Paper Trails

With the recent worry about providing paperwork to affirm one’s citizenship, I have been sorting through files and boxes in my basement looking for my naturalization certificate. I just recently received a new passport, but in this political climate, I’m worried that it may not be enough. When I lived in Hanoi in 1996, the first advice given to those of us who were Vietnamese adoptees was: “Do not get in trouble with the law. If they throw you in jail, you’ll have a hard time getting back out.” I was twenty-three and rebellious enough to not care but mindful to store that bit of knowledge for later use. As adoptees of Viet Nam, most of us did not denounce our Vietnamese citizenship (effectively granting us dual citizenship up until 2011 or so). As a result, my U.S. passport was somewhat moot in 1996 in the event I was caught in the clutches of the Vietnamese government for some 23-year-old-rebellious-reason. Fast forward to 2017 and I’m now concerned about my U.S. citizenship, wondering if I will be detained upon reentry from international travel and questioned about my purpose, my background, or honestly, about my faith. It’s stressful and sad that I would question my years of U.S. citizenship or the gold star on my license. I have been filing taxes since 1992 and have enjoyed a privileged and democracy-driven life as a hard-working, U.S. citizen. Nonetheless, I still worry, and I still haven’t found my naturalization certificate.

This leads me to consider paper trails in our life, the ones that affirm or deny our place in the world: a passport, a birth certificate, a naturalization paper. The first paper I remember having was a large sign safety-pinned to my shirt that led me to the correct school bus in Kindergarten. It instructed me to get on the bus that would deliver me to the right route, the right bus stop, and hopefully, the right home. It was a crude but effective paper. It put faith in those who drafted it that they would show me the way home. Where is home? Is home a country? Is it an address? Is it the place you were born or the place you have lived for twenty years? Part of the ambiguity that accompanies being an international adoptee is the concept of “homeland” or “citizenship country”. While one concept establishes a birthplace, the other establishes a life apart from that homeland. This duality creates an internal struggle for many adoptees who continually try to understand where they belong.

Where do we belong? Is it with our adoptive families? Is it with our biological families? This question of belonging is one that has attended me throughout my life partially because of the lack of a paper trail that I can trace back to the beginning—to a country, to a family, to a truth defined on a non-fiction piece of paper. So, I keep looking, not just for proof of my existence but for proof of my story. In my quest to find my naturalization certificate I discovered some adoption paperwork I had not yet seen. It was meaningful, like all personal papers, because it disclosed information I needed to help close some of the gaps in my mind and honestly, in my heart. It is part of a trail that leads me back to the beginning—to a country, yes, to a homeland, yes. Mostly, it just leads me back to an understanding that four decades of affirming my place in this world was not a struggle made in vain. I need to know I belong—somewhere. In the U.S.? Maybe. In Viet Nam? Maybe. A piece of paper can tell you that. It can also tell you so much more.

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Joie N. Lê

Joie Norby Lê is an educator, writer, and mother of three. She has a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. She is a guest speaker on qualitative research methods, diversity in the classroom, and topics related to Viet Nam's orphans of war. She geeks out on poststructural philosophy and historical fiction.

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