A Legacy of Vietnam, Lost in Translation

Amerasians Lobby to Become U.S. Citizens
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The photo – of a black man in a uniform – is Dung Nguyen’s only memory of his father. It was destroyed, like all other mementos signaling ties to the United States, when Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in 1975.

” ‘Burn it, hide it, get rid of it as soon as possible. That’s the stuff of the enemy,’ ” Nguyen, 35, explained through a translator. “The Communists were very strict about it.”

They were not able to erase all traces of America at the Vietnam War’s end, however. Nguyen was himself, with the color of his skin, evidence that U.S. soldiers had been welcomed there. He understood that through the taunts of the bullies who beat him up at school: con cua ke thu.

Son of the enemy.

The Camden man and tens of thousands like him – the children left behind by U.S. servicemen – are called the Bui Doi, “the dust of life.” They were stigmatized in the country where they were born. And many of the 23,000 brought to the United States – under the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 and other laws – still can’t claim the country of their fathers as their own.

Two decades after Amerasians began arriving here, more than 60 percent have yet to become U.S. citizens, federal immigration authorities said. The problem, according to advocates, is that few speak English well enough to pass the required interview and civics test.

Many Amerasians were, like Nguyen, terrorized into dropping out of school early. They cannot read or write even in their native language, a handicap that sets them apart from other immigrants.

A bill was introduced in Congress yesterday to help Amerasians become citizens. It either would allow them to take the test with the help of a Vietnamese translator, or it would eliminate the need to take it at all, in recognition of their special due here.

“Politically, it’s a way of acknowledging that they’re the children of the United States,” said Nolan Rappaport, a spokesman for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), one of the sponsors of the bill.

For Amerasians wedged between two cultures, spurned somewhat by both, citizenship is coveted because it provides not only job opportunities and the chance to reunite with family, but also a place finally to belong.

“They have that birthright of becoming citizens anyway,” said John Kidane, outreach director at Philadelphia’s Nationalities Service Center, one of several agencies that has resettled Amerasians in the region.

“They’re considered immigrants because they couldn’t find their fathers,” he said. “Removing the [barrier] is the least we could do.”

There are 450 to 650 Amerasians in the eight-county Philadelphia area, according to social-service agencies. The federal government has resettled 2,048 Amerasians and their family members in the area since 1983. It is one of the largest contingents nationwide.

Many Amerasians eke out livings with more than one low-wage job, making time for English classes a luxury. Advocates say few classes are geared to those who cannot read or write even in Vietnamese. And without literacy, Amerasians find jobs with better pay and benefits closed to them.

Boat People SOS, a national group that has offices in Pennsauken and Philadelphia and is lobbying for the English-language exemption, argues that citizenship would help break that cycle.

It would make Amerasians eligible for work open only to citizens, such as federal and airport-security jobs. More, for example, could join the dozens who labor as deckhands on Gulf Coast shrimp boats, where 75 percent of jobs must be filled by citizens.

There is precedent for the legislation, also sponsored by Democratic Reps. Nick Lampson of Texas and Zoe Lofgren of California, whose states have large Amerasian populations. Three years ago, Congress passed a law allowing the Hmong, originally from Laos, to use a translator for the citizenship test.

“Amerasians are totally excluded from mainstream society in the U.S. They cannot sign a check, read street signs, and cannot take the test to drive,” said Nguyen Dinh Thang, head of Boat People SOS. “We have to start from somewhere, to get them into the system.”

Nguyen’s life now hews to two places at the insular edges of the system: “just work and home,” he said.

He stacks boxes on the late shift at a soft-pretzel plant in Pennsauken. He is surrounded by Vietnamese, at least 30 of them Amerasian. Since many cannot drive, they pile into vans run by the temp agencies that supply half of the 400 workers at J&J Snack Foods.

Nguyen carpools with a coworker from home, the Camden rowhouse where an altar anchored by a father’s photo sits in the living room. He used the word chi, or sister, to describe the housemate who had placed the yellowed image atop the shelf. But the silver-haired man in the photo is not Nguyen’s father, nor is the woman his sister.

“Life very alone,” he said. “One day I’m sick, nobody here for me. My family is in Vietnam. Here, I know nobody.”

Ten years ago, Nguyen left his mother, Be, in a village about 100 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese government rejected her application to leave the country, he said.

Congress allowed certain relatives, including mothers and spouses, to accompany Amerasians to the United States. But not everyone came. In some cases, the wrong people came. Amerasians were bought as tickets into the United States by people who falsely adopted them, or they were forced into that role by Communist government workers.

If Nguyen became a citizen, he could reunite with his mother. But the first-grade dropout has not tried to take the citizenship test.

Others who have attempted have failed – yet one more rejection in a life marked by them.

“They would be sent out to the countryside, to live with Grandma or somebody, where they would be hidden,” said Dennis Hunt, a Virginia-based therapist who has counseled Amerasians.

When seen, Amerasians were often targeted. They carry the psychological baggage of poor self-esteem and torn identities brought about by name-calling, poverty, and physical and sexual abuse, Hunt said.

Huong Do, for example, was shaved bald by her mother to get rid of her brown hair when she was a child. Her schooling lasted only a year and a half. She baby-sat and cooked during most of her teenage years. Today she is 32 and a home-care aide in Pennsauken, and her red T-shirt declares it all: “Proud to be an American.”

Yen Le, 33, now of Woodlynne, was pelted with rocks on her way to school. She graduated, nonetheless. But she said she had been denied the chance to take the qualifying test for teachers in Vietnam solely because of a man whose name she has heard only thrice – Jerry Brown, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, not so tall, with glasses.

Her grandfather gave her that sketch of her father. Her mother said she could not remember the name and did not want to talk about it. My Lien Le, 61, now of Pennsauken, met the soldier while working on a military base in Saigon.

“When I told him he has a baby, he told me he’s married,” she said in tears while pointing at her belly under a white J&J Snack Foods smock and encircling her ring finger. “He said sorry and gave me $500.”

Her parents disowned her, and she had to support herself and, ultimately, five children, three of them by U.S. soldiers.

Amerasians in such circumstances simultaneously long to know their fathers and bury or avoid all details about them.

“They’re afraid they’re going to be rejected,” said Hunt, the psychiatrist. “Maybe it’s better to have a fantasy about somebody out there who would care about you if they knew.”

Advocates say it is the history and fear of being denied that makes the desire to be citizens of the United States, formally accepted in the home of their fathers, so powerful.

“We had to put our face down and go through it every day,” Yen Le, also crying, said through a translator. “I wanted to go to my father’s country to live the life that’s supposed to be lived. . . . I want to be a good citizen, get a chance to vote.”

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