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.
April 20th marks the 46th anniversary since I was evacuated on an RAAF flight out of Vietnam. That day changed the course of my life and the memories of it will forever be etched in my mind.
April in general is a significant month for many Vietnamese Adoptees as it is the month in which over 3000 babies/children were also evacuated. Like myself these children boarded military transport planes bound for adoption by American, Canadian, European and Australian families.
The fors and againsts of having done this have been debated. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. The fact remains that I was removed at the age of 5 from a family I knew and placed in a foreign country. This experience was very traumatic and I lost my identity, language, culture and everything familiar to me. In Australia I experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained.
Fortunately, many who left Vietnam were adopted into loving foreign families. I wasn’t granted that right and was adopted into an abusive and dysfunctional family. Regardless that family clothed me, fed me and provided me with a good education and I will always be thankful to them for that. Australia is indeed a privileged country offering endless opportunities and being removed from war torn Vietnam like all adoptees I had a chance to make a better life for myself.
What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in all circumstances. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.
What I have been through is also in part what propelled me 17 years ago to return to Vietnam to find my birth mother and to work with orphaned and disadvantaged children. Without a doubt God’s hand has been upon my life. He has guided me, protected me, opened doors and put some amazing people in my life. Gratitude fills my heart for all those who have impacted my life over the years.
During this anniversary month for adoptees, my thoughts too are very much for birth mothers. Many birth mothers returned to orphanages to collect their children and they had gone. This time signifies permanent loss for them. I have hugged some of these mothers and seen their tears. As my mother’s tears have been wiped dry, I too hope these mothers can reconnect with their children.
Life as an intercountry adoptee has those moments that feel extremely vulnerable and painful. I described it years ago as “peeling away layers of an onion“. I’ve had that this week. Firstly, I found out after 8 months the media company who were investigating and searching for my mother in Vietnam have failed to turn up anything substantial and no longer have funding to continue. I have spent many times over two decades trying to find a lead that will help me find my mother. In desperation I finally agreed to media taking on my case although I’m loath to having no control over how they portray one’s story. Each time after searching, I experience disappointment, grief and sadness. I give up for a while until I find the strength to be able to go through it all again. Secondly, I have spent over 10 months seeking the right experts to help me fight for my rights arising from my adoption. I’ve had to relive my years of life growing up in my adoptive home and the memories and feelings are still there. They never go away but fade into the distance because usually I get on with life and move forward. Thankfully, I don’t get stuck or spiral down anymore.
I just watched the SBS documentary Searching for Mum which follows two Sri Lankan intercountry adoptees adopted in the 1980s to the UK and their return to Sri Lanka to try and find their identity and families. There was one heartbreaking moment that resonated within me, where Rebecca went to the Registry to see if a record of her birth existed. It was her last chance to know if she had an official identity. She ended up finding out her birth was not registered at all and she is left with the confirmation that she “does not exist” on paper as a Sri Lankan identity. It struck a chord with me as I’ve lived my entire life too with little documentation except for my Vietnamese passport. The Australian government made up adoption papers and a birth certificate 17 years after my adoptive father flew to Vietnam and brought me to Australia as a 6 month old baby.
My adoptive parents and siblings teased me many times when I was growing up that I would make the “perfect spy”. They all knew and rubbed it in that I did not exist on paper anywhere. It was meant to be a “joke” but on so many levels then, and more so now, as a mature age adult I cannot fathom how or why my adoptive family were so insensitive and cruel. Only those who have an identity that they take for granted could be so thoughtless as to tease another for not knowing who they are, where they come from or having anything to show. Together with an adoption based on literally nothing – thin air – because no documents on the Vietnamese end have ever been found, I have no way to know how I came to be adopted nor to whom I originally belonged.
Last year, a private detective sent me a blury photo of what might be a Vietnamese birth certificate for me but he’s now gone underground. The media company who tried to get the Vietnamese police station to release the hoped for copy of the “real” document that the photo captures, refuse to do so. It is so excruciatingly frustrating to be held back from what is a basic human right. Like Rebecca, I just want to know who I am and the circumstances for why I was given to strangers from another country – and whether my adoption is legitimate without coercion. My journey to find the right experts so far this year, brought all this home again with a punch!
Like Rebecca, I live my life without the certainty of knowing who I am, how I came into this world, whether I was wanted or not, or who my clan is. I live with a shell for an identity – formed by my adoptive experience. Up until my adoptive family left to go overseas as missionaries at the beginning of my year 12, I had experienced quite a damaging journey that left little room to exist in a positive way. Thankfully, I found healing in my early 30s and now I mostly have a sense of peace in my “non existence”.
It blew me away to listen to the documentary Searching for Mum where one of the search detectives said, “At least 50 percent of his Sri Lankan cases in finding mothers the documentation was fabricated” and he had done over 400 cases. In my years of connecting with adult intercountry adoptees worldwide, I know of many individuals who suspect and/or confirm their documentation is false. To listen to someone who sees the outcomes of each search conducted in only one country and can quote that kind of statistic, it is a damning reality for intercountry adoptions in Sri Lanka. It matches my current project of translating into english the book Het verdriet Sri Lanka whose title translates into The Sadness of Sri Lanka. It is an eye opening book about the mothers in Sri Lanka who lost their child to intercountry adoption, written by a Sri Lankan intercountry adoptee who discovers the terrible truth about her own and so many Sri Lankan intercountry adoptions.
I know this reality is not just Sri Lanka because a good majority of our birth countries have shown the same pattern of unethical adoptions over many decades. It also matches the doubts I’ve always held about my own adoption. Until I find my Vietnamese family and hear from them myself, I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering whether my “relinquishment” was legitimate and uncoerced. How could it be? A war torn country just like Sri Lanka. So much bribery and corruption coupled with outright child trafficking enmasse by world superpowers who believe to this day that flying out hundreds of vulnerable babies and children via Operation Babylift was a mercy mission.
How many other intercountry adoptees live their lives like myself and Rebecca with no known documents and identity, who have been removed from our country, our origins with little thought for our rights to identity? And what about those who do have documents but find they are falsified. This is where I say intercountry adoption is simply, downright wrong. A child always grows up and we have a right to know who we are, where we came from, to whom we were born and where we belonged until our adoptions. Our paperwork needs to be true and accurate because like the BBC documentary highlights, it is our ONLY source to know who we are and our origins.
To rob us of our truth by falsifying paperwork or creating an adoption based on thin air, goes against all human rights and ethics. If you cannot guarantee our original identity intact with no lies, then we shouldn’t be flying a child out of its country. Experience of adult intercountry adoptees like myself show that in being adopted to a foreign country we usually lose the ability to communicate and understand the culture and ways of our homeland. This then makes the pathway of trying to regain what is rightfully ours, even more complicated.
And what do governments or those who facilitate our adoptions say or do when we confront them with the truth of how intercountry adoption has operated and continues to operate? Or that we want help in finding our original identity and the truth? They largely turn a blind eye and do very little!
My journey to the right experts this week has made me aware that I could technically be considered “stateless”. They are now investigating this for me but it really brought home that the paperwork for my intercountry adoption is so dodgy and based on thin air. Even the Australian made up identity papers mis-spell my original name in 3 different ways on the same document. So am I even adopted?
To have confirmation that we don’t exist as an identity in our birth or adoptive country is another layer of the onion that some intercountry adoptees have to grapple with in situations like mine or Rebecca’s. It’s painful. There is a powerlessness we experience and very little can change it. We simply have to live with it and find a way to move through life and retain our hope. Like Rebecca, I live my life hoping one day I might find my mother and know the truth of who I am.