This documentary was produced/directed by Rojelio Vo, Long S. Le, and Aaron Hedge. The documentary is based on the lived-experience of a Vietnamese Afro-Amerasian, Khanh Le.
Interview with Visions will be posted at: http://www.visions.abc13.com/. Segment 2, September 5, 2009.
Watch the Documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kjZL4Og2Ig
“If the individual black self could not exist before the law, it could, and would, be forged in language as a testimony at once to the supposed integrity of the black self and against the social and political evils that delimited individual and group equality.” – Professor Henry Louis Gates
Khanh Le is a Vietnamese Afro-Amerasian, fathered by an African American serviceman during the Vietnam War. Khanh has no information about his father, and his mother abandoned him when he was an infant. He was raised by a surrogate family. As a “half-breed” black child (con den lai) and a child of the enemy (con cua ke thu), Khanh did not exist before the law in Vietnam. His displacement experiences entail physical, cultural, psychological, and intellectual of which he suffered humiliation and discrimination. His search for a “place” came in 1986 when he arrived to the U.S. through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The ODP allowed Amerasians to bring their mothers but restricted surrogate or extended family members. Thus, at the age of ten, Khanh came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, living with foster families and later in sheltered homes for Amerasian young adults.
Coming home to their fathers’ country, Amerasians had escaped the “dust of life” (bui doi), referring to their lived experiences in Vietnam as the poorest of the poor. Yet, after arriving to the U.S., many Amerasians felt that once again they had been abandoned. That is, the U.S. was only responsible to get Amerasians here and not responsible for whether Amerasians’ adaptation would be successful. Some Amerasians couldn’t handle it — joining gangs, becoming prostitutes, committing crimes, and abusing alcohol and drugs.
For Khanh Le, he has been able to “survive twice.” His life in the U.S. has been about “living in the middle,” not (and will never be) fully accepted as an African American, as a Vietnamese, or an American. But he has been resilient. His testimony speaks of his biological father and mother, his childhood in Vietnam, his experiences in foster homes and shelter homes in the U.S., his attempts of balancing various cultures, his relations with his common-law wife and her family, his relations with his daughter, his Katrina experience, and his thoughts about one day returning to Vietnam.
The documentary was conducted in Houston –two weeks after Khanh Le evacuated from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. The documentary was recorded live at Hong Kong City Mall in the office of BoatPeople SOS which was initially the key outreach center for Vietnamese Katrina evacuees.
The term “Amerasian” was coined by Pearl S. Buck in 1964, referring to Korean children fathered by American servicemen during the Korean War. The term today has come to apply to the more than 2 million displaced mixed-race children born in such countries as the Philippines, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Estimates of Vietnamese Amerasian children born to U.S. soldiers/civilians and Vietnamese mothers during the Vietnam War range from 40,000 to 100,000. Contrary to the image of Amerasians being the product of Vietnamese bargirls’ one-night stand with young American soldiers, a study for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement found that most mothers were poor young women who worked on or near U.S. bases in order to contribute to the support of their families. When they became pregnant, these mothers attempted to create a support system for their children, but such a system was tested when the fathers were departed back to the U.S. Moreover, the stereotype that mothers of Amerasians were prostitutes made in difficult for them to go home in which their families or neighbors would look down on them; and in a patrilineal society if they were not married their children would be stigmatized from birth.
For Pearl S. Buck, the Amerasian represents “neither East nor West purely, he will be rejected of each, for none will understand him. But…if he has the strength of both his parents, he will understand both worlds, and so overcome.”
There are indeed stories of living in and making sense of both worlds, as illustrated by Brandy Lien Worrall’s “Stories from Home.” Brandy is a second-generation Vietnamese American college student at UCLA, who was born and raised in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania and whose father was an American serviceman during the Vietnam War. On the one hand, traversing different worlds — her biracial/bicultural identity and her mother Vietnamese identity — led Brandy to learn Vietnamese. “Now when I talk to my mom in Vietnamese…[I remember] when she said sadly, ‘I wanted you to learn Vietnamese, so you can love me better,’ I knew what she was talking about.” On the other hand, her mother confessed to Brandy that she had “abandoned” Brandy’s older, half-brother, Hieu, when she came with Brandy’s father to the U.S. in 1971. “Hieu’s cries of his sister [Hieu's younger sister and Brandy's older, half-sister] leaving him and going to America, of she being the one who was allowed to be known in the face of his mother’s new lover [Brandy's father]…[Hieu was] brave when that man became his mother’s and sister’s ticket out of Vietnam and away from him.” At the age of twelve while living with his grandparents in Vietnam, Hieu committed suicide.
Originally, the term “Amerasian” was to carry a positive connotation because it raises American cultural consciousness about the displacement of countless mixed-blood children. In reality, most Vietnamese Amerasians were “abandoned” by their American fathers, and some were also abandoned by their Vietnamese mothers and subsequent caretakers. For years after the Vietnam War, the U.S. government saw Amerasians as Vietnam’s responsibility and took no interest in what became of them. As noted by Kien Nguyen’s The Unwanted, most people knew Vietnam through movies — like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July — which gave the impression that U.S. involvement ended after 1975, but that life for Amerasians after the war was as profound as the war itself. Meanwhile, the new communist regime saw Amerasians as “children of the enemy” (con cua ke thu) in which history classes and texts decried America’s role in the destruction of Vietnam. Mothers of Amerasians were denounced for having consorted with the enemy and, in turn, most destroyed any pictures, letters, or official papers that contained information of their children’s fathers. Notwithstanding, many along with other “collaborators” of the former “puppet regime” were sent to and given little to start a new life in desolate, remote, and sparsely populated “New Economic Zones.”
As for Amerasians, they were routinely humiliated and discriminated against: ‘You go back to America, you dirty American. You lose the war already, go back.’ Consequently, most Amerasians were kicked out or dropped out of school and were kept from jobs, forcing them to the streets. Thus, Amerasians were called the “dust of life” (bui doi), an expression referring to the poorest of the poor in Vietnam. Amerasians without stable, continuous family or surrogate support experienced various mental-health problems. Moreover, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office’s study, 48 percent of Amerasians had less then five years of schooling in Vietnam, while 39 percent had 6-8 years, 13 percent had 9-12 years, and none attended college. Researchers on Amerasians also found that the overwhelming majority of Amerasians are virtually illiterate and arrive with no transferable job skills. Thus, the implications are clear: Amerasians are a high-risk population and would require more intensive special services than any other Southeast Asian refugee group. This would help to prevent Amerasians from falling into a cycle of poverty, gang membership, and welfare dependency in the U.S.
While clearly Amerasians have a lot of strikes against them, it is noted that Black Amerasians in contrast to White Amerasians have experienced heavier doses of discrimination and hardship. A black Amerasian female, named Pha, testified to that:
“I didn’t go to school [in Vietnam], I was embarrassed of my skin…the students always insulted me, called me ‘black girl.’ People always talked bad about me because I was black…My family didn’t love me, they didn’t love my mother. Before [the fall of Saigon] it was not so bad, but after ’75 [under communist rule], the family didn’t want to keep me at home. They were sacred of the VC [Viet Cong], they wanted to send me away where nobody could see me.”
According to Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, “Vietnamese, much like other Asian groups, look down on dark skin, which equate with the lower peasants class or ethnic minorities.” As a result, Black Amerasians often exhibit more anger, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. In fact, during the Vietnam War, in 1972, the Martin Luther King Home for Children, established by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was being built in Saigon. Such an effort was due to the noted problems of racism, which made it difficult for children of African American servicemen and Vietnamese women to get an education, job, or even to build friendships. However, the funding to operate the Martin Luther King Home for Children was not sustainable. Although there is great diversity among Amerasians (e.g., height, physique and skin color, and variety of personal histories), they see each other as their tightest bonds.
The opportunity to put back the “place” into displacement came in 1982 when Amerasians were qualified to enter the U.S. That is, the first U.S. Amerasian Act of 1982 allowed Amerasians to qualify in the first preferential category of immigrants as children of U.S. citizens, but did not establish their U.S. citizenship. Family members of Amerasians did not receive preferential immigrant status. Thus, Amerasians had to choose between emigrating to the U.S. or to stay with their families in Vietnam. Though through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), Amerasians were able to bring their mothers, while others came alone or as unaccompanied minors. According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 4,500 Amerasian children and about 7,000 accompanying immediate relatives came to the U.S. through the ODP from 1982 to 1988.
But it was not until the Homecoming Act written in 1987 with broader provisions for Amerasians to emigrate with their extended (or surrogate) family members that a significant number of Amerasians found a way to their fathers’ country. Yet the Homecoming Act can only be considered a success if success is defined narrowly by the numbers moved here. By 1994, about 28,000 Vietnamese Amerasians and about 67,000 of their relatives had arrived to the U.S. But the U.S. government closed the program the same year due the prevalence of fraud in which the program was used to traffic Vietnamese or “fake” Amerasians into the U.S. In large part, the problem was due to the fact that the registration process relied solely on the Vietnamese government to generate applicant lists. Moreover, the Vietnamese government imposed “official” fees (e.g., obtaining government forms in order to get a permission to leave) and “unofficial” fees (e.g., bribes to local officials to get included on an interview list and transportation costs to the interview site in Ho Chi Minh City). A 1992 report by U.S. General Accounting Office which was based on Amerasians’ interviews at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (approved Amerasians and family members were housed at the Center for six months before arriving to the U.S.) found that the median “official” costs were about $350 and median “unofficial” costs were about $250. By comparison, Vietnam’s per capita income in 1990 was $230.
Many Amerasians could not meet the above fees due to remote location in rural areas, illiteracy, homelessness, and poverty. This created exploitation and victimization opportunities, including “traffickers” who hoped to immigrate to the U.S. by claiming to be relatives. With underfunding and the problems seriously underestimated, the U.S. embassy and consulate officials could not put in place a new system of processing, protecting and securing the emigration of Amerasians to the U.S. For example, they could not persuade the Vietnamese government to allow Amerasians to register directly with the Orderly Department Program in Vietnam, knowing that “fraud” would have to require the complicity of local Vietnamese government officials. As a response, U.S. officials began to implement more stringent measures to prevent fraud from occurring. But such measures resulted in a high rate of rejection among applicants with risks that valid applicants have been turned away.
Although the homecoming program closed in 1994, there was still processing of Amerasians to the U.S. However, the number was relatively low. According to U.S. Office Refugee Settlement, only 67 Amerasians and their family members arrived in 2003 compared to over 17,000 in 1992. Meanwhile, Time Magazine in May 2002 reported that more than 100 files of Amerasians may have been unfairly rejected by the U.S. resettlement program because they either had submitted falsified applications or had been involved in previous fraud cases. In part, because Amerasians were not seen as “victims of fraud” there was no more new processing of Amerasians by the end of 2003. With time the political support for Amerasian resettlement program was plagued by immigration fraud, as well as the cynical views by some US officials toward anyone claiming to be Amerasian. By some accounts, about 500 to 10,000 Amerasians are still in Vietnam.
There is a consensus that the Homecoming Act was about a philosophy of ‘let’s get them here,’ and not on successful adaption of Amerasians — who are known to be at high risk of becoming permanently underprivileged. That is, the “welcome mat,” without genuine services and opportunities to “make it” in America, resulted more often than not in Amerasians being “abandoned” or “disenfranchised” again.
Scholars like Robert McKelvey and John Webb found that Amerasians, compared to their non-Amerasian siblings and like-aged Vietnamese immigrants, report more traumatic childhoods and less education in Vietnam; and once settled in the U.S., Amerasians report more present use of alcohol, hospitalizations, and continue to suffer more symptoms of trauma and depression than their counterparts. Similarly, Fred Bemak’s and Rita Chi-Ying Chung’s survey completed in 1992 found that some 14 percent had attempted suicide and 76 percent wanted, at least occasionally, to return to Vietnam. Importantly, Amerasians’ cognitions about their biological American father were significant predictors of both psychological distress and self-destructive behavior. In the same survey, most Amerasians were eager to find their fathers but only 33 percent knew his name and only 3 percent found their fathers. Interestingly, on the one hand, Amerasians in Vietnam who had high hopes for their future lives in the U.S. were generally less depressed than those with low expectations. On the other hand, when these Amerasians were subsequently reevaluated in the U.S., those who had high hopes for a better life in the U.S. were much more depressed than those who had expected little or had no high hopes.
Initially, Amerasians were dispersed to 50 cities or cluster sites across the U.S., encompassing 31 states with then 10 percent going to California. The cluster sites were managed by non-governmental organizations, and who were under contract with the U.S. government. However, most cluster sites were quickly overwhelmed. For example, a cluster site — the Welcome Home House in Utica, New York — was awash in scandals and whose residential director and most of the staff have either been fired or quit by fall 1992, according to accounts in Thomas Bass’ Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home. Moreover, many Amerasians felt really out of place in the initial cluster sites — because of cold weather and separation from relatives and friends. Thus, many undertook “secondary migration,” particularly California and Louisiana which have warmer climates and larger concentrations of Vietnamese. However, most Amerasians are not fully integrated into the Vietnamese American community, either culturally or economically. As testified by Luong Huong: “Vietnamese here, especially the higher-educated Vietnamese, do not allow their children to make friends with black Amerasians like me.”
Amerasians typically receive about eight months of government assistance along with the expectation to improve English proficiency and some job training. But because many lack family support, their priority was to find jobs to support themselves and find affordable housing. Most often they worked in low-paying jobs, lived in poor neighborhoods, and were not able to obtain health care. Due to the lack of English proficiency and inability to pass the required interview and civics test, more than 60 percent of Amerasians have not beenÂ naturalized. In 2003, a Citizenship Bill was proposed in order to establish citizenship status for Amerasians, which would make them eligible for federal and airport-security jobs as well as work on Gulf Coast shrimp boats that requires 75 percent of such jobs be filled by citizens. The bill did not pass.
Perhaps under different settlement policies, Amerasians might be making more advancement and might already be reaping the benefits of American citizenship. Instead, many (and, by some accounts, disproportionately Black Amerasians) are still struggling daily against poverty, mental health, social isolation and discrimination. On the one hand, there is an agreement of “too little and too late.” That is, when U.S. soldiers do not bear the responsibility for their children, it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to welcome their Amerasians and their mothers who wanted to come to the U.S. during and after the war. According to Robert McKelvey’s The Dust of Life, “the decision to bring the Americans home, in their teens, twenties, and thirties, was the right thing to do” but “the harm has been done, and Amerasians’ potential for growth and development has been severely limited by time and neglect.”
On the other hand, Amerasians are survivors or have survived twice; though surviving twice implies those who did not survive, as noted by Trin Yarborough. In fact, Amerasians have started to carve out a cultural identity for themselves based on survival, fellowship, and pride. “Amerasian Voice” has emerged to promote and preserve the human rights of Amerasians both in the U.S. and in Asia. Amerasians are holding themselves accountable for their own advancement, but they are not about to excuse governments’ practice of neglect regarding Amerasian issues. Through Amerasian Independent Voice of America, they are advocating for the U.S. government to allow the remaining Amerasians in Vietnam who want to emigrate to the U.S. They are also calling for the passage of the Amerasian Paternity Act that would grant citizenship to Amerasians born in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand.
Lucious, Bernard Scott. â€œ In the Black Pacific: Testimonies of Vietnamese Afro-Amerasian Displacements,â€ in Wanni Andersonâ€™s and Robert Leeâ€™s Displacements and Diasporas (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), 2005.
- What is â€œblack testimonyâ€ and how does it relates to Vietnamese Afro-Amerasians?
- What is â€œcolorismâ€ and how does it relates to Vietnamese Afro-Amerasians?
- What is â€œcontact zonesâ€ and how does it relates to Vietnamese Afro-Amerasians?
- Explain Vietnamese Amerasians within the corporeal context.
- Explain Vietnamese Amerasians within the national context.
- Explain Vietnamese Amerasians within the international context.