“The care and welfare of these unfortunate children…has never and is not now considered an area of government responsibility, nor an appropriate mission for the DOD to assume.”
1970 statement from the Department of Defense with regard to the children born to American military service personnel in Vietnam.
Video Produced in Collaboration with OCA-GS by Pei Chou.
“Love”, “home”, and “family” are comforting words many of us take for granted. However, for many Vietnamese Amerasians they have felt imprisoned in their own skin, trying to escape their identity as the enemy — the Other — for most of their lives. For these people, recognition as human beings deserving of basic human dignity has been an arduous journey, but one that has fortuitously led them to count on each other over the years.
The term “Amerasian” commonly refers to individuals who were born to Asian mothers and American military service personnel. Much has already been written about them, especially after the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Since 1989, the popular musical Miss Saigon has introduced Western audiences to the Vietnamese nickname bui doi (usually translated as “dust of life”) for the offspring of these couplings.
However, for all the attention paid to their stories and concern expressed about the marginalized, often conflicted, lives they had been forced to lead, social and political empowerment is still hard to come by.
Most recently, the Amerasian Paternity Recognition Act (H.R. 4007) was introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA) in 2007 but it has not even made it out of committee. If this bill were signed into law, it would ostensibly confer automatic U.S. citizenship to Amerasians living in the U.S. Not only does this speak to Amerasians’ claim to their birth right, but it would also act to solidify their identities and full participation as citizens in their chosen country.
It is to the Amerasians’ credit that many have found the will to survive in both Vietnam and the U.S., where each society seems to want to overlook their existence and, in turn, the legacy of a brutal war. These individuals have paid a heavy price, both physically and psychologically, but the stories of them establishing themselves in society and finding their voices are now being heard more readily.
Thuy Smith and Trista Goldberg share similar personal histories as Amerasians, but there is a significant difference in how their early lives played out.
Smith was born to an American serviceman and a mother of Vietnamese nationality but Cambodian ethnicity. She and her family eventually moved to Wisconsin. Goldberg was born to an American serviceman and Vietnamese mother but was adopted at around four years-old and relocated to the U.S. She conducted a search for her biological parents in 2001 and a few months later found her mother and four siblings, who are also Amerasian. They had emigrated to the U.S. via the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1990.
Smith recounts, “I received quite a bit of discrimination in a small northern Wisconsin town where my mother and I were the only Vietnamese, Asians, let alone me being the only Amerasian in our community. In fact, I never met any Vietnamese or Amerasians until much later in my adult life. I never wanted anything to do with that part of my heritage for a long time.” Smith now refers to herself as a “Proud Amerasian.”
Both Smith and Goldberg began advocating for Amerasians in the early 2000s with the purpose of bringing meaning to their lives and regaining a sense of control over the circumstances of their birth.
Goldberg started Operation Reunite in 2003 “to help find birth families separated during the war.” In 2010, Operation Reunite “created a DNA database through Family Tree DNA to facilitate reunions.” Teaming up with Vietnamese adoptee groups, like Vietnamese Adoptee Network and Adopted Vietnamese International, has also helped Goldberg facilitate connections between adoptees who happen to be Amerasian. Through her own story of family reunion, Goldberg offers the DNA registry service as a means to reunite family members who may have been searching for each other for years.
Smith has been working with other Amerasians since 2004. She worked with the Amerasian Foundation and now as the founder of Thuy Smith International Outreach, Inc.
As with other Vietnamese in a post-war environment, Amerasians experienced various forms of deprivation. In addition to this, they were victimized for their mixed racial heritage and denied basic civil rights and economic participation in the land of their birth. Those who decided to emigrate to the U.S. often witnessed their hopes of family reunification and financial reward being dashed after arriving to the U.S. They found that their lives had changed, but not necessarily for the better. In fact, some of them ended up in gangs, forced into arranged marriages with abusive spouses, or forced to work menial jobs to pay off debt, ironically mirroring their lives in Vietnam.
Smith recognized the lack of resources afforded this vulnerable population and decided to continually advocate for them by “bringing awareness to others about who the Amerasians are and their stories. We’ve done this through radio, TV, and online … I’ve especially worked hard in getting American Vietnam veterans, whether they fathered a child or not, to acknowledge the Amerasians as a whole and to embrace them too.”
Two of the overarching goals for Vietnamese Amerasians today seem to be continued assistance in helping to find their fathers and reuniting with other family members, and gaining full U.S. citizenship. There is no question these are lofty pursuits, and they may not bear any real fruit for years to come. But, many Amerasians don’t mind the challenge, as long as they receive the respect and recognition they deserve.