seen. The questions began to swirl in my head and a feeling of dread began to set like a stone in my chest as the search began.
The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. I ploughed the fields in the scorched golden sun. With a broken heart, I wept silently each night not knowing what had become of My Huong. I prayed for her safety and yearned that someday she would return. My only wish was to be able to see her face one time before dying.
Then in mid Feb 2018, I received a message to say that My Huong was seen on TV. My mind drifted back over all the years of longing and I wept a valley of tears. That night those tears were tears of relief — that the possibility of finding My Huong could now be real.
My prayers were answered and two weeks later, you stood face to face with me – your daughter who had been cruelly stolen from you. After almost 48 long years of being apart, the overwhelming reality of having your daughter beside you made you want to faint. As you stroked her face and kissed her cheeks, she knew in that moment that you were her mother.
Mum, I don’t know how to express all you mean to me. Since our reunion two years ago, you have shown me that your love is never ending and you have brought immense joy into my life and filled my heart. You are the greatest gift and daily I am thankful to God for the miracle of giving you back to me.
On this special Mother’s Day, I want to honour you. I am honoured and blessed to have you as my mother!
I love you with all my heart! My Huong Lé
For so many years, I have hidden my deepest childhood traumas under a mask of smiles and perceived positivity. Now, I am being forced to face these past traumas and weaknesses, as well as the more recent trauma caused by the web of deception, which was unveiled when I was contacted by my true mother two years ago. Wounds from the fake mother and family are still deep, but daily I am healing and I am so thankful to now have my dear mother living with me. She is such a precious gift and I thank God for the miracle of having her in my life.
For those interested in my story you can read the following article which was written by Zoe Osborne.
For me, it’s a day of wondering is she even alive, does she remember me, is she struggling, how old is she, has she lived since then, alone, or did she have other children, before me, or after?
Will I ever find her, is she in Vietnam or somewhere else around the world, does she even want to be found, was I a part of some deep shame, or a result of love, what happened to her that I was relinquished, was it her choice?
Mother – a concept that evokes such a mix of feelings, it’s not logical to some why I want to know who she is, it’s just an innate drive, no other can make up for her, I am forever a part of her, her DNA is imprinted in me, it’s false to think a substitute is all I need, I didn’t even know her name until 3 years ago!
If I could wish upon a magic cloud I’d ask to meet my mother, see her face, hear her voice, be held in her arms, given answers to my questions, learn I was missed and not forgotten. But reality is not quite this, and these are the bittersweet feelings I have on Mother’s Day.
For all my fellow adoptees around the world, here with you in solidarity, sharing the mixed bag of emotions that Mother’s Day can evoke!
Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.
Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.
COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?
COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They aredifferent, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.
Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.
ANZAC Day for people from Australia and New Zealand is a time of reflection that connects us through the generations. For me as an orphan from the Vietnam war, it gives me a time and place, admist all the beautiful gifts of everyday life, to acknowledge the undeniable tragedy I carry in my heart.
To have my whole family and identity lost through war is often something too painful to talk about. For those who know me well, self pity is not my song but in respect to my biological family, I can’t pretend the loss of not knowing them is not a deep wound to carry.
As I have grown older and possibly wiser, the symbols of rememberance have gained in personal significance. As I sit next to the eternal flame at the shrine, in my heart I see the flame as a beacon of light that I pray draws me closer to those I have loved or have loved me, whether we know each other’s names or not. I feel we share our hearts. The warmth of the eternal flame comforts me, as it reflects the love I am praying to send out to the world, like a portal to those I have lost and yet to find.
Please don’t feel unnerved by my sharing. My sharing is a chance to say thank you for allowing me this day, this moment in space to lay down my grief without question or judgement. It is only because I am loved and I can love those around me that I can share these thoughts.
And now, as I do for every other day in the year I will embrace the beautiful life I have and the adventures of the unknown future.
Once we have learned to ride a bike, we will never forget it. This is true, but must be understood as a metaphor. I am in a process where I need to learn and become a real human being. I need to learn how to ride a bike. Cycle on the road of life, and once I have learned it, I can never forget it again.
When I lose control, I become insecure. Then I get angry and seek refuge in drugs, or verbal, psychological violence. This feels very insecure to other people. But I had to protect myself.
The world is a dangerous place. I have to protect myself, in order to survive. That’s how it was for me when I was six years old. It was the first thing I learned in my life. But I’m not six years anymore. I don’t have to protect myself anymore. The world can also be a beautiful place. With beautiful people who wish you well.
The fact that I seek professional help myself is a start, a desire for change. A way to learn to ride a bike. I am in a process where I see things in bird’s eye view. It hurts, but also feels good, to see its faults.
I have a T-shirt bearing this witticism which I received from someone who knew of me only from my newsletter for German-born adoptees. I have since become aware of its occasionally being reformulated, substituting the word “Texan” for “German.” The idea, of course, is that being a German – or a Texan – can be so self-evident from observable indicia that even strangers can see it in a person’s behaviour, dress, or demeanour. Many people have commented that I exhibit personality traits they characterise as “typically German.” I don’t know if there are heritable personality traits that are “typical” of Germans, or, if so, whether my alleged exhibition thereof is a result of having been born there, or if it’s simply the natural consequence of the particular formative experiences of my childhood. In any event, having known of my German origin for as long as I can remember, it has always been a foundational aspect of my identity.
Identifying as German has had a strong influence on many of the choices I have made in life. When, in junior-high school, we were required to choose a foreign language to learn from the available options of Spanish, French or German, naturally, I chose German. Even then, I had already formed the intention to search for my birth mother in Germany, and I imagined that it would be useful and/or necessary to know the language. My effort to learn German in junior-high and high school didn’t really pan out, and so, when I was stationed in Germany in 1979-80 as a member of the U.S.A.F., I availed myself of the opportunity to resume learning German. I discovered it came easier, for some reason, while living in the country, and I would continue to learn it – mostly by using it, when reading letters from and writing letters to friends I’d made while I was there, for example – more or less continually for the rest of my life.
When my parents purchased a new (used) car, ostensibly for my mother to drive, but with which I would in any event learn to drive, they asked for my input. I suggested buying a Volkswagen Beetle. I was partly inspired by my German teacher, who drove a Bug; but I also wanted to learn to drive in a car with a stick shift. (Ultimately, the car became “mine” by default, as Mother refused to drive it.) Ever since, whenever I have owned a car of my own (until 2010, always a VW Bug), I would display a “D-Schild,” an oval-shaped placard formerly affixed to vehicles in Europe to identify the nationality of the owner (“D” stands for Deutschland).
Other, less consequential signs of my Germanophilia included the purchases of a three-foot-by-five-foot tricolor flag, which I would hang on the wall wherever I might be living at the time, as well as an album of songs by the German singer Roland Kaiser, which I found when shopping at a nearby record store in Brooklyn, NY, not long after I’d moved there in 1980.
At the same time, I never felt any strong sense of fealty towards the United States. When I was naturalized, at the age of five, repetition of the requisite oath was probably waived under INS rules due to my age; my adoptive father signed the certificate. Even so, when, as children, we were required to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, I cannot say that it represented anything more meaningful to me than a rote recitation of a memorized sentence. Eventually, I publicly acknowledged this lack of significance by boycotting its daily reiteration, beginning in junior-high school. (I don’t recall if anything happened as a result of this protest, but I imagine I would remember if there had been significant consequences. Perhaps my right to do so was simply acknowledged and respected?)
Growing up as a boy in America in the 1960s, I was acutely aware of the war in Vietnam, as well as my eventual obligation to register for the draft when I turned 18 and the concomitant potential risk of being sent to fight in that conflict, should it still be going on at that time. Even before the draft was officially ended, in 1973, I had acknowledged – to myself, at least – that I was gay, and so I had already formed the intent, if it came to that, to apprize the Selective Service officials of my sexual orientation, thereby avoiding military service by peremptorily being deemed “unfit.” War or no war, I had no desire to be drafted into the army. Having never been in the closet, as it were, I wasn’t worried about any backlash to publicly “coming out,” but I never had the chance to prove the strength of these convictions; the Selective Service office in my hometown was permanently closed in 1975, the year I turned 18. I eschew patriotism as easily as I eschew religion; both are equally meaningless. (The irony of my subsequent voluntary enlistment in the U.S.A.F. is not lost on me; however, that decision sprang not from any patriotic feeling, but rather from a desire to end what was looking like an interminable period of unemployment, with the added appeal of potentially acquiring a skill that could be parlayed into a civilian job later on. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, either.)
I don’t know when the thought first occurred to me, but by the summer of 1978, at the age of 21, it was already well established in my mind; I wrote in my diary at the time, “The more I think about it, the more I want to know if I may acquire dual citizenship.” The question was more properly formulated as, “I wonder if I ever lost my German citizenship.” Be that as it may, shortly after I wrote those words, I obtained a form from the German Consulate in New York City which they said I needed to complete and submit in order to answer the question. The information required to be provided concerned the citizenship status of my natural relatives; my mother and father, and their respective mothers and fathers, and so on, as far back as information was available. (German citizenship is acquired via blood – jus sanguinis – as opposed to where one is born – jus soli.)
As soon as I was able, i.e., as soon as I had searched for and found my birth mother (having been born illegitimate, only her information was relevant), I completed as much of the form as I was able and sent it in. Had you asked me at the time, I probably would have said that I fully expected there to have been some basis for involuntary expatriation, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when I received my Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis, a certificate attesting to my status as a German citizen. I immediately applied for and obtained a German passport. (Interestingly, like the passport, the citizenship certificate bore an expiration date; I faithfully renewed it until they finally changed the law and issued a certificate that doesn’t “expire.”)
I am very enamoured of the idea of having dual nationality, and I eagerly mention the fact whenever circumstances allow, sometimes showing off my Reisepass. I have never used my German passport for purposes other than identification following my return to Germany in 2018, but I did once encounter a problem when I obtained employment at a company that contracted to provide background investigation services to the federal government. The contract was with the Department of Defense, and I had to officially acknowledge my dual-national status in the course of having my own background investigated. The DOD had no problem with my retaining my German citizenship while performing the contracted work; but it did demand that my employer hold my German passport for the duration of the contract – or my employment, whichever ended first. As it happened, the contract ended first, and my employer, in order to continue employing me, had to reassign me to work under a different federal contract, this time with the Department of Energy. Unlike the DOD, however, the DOE did object to my retention of a foreign nationality, and, for want of another alternative position within the company, my employer was forced to terminate my employment because I wasn’t willing to renounce my German citizenship.
It did not take long after I’d begun trying to ascertain the means and methods I would need to employ to search for my birth mother, in the mid-1980s, that I discovered that such information was unavailable within the existing Adoption Reform Movement in the U.S.; nor did the available literature offer any guidance. As a result, I felt very disconnected from my fellow, U.S.-born adoptees, particularly after I learned that German-born adoptees had been given access to their original records in the late 1970s. After visiting my recently discovered half-brother in Germany, in March of 1988, I decided that I would try to fill that information gap by publishing a newsletter, which I entitled “Geborener Deutscher” (“German by birth”), and which I then distributed to all the existing adoption search support groups in the U.S.
I likewise do not know exactly when I fixated on the idea of returning permanently to Germany. I do remember wishing, as early as 1980, when I was discharged from the U.S.A.F. while still stationed in Germany, that I could have remained in the country, instead of having to return to the States to process out. I think I recognized, however, that it would not have been practical to remain in Germany then; my command of the language was completely inadequate, and I had joined the Air Force in the first place because of my difficulty finding work in the country where I had grown up. But having spent almost a full year effectively living in Germany, I had come to believe that it could be done, under the right circumstances; the seed had been planted, and remained always in the back of my mind. Eventually, it matured into a promise to myself, as well as a life goal I would express at every opportunity, a goal that I vowed I would attempt to accomplish as soon as the time was right.
A bit more than 25 years from the day my first German passport was issued, the time became right. With the deaths of my husband, in 2015, and my adoptive father, in 2016 (my only other immediate family members had already passed away: my sister in 2003, and my mother in 2010), I had lost all personal ties to the U.S. of any significance, and so I began seriously contemplating my “Rückkehr” – my return. Moving was something I was planning to do in any event after my father died – I had never particularly liked living in New Mexico – and the first thing to do was to figure out if moving to Germany was even practicable.
The logistics were pretty straightforward, but there was one prerequisite that represented a “make or break” criterion: German residents are legally required to have health insurance; if I couldn’t afford to obtain health insurance on my limited income (SSA survivor’s benefits on my late husband’s account, supplemented by the proceeds of the sales of both my childhood home and my then-current residence), either within the state-sponsored system or from private sources, moving to Germany would not be possible. Once I was assured, however, in December 2017, that I would, in fact, be able to get coverage within the state-sponsored system once I had established residency in Germany, I started preparing to relocate, a process that culminated in my arrival, on June 23, 2018, in Frankfurt-am-Main, with little more than the clothes on my back and my then-12-year-old cat, Rusty. (Some might imagine that the recent political upheaval in the U.S. played some role in my decision to relocate when I did, but it was purely coincidental; my late husband just happened to pass away two weeks before Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, and my father just happened to pass away one month prior to the 2016 election. It took as little time thereafter as possible, given the need to await the final settlement of my father’s estate, to begin the actual process of moving, and arrange for the orderly “wrapping up” of the life I had built up to that point.)
April 2, 2020, marked the second anniversary of my arrival in Germany on my initial mission to find a place to live, either permanently or temporarily while looking for a more permanent residence. I was extremely fortunate to have found an apartment – just a furnished room, really, but nonetheless adequate for my purposes – within the first two weeks; and then, after briefly returning to New Mexico to tie up the loose ends of my old life, an apartment better suited to long-term residency within three months of my permanent return to Germany in June. So far, everything has been as good or better than I imagined or expected. In particular, it feels as if I have done more bike-riding since returning to Germany than I had in 25 years of living in New Mexico. In any event, I have absolutely no regrets. I do not miss anything about my life in America, except for some food items that are unavailable, or prohibitively expensive to obtain (and even those items are not as numerous as one might imagine, because, while they are invariably more expensive to obtain, they’re not all prohibitively expensive).
When I was awaiting a determination of my citizenship status in Germany, I published an article in Geborener Deutscher, which I headlined, “Am I German or American?” Some time later, after having established my status as a dual national, I published an updated version of that article under the headline, “I Am Both German and American.” But these labels referred exclusively to my citizenship status, and not to any other form of self-identification. If I had been writing about how I identify culturally, I might have said, “I am neither German nor American.” Being an accidental citizen of two different countries, and having no sense of belonging to either, I sometimes describe myself as a “citizen of the world”; but that is as much a misnomer as “German” or “American.”
Nevertheless, regardless of how long I live in Germany – and regardless of how much I might wish it weren’t so – I will forever carry my “American-ness” within me. And while I feel very much more at home here than ever I did in the U.S., it’s really just a matter of comparison. I never really felt “at home” anywhere in America, and that feeling of alienation only increased with time. It didn’t help that I never developed any familial bond with my adoptive parents; or that I socially isolated myself as a child, as a reaction (perhaps an overreaction?) to perceived social ostracisation; or that I never found community with any of the social subgroups to which I claim membership (adoptees, generally, and intercountry adoptees, particularly; or gay men). Consequently, I have experienced an intense sense of disconnection from humanity, a persistent feeling of “separateness” that began as mistrust and which has morphed, over time, into misanthropy.
I often imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t been adopted, or if I hadn’t been adopted by Americans; the life I might have had had I grown up in Germany. As I envision it, it is a life that probably would have been less stable or comfortable, but which might have been more fulfilling; a life that might not have provoked me to distance myself from my fellow man, and which might have afforded me the opportunity to develop the sense of belonging that has forever eluded me – and which I know now I will never find. I do not necessarily regret the life I have lived, but I do sometimes feel intense regret for the life I lost, and likewise, intense anger at having been deprived of it.
We are in the midst of unprecedented times with COVID-19 taking over the world but as an Asian intercountry adoptee raised in a white adoptive country, I find myself once again, in that uncomfortable “in-between” space. I have lived the experience of sitting between two very different cultures and races – east and west. I am a product of both but yet at this point in time, I feel ashamed at how human beings can behave and treat each other when ultimately, we are of the same human race.
I have been raised with the white mindset of my adoptive country but I have also spent over a decade embracing my once removed cut-off Asian heritage. My current pride in being Asian didn’t happen easily because I was adopted in an era without education to advise parents that our cultural and racial heritage is of immense importance. I had to put years of concerted effort into reclaiming back my birth heritage, race and culture. So I find this period of overt racism against Chinese/Asians as very confronting. It reminds me of how I once use to hate my own Asian-ness. I was teased as a child for how different I looked — picked on for my slanting eyes, flat nose, and non European profile. I grew up isolated being the only non-white person in my community as a child. I know that for many Asian adoptees (and many adoptees of colour) right now, we are having to relive those racist moments all over again.
What has been particularly triggering recently, is to see the American President choosing to consciously speak about the COVID-19 disaster with pointed fingers at a whole race, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. I felt personally offended. Did you?
When a leader of the world’s superpower labels a whole race in such a negative manner it overtly tells us that racism is very real, acted out by those highest in power. They make it appear as if it’s “normal”, “okay”, “justified” to do so —- but racism should never be okay! So adoptive families, if you haven’t recognised that we intercountry and transracial adoptees experience racial micro aggressions every day, I hope that this period in time, is your wake up call!
Racism is one of the most common issues we intercountry adoptees end up having to navigate. Facing racism and having to constantly explain why we look Asian (or any colour different to the majority) but speak, think and act like a white person in our adoptive country is a constant challenge. This has been documented in many of the resources we adoptees contribute to and create, eg. The Colour of Difference and The Colour of Time. Sadly, not all adoptive parents recognise the racism we experience and many are definitely not equiped to know how to prepare us for it.
Some more-awoke-adoptive-parents have recently asked what they can do to support their adoptive children who are of Asian descent. I’m sharing this advice from Mark Hagland, a Korean adoptee who has been co-educating adoptive parents at this facebook group for many years:
“I think that parents absolutely need to find ways to explain the situation and the environment to their Asian children. Of course, whatever they say must be age-appropriate and sensitive to the individual temperament and stage of development of their individual child/ren. And every child is different. But all children deserve the truth–sensitively and lovingly shared, of course.
Some parents will inevitably say things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly harm my child! I want her/him to remain innocent for as long as possible!” Any such sentiment reveals white privilege. All children of colour end up experiencing racism. The least loving thing possible is to avoid preparing one’s child to experience the inevitable. Far better to lovingly explain to one’s child that there are going to be difficult experiences out there, but that they will be okay because they will be supported by you, their parents.
I often tell parents of young children that even the youngest children can understand the concept of fairness. Start with that, if you have a young child. Start with the idea that some people are mean/unfair just because of how someone looks or where they’re from. It IS mean/unfair. With a young child, we need to prepare that child without imparting fear or trauma.
I made sure as a young adult to move to a very large, diverse, welcoming, progressive city in order to live in psychological comfort. And this is literally the first time as an adult that I’m even the least bit worried about experiencing aggressions or micro aggressions against me personally, in the city where I live. I believe it will mostly be okay, but who can say for certain?“
I have also been like Mark and as an adult, I ended up relocating myself to a city area that is much more diverse than where I grew up. In my city of Sydney, Australia, I have found a place to belong where I’m not the only Asian or non white person in my community. I have also married into an Asian family which has helped me immensely to embrace my race.
For young adult adoptees, if you are struggling at the moment due to the increase in racism you see directed towards Asians from COVID-19, I highly recommend joining adoptee led groups and communities where you can connect with others and be supported by your peers. There’s nothing like being able to freely speak amongst a group of people who understand what it’s like! The validation and peer support is invaluable. If you have found yourself hugely triggered and struggling emotionally, please seek out further professional support and surround yourself with a strong support network of people who understand what it’s like to be a racial minority. Here is also a link with some great tips.
Right now it’s not an easy time for anyone, but for adoptees and any people of colour, it is a heightened time for being a target of racist acts/comments and/or for being triggered. Please take time to nurture yourself and join into communities who do their best to support and understand you. Let’s all: