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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James called his son ten minutes later, but mispronounced his Vietnamese name—Nhat Tung—and Jimmy, who had spent four years looking for his father, politely told the caller he had the wrong number and hung up. His father called back. "Your mother's name is Kim, right?" he said. "Your uncle is Marseille? Is your aunt Phuong Dung, the famous singer?" Jimmy said yes to each question. There was a pause as James caught his breath. "Jimmy," he said, "I have something to tell you. I am your dad."

"I can't tell you how tickled I was Jim owned up to his own child," says Nancy. "I have never seen a man happier in my life. He got off the phone and said, "‘My son Jimmy is alive!'" Nancy could well understand the emotions swirling through her husband and new stepson; she had been born in Germany shortly after World War II, the daughter of a U.S. serviceman she never knew and a German mother.

Over the next two years, the Millers crossed the country several times to spend weeks with Jimmy, who, like many Amerasians, had taken his father's name. "These Amerasians are pretty amazing," Nancy said. "They've had to scrap for everything. But you know the only thing that boy ever asked for? It was for unconditional fatherly love. That's all he ever wanted." James Miller died in 1996, age 66, while dancing with Nancy at a Christmas party.

Before flying to San Jose, California, for an Amerasian regional banquet, I called former Representative Bob Mrazek to ask how he viewed the Homecoming Act on its 20th anniversary. He said that there had been times when he had questioned the wisdom of his efforts. He mentioned the instances of fraud, the Amerasians who hadn't adjusted to their new lives, the fathers who had rejected their sons and daughters. "That stuff depressed the hell out of me, knowing that so often our good intentions had been frustrated," he said.

But wait, I said, that's old news. I told him about Jimmy Miller and about Saran Bynum, an Amerasian who is the office manager for actress-singer Queen Latifah and runs her own jewelry business. (Bynum, who lost her New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina, says, "Life is beautiful. I consider myself blessed to be alive.") I told him about Tiger Woods look-alike Canh Oxelson, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of San Francisco, a master's degree from Harvard and is dean of students at one of Los Angeles' most prestigious preparatory schools, Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood. And I told him about the Amerasians who got off welfare and are giving voice to the once-forgotten children of a distant war.

"You've made my day," Mrazek said.

The cavernous Chinese restaurant in a San Jose mall where Amerasians gathered for their gala filled quickly. Tickets were $40—and $60 if a guest wanted wine and a "VIP seat" near the stage. Plastic flowers adorned each table and there were golden dragons on the walls. Next to an American flag stood the flag of South Vietnam, a country that has not existed for 34 years. An honor guard of five former South Vietnamese servicemen marched smartly to the front of the room. Le Tho, a former lieutenant who had spent 11 years in a re-education camp, called them to attention as a scratchy recording sounded the national anthems of the United States and South Vietnam. Some in the audience wept when the guest of honor, Tran Ngoc Dung, was introduced. Dung, her husband and six children had arrived in the United States just two weeks earlier, having left Vietnam thanks to the Homecoming Act, which remains in force but receives few applications these days. The Trans were farmers and spoke no English. A rough road lay ahead, but, Dung said, "This is like a dream I've been living for 30 years." A woman approached the stage and pressed several $100 bills into her hand.

I asked some Amerasians if they were expecting Le Van Minh, who lived not far away in a two-bedroom house, to come to the gala. They had never heard of Minh. I called Minh, now a man of 37, with a wife from Vietnam and two children, 12 and 4. Among the relatives he brought to the United States is the mother who threw him out of the house 27 years ago.

Minh uses crutches and a wheelchair to get around his home and a specially equipped 1990 Toyota to crisscross the neighborhoods where he distributes newspapers. He usually rises shortly after midnight and doesn't finish his route until 8 a.m. He says he's too busy for any spare-time activities but hopes to learn how to barbecue one day. He doesn't think much about his past life as a beggar in the streets of Saigon. I asked him if he thought life had given him a fair shake.

"Fair? Oh, absolutely, yes. I'm not angry at anyone," said Minh, a survivor to the core.


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