Vietnam’s Lost Generation
They are in their 30s and 40s now.
“They’re no longer cute, big-eyed little kids,” one former resettlement worker says. “Nobody cares about them now. I hate to say it, but many of them are among life’s losers.”
An estimated 100,000 Vietnamese Amerasian children were born to U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese mothers during the Vietnam War. Now, 30 years since the end of that war, what has become of them?
A couple of thousand were able to leave Vietnam before the war ended, through the few early channels such as Operation Babylift. But the tens of thousands who remained in Vietnam grew up under a repressive regime in a war-devastated country, often facing starvation and discrimination from Vietnamese who saw them as the enemy.
Many of these targets of racial, class and political prejudice were abandoned to orphanages or the streets. Too often, they grew up illiterate, suffering from physical and emotional problems. Many died in epidemics that swept Vietnam. And most dreamed of unknown fathers and a golden America that might someday welcome and comfort them for all they had suffered because they were part American.
Although many Amerasians were the offspring of prostitutes or the result of rape or brief liaisons, some came out of real love affairs.
Son Chau, 37, who owns a small nail salon in San Bernardino, has not given up his dream of finding his American father, whose name and address were stolen from his papers on the way to the United States. “I know he really cared for me, and for my mom,” says Chau, who has two children. His father, then 20, was arrested after he tried to go AWOL when ordered back to the U.S. months before Chau was born. The family never heard from him again. But Chau, raised by a stepfather who beat him because of his Amerasian blood, never stopped hoping to find his father.
In 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act permitting Vietnamese Amerasians to come to the United States with their families. Suddenly, Amerasians treated with disdain all their lives became hot commodities for Vietnamese seeking an alternative to perilous boat escapes.
By buying Amerasians from orphanages or their real families, or courting them and paying the emigration costs few Amerasians could afford, these Vietnamese found a ticket to the United States. Many Amerasians, perhaps even a majority, emigrated with fake relatives, who often abandoned them once in the U.S.
By the time the United States closed the resettlement program in 1994 because of the prevalence of fraud, 28,000 Vietnamese Amerasians had arrived here. But the program had been seriously underfunded and the problems seriously underestimated.
Many of these people ended up homeless, hungry, suicidal or involved in crime. Only about 2% found their American fathers, and not all the reunions were happy ones.
Some Amerasians have done well, like Louis Nguyen, who went through unimaginable sacrifice to become a singer and successful real estate agent in Orange County. But many more have settled into shaky, borderline existences.
Dat Nguyen, now of Westminster, was traded at 19 in Vietnam to a fake family for a secondhand pedicab. Once they arrived in the U.S., his fake family put him out. He was illiterate, able to speak only a little English and suffering from the effects of polio. He found only temporary minimum-wage jobs. “Sometimes I ran out of money for food,” Dat Nguyen, 35, says. “Once I cooked and ate only rice for several weeks, just rice -- and sometimes a hot dog.
“Someday, I want to help other people,” he says, “because I know how they feel when they are afraid and lonely.”
Other Amerasians, their dreams of America shattered, suffered serious emotional breakdowns.
Although 30 years have passed since the war’s traumatic ending, it’s not too late to take one very vital and belated step to welcome and protect the Vietnamese Amerasians. In 2003, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) introduced the Amerasian Naturalization Act, which would give U.S. citizenship to those who came under the Homecoming Act. Although these people have American fathers, they have never received the protections and rights of U.S. citizens.
Certainly passage of the bill would help heal the worst wound: As Thanh Son Thi Nguyen wrote in a 1994 University of Pittsburgh dissertation on Amerasian immigrants: “Their wonderful dreams are all gone.... [Unlike many other immigrant groups], the Amerasians may never be able to say from the depths of their hearts, ‘I am an American.’ ”