It took me 41 years and four months to return to the city in which I was born in December 1973. Sài Gòn, Việt Nam, is a city that no longer recognizes me as one of its sons because I was raised in a culture of mac-n-cheese and not bún bò huế. Yet I had been psychologically preparing for the moment when I would arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, step on Vietnamese soil and breathe in its air for the first time since I was escorted out of the country to be adopted in the U.S. in August 1974 as an 8-month-old infant. I was not there to kiss the ground nor to weep for joy or sorrow nor even to claim any kind of birthright. I was prepared to see everything as it was.
Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn) was decked out with bright red banners carrying canary yellow inscriptions on them and retro socialist billboards in anticipation of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (as Westerners call it) or the American War (as the Vietnamese call it), and the country’s independence. My first impressions of the city and its people were that they were living as if nothing was out of reach and the future was theirs for the taking. For many of Vietnam’s citizens April 30th has become an annual nationalist holiday, much like Fourth of July. It is a day that signifies ritualized pomp and something vaguely historic, yet you’re always glad its there because it signifies a period of respite from the daily grind.
But for me, phantom memories of the smoldering carnage of the war’s end continues to singe my psyche and leave its mark. Each day I spent in Ho Chi Minh City I was aware that my subconscious was aware that I had once been, very briefly, a citizen of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Whenever that realization came to my mind’s surface, it was difficult to reconcile it with what was going on all around me. It was like I was one of those war relics at the museum that came to life. I was no longer lying dormant inside a dusty plexiglass case; my skin was absorbing the sun’s rays, my stomach was enjoying the refreshing coolness of the local “333” beer, and people walked past me like any other tourist with a camera.
In my mid-20’s I started researching the era in which I was born, paying particular attention to stories and images of children in South Vietnam. I regularly encountered the terms “dust of life,” “war waif,” and “Saigon street urchin” in books and magazine articles. These words would also appear in photo captions alongside full-page black-and-white portraits of infants, toddlers, and older children in various states of undress - their eyes unable to say what they have seen. I would stare at these children’s faces and feel as if I were standing among them. Contrary to this feeling, my mind and body prevented me from believing that I shared any affinity with these kids, given the strictures of the environment I was adopted into. I was convinced that my story was far removed from their timeless visages. Even so, the faces in those photos continued to speak in a language that rang true whenever my ears were attuned to their calls.
My status as an adopted person from Vietnam was little known outside of my immediate family and friends. I did my best early on in childhood to conceal and then force myself to forget my origins in Vietnam. Doing so allowed me to be just another “red-blooded American” kid growing up in a predominately white U.S. suburb. Whenever I saw documentary footage of the War, I distanced myself from the images and shied away from any inner recognition of my immigrant/adoptee status that might separate me even more, emotionally and physically, from family and friends. My eyes refused to meet those on the screen or the page who were more related to me than I could ever acknowledge.
My adolescence eventually made me more conscious of my surroundings and wiser to the way people treated me based on my perceived difference, both in skin tone and immigrant status. Usually, I did not handle these situations with much grace but instead with spirited irreverence and thinly veiled hostility. As I struggled to keep up the appearance of being “the good son” to my adoptive parents, a special kind of anger took root inside me. It was fueled by the recognition that I was missing entire chapters in my life. Whole volumes containing innumerable pieces of information that could reconnect me to the circumstances and people behind my birth and adoption were unaccounted for. On especially dark days I’d catch sight of myself on the edge of a void, throwing question after question down into it, with no answers ever materializing. As my vision became sharper, the more cracks I noticed – cracks in school walls, cracks in friends’ faces, cracks in mirrors, and cracks all over my body.
When I think about when, where, and how I came to be on this planet, the chaos and randomness of brutish violence, angelic redemption, and pure indifference blend together to create a conflagration from which I was delivered into the arms of strangers in a strange land. Someone watching out for me foresaw that any delay in my removal from the perilous situation unfolding in that humid and rugged Southeast Asian country could result in a five-fold increase in injury or fatality. It has been estimated that over 6 million tons of bombs (the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs) were dropped on Vietnam, a country roughly the size of New Mexico. Such an atrocious amount of munitions aimed primarily at the rural, agrarian regions of the country left countless children orphaned and drove millions of people into urban centers that had barely enough resources for these internal refugees. When I contemplate the death toll among children in my age group at the time and the wasteland awaiting those who survived to live on in the desolation, pangs of survivor’s guilt clench my insides. I don’t feel blessed and I don’t feel lucky; sometimes I just don’t want to feel.
“Product of war.” There’s no denying that the war did make me an orphan and, subsequently, made me available for adoption. My flesh and bones were poured into the tumultuous cast of mortal combat, peeled out, and set aside to cool and harden into a tannish little body for consumption.
In the American public’s imagination and memorialization of the “Fall of Saigon” or “Black April”, and in our history books, war movies, documentaries, and public memorials the Vietnamese are virtually erased from Vietnam. If they are mentioned, they are generally portrayed as hapless peasants or notorious tunnel rats. I am instructed to believe that my exile from Vietnam was a fortuitous act of fate and it was up to well-meaning Westerners to shepherd me out of the country in order to give me a proper upbringing.
With historical amnesia setting in, the decisions and actions which contributed to the demise of the country of my birth are catalogued and filed in archive rooms all over the country. Once collective memory fades, they are then further redacted and finally shredded.
As the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War approaches, I expect to be exposed to old-guard ideologies and unreconciled pain stemming from that period of our nation’s history. It will be like I’m standing there as some kind of vessel charged with keeping old Vietnam vets’ darkest secrets safe. Rattling sabers will want to re-write their legacies on my steel exterior in hopes of both shielding themselves from the residual heat of the war’s aftermath and preventing me from prying too deeply into the layered myth of “Peace with Honor.” In spite of their best intentions, I will be all too cognizant of that moment in history when I could have been just another crushed corpse for fleeing people to step over on their way to planes, helicopters, and boats to escape the surging People’s Revolution. Suffice it to say, though, I have grown to appreciate and then ignore other people’s historical interpretations of a war that not only took everything from me, but also gave me everything I know, which I unfortunately take for granted every once in a while.
I am slowly coming to understand and accept that I am a son of Vietnam even though I do not speak its language and do not live within its borders. My re-emergence in the motherland at the beginning of April reinforced for me the legacy I inherited both in blood and in name. I found myself there as both a singular and an eternal presence, like a glint of light reflected off the wings of a dragonfly flitting over a crowded pond.
Kevin Minh Allen was born Nguyễn Đức Minh on December 5, 1973 near Sài Gòn, Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and American father who remain unknown to him. He was adopted by a couple from Rochester, NY and grew up in Webster, NY with his two younger sisters. In 2000, he moved to Seattle, WA to pursue a life less ordinary. Kevin is a poet and essayist who has had his essays and poetry published in numerous print and online publications, such as Eye To The Telescope, The International Examiner, and Northwest Asian Weekly. He had his first poetry chapbook published in July 2014, “My Proud Sacrifice.” http://myproudsacrifice.tumblr.com/