Children of the Vietnam War

Born overseas to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. servicemen, Amerasians brought hard-won resilience to their lives in America

Once shunned by many, Vietnamese Amerasians now celebrate their heritage (a San Jose gala in 2008). At a similar gathering, many in the audience wept when an Amerasian family that had just arrived in the United States was introduced. (Catherine Karnow)
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"Minh stayed with us for 14 months and eventually ended up in San Jose, California," says Nancy, a physical therapist. "We had a lot of trouble raising him. He was very resistant to school and had no desire to get up in the morning. He wanted dinner at midnight because that's when he'd eaten on the streets in Vietnam." In time, Minh calmed down and settled into a normal routine. "I just grew up," he recalled. Minh, now 37 and a newspaper distributor, still talks regularly on the phone with the Kinneys. He calls them Mom and Dad.

Mrazek, meanwhile, turned his attention to gaining passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which he had authored and sponsored. In the end, he sidestepped normal Congressional procedures and slipped his three-page immigration bill into a 1,194-page appropriations bill, which Congress quickly approved and President Ronald Reagan signed in December 1987. The new law called for bringing Amerasians to the United States as immigrants, not refugees, and granted entry to almost anyone who had the slightest touch of a Western appearance. The Amerasians who had been so despised in Vietnam had a passport—their faces—to a new life, and because they could bring family members with them, they were showered with gifts, money and attention by Vietnamese seeking free passage to America. With the stroke of a pen, the children of dust had become the children of gold.

"It was wild," says Tyler Chau Pritchard, 40, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, and was part of a 1991 Amerasian emigration from Vietnam. "Suddenly everyone in Vietnam loved us. It was like we were walking on clouds. We were their meal ticket, and people offered a lot of money to Amerasians willing to claim them as mothers and grandparents and siblings."

Counterfeit marriage licenses and birth certificates began appearing on the black market. Bribes for officials who would substitute photographs and otherwise alter documents for "families" applying to leave rippled through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once the "families" reached the United States and checked into one of 55 transit centers, from Utica, New York, to Orange County, California, the new immigrants would often abandon their Amerasian benefactors and head off on their own.

It wasn't long before unofficial reports began to detail mental-health problems in the Amerasian community. "We were hearing stories about suicides, deep-rooted depression, an inability to adjust to foster homes," says Fred Bemak, a professor at George Mason University who specializes in refugee mental-health issues and was enlisted by the National Institute for Mental Health to determine what had gone wrong. "We'd never seen anything like this with any refugee group."

Many Amerasians did well in their new land, particularly those who had been raised by their Vietnamese mothers, those who had learned English and those who ended up with loving foster or adoptive parents in the United States. But in a 1991-92 survey of 170 Vietnamese Amerasians nationwide, Bemak found that some 14 percent had attempted suicide; 76 percent wanted, at least occasionally, to return to Vietnam. Most were eager to find their fathers, but only 33 percent knew his name.

"Amerasians had 30 years of trauma, and you can't just turn that around in a short period of time or undo what happened to them in Vietnam," says Sandy Dang, a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States in 1981 and has run an outreach program for Asian youths in Washington, D.C. "Basically they were unwanted children. In Vietnam, they weren't accepted as Vietnamese and in America they weren't considered Americans. They searched for love but usually didn't find it. Of all the immigrants in the United States, the Amerasians, I think, are the group that's had the hardest time finding the American Dream."

But Amerasians are also survivors, their character steeled by hard times, and not only have they toughed it out in Vietnam and the United States, they are slowly carving a cultural identity, based on the pride—not the humiliation—of being Amerasian. The dark shadows of the past are receding, even in Vietnam, where discrimination against Amerasians has faded. They're learning how to use the American political system to their advantage and have lobbied Congress for passage of a bill that would grant citizenship to all Amerasians in the United States. And under the auspices of groups like the Amerasian Fellowship Association, they are holding regional "galas" around the country—sit-down dinners with music and speeches and hosts in tuxedos—that attract 500 or 600 "brothers and sisters" and celebrate the Amerasian community as a unique immigrant population.

Jimmy Miller, a quality inspector for Triumph Composite Systems Inc., a Spokane, Washington, company making parts for Boeing jets, considers himself one of the fortunate ones. His grandmother in Vung Tau took him in while his mother served a five-year sentence in a re-education camp for trying to flee Vietnam. He says his grandmother filled him with love and hired an "underground" teacher to tutor him in English. "If she hadn't done that, I'd be illiterate," Miller says. At age 22, in 1990, he came to the United States with a third-grade education and passed the GED to earn a high-school diploma. It was easy convincing the U.S. consular officer who interviewed him in Ho Chi Minh City that he was the son of an American. He had a picture of his father, Sgt. Maj. James A. Miller II, exchanging wedding vows with Jimmy's mother, Kim, who was pregnant with him at the time. He carries the picture in his wallet to this day.

Jimmy's father, James, retired from the U.S. Army in 1977 after a 30-year career. In 1994, he was sitting with his wife, Nancy, on a backyard swing at their North Carolina home, mourning the loss of his son from a previous marriage, James III, who had died of AIDS a few months earlier, when the telephone rang. On the line was Jimmy's sister, Trinh, calling from Spokane, and in typically direct Vietnamese fashion, before even saying hello, she asked, "Are you my brother's father?" "Excuse me?" James replied. She repeated the question, saying she had tracked him down with the help of a letter bearing a Fayetteville postmark he had written Kim years earlier. She gave him Jimmy's telephone number.


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