Robert S. McKelvey
University of Western Australia
Born during the years of major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1962-1975), Vietnamese Amerasians are the children of Vietnamese women and U.S. military and civilian personnel. Unlike the many other Amerasian children abandoned by American fathers in Asia, the Amerasians of Vietnam have received special attention from the media and the U.S. government. During the 1980's, as America reflected on and re-evaluated its role in the protracted and immensely divisive military conflict, journalists visiting the former Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) returned with sad stories and photos of wretched Amerasian children begging in the streets. In 1987, popular pressure led to passage by the U.S. Congress of what became known as the "Amerasian Homecoming Act." After years of bitter feuding between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments about who was ultimately responsible for the Amerasians - with each side claiming they were the other's children - the Act finally acknowledged the United States' acceptance of them as its own. Under the terms of the Act, Vietnamese Amerasians and close relatives were given special priority status under the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The ODP was introduced in the early 1980's in response to the desperate plight of the "boat people," and offered a safe, controlled and legal means for Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians to leave the troubled region. The Amerasian Homecoming Act provided U.S. government-funded transportation to the United States for Amerasians and their relatives, ensuring them of post-arrival refugee entitlement benefits such as food stamps, welfare, housing, health care and employment assistance (United States General Accounting Office, 1994).
With implementation of the Act, the slow trickle of Amerasian immigration became a flood as Amerasians and their relatives took advantage of this opportunity to leave impoverished Vietnam for the unimaginable wealth of the United States and, perhaps, reunification with their American fathers. Other Vietnamese, unrelated to Amerasians, began to exploit these "golden passports" out of Vietnam, either by marrying themselves or their children to Amerasians or by bribing, threatening and persuading Amerasians to claim them as "relatives." Unfortunately, after a few years of very lenient administration and high acceptance rates, the perception of large numbers of "fake" Amerasians and relatives brought the Amerasian Resettlement Program into disrepute and led to its eventual termination, leaving behind an unknown number of Amerasians who have now lost the opportunity to immigrate to "the land of their fathers."
To facilitate processing of those Amerasians and their family members who did not reside in Ho Chi Minh City, the U.S. government funded construction in 1989 of the Amerasian Transit Center, a short-term residential facility near Tan Son Nhut airport. Comfortable by Vietnamese standards, the Center's purpose-built structures were to house thousands of Amerasians and their families over the next nine years. After medical exams and interviews by U.S. consular officials to determine if their fathers really were Americans and if their relatives were really related to them, approved Amerasians and family members were flown to the Philippines for another six month hiatus at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center. Here they learned English and were taught about American culture and work habits. From the Philippines, they were flown to "cluster sites" located in many different parts of the United States, where non-governmental organisations, under contract from the U.S. government, arranged for their resettlement. Frequently, Amerasians were not happy with their initial placements, often because of the unaccustomed cold weather or the distance separating them from relatives and friends, and undertook a "secondary migration," typically to areas such as California and Texas, which have warmer climes and larger concentrations of Vietnamese.
|Prejudice and discrimination|
There is a Vietnamese saying that it is better to marry the village dog than a man from another village (United States General Accounting Office, 1994). This traditional Vietnamese prejudice against outsiders was even stronger for women who entered liaisons with foreigners, especially if they did not marry. The stereotypical image of an Amerasian's mother as a Vietnamese bar-girl or prostitute conceiving an American's child after a one-night stand is largely inaccurate (Leong & Johnson, 1992). Most mothers of Amerasians were not prostitutes; they were simply poor young women, who worked as secretaries, housekeepers, laundresses, and sales people on or near American bases and construction sites to earn money and contribute to the support of their families. There they met young, lonely American men who, by Vietnamese standards, were rich. Many fell in love and lived as defacto spouses for months or years, often having several children with their American "husband." Others took advantage of an opportunity to improve their lot in life and secure an affluent benefactor. Few were officially married, and many were strongly condemned by their families and neighbours, especially after the birth of a child. As long as their American "husband" was around, their material circumstances were very comfortable and they could afford luxuries, available at the local PX, enjoyed by few other Vietnamese. However, when he departed for the United States and the financial support ceased, many were reduced to poverty. This was especially true if they and their "half-breed" (con lai) off-spring had also been cast out by their families for the shame they had brought upon them. To survive, Amerasians' mothers found new American boy friends, married Vietnamese men, or lived alone or with friends and relatives in distant cities and towns, taking whatever jobs they could find.
When Saigon fell to the victorious Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army on April 30th, 1975, the situation of Amerasians and their mothers became substantially worse. Now they were ostracised, not only for being "half-breeds" or having had affairs with foreigners, but also because they had "collaborated" with the hated American enemy. Like many other South Vietnamese "collaborators," mothers of Amerasians were eager to conceal all traces of their prior relationships with Americans. They burned or hid papers, photos and letters connecting them with their former lovers. In addition, some mothers, fearing the new government's reaction, gave up their Amerasian children to childless couples or orphanages or even abandoned them on the streets.
As the new Communist government consolidated its power, the prejudice and discrimination Amerasians and their mothers had experienced before the War's end was institutionalised. Along with other "collaborators," Amerasians were denied educational and vocational opportunities such as entering university or becoming military officers. Many, along with their families, were relocated to the New Economic Zones, desolate, remote, sparsely populated regions to which adherents of the former "puppet regime" were sent (Jamieson, 1995). Here they were given land and a little food and told to start their lives anew. Outcast, despised, and openly discriminated against, many of the fatherless Amerasians and their mothers became part of "the dust of life" (bui doi), the poorest of the poor, living on the fringes of Vietnamese society.
At some point in their lives, almost all Amerasians became aware that they were "different." This usually happened when they entered school, where they were cruelly teased by classmates, who called them "Amerasian" (My lai), told them to go back to their own homeland, and chanted an insulting, nonsensical rhyming phrase beginning "Amerasians have twelve assholes" (My lai muoi hai...). Some reacted angrily to this teasing, denying they were different from other Vietnamese and fighting back. Others cried in shame and ran away, asking their mothers if it were true that their fathers were American? Along with their family's poverty, the merciless taunting contributed to many Amerasians dropping out of school after only a few years.
Of course, not all Amerasians were outcast, poorly educated and impoverished. The ones with the best developmental, educational, vocational and mental health outcomes were usually those whose mothers remained with them, especially if the mothers were able to marry a Vietnamese man prepared to accept his wife's illegitimate off-spring as his own (McKelvey, in press). While there are many tales of cruel and abusive step-fathers, one of the interesting and affecting characteristics of many Amerasians' lives is the kindness and generosity shown to them by often unrelated older Vietnamese men (McKelvey, in press). Asked why her foster father had treated her so kindly, an Amerasian girl responded, "he loved me for my loneliness." Something in the Amerasians' vulnerability seemed to touch the hearts of certain men, who, perhaps softened and matured by age, responded with compassion and love to these fatherless children.
Amerasians supported themselves in the ways open to the poor and uneducated in a predominantly rural country. They helped their families tend their farms or hired out as agricultural labourers, assisting in the cultivation and harvesting of rice. They also became fishermen, goat herds, truck drivers' assistants, curbside vendors and bicycle repairmen. Some were lucky enough to learn trades as masons, carpenters, or mechanics. A few became (often illicit) entrepreneurs, smuggling cigarettes across the Cambodian border or searching the jungles for the fragrant sap of the "wind tree" (cay gio) to sell as incense to Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen. There was often not enough food to eat or clothes to wear and the lives of Amerasians and their families were difficult, but Vietnam in the decade and a half following the end of the War was a very poor country, and Amerasians were not the only ones struggling to survive. A Vietnamese woman, sympathetic to them, once suggested to me that while everyone in Vietnam suffered during the country's worst years, Amerasians suffered more than most, a result of discrimination and inadequate family support.
Socially, Amerasians were often very isolated. Some lived completely on their own, others had only their immediate family - mothers, foster parents and step siblings - as company. Especially in strongly Communist regions, they were cruelly scapegoated for the accident of their birth, told to "go back to America" and chased by local children who pelted them with sticks and stones. On the other hand, some found that their fair skin bestowed certain advantages. In Vietnam, light skin is considered attractive, perhaps because it signifies not having to work out in the hot sun as a peasant, and light complected Amerasians were sometimes able to achieve greater business success or attract a better class of suitors than darker skinned "full-blooded" Vietnamese. By contrast, black Amerasians (My lai den), whose fathers were African-American, generally had a much more difficult time gaining social acceptance.
|Reversal of fortune|
With passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act, the social standing of Vietnamese Amerasians changed dramatically. They were now highly sought-after marriage partners, adoptive children, and "family members." It quickly became widely known that Amerasians and their close relatives had a free, one-way ticket out of Vietnam to the United States. Many people were eager to escape Vietnam's grinding poverty, and saw in the Amerasians "a golden passport" to America. Amerasians' popularity, however, was usually short-lived, lasting only until arrival in the Philippines or the United States, at which point their exploiters abandoned them and struck out on their own. Also, as acceptance rates into the Amerasian Resettlement Program began to fall, and many more people were rejected, Amerasians' spouses and "family" frequently left them at the Transit Center and headed home.
From about 1993 onward, American immigration officials began to view every Amerasian case as fraudulent until overwhelming evidence could establish the contrary (McKelvey, in press), and many Amerasians and family members found that the door to the United States had closed for good. The Amerasians I met at the Transit Center in 1993, 1995 and 1997 were desperate and depressed. Abandoned as children, they feared they were about to be abandoned again, and begged me to convey a message to the American people. "We are America's children. We have always been despised and our lives in Vietnam have been very difficult. There is no future for us here. All we want is a chance for a better life and to live in a country where we will be respected because our fathers are American. Please tell the American people not to abandon us again."
|Amerasians in the United States|
Amerasians' success at adapting to life in the United States has varied considerably. The majority continue to lead what would be considered, from an American perspective, rather hard scrabble lives, residing in large, low income apartment complexes on the outskirts of American cities and working at minimum wage, entry-level jobs. Others, especially those who lived all their lives with their mothers, completed high school in Vietnam and speak English fluently have done remarkably well, attending university and preparing themselves for professions such as nursing and computer programming. Yet even those who have very little are far more comfortable and secure materially than they ever would have been in Vietnam. As one Amerasian woman told me, "Here I have a job, a place to live, enough to eat and schools for my children. As long as you have a job you're all right. I have no complaints." Some comment on the materialism of the United States, observing that money appears to be more important to most Americans than their relationships to family and friends. I have heard similar remarks from non-Amerasian Vietnamese. However, no Amerasian with whom I have spoken has ever expressed a serious desire to return to Vietnam except to visit relatives or to "show off" their new-found material success to those who once taunted them for their poverty.
Amerasians in the United States present with the sturdy, resilient facade of survivors, but beneath that facade, one often senses a deep sadness and loneliness not displayed by those Vietnamese immigrants who are surrounded by large extended families and supportive, like-ethnic communities. In the United States, as in Vietnam, many Amerasians continue to live isolated, solitary lives. They frequently have little or no family support and do not enjoy strong ethnic community support from any group other than themselves. If they identify with anyone it is with the Vietnamese, not the Americans, white or black, but many Vietnamese continue to discriminate against them and resent their ease of passage to the United States. Of all the pre-migratory predictors of depression following resettlement, the most powerful was high expectations of support from the Vietnamese community in the United States (McKelvey & Webb, 1996). Those Amerasians who hoped for such support have generally been disappointed.
So, too, have those who hoped to reunite with their American fathers. Most Amerasians know little, if anything, about their father other than, perhaps, his first name and the colour of his skin and hair. Very few, approximately 3%, have been able to locate him, and for those who do, the reunions have, in most cases, been unsuccessful. Related genetically, Amerasian children and their fathers are from vastly different worlds and have little in common. The fathers have moved on with their lives, marrying, having children, divorcing, re-marrying and largely forgetting about the children they left behind in Vietnam. Few have the means, or the interest, to repay the enormous debt they owe these offspring of their youth, immaturity and loneliness. The understandable expectation of many Amerasians that their fathers will somehow "make right" the past by providing substantial material and emotional support are seldom met. Thus, a deep cultural divide and unfulfilled expectations for support make most reunions unsuccessful, disappointing and painful experiences for Amerasians and their fathers alike.
As human by-products of an immensely unpopular war, parental neglect and governmental indifference, the lives of Vietnamese Amerasians in both Vietnam and the United States have often been very difficult. Some have proven remarkably resilient and achieved far more than one would have predicted, given their limited educational and vocational backgrounds. Most, however, continue to live on the fringes of American society, with few social supports and lacking the education, training and language skills necessary to advance in a highly technological society. They are certainly better off in the United States than they were in Vietnam, but most arrived far too late in their lives to take advantage of the opportunities wealthy societies like the United States can offer their children. The benighted policy of early post-war U. S. governments, which refused to immediately accept Amerasians as America's children and bring them home, abandoned them to lives of poverty, prejudice and discrimination in Vietnam, and severely compromised their later opportunities for advancement in the United States.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the Amerasians' story, it is that fathers, and the governments that send them abroad to work or fight, must be held responsible for their children from the beginning of the children's lives. Once they are grown, it is too late to make up for years of past neglect.
N. L. Jamieson. Understanding Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
F. T. L. Leong and M. C. Johnson. Vietnamese Amerasian mothers: Psychological distress and high-risk factors. Washington DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1992 .
R. S. McKelvey. The Dust of Life: America's Children Left Behind in Vietnam. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, in press.
R. S. McKelvey and J. A. Webb: "Premigratory expectations and post-migratory mental health" Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 35, 1996, pp.240-245.
United States General Accounting Office: Vietnamese Amerasian Resettlement: Education, Employment, and Family Outcomes in the United States. Washington DC: United States General Accounting Office, 1994.
Professor Robert S. McKelvey was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, USA. Commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, he served in Vietnam from 1969-1970. Following discharge, he took pre-medical courses at the University of Michigan, and completed a rotating internship at Cambridge Hospital/Harvard Medical School followed by two years of general psychiatry training there. In 1983 he moved to Houston, Texas to become Medical Director of the DePelchin Children's Center. In 1987, he also became Head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine. In February, 1995 he moved to Perth, Australia to assume the Foundation Chair in Child Psychiatry and became Professor of Child Psychiatry at the University of Western Australia and Head of the Psychiatry Department at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children. His research interests are primarily in the area of cross-cultural psychiatry. He is especially interested in the evaluation of mental health changes brought about by immigration and in developing risk profiles of those immigrants and refugees most likely to require psychiatric treatment. He has conducted several prospective, longitudinal studies of Vietnamese Amerasians, their siblings, and Vietnamese comparison groups, and is presently conducting research on the prevalence of psychiatric disorders among Vietnamese children and adolescents in Hanoi and Perth. His other research interests are in the areas of risk factors for child and adolescent psychopathology, youth suicide and medical student education.